Adil Jussawalla on poetry, mortality, and his recent prolific output after years of absence

Adil Jussawalla is one of the most recognisable voices in Indian Poetry in English — and as a former journalist, editor and translator, he has worn many hats. Through the independent small press Clearing House, Jussawalla helped publish some of the most landmark poetry collections in the country. After his second collection, in 1976, he conspicuously remained absent from the publishing scene for almost four decades. In the last five years, though, he has written and published, (among others) the Sahitya Akademi-winning I Dreamt A Horse Fell from the Sky (2015, Hachette). In this interview with Firstpost, he talks about his absence, the process to his poetry, mortality and Bombay/Mumbai, which is subject of his latest poem-length book, Gulestan (Paperwall Publishing).

Article by Manik Sharma |

Why did Gulestan take almost six to seven years for you to write? Is that what your process of writing is usually like?

Yes, that is the way I go about writing. Not necessarily sitting with one poem for five or six years, but if I find something unsatisfying even about a final draft, something missing. Sometimes you find better, brighter things to say later on. In my writing in particular, that is often the case. After a point, (if) I get the feeling the feeling that a poem can be let go, and then I do.

You mean our own reading of poetry changes with time..

Yes. But I don’t know of many poets who’d be satisfied of their thought and expression as a final product. But then you have to let go of a poem at some point, with a degree of control over it.


Does that — your method — also explain your absence from publishing between Missing Person (1976) to Trying to Say Goodbye (2012) or is there more to the story of those four decades? You have been quite prolific in the last few years. What changed your mind?

Partly, yes. I tried to explain in Trying to Say Goodbye. But I had really gotten into the bad habit of accumulating unfinished drafts. A number of these had piled up. The late surge in publishing is probably explained there. But there was also the case of missing incentive, in terms of magazines or publishers. That would have helped. It wasn’t just my dissatisfaction with the poems I was writing.

At a later stage in life there is a sense of ending, of mortality. It probably began to happen once I turned 60. I mean, there are so many poets with similar stories. Had Clearing House not stuck together or published a collection like Jejuri, Arun Kolatkar would have remained undiscovered. So there is a role for incentive.

In Gulestan, you often project your ideas of mortality, perhaps even of disillusionment with age — a trope that regularly appears in your late works. Stepping aside from the writing, how has that affected you personally? When does a sort of fear set in?

Well it is sort of living to the day. Make the most of it. I mean that is what everyone I know who is well above 70 like me, poet or not, probably feels. In my cases it has only sped things up a little, I guess. In an attempt to get my writing out, maybe even looking back… I’m working on two more manuscripts, where I’m trying to go into deep time, into History, even personal history. You know because it is perhaps the time to talk about it, since so much of it is being destroyed worldwide.

With me, I think a kind of anathema, would be to not be able to do it any faster. I do keep anguishing about the possibility of none of these things being completed in time. But it only brings negativity. I have to avoid it.

Since you mentioned History in a political context here, and since you have worked as a journalist for so many years, do you ever feel compelled to return to the format, to have a bit of your say? Or do you want to keep away?

I won’t say keep away. It does cause me anguish and I want to speak out, but not in the format of articles or pieces anymore. People tell me you should write a memo, because I care so much about personal history, but I can’t do it when someone tells me ‘this’ is the subject. I know poems will be read by fewer people, but for some reason I find prose harder to write. Poems is what I want to concentrate on, speak whatever I have, through them.

You happen to have quite an active Facebook presence. You even interact with a lot of the younger generation through social media. What is it that you go out, if you like, looking for, and what is that you often find? Do you see it helping Poetry?

Mixed feelings, I must be honest. So many people have asked me the question. I’ll tell you I arrived on Facebook because when a recent book was coming out, they said they’d publicise it a bit, so it would be good if I were there. That was a first for me. I must admit, I got hooked very quickly and I do spend more time on it than I should. I am trying to ration it now. There are things I do like about it. But I don’t see what good can an argument or discussion being settled on social media help any of this. The group Indian Poetry is doing some good things, so I follow it at times. But I intend to cut back on all of it.

Coming back to Gulestan again, you started writing the poem right after the Mumbai attacks. You have mentioned in a previous interview that you are a city poet. Has that changed? And what does Bombay or Mumbai mean to you?

I think it was in an unfortunate India Today interview. I regret it. Well, maybe not exactly regret, but it did present a very one-sided view of me. Many of the poems in my first book were responses to nature. Nature as in something desirable, something that we are at conflict with as well. That has certainly always been a preoccupation. In Gulestan you can probably read how nature is telling me more than the city, the concrete of the city. I see an opposition there. Because it is nature that really heals.

You see what has happened in Gulestan, is that I have used more objects and symbols that I’ve used in most poems. Writing about the streets and the city, is something that has been part of my journalism, many feel, but not my poems. I don’t think that is entirely true, though I may be wrong.

As for Bombay/Mumbai… see, the thing is, I was born privileged. I do not deny that. But I do see Bombay, coming to an end in a symbolic way. Historically I relate it to the great cities of the past that no longer exist — Babylon for example. I do, it is sad to say this, see Bombay as not existing, even though through its noise and pollution it does. I cannot contemplate its future. For me, the great city, Bombay does not exist, even though it does.