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Adil Jussawalla: The missing poet

This book of poems, fiction and non-fiction anthologizes a career of painstaking vulnerability

Adil Jussawalla at his Mumbai home. Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times<br />
Adil Jussawalla at his Mumbai home. Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times

Since my relationship with literature was formed before trivia about the writer became more important than the writing, my first acquaintance with the personality of Adil Jussawalla was, quite naturally it seems to me only in retrospect, in a “poem" by Amit Chaudhuri. In this tragicomic thing that defies generic slotting, Chaudhuri writes about chasing and eventually meeting Arun Kolatkar (I’ve been trying to track down/this man to persuade him to let my publishers/reissue his first book of poems, Jejuri, ...). It’s titled Chasing A Poet: Epilogue, and it begins with a piece of insider information by Jussawalla who is, of course, only “Adil" in the poem:

‘He hangs out at the Wayside Inn till four.’/Thus, Adil, whose eye, looking away,/promises, says a young poet, to conceal something./... “You’d better move fast, if you want to catch him," Adil /says, consulting, in his squinty, alien way,/my watch. ...

I was coming to this from my sketchy university student reading of Jussawalla’s “Missing Person" sequence that has been canonized in the syllabus through Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s Oxford Anthology Of Twelve Modern Indian Poets where, almost as if it were some kind of poetic aesthetic that makes anthologies the sly beasts that they are, only parts of the sequence could be reproduced due to restrictions of space, another of those anthology aesthetics (I could not help remembering that Jussawalla was missing from R. Parthasarathy’s Ten Twentieth Century Indian Poets, one of those “errors" that Mehrotra set out to redress as it were).

Reading Vivek Narayanan’s excellent (and moving) introduction to Jussawalla’s work of more than half a century, I found in him a sahrdaya (compatriot) who had also noticed the trope of the “missing" in the poet’s work. Whether in Chaudhuri’s poem, where Jussawalla is not the “poet" of the title but only a happy facilitator of the meeting with another poet, his eyes “concealing something", or in Narayanan’s introductory essay (“What I think various critical writers, in their various ways, have managed to discover about Missing Person is that it is, in fact, ultimately not an unambiguous negation nor a reliable or complete cataclysm but a form and means of survival, of communication"), Adil Jussawalla has come to be viewed as the “missing person" in modern Indian English poetry.

As if to paraphrase his own situation—and the aesthetic—of being a missing person, and of course the more delightful corollary of what being a “missing poet" entails, Jussawalla wrote an essay titled “The Poet As An Outcast" in the late 1970s. Writing beautifully, and with great prescience, Jussawalla showed the “conspirational link" between poet and reader and, more significantly, between poetry and the market. Reading it today, nearly four decades after it was written, after the obscene celebration of the victory of commerce over creativity in our times, it begins to get clearer why the poet must always be a “missing person". I cannot give up the temptation of pointing to the many essays on Jussawalla that have the phrase “missing person" swimming in their titles.

Anand Thakore, fittingly then, sees the “missing person" as “a prototype of the bourgeois intellectual in postcolonial India" in an essay titled “On The Music Of A Missing Person: Adil Jussawalla And The Craft Of Despair". This ascription comes from Jussawalla’s invocation of W.H. Auden of course: Please sir, what’s/An intellectual of the middle classes?/Is he a maker of ceramic pots/Or does he choose his king by drawing lots? (W.H. Auden, Letter To Lord Byron).

The “missing" of Jussawalla’s work has the character of adolescence: It is there and yet there is forceful denial, and also the opposite loop, the thing doesn’t exist but the props in his writing lead us to an emphatic celebration of its possible existence. “You’re gone, cousin, you’re gone" (Reply To A Postcard From Overseas). I do not know whether the “missing" are lonely or those who miss the “missing" are lonelier. I say this because I find the word “lonely" moving like a hologram in Jussawalla’s work, in his essays on literature and the literary men, on Wole Soyinka and the East European poets, on Aubrey Menen who says, “I used to write very well. Yes, it is lonely", and T. S. Eliot, in whom he sees “the penitent’s longing to be ‘alone with the Alone’". There is death, the technology which makes us go missing: “... in the case of Rimbaud, why did he do it?"; “So how did your grandmother die? ... Natural causes".

But the “missing" are not only functions of light (“Bright angels—where?", Missing Person), particularly if they are writers, as Jussawalla reminds us. A writer’s silence turns the category of “missing" into a political gesture. “If we decide on any one reason for a writer’s silence, like homosexuality and suicide is an irreversible form of silence...fear may not be the only reason for a writer’s silence." And then this: “Given the damage egotistic candour did and continues to do, given the destruction some words caused and continue to cause, writers have every reason to question, sometimes, why they use words at all."

Now, more than ever before, as we grow anxious about the increasing number of writers who go missing because of their questioning of political regimes, Perumal Murugan and M.M. Kalburgi and Ashraf Fayadh and Raif Badawi, we are grateful that we have Jussawalla and his tricks of sly parody that can make governmental action look like a shopping list in a poem.

Mehrotra, in “Being Here", his essay on Jussawalla’s prose, calls him “a poet of the vulnerable". This book I hold in my hand anthologizes that career of delicious and nervous and even painstaking vulnerability. “I cut my nails/but winter took my toes" (The Way I Walked Abroad). Anjum Hasan, in a much needed essay on the Clearing House poets (“Your Missing Person" supplies the title of the essay), writes about visiting Jussawalla in Mumbai. As if almost on cue, the word appears:

“When I visit Adil in Mumbai to talk about Clearing House, he says, ‘Something is missing. It’s a sense of literature. What does literature mean in this country? Do we have a literary culture? How do we set about building it?’"

I Dreamt A Horse Fell From The Sky is a necessary step in that direction.

Sumana Roy is a writer and critic based in Siliguri, a small town in sub-Himalayan Bengal.

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