Enterprise by Nissim Ezekiel: Summary and Analysis

‘Enterprise’ by Nissim Ezekiel: About the poem

Enterprise‘ by Nissim Ezekiel is one of those few Indian poems that have been subjected to a great deal of critical scrutiny. This poem is one of the best poems of Ezekiel.

The theme of the poem revolves around a metaphorical journey to a pilgrimage started by some enthusiastic people. The enterprise, though started in high spirit, faced some setbacks in the middle. Finally when they reached the destination they doubted the importance of that troublesome journey. They realized its futility and concluded: “Home is where we have to gather grace”. Thus the narrative poem ‘Enterprise’ delivers a great message. The poem is didactic.

Enterprise: language and form

About the language and form of the poem ‘Enterprise’, it employs very simple language as Nissim Ezekiel’s poems generally tend to do. The poem consists of only six stanzas of five lines each with a regular rhyme scheme of ABABA. And there is nothing extraordinary in the form or language of the poem, the main attraction being in the different interpretations of its meaning.

About the poet: Nissim Ezekiel

Nissim Ezekiel (1924 – 2004) was a Mumbai based Indian Jewish poet, playwright, actor and critic. He is often regarded as the father of modern Indian English poetry. He studied in Mumbai and also in London. His best known books include ‘Time to Change’, ‘The Discovery of India’, ‘The Unfinished Man’, ‘Hymns in Darkness’ and ‘Later Day Psalms’. He received the Sahitya Akademy Award in 1983 (for Later-Day Psalms) and Padmashri in 1988. To know more about the poet please go through this Wiki page.

Enterprise by Nissim Ezekiel: Line by line analysis

Here we go for a detail line-by-line explanation and a commentary on the poem.

It started as a pilgrimage,
Exalting minds and making all
The burdens light.

At the very beginning of the poem ‘Enterprise’ the poet-speaker confirms that the journey, the main theme of the poem, started as a pilgrimage. Having said that, it had a noble aim and a lofty goal. All the members of the group were excited at the prospect of going out to a pilgrimage. The thought of a holy expedition elevated their minds and made all the burdens light. By the very nature of our minds when people are enthusiastic, the burdens seem to be lighter. That is why nothing could pose a challenge before them at that moment.

The second stage
Explored but did not test the call.
The sun beat down to match our rage.

So, the poet has divided the journey into stages. The second stage was somewhat different from the first one, since they faced the hostility of nature on the way. The sun, symbolic of the hostility of nature, was radiating (beat down) its scorching heat on them as if to match their spirit (rage) in intensity. Thus, the second stage gave them some tough moments (explored), but that was not enough to test their keenness. In short, though nature tried to present some obstacles, it hardly succeeded to unnerve them or pose a real threat.

One more thing to note here is that for the first time in the poem the poet/speaker has used a first person pronoun ‘our’ to indicate that he was a part of the group.

We stood it very well, I thought,
Observed and put down copious notes
On things the peasants sold and bought,
The way of serpents and of goats,
Three cities where a sage had taught.

The speaker thought that everything went well so far. Especially they could withstand the outrage of the sun. They also kept themselves busy observing and taking lengthy notes on various things the farmers were selling and buying, and on the ways of snakes and goats. They even observed the three cities where they saw a hermit teach his lessons.

In this stanza of the poem Enterprise, the poet has satirically described what they were doing during their journey. He actually indicates to how people gets distracted from the main mission. They were wasting their time and energy taking notes on the humdrum aspects of life and on curiosities which were certainly not their aim. Moreover, their concern was with rather unimportant things. They observed and took note on the cities without concerning themselves with what the sage had taught or what his message was.

But when the differences arose
On how to cross a desert patch,
We lost a friend whose stylish prose
Was quite the best of all our batch.

There came a stage when differences arose in their opinions. Some members didn’t agree with the others on crossing a patch of desert on the way. As a result, the best prose writer and intellectual person among them parted from the group.

So we see that a holy journey for a noble cause no longer holds its integrity. People are becoming egotistic and concentrating on trivial matters. Their main concern now is the way, not the ultimate aim. Even the seemingly intellectual did not bother to reconcile the differences and hold the members together. Ironically, he sought the easier way to part from the group.

A shadow falls on us — and grows.

After one friend left the group, a shadow of friction and conflict befalls the enterprise and continues to grow. They now lacked the zeal with which they started.

Another phase was reached when we
Were twice attacked, and lost our way.

In the next phase of the journey some local or external forces attacked them on the way. As a result, they lost their way. So, it seems that in the quest to save themselves they didn’t even bother that they were losing the way.

These are also symbolic. We human beings often face the opposition of fellow men on our way of life. Sometimes we lose our way by the hostility or misguidance of others. Moreover, when we find ourselves in trouble, we forget the larger perspective and run away to save our narrow interests.

A section claimed its liberty
To leave the group.

A section of the group wanted to free themselves and create a new group. Possibly they were unhappy with the leadership. So, the disagreement continues.

                             I tried to pray.
Our leader said he smelt the sea.

In that situation, the narrator had nothing to do but pray. He prayed that God might solve the issues. The group leader was helpless and tried to assure others by saying that they were near the sea, and so the destination was at hand.

We noticed nothing as we went,
A straggling crowd of little hope,

But it was a false hope from the leader. As they progressed, they could see nothing. They now looked like a group of aimless and hopeless wanderers.

Ignoring what the thunder meant,
Deprived of common needs like soap.
Some were broken, some merely bent.

They were too tired to understand what thunder meant. They were in such dire condition that they were deprived of common needs like soap. Ignoring the thunder may also mean that they ignored what their inner self suggested. They didn’t have any idea of what was happening around. Seemingly, they were exhausted and lost their faith by now. The entire enterprise was reduced to a motiveless, ritualistic exercise. They were physically drained too. Some members were not able to walk any more, and the others just bent down with pain.

When, finally, we reached the place,
We hardly knew why we were there.

After facing a lot of difficulties when they reached the destination, they wondered why they had been there. They did not find the journey meaningful at all.

The trip had darkened every face,
Our deeds were neither great nor rare.
Home is where we have to gather grace.

The hardships of the journey had darkened everyone’s face. But they felt that it was not worth the effort. After reaching there, they found out that there was nothing extraordinary. Moreover, many other groups had reached there earlier. So, it was not a rare achievement either. That is why the narrator concluded that they should have stayed at home and tried to gather love and respect of others. Doing good to the mankind makes more sense and it’s a better way than going to a pilgrimage to gather God’s grace.

The poet has been successful in conveying his message through the narrative poem. But, as already told, there is a great deal of investigation on what this ‘home’ may indicate and ‘gather grace’ may mean. And that is the beauty of the poem Enterprise.

Enterprise by Nissim Ezekiel: Different interpretations

Both the journey and the conclusion in the last line of the poem ‘Enterprise’ are highly metaphorical and draws a lot of critical evaluation. Critics are divided in their opinion on what the poem ‘Enterprise’ may hint at. But most of them agree that this poem is an allegory for the journey of life.

One explanation says, we don’t need to go to a pilgrimage for the spiritual needs; The God is inside us, so we need to listen to our inner self.

Another interpretation suggests that we should take care of the people around us and earn their love and respect in order to lead a happy and meaningful life.

Some critics also suggest that the word ‘home’ indicates the poet’s commitment towards his home in Mumbai. When viewed in the context of his other poems like ‘Background Casually’, it seems like Ezekiel wanted to reconcile himself to his home after staying away from it for a long time. It is also apparent from one interview where he said “I have a strong sense of belonging, not only to India, but to this city.”

There are many critics who feel that this poem is a search for the meaning of life’s journey. Our life also begins with high expectations. But we often deviate from the aim or face tough challenges in the middle, and finally reach the last stage without much achievement.

One critic Thakur Guruprasad sees it as “a veritable study in the group psychology”. When people start an enterprise in group, they often put their own interest and opinion above the group’s need. That finally leads to a failure.

P. R. Kher associates the frustration at the end of the journey to “a modern man’s inability to know clearly about his aim and destination”. “This frustration could well be the poet’s own and through the metaphor of a pilgrimage he could be writing about his own psyche”, points out Dr. Ramesh K. Srivastava.