I once described Adil Jussawalla as “genie-eyed”. This was not a reflection on any physical aspect of his appearance but on his uncanny ability to read between the lines of a poem.
He was always a generous and perceptive reader of the many poems and manuscripts that invariably came his way. A whole generation of poets in Bombay passed through the sieve of his encompassing eye, usually at his flat in South Bombay. The poems came in a mixed bag but he read them all in a democratic fashion as independent entities, uninfluenced by the writer’s reputation or academic record.
He is perhaps the only poet I know who suffered fools gladly and would always find something redeemable in the silliest verse.
By the very cussed nature of the art, its paltry rewards, whimsical publishers and the poor critical standards in India, every poet here thinks he or she is the greatest this side of the planet. But Jussawalla’s patience never wore thin. He read through every poem that came his way, carefully and pokerfaced, offering up his observations. For some years, he was also a hortatory presence at Loquations at the NCPA in Nariman Point where every week he introduced and discussed a set of xeroxed poems based on a particular theme from around the world.
As a champion of the beleaguered world of English language poetry in India, he set out where others feared to tread. He was the moving spirit behind the small publisher Clearing House in the seventies and a little later with Praxis. The Clearing House titles have now entered the realm of rare books with their unique square design (apparently used to accommodate long lines without breaking them up) and the arresting covers all conjured up by Arun Kolatkar in his capacity as a professional graphic artist.
Very few have the entire collection (I do) and the books can be a little awkward to store in a traditional bookshelf, but they have mostly endured, some of them finding their way into mainstream publishing either in Selected or Collected works. Jussawalla also edited the pioneering New Writing In India published by Penguin Books way back in 1974, a book which deserves to be resurrected.
Apart from poetry, his true métier, Jussawalla wrote prose in abundance, often as a regular columnist of Associated News Features run by his friend and neighbour Yogi Aggarwal but also for several other publications. Given the space constraints in newspapers these prose pieces had of necessity to follow strict word limits.
In Jussawalla’s hands many of them were examples of beauty in brevity and also staggeringly wide-ranging in subject matter.
Pithy, humane, and often humorous, they were always uncompromising in their intellectual quotient. Jussawalla, as this collection and the earlier companion Maps For a Mortal Moon edited by Jerry Pinto testifies to, wrote on subjects ranging from TS Eliot, VS Naipaul, Wole Soyinka, Michael Ondaatje, Nadine Gordimer, Angus Wilson, Aubrey Menen, Seamus Heaney and Dilip Chitre to sketches of Paris, a city he has often visited and the dilemmas facing the judge of a fiction contest.
Jussawalla casts a glow on his subject matter like a revolving lighthouse, describing Naipaul, for instance, as a “major cartographer of delusions – especially those of less developed nations aspiring to be modern”. There is a particularly moving essay on Jussawalla’s encounters with his close friend, a frail Nissim Ezekiel afflicted by Alzheimer’s.
It mustn’t of course be forgotten that the bulk of these writings were tapped out with carbon copies on an old portable typewriter – an object of incredulous attention today. The two publishers, Hachette and Aleph, need to be commended for resurrecting this otherwise physically endangered body of work into book form and in the eternity of cyberspace.
In an illuminating introduction, Vivek Narayanan points out “…there are many different ways in which this distinctive style that is Jussawalla’s alone asserts itself, independent but also tentative, insistently provisional, as if the writer needed to carefully allow enough room for the reader to disagree”. Jussawalla’s précis-like essays are indeed free of any dogma or the championing of a pet “cause”, underlining a constantly ticking mind and that same openness he displayed to those poetry manuscripts that came his way.
Unlike his friend the late Dom Moraes, who was barely audible in drawing room (or “permit room”) conversations and who was the first to champion his debut book of poems Land’s End published back in 1962, Jussawalla is a brilliant conversationalist. And his essays read like an extended and intimate conversation between him and his reader. Apart from his columns, essays and sketches, I Dreamt A Horse Fell From the Sky resurrects parts from his four books of poems, an unfinished novel, a narrative written for a play and a batch of 18 intriguing new poems from another book which is possibly round the corner.
In a critical climate where the assessment of poetry is invariably enhanced by a poet’s achievements in other fields, Jussawalla’s own work stands out in its originality and verbal dexterity.
In one of these new poems, on aging, called Turning Seventy, Jussawalla writes:
“Breathe easy in the garden and be glad.
Be a strange sight.
From this day on
Your roses will stay fully open.”
This poem is followed by Old Men On A Beach with these wonderfully relaxed closing lines:
“...and some things may be clearer to you later, much later,
like, as every evening darkened, we imagined
we’d lift off the bench without effort
and sail home as steady as herons.”
These poems, as do many other contemporary collections and the plethora of specialised literary journals round the world, refute the cynical conclusion drawn by the Arts Council of England, and quoted by Jussawalla, that modern poetry is “out of touch, gloomy, irrelevant, effeminate, high-brow and elitist”. Some poems may be gloomy or a touch “highbrow” but they can also be muscular, reinvent language and be relevant to the times.
Indeed, whole flocks and flotillas of poems do still “sail home as steady as herons”.
I Dreamt A Horse Fell From the Sky: Poems, Fiction and Non-fiction (1962-2015), Adil Jussawalla, with an Introduction by Vivek Narayanan, Hachette India.