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On the surface this is a poem about an ordinary incident: a guy tries to buy soap and doesn’t like what he gets, but after much arguing accepts it. The poem is, however, also about language use.
How to get started in analyzing it: Ezekiel is a Jewish author of Indian nationality, writing in English. The poem’s tone is humorous: the words are in English, the grammar and diction have a Yiddish feel and the narrator tells us that he speaks to the shopkeeper in Hindi.
Although it is the soap that is called “defective” in the poem, the shopkeeper’s manners, and the narrator’s English might also to be said to be “broken.” Importantly just as the narrator eventually accepts the defective soap (think of soap as a symbol of cleansing and civilizing) in order to read the poem you also accept the non-standard English, and perhaps even enjoy the tussle that you have with it and your first feelings of outrage about it.
The poem is from a larger collection, Very Indian Poems in Indian English.
In summarizing Soap by Nissim Ezekiel, it is important to consider the poet's intention in writing it. First of all, Ezekiel is berating (criticizing) the fact that people have no manners and he is expressing his disappointment in this fact. He is particularly upset because, in order to be respectful, he addresses the shop keeper, who is selling him "defective" soap, in the shop keeper's home language- even though his own English is better than his Hindi.
The man allows the shop keeper an opportunity to admit that he is selling non-genuine soap, again revealing his own impeccable manners as he does not lose his temper at first and only repeats himself "smilingly;" in other words, with a smile on his face, to show that he is friendly and sincere. However, the man admits to losing his temper when the shop keeper still does not tell the truth.
The man recognizes his own offensive words but also confesses that he says them anyway; only then realizing that his actions have caused a crowd to develop and that the shop keeper is "much bigger," than he is. There is possibly a double meaning when he talks about the shop keeper being bigger as it seems that it is not only the shop keeper's physical appearance that is intimidating but his influence in general. It is for this reason that the man decides to accept and pay for the soap, even when he knows it is not a genuine product.
His final words serve as a warning because this time, the man was unprepared for the shop keeper's attitude but "next time," he will be ready and will not accept a poor substitute for the real thing. Note how the man retains his integrity and his principles. He is in no position to argue his point at this stage but will not allow himself to be compromised next time.
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