Time has lent Adil Jussawala a distanced perspective and a profound empathy in his new collection of poetry, says Keki N. Daruwalla
A book by Adil Jussawalla is an event. Since his ground-breaking anthology on Indian writing, and his excellent poetry volume Missing Person (1976) one has hardly got a word out of him. Thirty six years later, we get the ominously-titled Trying to Say Goodbye, all the while hoping that this is not his farewell shot. It isn't. He has another poetry manuscript, “The Right Kind of Dog” meant for young readers, doing the rounds of our tight-assed publishing houses. (Tight-assed only when it comes to poetry.) A poem of his was short-listed for the Montreal Festival prize.
Missing Person was a corker of a volume. It started like volley fire. “House full. It's a shocker. Keep still./ Blood crawls from a crack./ Keep still./ It's all happening.” This first poem ends with the lines “There's trouble outside: / crowds, stammering guns, the sea/ screaming from side to side.”
Close to four decades later, Adil is in no mood to shock or sock us. Wallace Stevens has said somewhere that “The poem is the cry of its occasion”. Well, occasions have changed. Adil puts some distance between himself and his subjects now. The poems are no longer that bleak — though a nit picker could spot emptiness as a metaphor running through the book. Talking of a graphos pen (used by architects) he writes, “Only ink can make it run./ I neglect it./ Emptiness is closure too.” In the next poem “House” we get the lines:
See my rooms now, their outer walls gone,
My secret eyes
With nothing left in them
See my still-polished staircase rising
To ends that can never be met:
Doorways that draw a blank.
The last line encapsulates a philosophy “Go rootless, homeless, but balance.” Through this poem, ostensibly on a house, one peeps into autobiography as well.
Good poets, sometimes just sketch what's in front of them like pavement artists who put your face and jaw-line on paper. You look at the poem later and realise that an underlying metaphor has tunnelled its way, like some escaping jailbird, through the poem. “Underground” is one among many such poems. “I've nothing better to do than think in images/ moving like coaches on the Circle Line”.
Jussawalla tells us that he has now “reclaimed some of the areas I had neglected”— old drafts of poems written in England in 1957-60 when he was studying for architecture in London. He, of course, gave that up to write poetry and plays. So we have compassionate vignettes on Londoners, mostly down-and-outs — Jenny who can't paint, whose mother “in her hive of pills” looks like “a turnip with measles”. But Jenny herself looks “like a painting” though he fights shy of telling her that. There's a ‘wolf' who howls on the phone all day, and Marco whose life “is a prison of pin-pricks”, who faces the abyss. “There's always the river,/ he says, or America.” And we have Baglady Anna — “all roads from her/ lead into greater homelessness.”
A poet, after all, is judged by the images through which he speaks, and here Adil excels. A wrist watch becomes “a stonehenge of radium”. Gulls over the Thames are “lumps of chalk washed down”; a dangling dead pigeon stuck on a rail near St. Pancras “turns like a ballerina”.
A poem, “Hongkong Lee”, gives me more about an Asian worker in the West than 30 pages on a cook by Kiran Desai in that overrated novel of hers. “One rain smelt of pork,/ another of sweat; / this rain of smack,/ that of glue.” As the poem goes along, we find Lee working in a kitchen “on the bad side of Thames,/ river that smells of slaves.” The poet himself has had his problems in London, people calling him “Blackie, wog, Paki.” But he tells himself “Play deaf to find your voice.” Very true, writers need to shut the world out.
Not many can use language as subtly as Adil Jussawalla can. If he talks about a sculptor, words become clay in his hands. And he displays such ease in his craft. Take “Urdu Lesson” starting with Urdu poets “baring their patriotic souls/ behind mikes called Chicago”. The poem travels from Wilfred Owen to Buddhism, to Cuban missiles. I won't reveal how it ends. Let people buy the book.
Adil goes about it in his own unique way. A bomb blast stays with him “like a searchlight that wouldn't switch off” (“Entries”). The poem ends with the doctor saying, “after the blast, / light is best seen darkly,/ as through a glass.”
He has a great poem on the painter Jehangir Sabavala, who sadly died last year.
Do you heal
in the space of a canvas, insisting that light breaks
through the terminal facts?
My darkness continues as darkness
when the sky, closer each evening, brings down its axe.
Adil's poems have that elusive indefinable sleight of language, words slipping ahead of the crossroads of meaning. Humour also slips in, the American Professor finding “the moon too strong/ like the drinks.” Yet, the poet and he stand at the balcony “every lit window a cry for help.” There is profound empathy here in this excellent volume.
Trying to Say Goodbye: Poems, Adil Jussawalla, Almost Island Books, 2011, p.88, Rs. 300.