The forced mobility that marks migrants, refugees, exiles and those excluded by and from the NRC-type state processes is primarily a mobility that is born of desperation. The modern age has seen several such forced mobilities. Then there are calls for people of specific communities to be ‘sent away’, invited to leave the country they were born in, lived and loved in because they eat, clothe and pray differently, by rabble-rousing, hate-spewing monsters who claim/seek purity in everything, except in themselves.
Often, though, to travel and return, to choose to stay becomes a mark of identity. The emphasis here is on ‘choice’, not determined by birth alone but by conscious reflection and action. One of the great Indian poets begins his best-known text with ‘a poet-rascal-clown was born’. This child, he says, ‘never learned to fly a kite/His borrowed top refused to spin’ and was ridiculed, scolded for being a Jew and having ‘killed Christ’.
Making a Choice
Nissim Ezekiel’s ‘Background, Casually’ where these images occur remains a manifesto for not just Indian writing in English, but for the state of the contemporary itself, and the choices people and populations make. Ezekiel maps the growth of a marginalised boy, whose identity by birth lays him open and vulnerable to criticism, mockery and ostracisation. To belong to a community that the dominant communities do not understand or accept is documented here. The Muslim boys, like the Hindu ones, attack him because he is neither Muslim nor Hindu:
A Muslim sportsman boxed my ears. I grew in terror of the strong But undernourished Hindu lads
In the social hierarchy, the young Ezekiel discovers, he is among the lowest. Until one day he pulls a knife on his tormentors, much to the agony of his family that mourn his loss of morals! Going abroad, then, becomes necessary, a forced mobility perhaps because he does not fit into the country he is born into. Years later, he returns ‘home’. Through all this, haunted maybe by his memories of exclusion, the poet ponders: ‘How to feel it home, was the point’.
Ezekiel raises larger questions of belonging: who belongs to the nation? Who is made to feel s/he does not belong? Organised religion, religious and community identities meant to provide affiliation and security turn out to be sources of nightmares and exclusion. References to ancestors (‘My ancestors, among the castes/Were aliens crushing seed for bread’) do not help, except to prop up a shaky identity. In the course of meandering, the poet comes to a decision and a choice: a craft, a career:
The later dreams were all of words.
I did not know that words betray
But let the poems come
But this is not all. The choice is of a landscape he will adopt for himself, as his own:
The Indian landscape sears my eyes.
I have become a part of it
To be observed by foreigners.
The poetry comes from this ‘becoming a part’ of the country. It is a choice to not travel elsewhere, to remain perhaps a spectacle, an object of derision maybe, of foreigners who ‘observe’ as though he is a bug or a strange specimen.
Feel ‘At Home’
To run away, to become a migrant would be easy. But would, then, the poetry come? After all, as the poem makes clear, it is from this messy congeries of the country’s contradictions, conflicts and comforts that art emerges. The country may not make him feel ‘at home’. A home country that does not feel homely, perhaps? What, in such circumstances, does one do? Ezekiel alerts us to several lines of thought throughout the poem that bring us to its last lines.
First, having become a part of the landscape, can one separate from it? If so, how? Secondly, is this merger into and with the landscape forced, of resignation without choice? Third, under what circumstances does a country make you feel a lesser citizen, unwanted, disposable? The poem concludes, perhaps naturally, with:
I have made my commitments now.
This is one: to stay where I am,
As others choose to give themselves
In some remote and backward place.
My backward place is where I am.
Ezekiel’s powerful climax here is the enunciation of a programme, an ethical code and a commitment. The emphasis here is on choice that an individual makes.
Individuals and communities choose to serve a country, despite the country’s flaws. They may have come as conquerors intent on pillage but they stayed on, worked to build this country. The arts, architecture, economies and even forms of governance came from visitors, dating back to the ancient world, who became a part of this landscape. Origin stories and origin myths become irrelevant then because to be held to account for, and identified with, events from a thousand years ago makes little sense when the ‘visitors’ are now themselves hosts.
Ezekiel’s poet declares his commitments. Even if the place is backward and remote, some ‘give themselves’ to it. In volunteers who stake their all on a lost cause, a backward place perhaps, the virtue is precisely in their staking their all. Even if this virtue is read sometimes as foolishness and the farther shores beckon, Ezekiel’s poet chooses this backward place. There is no more powerful conclusion in an Indian poem in English than this line: ‘My backward place is where I am’
Ezekiel’s poet asserts a choice. It is a backward place: but it made me what I am. And now, I am here to stay. The possessive ‘my’ is a mark of ownership as much as of integration.
In troubled times when the question of belonging is paramount precisely because communities are made to feel, are told, that they do not belong, Ezekiel’s affirmative tone is perhaps misplaced and even a little naïve. Yet, in this naivete, in a poet who felt excluded, we find courage, conscience and commitment.
To read such poetry in these times does not solve the crises. What it offers us, however, is the chance to know that there have been such times before, and people wrote poetry about those times. Poets and artists reaffirmed their commitment to a place that often made them feel unwanted. Yet, it cannot be that the excluded must constantly affirm their sense of inclusion. As a nation, as a mosaic culture, we should ask: what would make us less backward as a nation so that ‘my backward place is where I am’ will become a slogan of pride?
(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)