A pivotal figure in the Indian English poetry scene for six decades, Adil Jussawalla’s maiden collection, first published in 1962 and recently reissued, is full of poems that are intriguing and authentic.
Adil Jussawalla has been an inspirational and pivotal figure in the Bombay poetry scenario since the early Seventies. He has always welcomed both established and struggling young poets to his flat in south Mumbai. A congenial host and engaging conversationalist on all things literary and artistic, he always found something generous to say — a word here, a line there — on even the weakest poems thrust at him by the rawest young poet. He was the shaping spirit behind the Clearing House and Xal-Praxis publishing ventures, the latter funded entirely by himself. And his Loquations evenings at the NCPA lawns in Nariman Point where he discussed individual poems always saw a number of young poets and writers keen on listening to him. Jussawalla has himself written a substantial number of books of poetry and prose including the craggy and ebullient Missing Person, Maps For A Mortal Moon — Essays and Entertainments and I Dreamt A Horse Fell From the Sky, a selection of prose, criticism and poems. Most significantly, he also edited the pioneering New Writing in India in the Penguin series way back in 1974. Land’s End, a reissue of Jussawalla’s maiden collection was first published by the Calcutta Writers Workshop in 1962. This fine book was published when Jussawalla was just 22 and the poems were all written when he was in England and parts of Europe. In England, he studied architecture before he left the course to read English at Oxford. He returned to India in 1970 where he taught for some years at St Xavier’s College in Bombay and was literary editor for a number of publications, besides being a columnist for a variety of periodicals and a contributor to Parsiana, a Parsi community magazine.
Unlike other poets, who can’t resist making changes to their work, Jussawalla has remained largely faithful to the original, save for correcting some typos found in the earlier letterpress edition which, incidentally, didn’t even have a contents page. One notable change, however, has been the expansion of a title from A Bomb-site in the original volume to the more specific A Bomb Site Seen from a Railway Bridge in this new edition. The book has been reissued by Copper Coin, a small press based in Delhi, which has done some heroic — there’s no other word for it — work in the field of poetry publication. Land’s End comes close on the heels of his new book of poems, Shorelines, published last year by another indefatigable small press, Poetrywala based in Mumbai.
Past 80 now, Jussawalla’s early work stands apart independently and also serves in some measure as a precursor to the works that followed. Critics love to categorize books according to their status in time — from the new, promising one, to the next much improved volume, and then on to the final, mature and wholly fulfilling works in later years. This trajectory, however, can’t be an automated one. In an interview with the late Eunice de Souza, published in 1999, Jussawalla emphasized this point: “I can’t understand critics who dismiss an earlier book and find the second more mature. This is a disservice to the earlier book. One’s work makes for some kind of whole, even if one changes as one gets older.” That a poet actually progresses from one book to the next is, of course, disputable, especially if one considers the number of poets who produced their best work at a younger age. Jussawalla’s work has, however, consistently maintained a high standard over the years.
This collection begins with a memorable little poem called Seventeen, written when the poet was an adolescent, with the opening lines:
‘Time was short/short time/when a boy lived each moment/anew’.
It ends with: ‘…only a cold/assumption of arrogance/is mine’.
That adolescent arrogance soon gives way to maturity and a growing political consciousness in powerful poems like The Waiters ‘ who must ‘Button up their manners with the past./ Grow expert on the epicure’s stuffed heart,/Polite of speech, punctilious, guarded, kind./As guardians of good taste, the waiters know/The soiled and cluttered kitchens of the mind.’ This poem is a forerunner to much of his politically-inclined poems in his later collections. Often elliptical and abstruse, Jussawalla is not an easy poet to follow but re-readings are almost always rewarding, with several of the poems open to various interpretations. For him, poetry is not an exact science; it is an amorphous art employing metaphor, inference and allusion linked by impeccable rhythm and language. The journey is as vital as the destination. As Louis MacNeice famously put it: ‘A poem must not mean but be’. And Jussawalla adheres to this principle, of producing poems that gleam like prisms, emanating multihued shades of light.
Providing some hints on his creative process, Jussawalla, in a book of poems called The Right Kind of Dog written especially for young people below 15, says in an introductory note: ‘There are adults who may tell you that those of you who are not yet in your teens are too young to understand these poems. If they do, they should realise that no one, not even the wisest of them, can fully understand a poem. A poem can never be reduced to a single meaning. If you read a poem more than once, you’ll see that each fresh reading yields different meanings, some subtle, some not so subtle, some hard to take… I don’t mean to puzzle you, but, as you know, some puzzles, like some riddles, can be interesting.’
Yes, the poems in Land’s End are opaque but intriguing and the tone always authentic. Often fragmented, and filled with disparate images and tantalizing analogies, they range from ostensibly ‘animal’ poems like Bats, The Butterfly, Drake, The Spiders and White Peacocks to poems on Christian mythology, nature, the persistent and inherent tendency towards violence in poems like A Bomb Site Seen from a Railway Bridge and to lighthearted lyrics exemplified in Tea in the Universities. There has always been a versatility to his work. In an earlier book, Jussawalla has even written some intoxicating poems on the country liquor bars of Bombay.
In the interview with de Souza, featured in her book Talking Poems, Jussawalla acknowledges a debt he owes to WH Auden, Ezra Pound, Arthur Rimbaud, Robert Lowell and other poets. But his own work is singular, betraying very little of this influence, which could at best be described as oblique. It isn’t known if Jussawalla still has a cache of new poems stowed away somewhere in his laptop. Knowing him, this is more than likely. Oddly, and unfairly, despite his prodigious and accomplished output, he has received no honours besides the Sahitya Akademi award in 2014.
It is very rare to find a book of poems in English in India being republished. Land’s End certainly deserves this privilege and Copper Coin, with its near-empty coffers, needs to be commended for bringing out this error-free and beautifully-produced volume.
This piece can also be considered as a personal toast to this genie-eyed poet for the many hours, often late into the night, we spent discussing various poets, poems and a lot else in his living room high up in Cuffe Parade, taking in the sunset and the cool winds and, on occasion, reflecting over a famous early poem of his called Sea Breeze, Bombay.
Manohar Shetty has published several books of poems including ‘Full Disclosure: New and Collected Poems (1981-2017)’. He lives in Goa.