Saturday, March 03, 2012

Adil Jussawalla

Muse India has a Hyd Lit Fest Special up on their site; so check it out. Being in conversation with Adil Jussawalla was, for me, the most special thing about the HLF. Here is something I wrote about the experience.

And below, the review that appeared in last week's Sunday Guardian. There was more I wanted to say, but that was last month and for the most part, I've forgotten what it was.


Three-and-a-half decades after Missing Person was published by the new-defunct Clearing House collective, Adil Jussawalla's book of poetry, Trying to Say Goodbye, is out. It's important to get this fact out of the way in order to reach the poems in this collection; our poets are not prolific, but when they fall silent (in print) for so long, it is remarkable.

It is not to Missing Person that one should look for continuities, however. In the way that one's early memories grow sharper with age, and the middle years more clouded, Jussawalla's poems in Trying to Say Goodbye hark back to his first book, Land's End, published in 1962 when he was 22 years old.

The book begins with an epigraph to the first section, in the form of a diary entry from November 1957. What follows has, to me, the distinct sound of a voiceover for an opening montage. 'I Recognise the Graphos after More than Fifty Years' is the only poem in the collection that is entirely in italics; an indication that the technique is deliberate. The poem ends abruptly, the speaking voice is interrupted by another, as the next poem begins. The poems that follow speak of Jussawalla's time in London and Europe. There are several diary entries and the extracts from these, though fragmentary, are precise in their imagery ('Milk flaps over the neck of the pot.') reminding us that often the only thing worth keeping out of poems that never happened are individual lines and phrases.

Why the reclamation, the enterprise of salvage? Many of these poems are the recovered journals and half-finished poems of five decades. They are the accumulated 'unfinished business' that has 'bothered [the poet] for some time.' (Jussawalla, in his Author's Note). It speaks not of a lack of inspiration or parsimony, but of a person who is now conscious of the crumbling architecture of the body, and the words he is likely to leave behind him; to make sure that these are the words he wants to leave: fashioned – if not finished – into something worth reading.

The interrupting voice at the beginning, that of a house about to be demolished, says: 'You have memory/ The room into which everything you see once goes./ Where do the things we see go?' ('House'). That which is, as Eliot said, only living can only die. Jussawalla transmutes the perishable nature of the material – of houses, swimming pools, radios, people – into poetry: poetry which can be both a personal and a collective storehouse of memory; fragments shored against ruin.

Yet the poems in this collection avoid sounding like elegies. They are often humorous, always self-aware and never sound the one-toned note of irony that so often in Indian poetry is a prophylactic against real feeling. What Jussawalla has is immense control; he lays small charges in the poem that detonate into huge responses in the reader. One of my favourite poems in the collection is 'Artist', dedicated to Mehlli Gobhai:

When the city claps its covers shut,
when the sun's sealed like a coin
in an envelope of stone,
I loiter.

Sometimes a man comes up and tells me
he's changed the face of the neighbourhood,
kicked in a few more doors.

I say he's a man of destiny.
He says he knows it.

Sometimes I go to a garden.
It has a wall covered with creepers.
Their leaves have no fixed schedule,
start when the wind's up,
stop when it drops.

Sometimes I sit for hours,
watch their nibs scratch
unintelligible scripts.

A brief aside here about the design of the book: Itu Chaudhuri's design for first-time publishers Almost Island Books (Almost Island exists as a formidably literary and erudite online journal; this is their first foray into publishing books) is clean, with an unusually slim book that fits well in the hand and is a pleasure to hold. The poems themselves, when they are long, are symmetrically spaced over two pages (rather than filling up one side of the page and leaving the other with little text). This care over design deserves mention if only because it is so rare to find publishers who pay attention to the way poetry looks on the page. These publishers do and Adil Jussawalla's book benefits from their close attention to not just the words but their design.

If the first section clearly harks back to London and to the time of Land's End, the poems in the second section have a deft range of ideas and styles, but the prevailing mode is what Edward Said called 'late style'. Jussawalla's signature late style seems to have a strong, controlled line, sly rhymes that are both witty and wry. Until the poem 'Eight First Lines with their Earthly Echoes', which takes lines from now-dead Indian poets, the pace seems more leisurely; the last verse uses lines from Agha Shahid's Ali's 'Barcelona Airport', to which Jussawalla's response is the last line:

Oh just my heart first terrorist
Is it this? Is it this? Is it this?

Reading it – and acknowledging a mild, temporary dyslexia – I couldn't help seeing the last line as a thrice-repeated 'Is this it?' Thereafter, the remaining six poems in the book took on for me a special urgency, the lines moving with a compactness and precision, leading to the end, when the poet says:

Maybe another's skin,
remembered and shed,
finally makes the note come right,
a note as uncannily light
as a lady's shoe.

The poems don't finish in haste, but there is a sense that the poet has found his second wind and the poetry has recovered itself. This is a feat not just of salvage but of renewal. If indeed poetry readers in India knew to wait for Adil Jussawalla's next collection of poems, Trying to Say Goodbye is a book worth waiting for.

1 comment:

xyz said...

Oh these were lovely! Thank you so much for sharing. "Maybe another's skin, remembered and shed, finally makes the note come right..."

That's really really beautiful.