I saw neither snakeskin nor snake.
I lived in the forest for years.
Forty years on,
With the forest gone,
My sight's improved.
From ‘Snakeskin', Trying to Say Goodbye, Adil Jussawalla
For almost 35 years, Adil Jussawalla has lived in “the forest”. It took more than three decades for the forest to clear and let his long-awaited third collection, Trying to Say Goodbye, emerge.
Jussawalla's first book of poems, Land's End, was published in 1962, while his second book A Missing Person came out in 1976.
But it seems insignificant to know why there was no book of poems from him all these years. The long gap is irrelevant; decades melt away. The year could be 2011 or 1978. For, this collection, just as his previous ones, has the same sparkling irony, the often inaccessible and melancholic poems, the stark awareness of an empty world and the word music Jussawalla was always known for. For this reason, this collection, published by Almost Island Books, is timeless.
But has his perspective changed over the last three decades? “The new book contains poems that were completed in the 1980s and also some that were completed as late as 2009. But the first drafts or notes for some of the later poems were made in the late 1950s. So there's no clear demarcation between earlier and later perspectives,” says Jussawalla.
One of the endearing qualities about Trying to Say Goodbye is that the emotions evoked, the places visited, the objects described, the images are all very real and it ceases to be the poet's reality alone.
In his own words, some of the poems in the first part of the book “are an attempt to reclaim some of the areas I had neglected during my first year in London and a little year — unfinished business that bothered me for some time… I dealt with much of that business. Some of it has to do with art,” and the rest has got to do with people and places that continue to haunt him from his youth, his childhood, wherever he spent those years, here or abroad.
Along with these people and places are also objects — wristwatches and marble, for instance. Though, for Jussawalla, one theme does not get preference over the other: “Words come to a poem as though spoken by an object, sometimes as though spoken by a person, sometimes as though I am the speaker. Whoever or whatever speaks in the poem, it's completing the poem that gives me some satisfaction,” he explains.
This process of completion naturally involves time, which allows him to work on his craft. That Jussawalla employs unparalleled technique and razor-sharp tone, was always known. His first book, Land's End, published when he was 22, was hailed as one of the seminal books of the century. And Missing Person with its range of deep and brooding perspectives went on to influence several poets writing in India today. More recently, an unpublished poem of his, “Old Men on a Bench” (not in the book) was shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize in 2011, the first year of the prize.
In this third collection, Jussawalla's range has widened. One gets to see varied technique, including a concrete poem like “Nail” or the haunting “Eight First Lines with their Earthly Echoes”. In the latter, Jussawalla remembers eight poets who have left us. It is a successful poetic experiment that stands out by virtue of how he develops the first lines he has quoted. “The first lines were chosen at random,” he first says and goes on to correct himself: “Or perhaps not. I chose the lines, which gave the most satisfactory echoes. The echoes come from people and ghosts on a numbed, confused, terrorist-scarred earth.”
The ghosts are also the associated memories. A particularly interesting memory of Jussawalla's is that of Nissim Ezekiel, which he describes in “Have I heard right, I wonder”. When I ask him about this, he says: “…I broke my studies in England and thought I was coming back permanently to India in 1961. I brought back a manuscript I had written in England. Nissim thought I should send it to Writers' Workshop and it came out as Land's End the following year…”
It is not easy for him to choose a memory of Nissim Ezekiel: He has too many of them. However, the one important point he makes through this poem and his long-standing friendship is that for Nissim Ezekiel objects were just those: Objects. “Personal details of the objects mattered little to Nissim,” adds Jussawalla.
In his own universe, though, we get to learn of the inner life of objects. He meditates on clay, cloth, wood, iron, marble in “Materials”, a beautiful tribute to the sculptor Pilloo Pochkhanawala. The series is also rich in music that has always characterised Jussawalla's verse.
Getting that right note
“Rhyme and the music of words continue to be important to me. Sometimes I wish they weren't. I don't like to think of the number of drafts I often have to make to get just one musical note in the poem right,” he says. Could this be a limiting factor, I wonder. Does it mean that some of his poems are best enjoyed only when read aloud or ‘performed'?
“In my own work, I hope that it isn't a limitation. A poem read out aloud can make us understand it better, but I prefer reading a poem on the page. I take time to interpret it and focus on it,” he explains.
So, who does he write for? For those who like listening to him or those who like reading his poems on the page? Does he write for the world? “I write in the hope that some of my work will be completed. Who reads the completed work is not my concern. I don't shy away from being read, I know I have readers,” clarifies Jussawalla.
With the flourish of literary journals and publishing of poetry, this reader base has only increased. Jussawalla, who was also a publisher (he cofounded Clearing House in 1976), sees the increasing number of publishing avenues as a positive trend: “The more literary magazines — online or otherwise — the more small presses, the better. Speaking for myself, where would this book be without the time and energy Almost Island spent on it? They were committed to it, their first book.”
He sounds content with the elegantly produced book. At the same time he is eager to start on his next work. “I'm anxious to get started with the next book though I don't know what it will be about,” he says with school-boyish enthusiasm.
This third collection is no swansong; Adil Jussawalla is certainly not trying to say goodbye with these poems.
Eight First Lines with their Earthly Echoes*
By Adil Jussawalla
Not to choose one's company
Calls for surgery, surgery, surgery.
Shared we such a room
Yes, with a timer. It sang a mean tune.
Eyes are fog
The last words of my seeing dog.
One side of her face
Is nothing but lace, nothing but lace.
Consistently ignored in a family of ten
Little hopes, little hearts, big plans, little men.
Nightly, when foxes walk
Ghosts walk too, too numb to talk.
Don't leave them together
My going will be tough and so will the weather.
O just my heart first terrorist
Is it this? Is it this? Is it this?
*The first lines of each of the poem's verses were written by poets who have left us. The poets in the order in which their lines appear, are: Nissim Ezekiel, Srinivas Rayaprol, A.K. Ramanujan, Lawrence Bantleman, G.S. Sarat Chandra, Dom Moraes, Gopal Honnalgere and Agha Shahid Ali.