The poet as a quintessential Bombaywallah

The reflections of poet Adil Jussawalla, who turns 78 on April 8, show that a city can be a destination of both heart & hurt

Collage by Giridhar Khasnis


An important and influential poet of post-Independent India, Adil Jussawalla is a Bombaywalla by birth. In several of his essays and poems, he has revealed the many contours of his intense relationship with the burgeoning metropolis. Over the past decades, he has been seduced by the city’s bright spots as well as its beleaguered underbelly.

The keenly-read poet confesses that Bombay “is a place that continues to upset and excite me tremendously, in a way which London can't”; and that “it’s a place I can never leave nor love properly, or belong to.” He also sees people in the cities as a people of juxtapositions; and that “Bombay is a divided city and he himself, a divided man.”

Literary critic Laetitia Zecchini says of Jussawalla: “It is impossible to write about Jussawalla’s place in the field of Indian poetry, without also discussing his defining intellectual presence and his role as a living memory of Bombay.”

Violent Times

Born in Bombay on April 8 1940, Jussawalla has something in common with the author of Midnight’s Children. “Like Salman Rushdie, I was delivered to Bombay by Dr Shirodkar. I can’t say I’ve appreciated that fact… Unknown to Dr. Shirodkar, he had not only delivered me to Bombay but to a momentous bit of its history… I was delivered to a violent time.” The city he was born to was literally littered with shattering glass, the smoke of giant blasts, and screeching sounds. “When people point out the violence of some of my images, perhaps it’s because they spring from a violent time.”

Among Jussawalla’s many evocative poems is A Letter for Bombay. “In the poem I speak of wandering like a medieval apothecary abroad and in a ‘pouch wriggling against my ribs, carry a quintessence of you [Bombay], not wholly without potency’. The pouch wriggling against my ribs is my cockeyed way of referring to my heart… Bombay, for me, is or has become a destination of the heart. I must stay here with my hurt.”

One particular scene remains etched in Jussawalla’s memory from his childhood days in the pre-Independence era: A tram seen burning in Princess Street with huge flames erupting around the driver. “He (the tram driver) was dressed in khaki, a Muslim with a white beard and his hands flapped over the flames in futile attempts to put the fire out…It burned in the middle of the street like a sacred fire but there was nothing sacred about it.”

The scene provokes Jussawalla to believe that humanism is both a fire and a fight. “An old man standing in the middle of a fire without being consumed by it is not my favourite image of humanism, but for the moment, for me, it’ll do.”

Trapped by family

Bombay brings to memory his parents of whom Jussawalla speaks lovingly yet lucidly. A restless, imaginative person, his mother Mehera (who had spent some time in Santiniketan as a student of painting) was kind and considerate to everyone around her. “She said her prayers but believed in action, in helping people in practical ways … And she worried more about the well-being of others than her own.”

Mehera helped her husband, Jehangir, to set up an independent practice in Bombay even while she felt wronged by him and his mother. Jussawalla also recalls that mother “expected more love from me than I could give.” He writes: “Her last two years, when she was generally confined to her bed, were hard … She needed us to talk about cheerful subjects but I wasn’t good at that…She set me free in many ways, primarily by allowing to be myself, even when I behaved in ways that hurt her badly. I loved her but, like father, couldn’t show it… Mother longed to make peace with those who had wounded her…Those mother helped and who helped her in turn sometimes return to haunt me.”

Jehangir seemed to have no time for anything except to tend his patients through nature-therapy. A confidant of Mahatma Gandhi, he even taught physiotherapy to a group of blind students. “It was an activity very close to his heart.” Jehangir had several ups and downs in his life which affected his relationship with family members including his wife.

Time to go

In the 1950s, by when India had tasted early days of freedom, Jussawalla found Bombay changing – not necessarily for the better. Morarji Desai had become the chief minister of the Bombay state in 1952. “He launched programmes of fearful and numbing austerity, and the import of ‘foreign culture’ in the form of comics and even books was banned. From a violent and occasionally happy city, Bombay became a dull city, for me the dullest in the world. I disliked school (not the school’s fault perhaps) though I liked many of its teachers; Bombay’s institutes of higher learning looked like dumps and were spoken about as if they really were. There was little to do in the evenings, nothing to read. I felt trapped by my family. I had to go.”

Jussawalla left for London in 1957. Besides feeling trapped by the family, he had other reasons to flee. “The truth is … I had been a horrible prig in Bombay. What was perhaps more horrible to me at that time was that I was aware of it and could find no way out – except to try and get away to England, to get away, metaphorically speaking, to its fields of sunlit barley.”

In London he initially studied to be an architect. Giving up architecture sooner than later, he began writing plays, reading English at Oxford, and later teaching English in a language school.

It was in London that he ‘became a man’. Just past eighteen, he had landed a role in Christopher Fry’s romantic comedy, The Lady’s Not for Burning. There was a scene in the play in which he was to work with a young co-actor. “She was the first woman I swept off her feet. Louis, the director, showed me how to do it. It was like taking lessons from an expert swimming coach. One minute you’re drowning, the next afloat…When I lifted her up before that first night audience and she felt as light as air, I felt I had become a man.”

After living abroad for 13 long years, Jussawalla returned to Bombay. He has lived in the city ever since.

Urban Poet

Jussawalla’s first collection of poems, Land’s End, came out when he was just 22; a highly-referred anthology, New Writing in India, followed in 1974. Missing Person, a second book of poems, was published in 1976.

Decades later, Trying to Say Goodbye (2011); The Right Kind of Dog (2013); and Maps for a Mortal Moon (2014), a volume of prose selected and edited by Jerry Pinto, hit the stands. I Dreamt A Horse Fell from the Sky (which included a collection of poems, fiction, and nonfiction spanning his entire career) came out in 2015.

Jussawalla has been called ‘Poet of urban space’; ‘Poet of broken rhythms of life’; and ‘Poet who portrayed modern hollow men, hollow and shallow from within’. Not an ‘easy’ poet to grasp, his work has nevertheless received widespread appreciation and admiration for originality and verbal dexterity.

Critics have pointed out how many of his poems carry a conspicuous note of lyricism and humanism expressed through sharp images; and how they effectively grasp the post-modernist technique of extreme fragmentation, along with collage, montage and such cinematographic techniques as well as a diction borrowed from pop culture.

Standing on the sills

Today, in the final years of his seventh decade, one can imagine the Bombay poet standing on the sills, listening to the whistling rhythm of sea waves; ‘a new moon rising in rain / a shore buttressed with shanties’.

From the 18th floor of a high-rise building in South Bombay, the man with brooding eyes and flowing mane can see clear blue skies threatening to turn grey; and feel ‘the winds having nothing to rattle, so they howl’ (Shorelines).

In the past, he has imagined the entire sky turning into ‘one slowly approaching hood, projecting hundreds of snake-mouths’. On occasion, he has observed that ‘there are hands which are skies.’ Last night, he was the sole witness to the nth version a horse falling from the sky – in his dreams.

One can also visualize a woman – there is always a woman – standing in a doorway reminding him that ‘we are all castaways here’ before taking him in (Shorelines).

But Bombay will be Bombay. Where the land seems to, but does not end; where missing persons reappear mysteriously; where one could hold silent conversations with invisible people; where ‘gamblers could be as common as cockroaches’; and where the flakes of shit are not really shit, ‘but the very eyes of God’.

It is here in this never sleeping city that Jussawalla can command:


Enter a sea which lacks detail like glass,
take your emptied mind there – to the deep.
(The Deep)


He can also (perhaps with a tinge of humour, irony and playfulness) see:


Our words may seem to you to skip over surfaces,
like the day’s last dragonfly before it is absorbed by shadow.
(Old Men on a Bench)


It is here, in spite of everything that has gone by and goes by, one finds time and courage to take a second look:


…We turn,
Grazing the hills and catch a glimpse of sea.
…all
Arguments are endless now and I
Feel the guts tighten and all my senses shake….
And this is home,
Watched by a boy as still as a shut door,
Holding a mass of breadcrumbs like a stone.
(Approaching Santa Cruz Airport, Bombay)

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