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On the Music of ‘A Missing Person’: Adil Jussawalla and the Craft of Despair



Poet and singer Anand Thakore explores questions of form and chaos, meaning and its collapse, in the poetry of Adil Jussawalla. For a full appreciation of this article – a narrative of Thakore’s emotional, historical and political relationship with the work – the reader is asked to refer to the poems in their entirety.

At twenty-one, as a student of Eng. Lit. in Pune, I made my first acquaintance with Adil’s poetry through Arvind Mehrotra’s anthology of Indian poets writing in English. In addition to the title poem of Land’s End, Arvind’s anthology contains selected extracts from the ‘Missing Person’ sequence. I can understand Arvind’s need to accommodate a portion of the poem within obvious limitations of space. ‘Missing Person’ is certainly an essential part of Adil’s oeuvre and demands representation, even when – because of its sheer length – it is possible to represent it only in part. It remains, however - fragmentary as it may seem at a first reading – a poem that needs to be read in full from beginning to end, for it is only by means of such a reading that its underlying unity can be felt, its deeper impact experienced. The fact that the poem was not easily available as a whole to the reading public – and continues to be unavailable – is symptomatic of the chaos to which the poem itself constantly points. For the chaos that overtakes the central consciousness of the poem (that is, the ‘mind’ of the missing person) is also the chaos in which our literary culture – to the extent that we have one, as Indian poets writing in English – continues to find itself almost helplessly immersed.

When I first read Arvind’s selection of Adil’s verse I was struck by the sharp contrast between ‘Land’s End’ and the selected extracts from ‘Missing Person’. The two poems seemed to emerge from completely disparate realms, and I think I would have found it hard – had the name of the author not been mentioned – to view them as the products of a single consciousness evolving in time. ‘Land’s End’ came across to me as an exploration of a traditional system of form and meaning; as an attempt, however desperate, to accommodate inner chaos within the time-honoured mould of metre, rhyme and Christian symbolism. ‘Missing Person’, on the other hand, seemed to have emerged from the complete failure of traditional systems to function meaningfully and from the absence of any new order that could take their place, and into which the poet could move with a renewed sense of self-assurance. Looking at Adil’s oeuvre today, the ‘Missing Person’ sequence still stands out against the rest of his earlier and later work, in terms of the strategies it employs and the poetics it assumes. It is this contrast that I would like to bring out.

I begin with ‘Lands End’, which is the title poem of Adil’s first book of verse, written while he was in England and on the European continent, but published here in India in 1962.

Here in the cramped, pig’s-footed county at last
Where seas grip, the airs kick and squall,
Atlantic breakers boom, the sea-gulls fall
Downwind to sheets of spray, the fast
Seas race, roil, slump and shower
Across the thrusted coastland; where brine-wings beat
The rooted perch of weeds and brine-wings bite
Raw rock or nerve exposed to their brute power,
Land’s End or Faith’s – what must I call
This faulted coast Atlantic breakers pound?
Wave after wave explodes, hour by hour
To undermine my numbed and bulwarked ground.

From ‘Land’s End’

I remember, as a student in Poona University, instantly being drawn to the lyricism of this poem. I found its powerful musicality reassuring, as I did the poet’s comfort with stanzaic pattern, his exquisite control over the devices of metre and rhyme. I was relieved – surrounded as I was by students who were trying so hard to ‘decolonise’ themselves – to find a poet who wasn’t ashamed of his fascination with Christian symbolism. I was struck not by the individuality of the voice I heard but the magnificent rhythmic and tonal command that it displayed. The lines came across to me as feats of breath control and I was impressed by the delicate use of enjambment that often teased the ear at the end of a line. It is true that the voice Adil finds here is similar to that of Robert Lowell’s in ‘The Quaker’s Graveyard at Nantucket’, as is the rich sea-imagery and the use of Biblical reference, but I don’t think it would be quite correct to call it an imitation. There is certainly an emulation of particular qualities in Lowell’s style, but these are adjusted to suit the poet’s individual needs. One important difference, I feel, is that the poet of ‘The Quaker’s Graveyard’ speaks of God in the third person throughout his poem, whereas the poet of ‘Land’s End’ addresses him directly. Compare, for instance, Lowell’s lines:

I see the Quakers drown and hear their cry:
‘If God himself had not been on our side,
If God himself had not been on our side,
When the Atlantic rose against us, why,
Then it had swallowed us up quick.

with Adil’s more direct apostrophe:

Lord, your netted round of deep lifts
Its sweet fish to our lips; yet fishers haul
Against its tented pull.

The cry unto God that Lowell hears is uttered by a group of dying Quakers whom he imagines, whereas the cry Adil hears is quite his own; and yet – regardless of certain subtle differences of approach – the tonal and visual resemblances between the two poems remain clear.

‘Land’s End’ – though it deals explicitly with the wavering of faith – became for me, personally, a sign of faith in a traditional poetic; an assurance that the attempt to contain individualism within the framework of an ancient set of formal assumptions remained valid in the twentieth century. As a Hindustani musician, attempting to strike a balance between the peculiar demands of my own sensibility and those of raag and taal, I found this heartening. The use of Christian symbolism, however – though I could relate to it at once and felt reassured by a poet who didn’t need to deny his colonial moorings in order to feel closer to his roots – continued to raise disturbing questions concerning my own attitude towards my Christian schooling, both in Birmingham and here in Bombay.

When I first read Bruce King’s pronouncements on ‘Land’s End’, I reacted strongly against them, thinking it absurd that Indian poets should be evaluated not on the basis of their merit as craftspersons, but on the basis of how successfully they had ‘decolonised’ themselves. “The Christian vision of ‘Land’s End’,” King says, “is an example of the continuing effects of colonialism.” He then strikes a comparison with the Anglican poems of T.S. Eliot. “The Eliotics,” he says, “express an Anglo-Catholic religious phase Jussawalla was going through at the time, which was part of his crisis.” Over the years I have made my peace with Bruce. I can see that I had read – through my own over-excitement – an evaluative tone into statements that are essentially descriptive and objective ones. King is not being dismissive of Adil’s early work. He is merely trying to describe it in terms of a broader historical context.

Urban and pre-urban images (I feel uncomfortable with the adjective ‘natural’) often share the same canvas in Adil’s poems, and there is a subtle blending in his work of landscape and cityscape. The following poem, in which his use of compound words is clearly reminiscent of Hopkins, exemplifies this.

These are the days of shifting weather
When pods of blown, ignited clouds
Float and dwindle like burning cotton
Over the streetland’s roofhilled red.
Parallel buildings crowd together,
The lonely grip a bridge of crowds,
Drifts of winter half-forgotten,
Fused to the railing like scraps of lead.

From ‘A Letter in April’

The movement from Land’s End to the ‘Missing Person’ sequence, published thirteen years later, involves a complete shift in the poet’s approach to the craft of verse. At a first reading this contrast is immediately apparent from the form of the poem, which is unlike anything Adil had ever attempted before. The poem spreads itself across twenty-two pages divided into two sections, each section being further subdivided into parts with rare sequential links between them. Whereas the earlier poems came across as composite self-contained structures, ‘Missing Person’ appeared, at least initially, as a group of fragments loosely strung together. The underlying forces that unify these fragments only became apparent to me slowly after several readings. The poem seems to become here, for Adil, an open space for ‘free’ improvisation on a very broad theme, rather than a self-contained construct based on older principles of composition.

I think the choice of such a formal stance, on the part of an artist, has a great deal to do with the way he handles chaos at a particular time, the extent to which he wishes to allow chaos into the body of his poem and the extent to which he needs to shut it out. But I must admit here, though I used the word ‘choice’, in the last sentence – and find myself using it in such contexts on a daily basis – that I am not the least bit certain at a deeper level that an artist has a choice in such matters. Be that as it may, ‘Missing Person’ involves me in questions of choice between various strategies of handling chaos in art.

In ‘Missing Person’, we no longer hear the first-person voice that characterises so many of the poems in Land’s End. We have a ‘he’ instead of an ‘I’, a fictional character, fragments of whose life emerge in the course of a fractured narrative. Though this character is adequately individualised, he may also be seen as the prototype of the bourgeois intellectual in postcolonial India. I am sure there are readers who prefer to see this ‘he’ as a direct substitute for the ‘I’ encountered in Adil’s first-person poems. But I prefer not to do this. I prefer to see the missing person as a being of the poet’s creation, whose situation the poem describes; to position the poet, in my own reading, as a third-person narrator. My own desire to do this becomes problematic because there are times when the narrative voice and that of the missing person seem suddenly to coincide, as at the end of Section I. The steady flow of the third-person narrative is repeatedly broken by sudden voices that seem at first to emerge from out of the dark. I like to think of these voices as occurrences in the mind of the missing person. They are often the voices of other people as he internalises and remembers them; voices that articulate his perception of other people’s perception of him; or the collective voice of society, as it were, commenting upon him, usually pejoratively.

The mind of the missing person is thus a troubled space inhabited by a multiplicity of voices, none of which quite sound – to him – like his own. I see the whole poem is as an exploration of a deep identity crisis, in which the missing person is constantly aware not only of his absence in the eyes of society, but in his own perception of himself. The search for identity results in constant rebellion against authority, which goes bizarrely hand in hand with a desire to be contained within established systems. These include Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Marxism and the English language itself, none of which seem to provide the ‘parted psyche’ of the protagonist with what it is looking for. What, one may well ask, is this mind, that seeks shelter everywhere and finds it nowhere, looking for? I like to think that it is essentially a mind searching for meaning; although it seeks this amidst the rubble of a fallen culture that has neither completely passed away nor given way to an alternate scheme; a mind rummaging through the leftovers of colonialism for the slightest semblance of a new order, which, time and again, it simply doesn’t find.

The fragmentary form of the poem and its use of multiple voices thus reflect the fragmentation of the mind of its protagonist. In terms of the strategies the poem employs to capture this sense of fragmentation, ‘Missing Person’ is distantly reminiscent of ‘The Wasteland’. But there are important differences between the two poems. ‘Missing Person’ – for all its brokenness – continues to deliver to me a more unified experience than ‘The Wasteland’ does. I think this unity is achieved by the presence throughout the poem, of a single character, that is, the Missing Person. Regardless of whether one chooses to identify him with the narrator of the poem, he remains – despite the forces of disintegration of which his psyche is constantly a victim – a particular person whose mind the poem concerns itself with. The forces of post-colonial chaos that overtake this mind and the way this mind relates to the society it inhabits are the central theme of the poem.

Though it came across to me initially – twelve years ago now – as a poem lacking a distinct theme, successive readings over the years reveal more fidelity on the part of the poet to a sense of theme. ‘The Wasteland’ remains for me, fascinating as it is in its variety of verbal textures, a poem that seems less thematically defined. I think of the critic – was it F.R. Leavis? – who interpreted ‘The Wasteland’ as a series of images occurring in a central consciousness, in the mind of Tiresias, the prophetic seer. ‘The Wasteland’ doesn’t quite work for me in that fashion, although I can understand the need on the part of the critic to impose a unity of perception upon a poem that denies such unity so emphatically. Adil’s poem does not threaten the reader’s need for unity of perspective quite as severely as ‘The Wasteland’ does. It delineates more specifically the area in which seemingly random improvisation is to take place: although it may take many readings to perceive those boundaries with any clarity. Another – and perhaps more important – distinction is that ‘The Wasteland’ remains, however far one attempts to stretch it interpretationally, a primarily Eurocentric construct; whereas ‘Missing Person’ is clearly set in the context of the postcolonial third world.

The ‘Missing Person’ sequence is followed, in Adil’s second book, by a return to a more lyrical and composite view of the poem, to the search for structural cohesiveness and wholeness of conception based on older formal values. There is a growing emphasis on unity of tone and theme, a search for a more even rhythm and a steadier development of thought and feeling. The voice that emerges from this search seems a far more mature and individualised than the one we hear in Land’s End, where a similar stance was often attempted. It is a voice that continues to talk of political and cultural chaos, but which seeks to accommodate this chaos within a more wholesome structure and begins to look to the past for signs of meaning that might redeem the present.

The last poem in Adil’s second book is one of the few poems in the book that makes no direct political statement – except perhaps in a single line. We find the poet briefly at home in the immediate, focusing his eyes upon the motions of a swing. The search for a steady monosyllabic rhythm is central to the poem, as is the sense of oscillation. I think it achieves a brief moment of equilibrium, a state in which the sense of exile and that of belonging cease to be in binary opposition with one another. It is a way of seeing things that I have come, personally, to treasure over the years, although it is by no means an easy perspective to sustain. It brings me back to the notion that the only home a poet can find upon this planet is the poem he is currently working upon; a notion I find at once disturbing and deeply rewarding.

Children                      swing
kites                              dip
waves                          trail
trains of                     foam
            here’s there
            exile’s home
        the sun flickers

pops.    Late evening
    comes the lame
    guard to shut
the gates    lock
the lank chains.

‘To the Tune of a Swing in a Municipal Park’

Excerpts from a presentation on August 8, 2003 for ‘The Poetic Present’ series initiated by ‘Chauraha’ interactive arts forum at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai.

© Anand Thakore  
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