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14 Jun

Once Upon a Time: Gabriel Okara

Once Upon a Time

Gabriel Okara

I 1. b

   2. a

   3. b

II 1. The poem is addressed to his son/his own childhood.

2. There will be no thrice because by then the doors will be shut on him.

3. To be hypocritical.

4. Yes, nostalgia is the predominant feeling in the poem.

This is a poem by the Nigerian poet Gabriel Okara, in which he laments the loss of innocence. In it he condemns the hypocrisy of adults – hemmed in and constrained by rules and conventions – adopting masks for different occasions: for lying, cheating and betraying – whereas childhood is portrayed as a time of honest laughter, and spontaneity. The poet wishes that the modern world would once again become innocent and childlike. He also wishes that he could once again be as natural, honest, and innocent as when he was a child.

The poet tells his son about the behaviour of people in the past and in the present, in the olden days and in the modern world. He remembers a time when people had true feelings for one another. They would laugh from the heart and meet one another with genuine feeling. But today in the modern, busy world people often greet each other without any warmth in their handshake. They greet each other with a smile or a laugh that does not reach their eyes or warm their hearts. When they say ‘come again’ to a guest they don’t really mean it, they only say it to be polite.

According to the poet, people these days are often interested in meeting people only if they are rich, powerful, successful or famous, and do not value or respect those who have no wealth or position. The poet says that he behaves very differently in the office, compared to the way he behaves at a party, or on the street. And none of these different faces that he puts on is his natural self or his real face. He says that he has also learnt to say things that he doesn’t really mean, because they are the correct things to say in that situation. For example, when we are introduced to someone we are taught to say, “Glad to meet you.” So the poet says that he too sometimes politely greets a person in this way even though he may not be interested in meeting him or her.

The poet feels sad that like other adults in today’s world he has forgotten how to be a natural person. The poet has a deep desire to go back to the innocence of childhood. He is dissatisfied with his own changed self. He thinks that his son’s genuine laughter can teach him how to express his feelings honestly. He wants to relearn how to behave in a natural way. He wants to get rid of the falseness in his behaviour that makes his laugh unpleasant, because he laughs with his lips and teeth and not with his eyes and heart.

“Once Upon A Time” highlights the guilt and resentment an African man feels for himself for accepting the culture of the westerners. He notices a marked change in the attitudes of his people. Those who were once so genuine, warm and sincere have now suddenly turned cold and hostile towards him. He realizes that the early values, which always existed in the African society like sincerity, good-natured ness, simplicity, wholeheartedness, hospitality, friendliness, originality, identity, uniqueness and overall satisfaction, have now faced a drastic, dramatic change. He finds himself behaving in the same way as those around him.

He feels a great sense of guilt and self-loathing and thinks about how fake he has become losing his identity and donning different, fixed expression for different occasions, an unnatural smile plastered across his face. He confesses to his son that he does not like the person he has become and wants to change, and go back to the way he was before, in his childhood. He asks his son to help him go back to who he was, and get back his lost identity. He expresses a desire to unlearn whatever he has forced himself to learn, in order for him to gain his sense of self back. He asks his son to help him be happy once again and acquire the childlike innocence he once possessed as a child.


Copyright © Manu Mangattu, Assistant Professor, Department of English, SGC Aruvithura

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