Being Here

Delighting in the poet Adil Jussawalla’s prose

Adil Jussawalla’s essays, compiled for the first time in Maps for a Mortal Moon, are imbued with permanence. Madhu Kapparath
01 April, 2014

WHEN IN THE SUMMER OF 1966 I arrived in Bombay from Allahabad to enrol at Bombay University, there was hardly a soul I knew in the city. My parents had found me accommodation in Mulund, in a sort of ashram run by a woman we called Maaji. Her name was Brijmohini Sarin, and my parents had great faith in her. She was their guru. A slim, shrill-voiced woman in her mid forties, she wore terry-cot maxi dresses in pastel shades and ruled the ashram with an iron fist. When she was around you wanted to hide behind the nearest pillar. She was married. Her husband, Papaji, worked in the telephone exchange. He had his separate living quarters in the ashram. The other permanent residents of the place included a couple of rich Marwari widows who owned one of the art deco buildings behind the Ritz Hotel in Churchgate. They spent all their time in the kitchen and could easily be mistaken for scullery maids. The ashram often had guests staying for short periods, and when Maaji showed them around she would point to the widows and say appreciatively that they’d given up their diamonds and chosen the path of self-realisation. I tried to stay away from the place as much as I could; I was 19 years old.

Someone, I don’t remember who, had mentioned Coral Chatterji to me. She belonged to the well-known Caleb family of Muir Road, Allahabad, and worked for Imprint, a literary magazine of current fiction and non-fiction books in condensed form. One day I turned up at her office in Colaba. She was a tall, striking-looking woman, who to me appeared taller and more striking because of her job at Imprint. She didn’t quite know what to do with her young visitor and quickly introduced me to her two co-editors. One of them was Qurratulain Hyder, and the other was Nissim Ezekiel. When told that I wrote poetry, Ezekiel gave me a friendly look and invited me to a reading he was giving in Worli in a few days’ time. It was to be held at the house of Pilloo Pochkhanawala, and he gave me directions on how to get there. Pochkhanawala, I discovered when I reached her place, was a sculptor. Her modernist works were on display both inside her large house and on the lawns, where the reading was to be held. Since I was among the first to arrive, I had plenty of time to observe the audience as it drifted in. Everyone who came seemed to know everyone else. I had hoped Coral would be there, but she wasn’t.

That evening, Ezekiel read the poems of Adil Jussawalla. He read from Land’s End (1962), Jussawalla’s first book, which had been published by Writers Workshop. One of the poems that struck me sounded like a shopping list: “toothpaste/ toothpowder/ beetroots/ hairsoftener ...” Ezekiel I had known by reputation before, but not Jussawalla, who then lived in England. He was some years older than me, but his formally accomplished poems, and the fact that he could turn a shopping list into verse, seemed way beyond anything I was capable of. To me, he and Ezekiel were like two unscalable peaks, shining in the distance. The Pochkhanawala house and lawns were brightly lit.

In Adil Jussawalla’s Trying to Say Goodbye (2012), there is a tribute to Pochkhanawala. The poem, ‘Materials,’ is in five sections, each titled after a material that sculptors use: clay, cloth, wood, iron, marble. A couple of lines in the poem, in the section called “Clay,” could serve as an epigraph to everything that Jussawalla has written: “When whole, art./ When broken, man.” Art, the creative spirit, is what gives wholeness to the human clay. But the wholeness is vulnerable. It can break any minute for many reasons, reducing us again to the fragments we are. Jussawalla is a poet of the vulnerable.

I thought of those two lines when I read ‘Notes Towards a Portrait of Nissim Ezekiel’ in Maps for a Mortal Moon, a wide-ranging selection of Jussawalla’s essays, written over five decades, and the first one we have by him. The essay describes a visit that Jussawalla, along with Ezekiel’s future biographer R Raj Rao and the novelist Cyrus Mistry, make to the nursing home in Bandra where Ezekiel, an Alzheimer’s patient, had been living. This is how it begins:

The house: ochre. Trees behind it and along its side: deep green, lemon-yellow, Vandyke brown. Grass leading to door: bushy, leaf green, undersides of leaves lined with kohl.

The door: blue-grey. Wrong door. We are told to enter by the side. Grill covering entrance: rust-brown with a lock on it.

The essay was written for a Sunday paper, but we already know that this is no journalistic account that we are reading. Instead of a realistic picture of the house, as one would expect, Jussawalla gives us a painting, slightly abstract, whose colours are “deep green, lemon yellow, Vandyke brown.” The portrait of Ezekiel, when we come to it, is done in similar style. In it, too, the things being described are itemised, their colours mentioned against them:

He’s suddenly there, right in front of me, sitting on a chair, his hands folded on his lap. Hair: close-cropped, grey-brown. Eyes: spectacled, greyish. Smile: gentle; when broad: with a black hole punched in it. Shirt: blue-grey, like the wrong door.

This could be a shorthand description of a painting by Francis Bacon. Later in the essay Ezekiel “comes back to his chair to sit for his portrait again,” but though physically present, the sitter is for all purposes missing from the scene. He can see his visitors, but does not recognise them. “He asks: ‘You are all from the same place?’” And then, “‘You’re sure you want to be with me?’”

But if the Alzheimer’s-stricken Ezekiel is not the Ezekiel of old that his visitors knew, then the visitors too are not who they seem. Might they not be performers in a comedy act?

In the meantime, my left foot has developed an itch. I calm it, but drawing hand back from foot, my elbow jogs Cyrus’ side. He lets out a grunt, his left knee jumping reflexively. It narrowly misses Raj’s face, since, just a moment before, Raj has decided to bend down to tie his bootlace. I sigh. I think it’s going to be one of those afternoons. A projected portrait of Nissim turning into a visit by the Three Stooges.

Faced with human brokenness, a writer can do only what a writer can. He brings to it the wholeness of art. On this occasion, it is the art of the essay, but with flashes of the other arts, those of painting (Vandyke brown) and comedy (the Three Stooges). Threaded through the essay, “Against the wrackful siege of battering days,” are lines from Ezekiel’s poems:

Three times the crow has cawed

At the window, baleful eyes fixed

On mine ...

The ordinariness of most events.

I prefer the company of spiders.

What makes the essay so moving is that not once does Jussawalla say that the house they’re visiting is a nursing home, or that the person they’re visiting has Alzheimer’s. By leaving this unsaid, Jussawalla touches on our common human fate, our common humanity. After all, what’s there to say? We visit the old and the ill; we grow old ourselves. As for sadness, there are moments when comedy does just as well. “Gaiety transfiguring all that dread,” WB Yeats called it. But this is Jussawalla, not Yeats, and the essay ends with the visitors in tears, the last nine words forming a one-line paragraph: “The kohl starts running, the buildings start breaking up.”

Jussawalla’s paragraphs, even the shortest, are not to be hurried through.

JUSSAWALLA HAS THE EYE TO SEE AND, what is still more rare in an Indian, the generosity to acknowledge another person’s talent. In ‘Remembering Sudhir,’ he writes about a friend less well known than Ezekiel and now all but forgotten. Sudhir Sonalkar was someone Jussawalla’s own age and, like Jussawalla himself, he worked for long periods as a freelance journalist. He died in his early fifties in 1995, destroyed by alcohol. Jussawalla writes about Sonalkar with unbearable delicacy. From the essay, a double portrait emerges, Sonalkar’s of course, but also Jussawalla’s, his sentences stealing up on you with the quietness of a cat walking on glass:

Once Sudhir got hold of an idea he would never let go of it but try it out on friend and foe, sometimes at odd hours of the day and night, via the phone. Useless to tell Sudhir that 3 a.m. wasn’t the best of times to discuss the dialectics of madness or the Bharatiya Janata Party’s position on cows. After a point, you just yelled into the receiver and slammed it down. It would be hard to find another person who was more yelled at and slammed down upon than Sudhir. When asked to explain why he didn’t choose a more reasonable hour to make calls, he’d plead that he was lonely and needed someone to talk to. He felt he had no one to talk to in Pune for which he left Bombay a few years ago.

What he didn’t say was what all drinkers know but dare not say. That if you’ve had more than one too many, you lose sense of time; the cocoon of drink produces a myriad bright lights, earth-shattering butterflies; you think, you feel, an urgent need to communicate. God knows I’ve felt that way too. But it’s a one-way alley of communication that tolerates no rebuff, no dead-end. That’s what made it worse for Sudhir.

Once when I was editor of Debonair he called me at my parents’, at a reasonable hour, and asked to be given a job on the magazine again; he had been its assistant editor previously. He said he’d find himself a place in Bombay. I wasn’t to worry. I turned him down as gently as I could. ‘Then fuck off!’ he snapped and disconnected. Just as well. If the conversation continued I wouldn’t have been able to tell him why I’d turned him down; that I sometimes overdid my drinks too, that I had recently taken on the magazine a writer who turned out to have a drinking problem greater than any I’d seen, that taking Sudhir on board would have meant capsizing the raft altogether.

There seems to be a linguistic version of the internal combustion engine purring inside the paragraphs, which gives Jussawalla’s prose its constant forward movement, what William Hazlitt called “momentum.” In the essay’s concluding sentences—which in an odd sort of way remind you of the conclusion to ‘Notes Towards a Portrait of Nissim Ezekiel’—the anaphora both goads the pain of the loss and holds it back, keeping it within the bounds of decorum:

I am told that in the last few weeks of his life he had stopped eating ... I am told that though his body was wracked his mind was sound. I am told that he donated his body to the hospital he died in.

Jussawalla singles out two essays by Sonalkar. One of them, written after “he decided to kick his drinking habit,” was about his visit to “the mental ward of the Yerawada hospital.” The second was “about his feelings of being a father for the first time.” These two essays, he says, “will survive him as will many others.”

Future historians can use these clues and exhume the essays, but the chances of that happening are nil. The proliferation of literary festivals is only another symptom of the loss of literary memory that has made us all but incapable of remembering the past. It’s another kind of Alzheimer’s. Those who today believe that they’re living the life of the mind will ultimately be swallowed up by the same dementia. And it’ll happen to them sooner than they think, in their own frequent-flyer lifetimes.

Which is why it seems such a miracle to have Maps for a Mortal Moon. If it exists at all, there are two reasons for it. The first is Jussawalla himself, who meticulously preserved everything he wrote. (He also preserved, in his archives, what his contemporaries wrote, their letters and poems, reviews of their work and interviews, special issues of magazines featuring them, which makes him unique in our literature.) In the absence of a library, for what passes for libraries in India are unlit rooms full of books gathering dust and with a fearsome lock hanging outside, Jussawalla’s scattered work would otherwise have been impossible to trace. In the absence of an enumerative bibliography, there’d be nothing to trace to start with. Dom Moraes’s uncollected prose has disappeared for these very reasons, as has GV Desani’s (170,000 words according to one estimate), and who knows what else.

Ironically, where bibliographies are available the sense of loss is felt all the more. Between 1780 and 1857, there were 177 English newspapers and magazines published in Bengal alone. Of some, only their names and a description of their contents have survived; of others, there are copies extant, perhaps complete files, but no one has looked at them. Many of the editors of and contributors to the early magazines were British, but many were Indian, our earliest proud writers in the colonial tongue. If we add to this the explosion of print that took place during the Raj, the amount of writing waiting to be recovered is staggering. Let us erect a thrifty tomb to it, the Tomb of the Unknown Indian Writer; it will serve as our memorial as well.

The second reason we have this book is Jerry Pinto, in whom Jussawalla had an able-bodied editor of sound mind. Pinto has also provided the book with a warm-hearted introduction. Here he describes the circumstances of his first meeting with Jussawalla, at the offices of what he calls “India’s first girlie magazine,” where in the late 1980s Jussawalla worked as literary editor:

I had gone to submit the first of a column that I had been asked to write, a column on male style. What qualified me? Nothing. Why was I asked? I don’t know. I just knew that I had to find a way out of the obscurity of The Free Press Journal—the only newspaper that seemed to have any space for me at the time—and this might be a route. I went with my first column—this was the time before email and so you wrote a draft, you typed it up with a carbon copy for safety, and if you were in the same city, you carried it to the magazine or newspaper where you hoped it would appear. Debonair had offices in the basement of a state-run five star hotel in North Bombay.

A smartphone is no substitute for the New York Public Library. Without access to it or anything comparable, there are surprisingly few incomplete bibliographical details in Maps for a Mortal Moon, which the editor has duly noted. We don’t, for instance, have dates for two essays that first appeared in Debonair (one of them a seminal essay on Bhupen Khakhar), and there’s an explanation for it. The otherwise thorough Jussawalla forgot to mention the publication dates in his file copies, and no library in India has a complete run of the magazine where you could go and look them up. In a country where Playboy is banned, perhaps no library even subscribed to Debonair, though it published some of the finest writers of the 1980s and 1990s. Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood and Gabriel García Márquez all published in Playboy; not being able to find the dates of the issues in which their work appeared would be unthinkable.

In the Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature (2001), Amit Chaudhuri described Jussawalla’s essays as “some of the best to have been written by an Indian,” a remark that could not have drawn much attention or have made much sense unless you had, as Chaudhuri surely did, the history of Indian prose in your head. Despite the hundreds of English departments in the country, we do not yet have a single account of that history. It’s as though Rammohan Ray, Henry Derozio, Kylas Chunder Dutt, Shoshee Chunder Dutt, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya, Behramji Malabari, and the others who came after them existed only as scattered individuals, without “the other harmony of prose,” to use Dryden’s phrase, to connect them.

This lack of historical context, a sense of what Dryden called “Lineal Descents and Clans,” makes it difficult to place Jussawalla, whose prose has more sides to it than perhaps any Indian writer’s thus far. The tradition is ill-defined, and we haven’t even begun talking about it, unless it is Jussawalla himself, who says in ‘The Folds of an Origami Lotus’ that the journalists whose work he admires—“Sham Lal, Dom Moraes, Dhiren Bhagat, Sudhir Sonalkar, Ivan Fera and P Sainath, to mention just six”—are those whose “copy can turn out to be a work of art.” The beginnings of Indian literature in English and the beginnings of Indian journalism are inextricably linked, and in Derozio they have a common ancestor. Our first poet, he was also one of our first journalists, a contributor to the India Gazette and editor, when he died in December 1831, of the East Indian.

Jussawalla’s essays appeared in broadsheets and weeklies, evening papers and glossies, inflight and community magazines, none of them places you associate with literary prose. The one that Chaudhuri took for his anthology (and is included in Maps for a Mortal Moon) had appeared in Filmfare. Another of the essays, the very short ‘The Joy of Sensuous Writing,’ in which the physical act of writing becomes an analogy for love-making (“The envelope was plump with the letter I’d fed it and the fine tip of the pen I was using sank into it as it formed the letters ...”), was, with fine discernment, written for a tits-and-bums magazine, the short-lived Allahabad-based Fantasy. But however ephemeral the individual essays may have looked to others, and whether done for a syndicated column or as an occasional piece, the writing, as Chaudhuri was the first to see, seldom lacked the quality of permanence. There’s no telling when men and women of exceptional gifts will appear, as did the prophets of old, to make just such an oxymoron, the permanent ephemeral, unexceptional.

It’s not nostalgia for time past that makes me say this so much as a desire to keep track of the changed times, but in a culture where Chetan Bhagat the writer of lowbrow fiction has transmogrified into Chetan Bhagat the public intellectual, it is important to keep certain distinctions in mind. “One can guard against the Philistines outside the gates,” wrote Dwight Macdonald. “It is when they get into the Ivory Tower that they are dangerous.” Though it may never have been an Ivory Tower, the same Sunday Times of India for which Jussawalla wrote in the 1990s is now haunted by Bhagat’s ghost-writer.

FOR ALL THESE YEARS WE THOUGHT that Bombay had only one flâneur, Arun Kolatkar, who versified Kala Ghoda for us and made its buildings, streets and people, its restaurants and art galleries, its pi dogs, cats and crows come unforgettably alive. One of the many surprises of Maps for a Mortal Moon is that in Jussawalla Bombay has always had another idler, another man about town who takes whatever the city streets have to offer. Sometimes, as in the rainy season, what they have to offer is not always pleasant. Jussawalla’s flaning is very different from Kolatkar’s; so too, here, is his medium, prose. And the two, the flaning and the medium, are connected.

Poetry gave Kolatkar a pair of triplet wings (most of Kala Ghoda Poems is in three-line stanzas), so that while sitting at his favourite Wayside Inn table he could soar into the clouds, his predatory hawk’s eye following everything that crawls on land or moves through the air, taking in Kala Ghoda first, then Bombay, and finally the earth itself, as though he were seeing it from “aboard Salyut, the Russian spaceship.” Everything is closely observed, everything is also magnified. It’s the nature of the medium. Here he is in ‘The Rat-poison Man’s Lunch Hour,’ describing a “one-legged poster,” where we can see the magnification taking place stanza by stanza:

An expressionless oblong of white canvas

stretched on a wooden frame,

with a wooden bar that divides it

vertically in two equal halves

      and continues past the base

to form a short stumpy leg

with a chunky three-inch wheel

grafted onto its club-foot

If poetry gave Kolatkar a pair of wings, prose gave Jussawalla a pair of size ten sandals. He covers the same area that Kolatkar does, only more so, extending it to the Asiatic Library in one direction and the Colaba Post Office in the other. Unlike Kolatkar, he makes his observations, his killings, at the same time that he is wearing out his leather soles. He is forever on the road, ambling at his “favoured pace of thirty centimetres per second.” Like the man who runs the cigarette stall outside his building, he “knows every scar on the scraggy pavement before him.”

These, however, are Indian roads and not Parisian boulevards. In ‘The Cuffe Link’ he writes that “the junction of G. D. Somani Marg and Captain Pethe Marg (Cuffe Parade)” is a particularly bad one. “Racing Marutis down the road is the fashion these days. One day the car won’t take the turn but ram the lamppost on the corner, bits of the car and the driver going past it” The effect of the two sentences, consisting mainly of monosyllabic words, is something only prose can create, prose written to a deadline in white heat, with the head, the heart and the writing hand in perfect alignment.

Prose works differently from poetry, and no one has put the difference more succinctly than Hazlitt in ‘On the Prose-Style of Poets’:

In poetry, one pleasing or striking image obviously suggests another: the increasing the sense of beauty or grandeur is the principle of composition: in prose, the professed object is to impart conviction, and nothing can be admitted by way of ornament or relief, that does not add new force or clearness to the original conception.

The image of a car ramming into lamppost stays with the reader precisely because it is not an image in a poem. It’s not there as an “ornament”; it’s there because it “add[s] new force” to what has come before (“Racing Marutis down the road”) and what comes after (“bits of the car”). You could be reading the passage in bed, but you see the metal and body parts flying around you, and a shiver runs down your spine. Beauty in Jussawalla can be horrific. What makes the scene even more disturbing is that Jussawalla is not describing something that has happened but something that could happen any minute, “One day the car won’t take the turn ...” This is exactly what you worry about every time you step on an Indian road, that instead of the lamppost the car will find you and the flying body parts will be yours, and you begin to understand why that shiver ran down your spine.

Jussawalla, who thinks about the road even when he’s not on it, says in the same essay that he’s lost count of the number of accidents he’s witnessed in the years he’s lived on Cuffe Parade.

... when the first accidents happened, I felt drawn to the scene, to take the lift and go down. But if you live in a high-rise for even a year, you soon realise that help moves in a straight line, mostly horizontally. The men who rush to the spot of the accident ... are inevitably the newspaperwallas and cigarettestorewallas on the corner ... I soon stopped taking the lift down, stood on the balcony, and watched.

From the balcony of his eighteenth-floor flat, Jussawalla hears “the sound of screaming brakes and the expected thud, or crash of metal and glass” and freezes. He feels he’s living in a war zone. Writers like him do our looking (and our hearing) for us, which is why it is necessary to read them: “help moves in a straight line, mostly horizontally.” The observation also tells us something about the kind of observer Jussawalla is. Being a walker, he does not give us a view of the world from too much up close or from on high. What you get is the middle-distance street-level view, where things move horizontally. As they do in prose.

The road has other dangers. In ‘A Stranger in the Village,’ the “twenty-minute walk from the Marine Drive side of Mumbai’s Nariman Point” to where Jussawalla lives turns out to be an ordeal. “The streets were flooded, there was no taxi in sight, and I was refused pao bhaji at a wayside stall.” While the reader could at this point be thinking of “the fried eggs and bacon” served at the Wayside Inn in Kala Ghoda Poems, Jussawalla in the essay is thinking about why he might have been refused the pao bhaji. Could it be that because of his beard he was mistaken for a Muslim? After the 1993 riots, “The city has changed not only its name but its character.” But he then remembers a total stranger he had met in a bar recently and who took him home to meet his wife and family. So maybe he is wrong about the suspicion of Muslims. He remembers “the Holi of 1962,” spent aboard a fishing trawler on Versova Beach, “sharing drinks and food with the fishermen.” More memories come to him, some from the late 1960s when he was travelling around India—Jaipur, Dharamsala, Cochin—to collect material for his Penguin anthology New Writing in India, and you begin to wonder what happened to the “twenty-minute walk” he had set out on two pages back.

What happened was this:

The rain came down in torrents and wouldn’t stop. Strong winds ripped down the streets and within minutes the ribs of my umbrella snapped. I found myself walking through knee-deep water which rushed dementedly towards some godforsaken drain or open manhole ...

It was then that my guide arrived, like an amanuensis to take a blind man home. He said he knew of a place where I could eat. I guessed he was about fourteen years old. He guided me through what had become an underworld of water, flooded streets, driving rain, and tunnels of darkness where the street lights had failed.

Jussawalla reaches home in the end, safe and wet, but not before a Cerberus-like dog who seems straight out Dante’s watery Hell had snarled at him and he had had one last encounter, this one with “a small boy who wanted nothing less than ten rupees” and to whom Jussawalla could give only five. “The rest of the notes in my wallet were soaked through.”

What gives the essay its shape is what the next moment brings to the mind of the essayist, and since you don’t know what that is going to be you keep reading for the pleasure of the surprise that awaits you, at the same time that you constantly marvel at the improvised architectural wonder being raised on the page. Only when the essay is finished do you notice what it was built with: rain, pao bhaji, a bar, Holi, Jaipur, a dog, a boy, wet currency notes. From Montaigne on, digression and improvisation have lain at the heart of the essay.

Famously, the Russian poet Mandelstam asked in ‘Talking about Dante’: “The question occurs to me—and quite seriously—how many sandals did Alighieri wear out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy?” It’s a question you could put to Jussawalla, not that he did not also do some of the same goat paths as Dante: “I open a notebook to put something down and a packet of Doctor Ciccarelli’s corn pads, bought in Florence, falls out. My feet are on fire!” At that point in the essay, ‘On Fire,’ he’s in La Bourboule, France, “on a bridge above the Dordogne.’’ “My toes are contused, red from walking, I must get them amputated.” In the next sentence, though, he’s back in Italy: “It’s a hard climb up Vesuvius. Its open mouth is toothless ...” We all know that open mouth of course. It’s of the Jehangir Art Gallery, which was described in Kala Ghoda Poems as “still sleeping with its mouth/ open, as usual.”

Not far from the Jehangir Art Gallery is the Asiatic Library. One day in the new century, in January 2004, “four grey-haired men” came out of the neo-classical building of the library and started to go down “its Eisensteinian steps.” The time was 3.15 pm. A little before that, they had been sitting “on spacious sofas,” “sofas which are situated behind and above Sir Jagannath Sunkersett’s statue,” discussing, “among other things, the Sumerian script.” “At 3.18 the four men can be seen dodging traffic in a street which is being dug up for the city’s new gas lines.” They’re headed to a restaurant for coffee and potato chips. Two of the men are not identified, but two are. One of them is Jussawalla himself. The other, the one leading them across the street, “the afternoon sun lighting up” his “intensely white” hair, is “the poet Arun Kolatkar.” Captured here is a moment in the history of urban wandering that is also a moment in literary history. Kolatkar died that same year, in September. The moment can be found in the book’s title essay.

Maps for a Mortal Moon: Essays and Entertainments

Adil Jussawalla

Edited and Introduced by Jerry Pinto

Aleph Book Company, 360 pages, Rs 395