Gabriel Okara‘s “Once Upon a Time” has been published in the Edexcel GCSE anthology. In “Once Upon a Time”, Gabriel Okara speaks of a time when Africans were rooted in the simplicity of tradition and minimalism of sophistication; and how different they have turned out to be with the advent of colonialism. The very title “Once Upon a Time” points to a fairy tale existence long ago that is almost deemed unbelievable .

“Once Upon a Time” they used to laugh with their hearts and eyes in complete sincerity. The eyes are an indicator of the sincerity of a smile. Okara, here, portrays fake, unfelt smiles. A smile being the first greeting a person is received with: If the greeting itself is deceptive; the rest is to be regarded with great suspicion. “Once Upon a Time” they were children in the lap of nature. Though, now they have turned into processed products of pseudo modern existence. They now laugh mechanically with their teeth and ice-block cold eyes. The imagery of ‘ice-block cold eyes’ is suggestive of death and stagnation, and denotes lack of communication. Pictorial vehemence suggests the lurking hypocrisy.

The poet moves from expression to action.Now they shake hands ‘without hearts’ as their left hand probes the speakers’ pockets. People do not go out of their way to help others now-a-days. Instead, influenced by the Western formula of success, they take advantage of others to reach their end.

The poet asserts that immersed in the crowd, he has also become a cog in the wheel of society. Like Kamala Das echoes in her poem ”Fancy-Dress Show,” the poet claims that he has learnt to adorn different faces to suit the situation-

officeface, streetface, hostface,
cocktailface, with all their conforming smiles
like a fixed portrait smile.

The third stanza portrays the hiatus between words uttered and bitter reality. The divorce between the intention and remark is explicit. The poet has also learnt o say “Good bye” when he means “Good Riddance” The shut door stands for modern insularity: it foregrounds the alienation of the individual from tradition, tribe and clan.
The speaker tells his son that he wants to relearn everything and be like him. He seems to echo that :”Child is the father of man”. Okara ,in other words, would like to go down to his roots. The man distrusts even his mirror image:

for my laugh in the mirror
shows only my teeth like a snake’s bare fangs!

The poisonous erudition is implicit in his own state of being. The poet opines that unpolluted simplicity and innocence can only be found in childhood, and relived in the same. The Call of the River Nun is a similar celebration of lost innocence
(This article was originally posted in Yahoo Voices in 2010. It is now copied at several locations. I declare that I am the original author of this article)

© Rukhaya MK 2010

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