Yesterday, Adil Jussawalla’s collection of poems Trying to Say Goodbye (2012) was one of eight books of poetry conferred the Sahitya Akademi Award 2014. In our April 2014 issue, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra wrote about Jussawalla’s prose and how it was imbued with poetry. In this excerpt from that story, Mehrotra tells of his introduction to Jussawalla as a young poet in Bombay in 1966.
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. … 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 Piloo 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….