Nissim Ezekiel’s A Time to Change was published seventy years ago, in 1952. To many, this was the first significant book of postcolonial poetry in English. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was published in England, where Ezekiel had travelled on impulse, and managed to stay nearly four years before returning to his beloved Bombay.

The fuller history of these movements still awaits their evaluation, though we are fortunate in having had Raj Rao as a sympathetic biographer. For Ezekiel’s work was not simply significant chronologically – ie, written five years after Independence. Rather, it is believed that its larger importance was its disruption of a certain grandiose register of poetry in English – the favoured example here is Aurobindo Ghose whose works such as Savitri (over 20,000 lines) sought no less than the redemption of the entire human race.

As said, a more comprehensive and inter-connected literary history of all poets of this era still needs to be written. For example, there are many ways of rehabilitating figures like Aurobindo, and indeed that mythic register has continued to haunt many poets. (One thinks, for example, of Ezekiel’s near contemporary, Muktibodh, writing in Hindi). Indeed, the very first lines of A Time to Change itself begin on just such a high register – there is a quotation from Revelation, the invocation of the Lord, and redemption. Many more poems in the collection directly invoke prayers, gods, and prophets.

A poet of his time

Yet, the lines from the first poem continue thus: “the music / Never quite completed, redemption/ Never fully won.” There has been some mutation, and there is a greater sense of diffidence and thwarted confidence. This is closer to the language of the post-1947 decades that Ezekiel helped concretise. The idiom has turned more modest, more wistful, more doubting. This was only apt – after the heroism of the independence movement and the devastation of war and partition, it was always going to be harder – at least for many decades – to speak in such grand notes again.

Redemption was more likely to be won, if at all, only in the “private country of my mind”; the great masses that looked so unified in their quest for freedom shows its other side as “continually / [reducing] to something less than human by the crowd, / Newspapers, cinemas, radio features, speeches”. All such media evoke the mass person, and is to Ezekiel a corruption of both social and personal human endeavour. The mutual infection of the isolated individual with the tyranny of the mass social is the “double horror” that Indian democracy was prey to even from the 1950s.

Of course many might argue that the truly great poets – say, a Tagore or a Nirala – could more expertly navigate multiple registers, sometimes within the same collection, or even within the same poem. Ezekiel managed rather fewer, successful simple poems – in this collection one might count Occupation, Birth, Reading. But equally, with hindsight, one may say that Ezekiel could never, despite his play with syntax, quite master the English vernacular of India with the verve, abrupt humour or observational skills of, say, an Arun Kolatkar or Arvind Krishna Mehrotra.

A celebration of the modest

What might be the core of Ezekiel’s achievement in this collection – even if it was not something he always managed to sustain – were really the poems that eked out that modest voice, that celebrated the modest “tasting freedom / On a bicycle.” What is a new country to do when, after the grandness of an independence movement, it suddenly finds itself rather unimportant in world affairs – apart from being famously desperately poor?

This is a moment (one might periodise it as belonging to the 1950s and 1960s, though it casts its shadow further) that required an unblinking eye. Here too, English was no different from any other Indian language – all of them had to be brought to the register of the everyday life-hustle – the familiar tedium of uninspiring livelihood, poorly compatible marriages and families, the banal squalor of the street, the fragility of all notions of community.

A country recently heroic in the world’s eye for fighting a mighty power is suddenly exposed – sans all that attention – as struggling to build basic institutions, be they of governance, or (literary and publishing) markets. What can one do except “unveil, expose, expound”?

A Time to Change is also a foretaste of Ezekiel as this assemblage of different pathways. For one, he was mostly alone in his writing till poetry in English picked up substantially in India in the 1970s. Through the 1950s and 1960s, he largely had to plough his faith alone. This collection thus also bares his essential – accommodative, anaesthetised – solitude, a solitude that nevertheless folded back into the world a young, embryonic nation, uncertain of its path, if very much on its way.

What and who we are today is being measured and tested against that generation’s labouring dawn: “Then we set to work as we had planned. / Not for us the dream, the dark illusion…We could not figure what it is went wrong”.