Both Adil Jussawalla and Jeet Thayil – to distort Osip Mandelstam – are animals of our age, ravenous in their cage. They play a flute that bends the bars, and put out a word-breeding hand to grab their share of the motley world. Both are extremely skilled at freezing the frame of time. But they do it differently. And very unlike, say, a Charles Simic, whose admirable poetry is one conjured from a series of near-understated absences, Jussawalla and Thayil are tellingly present in their absences.
Jussawalla’s collection, I Dreamt a Horse Fell From the Sky, has a few new poems along with a selection from the old, and passages from his fiction and nonfiction. The poem Deep, which kicks off the collection, represents some of Jussawalla’s life-themes: city, sea, fish, depth, “disengaged-pose,” and a kind of transformation that language yields. A transformation that is not entirely devoid of significance; but the end result of the material being wrought to its eventual destiny gives him — and us — pause:
Enter a sea which lacks detail like glass,
take your emptied mind there—to the deep…
You’ll find disentanglement doesn’t come easily then.
Well-caught but bravely astir
is how most of us try to live after all,
subject to bends and cramps as we near our end,
like in a dive, while unsummoned torches light
things we saw down there and would rather blank:
acres of bloodless coral, and fish, dangling from a trawl line’s hooks
like a drowned city’s lamps.
This and quite a few of the other poems in the collection smell of the salt and spray of Mumbai where Jussawalla lives. It’s hard to come across a poet more deeply disconnected to the city whose pitiless stare, like that of a dying beast, equals that of his own. So deeply disconnected, in fact, he is connected. The two go back a long way. It is a kind of hostile intimacy; they are married to each other forever and without a moment’s relief.
The undertow of challenge in Jussawalla is often the English language itself. His poetry tries, “as in a gigantic Shiva thrust” to become one with its subject, a city and culture that is anything but English; it persists in its noisy, seasonless, neon-lit freedom of a kind.
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The latent tension of Jussawalla’s poetry rises partly from his seeming point of view, as in The Road to Versova:
Illumination came my friend Suleiman’s way…
He fell to the ground and called on Jesus Christ!
Some Kolis laughed and helped him down the road.
A culture’s incompatibility with the traditions of a colonial language results in cruel pathos. That breach is Jussawalla’s vantage point, and it is not incompatible with the efforts he puts in ironing out the ironies, the collateral damages of communicating India and himself in English.
This is especially so in a long poem like Chakravyuha, admittedly written as a television adaptation. Chakravyuha is the story of young Abhimanyu (Arjun’s son) trapped in a lotus formation by the Kauravas, and eventually killed. The poem has a few brilliant lines — “The fox’s mind runs like a sewer” — but heroically fails, like its protagonist, because the Mahabharata was just not written with English phonetics in mind.
Neither the casual ease with which a Modernist Byronic lance launched when I was a school-boy and still quivering in memory, “Each day too slew its thousands six or seven”, opening up possibilities for rhymes and rhythms and characteristic of a grand narrative nor the transposition techniques that benefit, say, a relatively recent John Ciardi rendering of the Divine Comedy, are readily available in Jussawalla’s Chakravyuha. Christian Wiman’s translation of Osip Mandelstam’s Stolen Air is yet another convincing example of welding sound to sight.
I wish Jussawalla had taken more liberties with the technique of his transposition if only to explore how best to render a culture’s great epics into English, the language we now live and die in. This issue is likely to figure as a central challenge in the near future. Jussawalla confronts the question and then sort of blinks at it. The bending of Indian myths to English remains a job to be done. Sooner or later those myths have to be tapped, and the key is as much attention to sound as sight.
While Jussawalla is splendidly resigned to his strangely alien world that reflects himself everywhere, Thayil’s poetry tries to smash through the glass to the other side. It’s another thing that he rather likes the sound of breaking glass or china:
Broken moon, of broken blue and white china.
Only you are less hopeful than I’m tonight.
Thayyil’s poetry is brilliantly violent in its daring forays into language. A hyper local poem like Pashupatinath, is totally Thayyalised:
The giant bull
his gold made ordinary in the tightening dust.
The language is used to re-appropriate all that the poet has, to the past and to the future, lost. The local symbols are pulverized and gathered into his sifting hands comfortingly like so much English dust. Thayil’s verbal violence is vandal in its deepest intent; he is here to subvert and destroy. But the taking apart is done, often at great expense to himself and with much attention to detail. He renders all he sees perfectly imperfect. And, in the end, the process of destruction results often in something wonderfully vital.
The Saint series is a first rate exercise in poetic aggression and bleeding heartlessness: Here is Saint Nayantara:
Mother of Rooturaj the ulcerous,
mended his leggings; served Fortuitus
her husband, adulterous,
whose curses were precise & numerous
& repeated by reputable servants;
washed husband & son with her tears;
crucified at dawn by multiple spears
cast by her own strong hands.
Thayil’s words sing mostly of himself because his poetic personae have a quality of shedding and renewing the reality in his teeming head and the seeming world outside. Unlike Jussawalla, whose words even in their most telling phrase are sober, Thayil’s often bask in the glory of the unpredictability of his own lines. There are a few place where the end, I am not sure, is what Thayil intended, but nevertheless is what he has gifted himself, and us. And it seems just anyway because the created context can bear that cross — but barely. It’s a trick and a treat, all right.
Like Jussawalla, Thayil trusts not the object, but the subject, which, in his case, are many; as his poetic selves are many. But unlike his senior compatriot, there is in Thayil’s poetry a streak of engaging auto-eroticism, graduating by the power of words from self pity to a delicate freedom, as in an old poem, Sailor’s Song:
I long to be
my race obscure in a crowded sea, shipwrecked, dizzy, free.
More than most poets in India, Thayil resorts to the miraculous auditory powers of the word for the resolution of the poetic narrative, auto-erotic or not. Each of his masks helps him to see a differently ravaged world. The scores he settles are atavistic, a genetic passion to rage against the dying of the light, and what terrible things it reveals in our passage beyond the broken mirrors. If Thayil were not writing, he would be diagnosed psychotic, a patient who needs immediate and unabated care. Poor daily-dying Marina Tsvetaeva said every poet is a Jew. She was referring to the poet as an outsider, banished. She forgot to add that every poet is a potential resident of the crack house.
Both Jussawalla and Thayil had some difficulty in bringing out their collected works. That underlines in dark, dank ink the state of the English Speaking Republic of India, in which publishers have no clue about how to convert the huge middleclass into market-numbers. Indeed, most publishing houses do not even have a poetry editor.
No matter. The works of Jussawalla and Thayil are tall lamps in our dangerously cratered road of words. We follow them, in the far light they cast, to our solitary turns — of phrase.
CP Surendran is a poet and novelist