In a manifesto offered in the introduction to Modern Indo-Anglian Poetry (1959), the first anthology of modernist poetry, Lal divided readers into those who liked Sri Aurobindo and those who couldn't stand him. Though Lal himself seems to have moved closer to the former from being a champion of the latter, this division seems to still persist. It takes quite a bit of experience to realize how deeply entrenched this hatred is.
Mehrotra, always the most candidly intemperate of the modernists, simply says that Sri Aurobindo "spent the last years of his life composing a worthless epic of 24,000 lines." The very dismissive ease and forthrightness of this judgment is what makes it so seductive. If one can, on its strength, avoid the trouble of having to come to terms with the thirty volumes that Aurobindo's collected works occupy, which lazy or superficial undergraduate can resist its temptation?
Of course, the problems with this assertion start with its very grammar. There is something comic about the sentence: why would anybody compose a worthless [my emphasis] epic of 24,000 lines? The very length and seriousness of purpose implied in the information supplied in the statement would appear to contradict the adjective (expletive?) with which Mehrotra prefaces "epic." Doubtless, what Mehrotra really means is that the epic is worthless to him, not necessarily to Sri Aurobindo or to anyone else. But why doesn't he say so in the first place? Why accord an infallible objectivity to what is so blatantly a personal prejudice?
I do not wish to defend either Aurobindo or Savitri against the strictures of the modernists. Indeed, they do not need any such defence: Savitri is by far the most discussed Indian English poem and Sri Aurobindo the most studied of Indian English poets. This evidence is not merely statistical but suggests a history of serious appreciation or and engagement with the poet and his epic. Savitri, moreover, is the only Indian English and probably the only English epic which has acquired the status of a sacred text. Thousands of devotees of Aurobindo all over the world consider it a modern Veda, a book of revelation, something which can alter their consciousness. What all this means at the least is that it is not likely to be a "worthless" poem.
I shall offer two more personal anecdotes to illustrate the modernists' prejudice against Aurobindo. In a seminar in USA2, Shiv K. Kumar once made disparaging comments on Aurobindo and other mystic poets. In the audience was Karin Schomer, the translator of Mahadevi Verma. She took umbrage at his remarks; she offered a heated defence of the kind of poetry Kumar hated. Later, Kumar confessed to me that he had been taken aback by the vehemence of Schomer's defense. What struck me as extraordinary was Kumar's own complacence about his modernist poetics; he was incapable of believing that any sensible person could actually admire Aurobindo's poetry. That he had faced no such serious opposition in India was obvious by his surprise.
Another such incident involves Ezekiel himself. When he took a look at my dissertation "Mysticism in Indian English Poetry," he was surprised to find himself in it. He asked to read the section on himself and then sent it to Commonwealth Quarterly for publication. Later, he told me that of all the poets I had discussed, he was the only worthwhile one! What he didn't say, of course, was that he was the also the only modernist poet in it. I would have thought that he was being facetious except that he went on to repeat his opinions on poets like Aurobindo. "Whenever anyone says anything in favour of Aurobindo or the others, I ask him, `Tell me, do you read Aurobindo.' That clinches the issue." I told Ezekiel that I actually read Aurobindo and even enjoyed him. There was a deathly silence after that.
What I have been trying to suggest through these examples is that it is possible to like modernist poetry without being allergic to Aurobindo or Sarojini Naidu. The modernist either-or option is, ultimately, a false one. The appreciation of modernist poetry and poetics does not necessarily imply a rejection of the nationalist-romantic-idealist-mystic poetic. True, they are naturally opposed, difficult to reconcile, but are they totally incompatible, totally incommensurable? I do not think so. On the contrary, to me they are a part of an ongoing dialectic of Indian culture and sensibility, neither entirely true or false, but both together offering a richer, more complete view of Indian literary history. Indeed, this is the chief thing that distinguishes us from the modernists--at any rate, it distinguishes me from them. Like a child of divorced parents who loves and gets along with both of them, I like both Aurobindo and Ezekiel, both Tagore and Moraes, both Naidu and Mehrotra.
I believe I was not only the first to announce the death of modernism in Indian English poetry, but also to herald the birth of postmodernism. I am afraid both statements have not been well received by the modernists. Ezekiel, responding to the first said that I didn't know what I was talking about while Daruwalla thought postmodernism was, in effect, a lot of nonsense. I do not believe that tradition holds all answers, but I do believe that it must not be discarded. It is a valuable recourse. In literary terms, I want the poetry of Henry Derozio, Toru Dutt, Tagore, Aurobindo, and Naidu alive; I don't want to see it buried.
I have devoted a considerable amount of space in trying to problematize the relationship of the modernist poets with their predecessors. I would now like to focus more sharply on Ezekiel’s own poetry. I believe that Ezekiel’s poetry is much more like that of earlier poets than he ever cared to admit. For instance, like them, Ezekiel never gives up metre, though he is somewhat more selective with rhymes. But most of the poets that follow him dispense with both in favour of free verse. The conventionality of his form is what distinguishes him from most of his peers, except Moraes, and it is actually on this solid metrical foundation that his claims to poetic excellence rest. Ultimately, we cannot escape the fact that poetry is a special use of language. Ezekiel more than most of the modernists excels in the use of measured language...
The error that Indian English poets and critics have repeatedly made is to consider their own language to be the benchmark or even the defining parameter for the arrival or establishment of modernism in India. Ezekiel’s relationship with his poetic predecessors is thus marked by a much greater continuity than is generally understood or acknowledged. This continuity, evident in both the form and content, shows Ezekiel’s verse as far more “conventional” in his use of rhyme and metre than that of the later poets. Therefore, his view of poetry as measured language is closer to that of the earlier poets than to the later ones.
In addition, like, say, Sri Aurobindo, the great stumbling block and bete noir of all modernist versifiers and anthologists, Ezekiel is actually a spiritual poet. Throughout his poetry runs the quest both for the nature of the ultimate reality and for some kind of self-realization. Furthermore, that this quest is best articulated in just, proportionate, and uncontaminated perception—seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting “correctly.” The correctness in neither political nor religious nor social, but is certainly ethical and metaphysical. Ezekiel’s poetry suggest that if only we could see clearly and express ourselves lucidly, we would know ourselves, our world, and also God. Even his overtly erotic poems are really about confessing, owning up, and apprehending the “truth” about his relationships and experiences.
So, one might ask, in closing, what is different about Ezekiel’s poetry? Here one would immediately agree with the conventional wisdom of most of the modernists that the language that he uses is more everyday, colloquial, the lived idiom of contemporary life, not bookish, abstract, or bombastic. One would also agree that Ezekiel’s view of life lacks the sense of grand narratives or oracular pronouncements. It is in the everyday, humdrum, even sordid urban landscape of the postcolonial metropolis that he seeks to realize the higher truths of life. I would add that even his spirituality is different. It lacks the great affirmations of Tagore or Sri Aurobindo but is instead marked by a humility and modesty characterized by a reduced set of circumstances and a circumscribed quest. No longer is the vision one of saving humanity or saving a nationality, but simply of surviving, following a vocation, living authentically. The preoccupation with the means and ends of perception is reminiscent of another anti-traditionalist teacher whom Ezekiel does not mention but must have been familiar with: J. Krishnamurti. It must also bear the influence of European intellectual currents such as existentialism.
I would suggest that the times were different and so Ezekiel’s poetry had to be different. From a huge collective enterprise which welded a whole nation together, we now move to a more fragmentary and disillusioned era in which every man and woman must look out for himself or herself. The grand purpose is gone, as are the magnificent promises. Instead, you have a society inadequately prepared for the modern world but plagued with the aftereffects of centuries of subjugation and economic exploitation. Gandhi, Aurobindo, Ramana, Sarojini Naidu and a whole host of other great men and women are dead. Poetry is more beleaguered than ever and must find a way to survive. English itself is under siege. Some of this instability is reflected in all the different jobs that Ezekiel did before he “settled down” as Professor of English, University of Bombay. It was his stature as a writer that got him the job because, after all, he never did a PhD. Ezekiel’s career shows a tremendous dedication to his calling as a poet, a heroic persistence against all odds. It is a more quiet heroism, no doubt, but one this is no less worth celebrating and remembering than the more public and spectacular accomplishments of the great men and women of an earlier era.
I shall end by submitting that rather than being a “new” poet, starting a new trend, Ezekiel may be seen actually as a bridge between the old and the new, as a person who carried forward the “best” of what he inherited to a new generation which he fostered through his artistry and leadership. More Indian than foreign, more an insider than outsider, more Hindu than Jewish, more a part of the majority than a minority, Ezekiel actually embodies and carries forward the great themes of a very old tradition of poetry, the theme of finding the meaning of what it means to be embodied, to be human, to be a seeker after truth, to love (wo)man and to love God, to want to lead the good life, which is also the virtuous life, to want to find one’s happiness but also to do something for one’s fellow-human beings, to be rooted, located, to have an identity, to belong, but at the same time, to be a part of a larger world of people, ideas, and art, to be national but also to be cosmopolitan, in brief to be a modern Indian without entirely losing one’s sense of one’s traditions.