The poem ‘Once Upon a Time’ by Gabriel Okara is written in the form of an address to the poet’s young son. It is a touching portrayal of the artificial culture of the present day society and the hypocrisy, insincerity and selfishness prevailing within the hearts of its men and women.
What has gone wrong with the people of today? The poet recalls with anguish the good old time when men were true and sincere. They were simple-minded and friendly. Their laughter was natural and easy and came from the depth of their hearts. But the people today have become mean and complex. Their behaviour has turned artificial and affected. Their character is full of hypocrisy and duplicity, as a result their smiles are false and artificial. The brightness of truth and sincerity or the warmth of genuine emotions have vanished from their eyes. The hypocrites of today grin artificially. Their eyes are cold and stony because they have forgotten love and fellow-feeling. Their minds are now filled with pride and selfishness.
The poet gives further evidence of this degrading materialistic culture as reflected in the behaviour of the present day men. Once upon a time, in the past, people greeted each other with a warm handshake, which showed their mutual feelings of genuine love and friendship. It brought them closer. But the handshake has now lost its earlier warmth and cordiality. Today man shake hands not out of love and friendship but only for formality. It has become an empty practice devoid of any genuine feelings of love and sincerity. Men of the modem society shake hands to seek some gain through this false and artificial show of friendship.
Why are the men of the present day society so callous and hypocritical in their behaviour? This is because there is a change in the attitude of people. The values of love, trust and honesty have vanished from the lives of people of the present times, who are living in a society and culture which is highly materialistic and competitive. Men have become greedy and selfish. They are self-centred. They hide their evil motives and put up false pretences of politeness and courtesy. Social etiquettes and behaviour have become hollow and artificial today. There is no warmth of sincere love or honest outlook in such artificial smiles, handshakes and greetings. These mean, hypocritical and selfish men love or respect no one but themselves. Their own interests and pride are supreme for these self-centred men of the modern day society. No one is welcome at their homes. They utter small courtesies like “feel at home”, or “come again”, but they do not mean them because they have no business to be kind or considerate to anyone.
This sort of artificial culture has spread in the society. The poet was once natural, good and innocent in his attitude but he too was infected with the dubious ways of the modern world. Like the insincere and crafty men of the present society he has learnt to wear many faces and pretend corresponding smiles for each occasion. Thus he has learnt to be artificial and a pretender. Like all other hypocrites in the society he had learnt to use “Good-bye” when he wants to say “good rid dance”, to say “glad to meet you” when he hates the very sight of the person addressed. Thus, people who are bored with you say with a counterfeit smile: “It has been nice talking to you”.
The artificial behaviour of the people is thus an indirect comment on their mean and wrong mentality. Their behaviour is artificial, their conduct is hypocritical. They are greedy and avaricious. They are trying to gain from one another and cheat others. We have seen how they put up false exteriors and resort to hypocrisy and dishonest pretences. There is no mutual trust and goodwill among them. They have forgotten to lead a free, natural, and straight-forward life. The poet feels stifled in this all-pervasive atmosphere of insincerity, dishonesty, hollow courtesies, and heartless talk. He yearns to go back to his early years of boyhood when he was free and natural in his thinking and conduct, when he was good and honest in his dealings with others, when he loved and trusted everyone. He wants to unlearn all those soul-killing things which have destroyed the free, natural, simple and happy life of man, and robbed him of the sterling human values of love, kindness, friendship and fellow-feeling. Indirectly the poet sets down his disapproval of these evil and reprehensible trends in the modern society.