Shikast and other Epiphanies

Nearly 50 years of Adil Jussawalla’s prose in one excellent compilation

Published:April 12, 2014 2:19 am
Jussawalla at his home in Mumbai. (Photo: Pradip Das) Jussawalla at his home in Mumbai. (Photo: Pradip Das)

Maps for a Mortal Moon: Essays and Entertainments by Adil Jussawalla
Edited and introduced by Jerry Pinto
Publisher: Aleph
Rs 495

By:  Cyrus Mistry

At 17, Adil Jussawalla went to London to study architecture. It was a means of getting away from family, and the life in Bombay which had begun to feel stifling. A year later, much to the alarm of his father, Dr J.M. Jussawalla, he dropped out of architecture school to write a play. One of Dr Jussawalla’s patients was able to arrange a meeting with E.M. Forster. He was hoping the elder writer would be able to talk some sense into his wayward son.

“I don’t see why you should have been asked to intervene,” Jussawalla said to Forster when they met, bristling with suppressed indignation. Forster agreed, recalls Jussawalla. “But he was very kind. He offered to read my play.”

The name of the play was Jian, and it was completed in 1958. I mention this fragment of history (recorded by Jerry Pinto in his brilliantly perceptive introduction to this selection of Jussawalla’s prose), merely to remind readers that he, Jussawalla, has been around and writing far longer than most of us can remember.

In 1958, I was only two. When I joined St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, in 1972, 14 years later, it was a refreshing change from school. But far more stimulating than anything else this gust of sudden freedom offered was my encounter with a young lecturer called Adil Jussawalla, who had joined the college’s teaching staff just a year before I enrolled. After the misadventure with architecture, I later learnt, he had joined University College, Oxford, to read English. For 10 years or so after graduating, he continued to live and work in London; then made the significantly unusual decision of returning to India, to live in Mumbai.

During my three years at Xavier’s, Jussawalla taught us literary criticism, Chaucer, the metaphysical and romantic poets, among other things. As a teacher, he was so phenomenally good that no student worth his salt would be willing to miss a single lecture he gave. This observation may not be entirely irrelevant to the book under review. As a teacher he was inspiring for perhaps reasons very similar to those which make this selection of prose completely exceptional.

Whatever prescribed text or topic was the subject of a Jussawalla lecture, he was always thoroughly prepared for it, with so much research under his belt that he was able to conjure up for us the most extraordinary, sometimes unlikely, yet always illuminating, connections with other books, other literary and extra-literary motifs, indeed references to the entire social and political fabric of the city, the times we lived in. The range of his personal interests in politics and the world, visual arts, literature, world cinema and especially the lives of common people around him, braced by extraordinary powers of recall, gave him a reserve of so much erudition that he could pull out the most startling cross-references from his magician’s hat, producing an entirely transformed perspective.

Pinto, in his introduction, says: “He seems to be the poet of the synapse, the prose stylist at the fissure…The film you saw illuminates the book you read. The moment in the park twenty years ago can be used to talk about the decline of a city. We do this all the time, all of us, but few so effectively as Jussawalla…It seems as if Jussawalla was not the missing person of his most famous poem; he was the alien observer whose gaze was always disconcerting the object.”

Far from disconcerting, Jussawalla’s gaze was always friendly and approachable. Between lectures, or during lunch breaks, unlike other teachers who directly proceeded to the staff lounge, Jussawalla was frequently seen at the canteen, sipping a Gold Spot, engaged in conversation with students. He encouraged discussion, loved to share knowledge, and unhesitatingly lent out books from his personal library. When students applied to foreign universities to pursue post-graduate studies, it was always Jussawalla — more than other professors in the English department — they approached for referrals.  Invariably he obliged, with most positive ones.

The 80-odd essays in this volume, most of them quite brief, are marked by great disparity, if one considers subject matter, year of composition (there’s nearly 50 years of writing here), treatment, or stylistic variety. Yet every reader who succumbs to their bewitchment cannot but sense an immense and astonishing unity in this seemingly inexhaustible cornucopia of a book — in expressiveness, sheer range of lived experience drawn upon, vast reservoirs of social, historical and personal remembrance, conceptual sweep and, above all, randomly mobilised yet meticulously knit insight into the human condition. Whether it’s other writers, novelists or book fairs, flying model aeroplanes in childhood, watching a sandstorm from a ship waiting to dock at Aden, a terrorist attack on a Jewish restaurant in France, or witch-hunting in rural Maharashtra, the detail Jussawalla brings to his descriptions is always vivid, though terse; the undercurrent of implicit reflection always expansive and profoundly poetic.

There is a searing honesty here, especially when Jussawalla is writing about himself. No matter how serious his subject, it’s never unrelieved by laconic humour, and a powerful sense of irony. Inevitably, every reviewer of Maps for a Mortal Moon will focus — as I too have — on the delights of the poet Jussawalla’s exquisite prose. Yet closer reading reveals pain and anguish, too: the unavoidable disappointments and despair of living in India, and in a city like Mumbai at that.  Does one sense regret about the youthful optimism that must have weighed in at the time of opting to live in India? Not a bit. Jussawalla’s integrity would never brook such shilly-shallying.

In the two-part essay ‘Shikast’, (an Urdu term, I believe, for “broken script”, though therein lie other resonances, too: defeat, banishment, castigation) Jussawalla describes a near-mystical experience he had when he was 18, lying on his back in a park in London.

“I knew such joy as I’ve never known since….Everything, but everything made  sense.” But the moment passes, and never again, crave as he might that state of grace, little else remains but loss and despair. Yet before the essay reaches its culmination, there’s another moment of epiphany, and the writer concedes, “I must continue to love even if I only see darkness.” These masterly essays, undoubtedly, are a gist of that love made manifest.

Playwright and author, Mistry is the winner of the DSC Prize for 2014

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