Interview: Adil Jussawalla
Indian English poet Adil Jussawalla talks about growing old, about dead people, and his new book, ShorelinesUpdated: Jun 05, 2020 11:50 IST
Adil Jussawalla’s struggle for existence remains truer than ever. At 80, he holds on like an old lighthouse on the shorelines of Indian English poetry, awash with shipwrecks. Excerpts from a recent conversation conducted on email during the lockdown:
“Fathers have their reasons, people have their stones, black rocks run their wounds.” – Wounds are a great conversation starter between poets. What are they for you, where are they, how do you see them now?
Wounds, whether healed or not, don’t matter to me very much except when an itch tells me they need a poem; or two or three. They are just a part of me -- I don’t even know where exactly they are -- and they’re partly responsible for who I am now. I try not to regret who I am -- a worm I often think -- so why regret the wounds? The wounds in your quote are those of childhood -- a trauma of rejection. The rejected, you may have noticed, are the subject of many of my poems.
Prufrock measured his life with coffee spoons. How do you measure yours, looking back at all those spiraling years?
I wrote a poem Turning Seventy when I was 70. I turned 80 in April and began a draft which I initially called Turning Eighty but it ended up being called Turning One. It’s not about second childhood though that too was a possible title. It’s about wonder, the regeneration of wonder as we age. So I don’t measure my life in coffee spoons or in any other way, except in that life’s relation to wonder. Sometimes, I feel I’m all my ages simultaneously. Then, right ahead of me, I see shorelines still left to cross and hope I cross them with all my ages intact.
The metro construction has virtually blocked your view of the shorelines, hasn’t it? To me the book is a collection of fragments of a long past that was your Bombay. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Metro construction hasn’t blocked my view; it’s to a side of my view. Also the view is largely irrelevant to what I try to say in the book. While ‘fragments of a long past that was Bombay’ do surface in it, it would be a mistake to think that the book is primarily about Bombay. To get to what I wanted to say about ports, harbours, their rise and disappearance, I had to make today’s Bombay disappear, then reappear in past and future incarnations -- from a time when people believed the Earth was flat and this not only on Bombay’s but on other shorelines too (see title poem) to a future catastrophe-hit city of abandoned castaways, the city itself abandoned and castaway. Because of a war, because of a plague, because of...? We guess. In fear and loathing we guess, or, perhaps more to the point, we wonder.
“You write, a river moves forward. Ranges you never saw before come round and face you.” It’s remarkable how subtly a river enters a mental landscape teeming with Bombay. Where’s the Mississippi coming from? Who is the Bruce that this piece, Memoirs, is ‘for’?
Bruce is Bruce King, the American critic. I first met him and his wife Adele in Bombay when he was researching Indian poetry. I used to meet them during their later trips to Bombay and in Paris when I was there. They had moved from the US to Paris after their daughter Nicole perished in a fire in her apartment in the city; many of Nicole’s friends lived in Paris. When Bruce told me he was writing his memoirs, and when something on him was asked for, a festschrift, I wrote the poem and dedicated it to him. His memories of India impinge on his time in Paris, and mine of the Mississippi, from my time in Iowa, at the International Writing Programme, in 1977, impinge on me in Bombay. The separate shorelines here, of the Mississippi and of Bombay, merge or are spontaneously crossed in the realms of memory.
Alice, Noor Manzil, Empress Mills -- are these structures from the poem Fires in the City still burning somewhere deep within you?
No. The fires that continue to stay with me -- I don’t know how deeply -- are the others I mention in the poem: the ones around which the homeless huddle, the ones weakly shining through windows, seen from a passing train.
How has your association with the city that you were born in and you once told me, would like to die in, changed over the years?
The city I was born in has largely disappeared -- I have made it disappear so that an imaginary, often nameless, perhaps more generalised one, can take its place. The high-rises, the clamours, etc that feature in Shorelines are probably their last hurrah.
Do you, sometimes, think of Bombay as more than a place? A parent, a child, a sibling, a mistress, a lover, a wife, a friend, which of these comes closest to what Bombay is to you?
None of them. Bombay is a place, its meaning for me described in a poem which indicates just that – ‘A Place’. So has every city or town or village I’ve lived in been to me -- a place. I’m puzzled that wherever I’ve stayed in them -- in my parent’s flat, in a bed-sit, in an attic room or, as now, in my own two-bedroom flat, I’m unable to call them ‘home’. I see them as shelters. I’m immensely grateful that I’ve had them and still have one, a well-appointed one, but to me they remain shelters. I passed through several and I’m passing through one now. Occasionally I make two exceptions -- my father’s clinic in which I spent 10 years along with my parents, six of those years with my younger brother Firdausi. And Veronique’s (Jussawalla’s wife) room in a 108-year-old stone house in La Bourboule, France. It faces a hill, which I’ve come to believe protects us. But the feeling that I could call the two home, though comforting, doesn’t always stay.
Let’s dwell a bit on the evolution of thought and its relationship with personal politics. Do you think Bombay is less liberal a city now than the one you lived in when you were my age?
I find no primary difference. The city’s harsh injustices continue to prevail, as do its splendours and hopes. I’m not a nostalgist. Though more of its citizens are openly illiberal now, everyone my age had to grow up among illiberal citizens too -- anti-art philistines, high-minded moralists, communal bigots. As for the poor, the homeless, the starving -- it was either their karma or their fault, wasn’t it? That concept too prevailed. If the city has its problems today, huge problems, we must recognise that however liberal we believe we are, we’re part of the problem, not part of the solution. We may hope our art redeems us and those who respond to it, however briefly. It has done and still does, briefly. But as agents of social change, we don’t really know who to trust, who we’re facing, we find ourselves useless.
Which one is the most recent poem in Shorelines and which one is the oldest?
A few of the first drafts of the poems in Shorelines, were written more than 25 years ago -- I keep letting them accumulate, don’t I? -- so I can’t really tell. Let’s see. Yes, the most recent one is the last one in the book: Lighthouse, written last year.
“A full week’s rumours didn’t take hold. This incident too may not be reported.” Do you see life as a series of unreported truths and half-truths that only jostle us out of discomforting hours into more discomfort?
Yes, something like that, Yes. But unreported joys too, that unexpectedly surface and comfort.
A Cyrus enters the poem Picnic. The now-cliched joke goes that there aren’t too many of them alive. Was being born a Parsi a start to the esoteric life you were to lead? Has it got anything to do with the work that was to shape up, the way it shaped up?
That ‘Cyrus’ was a tug my uncle Savak named after his son. Uncle was into several businesses, the stevedore trade among them. How boy scouts from my school got onto the tug is beyond me -- my account of our course through the waters that led to Elephanta, the ships we saw, is true. Muslim, Parsi, Hindu or Jain, we were more into machines than gods. My being a Parsi is not the identity that used to matter in my poems. In my first book Land’s End not at all, later on, occasionally. Histories of Parsis interest me, Parsis lost to History interest me. Dead relatives and ancestors have haunted me for several years now, but not necessarily as Parsis – they’re just people I absent-mindedly misplaced or lost, beings I cherish now.
What’s your take on identity poetry? Everyone’s a secular poet or a feminist poet or a Dalit poet or an LGBT poet but nobody wants to be just a poet. What do you think of this?
Since I’ve written an ‘identity’ poem myself, or rather a missing identity poem Missing Person, I must answer cautiously. Any poem, including an ‘identity’ poem, is okay and more than okay for me, if its aesthetic does what good poetry does: give me wings. Some poems, including ‘identity’ poems, don’t do that. If they fall flat on their face, if they’re mostly polemic I have to stop myself from telling myself ‘So what? She’s a victimised Dalit or a victimised lesbian, or he’s a persecuted gay or tortured political activist. Special rules apply. Understand that.’ I think I do understand, but as far as their poems are concerned, wouldn’t it be horribly condescending to put it that way?
Tell me about your years in London. They were – what – 50 years ago?
My London days began in 1957, 63 years ago. Between that year and 1970, when I decided to stay on in India, I spent a little more than seven years in London. The rest were spent in Felsham, a village in Suffolk, where I was put through the grind of studying Latin and getting the necessary A levels to get into Oxford or Cambridge; then Oxford, then India, then Oxford again, and finally back to London. My first year in London was the most educating: culture shock, the theatre of the Angries, books by poets I admired when I could afford them, and no sex, not for a long while. You’d like to know about the poetry scene I guess. Well, I was hardly in it, it has faded. It would bore me to write about it and would make for dull reading.
You are one of the last living people from the great generation of Indian poets writing in English. How was it back when Arun Kolatkar, Eunice de Souza, Dom Moraes, Dilip Chitre, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and yourself were writing the kind of poetry all of you did? Was there a continuous exchange amongst you? How do you look at their work? Any favourites?
Gieve (Patel), Kamala (Das), Keki (Daruwalla), Kersy Katrak, R Parthasarathy and Salim (Peeradina) too. Continuous exchange amongst all of us? Yes. Of dirty looks, depressions, jokes no one else found funny, the occasional loss of temper. No workshopping of manuscripts, a few suggestions if asked for, admiration reciprocated but not among all mentioned. One exception could be the Arun-Arvind exchange. They probably discussed each other’s work in some detail, though Arun was notoriously silent about the merits and demerits of his contemporaries’ work. I think there’s far more of the kind of exchanges you’re thinking about among poets of your generation than among us. Regret I can’t or won’t mention favourites.
Who are the poets who influenced you the most?
At school, between 1955 and 1956, among modernists, the later Yeats and TS Eliot. Among the English Romantics, Keats and Wordsworth. Later, in England, Pound, Auden, Robert Graves, the War poets, especially Owen, and the Europeans -- Rimbaud, Mallarme. The field was thrown wide open later and continues to be wide open, except that I’m more receptive to individual poems rather than particular poets. Among Indian poets I looked up to in my teens were Nissim (Ezekiel) and later a great many. I don’t know if everyone I mentioned could be called an influence but you’ll find traces of some in my first book Land’s End. If you read a corrected edition that should be coming out this year or the next, you’ll find I haven’t tried to cover my tracks.
Are there any lost kids of poetry? People who came within a whisker of poetic brilliance but never achieved it, getting lost in the maze of life or the abyss of death?
Yes, me. Totally lost. But if you ask me the question again, I’d say Lawrence Bantleman. After his first four books, including his brilliant first, Graffiti, in the 1960s, he left for Canada and vanished.
Do you think women poets in India, in general, haven’t gotten their due because of patriarchy? Who are some of your favourite poets that are women?
Mention favourites? You want my eyes torn out? (I hear ‘Sexist! Sexist! MCP!’ the only foul words I could bring myself to type). Some haven’t got their due but is it only because of patriarchy? And for quite a while now, with women as head honchos of many publishing houses? (Why do I hear more foul words?) Girls are coming out of the woods, said one of the girls. (Okay, I quit, I quit. It’s stones now, they’re throwing stones.)
There’s an insistence on several kinds of correctness in the world today – political, personal, etc. and no one can escape the wrath of social morality. Do you think this fabric is an enemy of individuality, of freedom to be, and of art itself?
Political correctness in the use of language, while inevitable in the self-righteous moral realm we can’t help but inhabit now, has much to do with the language of literature but by and large in a horribly damaging way. Should I not use the word prostitute, female or male, in a poem if that’s exactly the word the poem calls for, not the politically correct ‘sex worker’? We call servants domestic workers now, a welcome change. But must all the servants literature has brought us be called domestic workers, now that ‘servant’ is a bad word. So Dostoyevsky’s Father Zosimma, once a servant of God should, in future translations be called domestic worker of God? And other servants of God -- sages, gurus, many of them female -- also domestic workers of God? All this just by way of example. The politically correct use of language in literature can empty it of resonance, historically extended depth.
Are you one of the ‘Old Men on a Bench’? Is there a story to the poem that’s not written?
No, I’m not one of them, just a younger eavesdropper who fashions a story out of what he hears. There’s no hidden story.
I am aware that you are largely disconnected from the world because of logistical reasons. And you know you are revered by people who take serious interest in poetry. Do you miss being connected?
No. God has to keep at a distance from his worshippers. On a more serious note, I find people funny. It pains me to find that no one likes to be laughed at, so I keep my distance.
You have had an eventful life. Tell me about the women, the partners, the lost loves – how do they come to the party today at your Cuffe Parade apartment?
A private matter. Let them rest in limbo, the poor souls, they don’t know what they missed by being cruel to me. They’re never at the party. Ancestors are, dead people are. Like the boy in the M. Night Shyamalan film, I see dead people.
“But why be depressed? So this curse be lightly lifted – or to make us believe it will be – so our days get no heavier, it’ll soon be sunrise,” is how ends my favourite poem, Cuffe Parade, from your book. Do you really think it’ll soon be sunrise?
You’re the only one who has mentioned the poem to me. For that my thanks. I might still be in a dark place when I wake, but for others, there’s sunrise. For me too, there’s sunrise. Mihir, there’s always sunrise.
Mihir Chitre is the author of two books of poetry, ‘School of Age’ and ‘Hyphenated’. He is the brain behind the advertising campaigns ‘#LaughAtDeath’ and ‘#HarBhashaEqual’ and has made the short film ‘Hello Brick Road’.