Poets as neighbours

Nakul Krishna | Updated on April 17, 2014

Love and longing: Adil Jussawalla writes that Bombay is a destination of the heart. Photo: PTI/Vishal Kelkar

Maps for a Mortal Moon: Adil Jussawalla; Aleph; Non-Fiction; ₹495

Adil Jussawalla’s essays and entertainments sparkle with a poet’s insight and an editor’s sweep of knowledge

The journalistic obsession with international reputations and publishers’ advances has produced a top-heavy history of India’s literature in English. Such well-remunerated figures as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy are in fact exceptions. Once we get away from the bestsellers and prize-winners, Indian English literature turns out to be an embattled, minority literature. It relies for its survival on a small number of publishers and its most original writers are constantly in danger of being forgotten.

This is truest of poetry, which has made few people famous and no one rich. Adil Jussawalla’s name belongs in this “little tradition” of writers with a pan-Indian readership of a few thousand people at most, the work of jobbing journalists and overworked college lecturers. Jussawalla had an auspicious start with his precocious first collection of poetry, Land’s End (1962) published when he was 22. This was followed by the darker, more alienated, poems of Missing Person (1976), written on his return from England to India. There was a long poetic silence broken in 2012 with the publication of a fine new collection, Trying to Say Goodbye. Soon after came a collection for children, The Right Kind of Dog and Other Poems (2013).

The renaissance continues with the publication of a new collection of Jussawalla’s prose. Prefaced with a chatty introduction by Jerry Pinto, this brings together a wide range of Jussawalla’s writings on his home city of Bombay/Mumbai, books, travel, visual art and politics. These extend from his punchy defence of Salman Rushdie against those who sought to ban The Satanic Verses to his notes on exhibitions by eminent Indian artists. His essays on FN Souza and Bhuper Khakhar are superbly well-informed about their art-historical context, but Jussawalla retains the rare capacity to be surprised by an individual artwork and to subjugate his critical ego in the face of artistic talent.

Some pieces, discursive meditations on himself and his surroundings, simply defy generic classification. In the title essay, the poet’s meanderings through South Mumbai have him confront in turn the architecture of the Asiatic Library, an old vegetarian restaurant, activists at the World Social Forum shopping for goods at a Chinese market, and banners announcing a Shiv Sena rally. “How many time zones have I crossed and re-crossed in the last hour,” he wonders, “how many centuries?”

Jussawalla was, Pinto tells us, the editor of “some of the most exciting books pages we have seen”, at the Indian Express and later at that late lamented magazine of sophisticated smut, Debonair. In a 1992 essay for an early issue of the also-lamented Indian Review of Books, he set out his editorial philosophy with the succinct statement: “I believe it would do us reviewers a great deal of good if we realised we’re not giants; some of the authors we review are.” On the evidence of this volume, Jussawalla was anything but silent in the years between his collections of poetry, supporting himself with a tireless regime of teaching and journalism. But the short prose works collected here are too affable, too reasonable, too full of uncertainty, to sustain an image of him as a literary giant of the traditional sort.

As with any collection of journalism, there is a certain unevenness; some of his topical references will baffle his younger readers (of whom he has acquired a healthy number with his two recent publications). But Jussawalla at his best is very good indeed. He is an incisive critic, cutting to the heart of the matter with a telling remark, as when he writes that VS Naipaul’s great theme is “civilizations and their lies”. He has a knack for the vivid analogy, as when he describes the multilingual Indian as “made from pieces of a linguistic jigsaw in which shades of one language invariably lock in with the colours of another”.

There are a few argumentative pieces, as when he defends a kind of literary cosmopolitanism against the ‘nativist’ position of the Marathi critic Bhalchandra Nemade. In Jussawalla’s hands, ‘nativism’ is a respectful description of a legitimate position, not a pejorative, and receives not condescension but discussion. As he writes in a different essay, it might be true that a poet does well to think of himself as writing for his neighbour, but why place geographical limits on who can count as a neighbour? In his words, “a shared language of poetry makes for the best neighbours of all.”

Jussawalla’s other accidental vocation has been that of an archivist, and preserver of memories. There is an affecting tribute to the forgotten Indo-Irish novelist Aubrey Menen, and several allusions to the novelist Victor Anant whose The Revolving Man is said to be a pioneering treatment of British racism. Further, Jussawalla’s flat in Mumbai houses hundreds of files of correspondence generated by Clearing House, the co-operative publishing collective he was involved with from 1976 to 1984, which published his own Missing Person, but also the work of the other poets involved with the project: Gieve Patel, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Arun Kolatkar. Is it too much to hope that some of this correspondence too will find its editor someday? Indian English poets might be doomed to remain a minority taste, but they do not deserve to be forgotten.

( Nakul Krishna is pursuing a Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Oxford)

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Published on March 29, 2014
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