He has been called a lot of things: The missing person of his most celebrated poem. An absentee poet. Poet of the synapse. Prose stylist at the fissure. Adil Jussawalla, the rare one who does not pride himself on his uniqueness as a multilingual cross-cultured man. Someone who does not use language as a weapon, as a shield, language as a cliché. A man of several dimensions, whose selected prose is stylishly edited and presented by a persevering Jerry Pinto.
That Jussawalla has done enormous writing should surprise those who have agonised over the long pauses between his published work. Jussawalla is certainly not the one whose pan-Indian readership would run into several thousand, but poetry has seldom been a lucrative or remunerative pastime.
The fascinating, but halting journey, began 52 two years ago with Land’s End, when Adil was a precocious 22. One had to wait another 14 years for Missing Person to come. That was a piece of work suitably dark and alienated, as if to coincide with the year 1976, the high noon of the Emergency. Followed yet another interminable pause of poetic silence, which, when it was broken in 2012 with Trying to Say Goodbye, became an event with his loyal bunch of readers. Last year, Jussawalla must have surprised himself when two of his books came out — The Right Kind of Dog and Other Poems and this excellent volume marks a happy continuity.
At his best, Jussawalla turns out to be simply brilliant. He does not aspire to appear like a literary giant. His genius, instead lies in short, succinct prose that is informed by a profound empathy that comes to the point tellingly and abruptly. He was at Oxford in the racist summer of 1963 when dark immigrants “came to the notice of the local population in an unconsciously communal act” on the fringe of Oxford’s Jericho.
Landlords were hesitant in hosting Indian and Pakistani immigrants even when they may have advertised vacant rooms. The unlucky ones, and most of them indeed belonged to that category, were curtly told that the vacant room had “just been taken” or some such regular excuses. Jussawalla had “opportunities to leave Jericho’s ugly fringe”, but he stayed back because it was cheap and it afforded him a peek into immigrant life. He writes that his “racial indeterminacy” helped, for it was possible to overhear and sometimes participate in anti-darkie talk at the bus stop, the supermarket and the local, about a tenth of whose customers were Pakistanis. Neither Oxford’s people, nor the immigrants, were too concerned about each other, making it a point that their antipathy was not only mutual but led to maximum confusion, distress and worse.
This was the time when ship stewards, some of them very young, used to refuse a request for a glass of water with the remark, “You are only an Indian.” Even solidarity with each other did not vacate the impotent fury that gripped the victims of such racial abuse.
The case for and against the dark immigrants has been beautifully nuanced and internalised by a perceptive Adil, when much unadulterated rubbish was said about “them”, a fact that was compounded by the victims in most cases not getting around to forming a community, a club, “nor unlike a previous generation, were we united by any great hope for the motherland”. The situation was made further unreal by what was being taught… death of an Anglo-Saxon hero on a tenth century battlefield made to appear more vivid than the slaughter of ill-equipped soldiers in Bomdila!
Lamentations about how the victimised were being ill-served by the superiors, their own governments and Oxford were shared over pints of bitter. To many Indian students, the immigrant was “a squalid reminder of conditions they have done little to alleviate in their homeland, a despoiler of the Indian image abroad and an embarrassment”. There was a failure to realise that the social pressures that the immigrant was subjected to almost negated the benefits of the experience, which, however, were invaluable. The subtext was informed by suspicion of the worst sort: “The Indian student is as likely as the next ‘darkie’ to have committed that mysterious theft in the supermarket. He is a suspect to the law and will be stopped in the streets after midnight.”
Jussawalla writes about how some Pakistanis “have acquired a sexual notoriety reserved for blacks”. He recalls how recourse to a neutral accent helped in getting called for interviews, having himself resorted to the trick three times and succeeding each time! He says that the mask of politeness that the employers wore was so bad that a slap on the face was a preferable option!
Desperate attempts to keep oneself from sliding into “the lunatic fringe of prejudice” are needed if the depression is not to become one of an endemic variety attributable to larger factors other than personal ones. Particular areas of anti-Indian feeling were in effect only hardened by the fact that whereas once Indian students were expected to submit with awe to British institutions and personalities, they were now expected to react to the “new indifference” of people here with the same “bitter inarticulacy” as their less literate countrymen: “The irony of the Oxford Indian’s denial of the immigrant and his final graduation into second-class citizenship of a country whose democratic institutions those of his own are supposed to be modelled on, could not be more complete.”
Attempts to cyberise ourselves so as to evolve various digital strategies by which one can hope to exorcise an old civilisation and culture are happening, for the liberated cyberman to be so announced into existence. There are brilliant fundamentalists, the tightrope artists et al, who are trying to strike a balance — a dreary word, so that they can test the limits of individual ingenuity. “The kangaroo court in my head has passed a sentence, which says ‘Death to all tyrants’.” ‘Bring on the clowns’ is what one writes instead. According to Jussawalla, Sisyphus is one of ancient civilisation’s great clowns!
The wonderful anthology abounds with precious gems… but they have to be painstakingly searched for. There are rich passages on how dependent we are on praise from abroad, for so long and so often for acquiring an international award having acquired an entirely new meaning. “Not for the person who gets the award — the cake is getting bigger, richer and someone has to get a piece of it — but for the new elite, the buyers of international goods… (who read and live in) magazines encouraging an international lifestyle and forms of consumerism that goes with international status. You don’t have to read between the lines. The message to the reader is loud and clear. If your status is to be judged by your Toyota, your Sony VCR and the designer clothes children wear, the status of our intelligentsia is to be judged by the number of Nobels, Bookers, Magsaysays and so on that they may win.” Riveting stuff.
Adil Jussawalla is too sensitive to ignore the acquisitive individualistic hedonism of our time… no wonder the media, television, cinema and literary culture reflects “some of the worst features of our society”. As he sees it, “It’s a society characterised by mindless chauvinism, obscurantism and critical chaos.” The chief casualty? He goes by the description of being an Indian language writer. Thanks Adil and Pinto for an enthralling read!