Adil Jussawalla (b. 1940) and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra (b. 1947), to invoke the usual trope of Indian public life, “need no introduction”. They are widely acknowledged, even canonised, as being among the key founders of a new mid-20th century Indian modernist poetry in English, and find a prominent place in anthologies and syllabi. Yet, we find ourselves asking, are they being read?
This is a different and more awkward question. Encomiums have been plenty, serious critical studies sparse. And despite knowing nods the younger Indian English poets are mostly quiet, seem more in thrall to whoever is hot in the US, or less often the UK, as if purposely to avoid the—admittedly—delicate and difficult question of local poetic parentage. This is unfortunate, not for the sake of fake nostalgia, but because both poets have produced in the past decade—are producing right now—the very finest work of their careers, poems that are bracingly of our time even if the liveliness of their pages is now driven by the urgency of diminishing time.
Part of the problem, however, may be the wide unavailability of this recent work in India—the publication trail is splintered and scattered, requires work to discover. For instance, the editorial blurb on the back of Mehrotra’s Book of Rahim & Other Poems (2023) describes the collection as Mehrotra’s “first… in twenty-five years”—in a reference to his The Transfiguring Places (1998). This is misleading. The Indian edition of Mehrotra’s Collected Poems came out from Penguin in 2014 and, although it is shockingly no longer available as a paperback, contains some sixty pages of new poems.
In Mehrotra’s Selected Poems and Translations for New York Review Books’ Poets series (2020), shaped by Vidyan Ravinthiran’s dazzling curation, the earlier collections take up only the first third; ninety pages comprise poems written after 1999, and include an entirely new sixty page book/sequence, Daughters of Jacob Bridge, not published elsewhere before or since. So there is a lot of work here that has fallen through the cracks. In the case of Jussawalla, two of his important recent works have been chapbooks—a limited, fugitive and fleetingly available form, usually only sought out by dedicated readers or friends—and so have gone largely unnoticed. Mehrotra, too, has recently favoured the chapbook/pamphlet form as if in silent defence of indie publishing.
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The new work by Jussawalla and Mehrotra does produce distinct political echoes for our time, although this aspect is subtle and may not even be entirely deliberate. In the current authoritarian destructive frenzy, monoculturing and narrowing of the Indian imagination, more and more kinds of cultural expression—even basic conceptions drawn from history—fall beyond the pale. One also finds the moving fact of the poet still trying to see things anew, build from first principles, and, especially, trying to eke out what is directly in front of them, the few hundred square feet one learns to live within, while simultaneously moving with ease and urgency through multiple epochs and ages, worlds both real and imagined, googleable and, as Mehrotra notes in the poem “Lahore”—“ungoogleable”.
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra: Hidden Labyrinths
Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s early work was exciting and formative for me because it seemed to break from the stifling social realism of much Anglophone Indian poetry and, in its best moments, showed an agile mind and the strangeness of what language can bring together, as even in the very early poem, “Ballad of the Black Feringhee”: “India give me a peanut and I’ll shut my window/India my hands are tied and my footprints trapped like wild pigeons”. When The Transfiguring Places appeared in 1998 after a 14-year break and announced its restrained tone and more domestic, grounded and modestly constructed poems, it was a shift that took me some getting used to. In the light of the newer post-2000 poems, however, one suddenly sees a far greater continuity across the poetic career, as a kind of mobius paper where surface becomes underneath and vice versa.
In the late work, the taste for dream image still lurks under the empirically grounded surface, like a po-faced Borgesian dream—indeed Mehrotra has a poem titled “Borges”, the last line of which reads: “Library, perfect me in your work”. Elizabeth Bishop, too, might be an obvious ancestor, where at first poems seem to merely be reporting reality but multiple readings quickly reveal trap doors and spiral staircases between the lines. From the pivotal early “Company Period”—which credits the art historian Stuart Cary Welch—one could have seen the turn inward into the delights and terrors of reading, and of research, handled with an increasingly flat tone.
In the most recent Book of Rahim & Other Poems, an extended Sebaldian image-text prose piece, “11 Temple Road” seems to be pursuing a zero degree of fact in the history and fate of the former residence of Mehrotra’s mother’s family in Lahore. The piece plays out as a series of connections—sometimes missed connections—between the living and the dead, among Mehrotra, the books of his uncle, Ved Mehta, the San Francisco-based writer Moazzam Sheikh, the Pakistani poet and economist Anjum Altaf and others. While it is also a chronicle of things—one page simply reproduces a stained brown telegram in loving colour—and “a piece of land [that] remains where it’s always been”, it is also a place evoked in the gestures of people trying to find it, and we are led to question what we’ve read by the surreal preparatory poem that precedes it, “Lahore”: “landlocked city that erupts from the sea/and disappears in the sky.”
Mehrotra has of course had a long and impish engagement with translation; two personal favourites of mine are his versions of the farmer-poet Ghagh in “Bhojpuri Descant”, and the marvellous early poem “Kabir’s Last Entry” (Distance in Statute Miles, 1982), a playful Ashberian improvisation that also extends the classic Kabir’s ulat-bamsi (“upside down”) mode. Book of Rahim & Other Poems opens by working through the life and poems of Abdul Rahim, a head of the Mughal armies with a distinguished military career who was also a great book lover and maker, a translator of the Baburnama from Chagtai to Persian, and a poet who moved between Sanskrit and Persian and was later canonised in the standard Hindi syllabi. Rahim fascinates our age because he crossed boundaries many today believe are/were uncrossable. Mehrotra draws on entries in Abu Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari in the Blochmann translation, probably John Seyller’s Workshop and Patron in Mughal India, Rahim’s own poems, and childhood memories of school to fashion both versions and new poems that are intimate and delicate.
A little further into the collection, the sequence “Ghalib: a Diary” draws on Khwaja Ahmad Faruqi’s 1971 translation from the Persian of Ghalib’s Dastanbūy, an extraordinary notebook of witness to the brutality of the British’s suppression of Old Delhi in the wake of the 1857 rebellion. Faruqi’s translation is also obviously an inspiration for Ranjit Hoskote’s poem “Ghalib in the Winter of the Great Revolt” and Mehrotra’s own earlier poem, “Mirza Ghalib in Old Age”. Each of these three works responds to the contradictions of the source in a different but equally interesting way. Faruqi, in his introduction, alerts us to the fascinating tensions in Ghalib’s text between intense, almost unbearable urgency and despair and a high, elaborate and oblique style; also between what Ghalib can and cannot say.
A further tension, nodded to in Mehrotra’s invocation of Basil Bunting’s “Chomei at Tomaya”, is in the text’s potential moveability between prose and/or lyric, carrying both textures. Mehrotra’s version which takes tentative further steps into Ghalib’s intimate lyric self, frequently borrows its language from Faruqi’s translation, and it is worth reading both alongside to understand the slyness and gentle shift of what’s happening: Mehrotra is both cutting back from and adding to his source. Writing is both persuasion and a kind of survival; as Faruqi tells us, Ghalib’s praise of the British was not quite real, but his grief certainly was. From this excursion into the immediacy of the past, Book of Rahim & Other Poems closes with the strangeness of the present, in the charming poems of the section, “Laugh Club of Gandhi Park”. Mehrotra’s later poems are, as they say, “built to last”, but can sometimes feel overpolished and graven in stone; this last section suggests a direction that is more formally supple, provisional, and wonderfully alive.
Adil Jussawalla: Painful Sympathy
Adil Jussawalla’s early poetry, too, did seem to undergo intense transformations from book to book. Missing Person (1976), a long sequence reproduced in full in Jeet Thayil’s anthologies for Penguin, does still seem to occupy its own zone, violently different from what came before or after. On the other hand, Land’s End (1962, reprinted by Copper Coin in 2020) feels more continuous with Trying to Say Goodbye (Almost Island, 2011), published forty-nine years later. Jussawalla’s new work continues this line while gradually adding both depth and economy. Although Jussawalla has not produced a separate stream of translations like many poets of his generation, one finds a repeated and fascinating engagement with non-Anglophone sources that is always startling and very personal, as in the long poem “Chakravyuha”, his vivid and visceral distillation of the Mahabharata.
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In Jussawalla’s poems the reader has first to adjust to a sharp and sometimes cutting, angular music where lyricism is deepened but also arrested by stops and turnarounds. Rhyme arrives fairly often, but unexpectedly, more a jab than a sense of release or easy satisfaction. “Turning Seventy” is an extraordinary little poem that draws on the Persian poet Sa’adi’s great collection Gulestan (“Rose Garden”), and seems to bring together all of Jussawalla’s unique features as a poet while moving towards transcendence: “Be a strange sight./From this day on,/your roses will stay fully open.”
However, when Jussawalla returns to Sa’adi again in the Poetrywala chapbook Gulestan (2017), the great beauty and tenderness of Sa’adi’s eternal garden is troubled by many kinds of mortality. The poem “sprang from many sources”, Jussawalla tells us in his introduction, just as “damage springs not from one source but from many”—including the 2008 Mumbai attack and a year of personal illness. As the garden of roses which in Sa’adi is a symbol of grace and compassion here burns and is consumed by flames, there is a sense both of the immediacy of violence and how we are implicated in it: “I am one with the razing of mosques and temples,/So has hatred and rage and sickness claimed me.” The garden is also a grave: “In this burnt garden/I recall/gardens of remembrance,/gardens of martyrs,/a garden of graves with no bodies in them.” In Jussawalla’s rose garden, instead of belief, “a baffling darkness falls”. Yet, the strange thing about this poem is that it seems to resurrect Sa’adi’s rose garden even as it witnesses it in flames; the poem’s strikingly beautiful lines seem to outlast the destructions they describe.
Jussawalla’s full-length collection Shorelines (2020) took in a real and imagined view of the Mumbai shoreline in a series of poems from a world perceived as if already underwater. There’s an ecological reading here, of course but it is suffused by a deep pessimistic melancholy over the inevitability of destruction, as in the poem, “Earthrise”: “Water the fish in her mansion of oil./Air the bird in her palace of sand.” The sea is debris but also the chill of what will not change. Even as these poems mourn what we do to our world, they exist in an eternity, like Sa’adi’s garden, albeit an eternity of pain.
In Jussawalla’s work, sympathy almost always extends to identification, whether with bird, beast or even the inanimate—a house or piece of blue tarpaulin. The writer, by extension, becomes the thing being discussed, not as cheap metaphor or allegory but almost to the point of being painful. In the chapbook Earth (2023), for instance, “the grey eminence” of an old water pump “dribbles/the last of its waters away—it seems without care”. Dedicated to Jussawalla’s late wife, Earth trains itself on small city gardens visited together by the couple. In these small squares of potential consolation, the two walk hand in hand, sometimes shaking, while the “words we forgot/are out to disturb; they see us/and show us their tongues.”
Plants may represent life, but they are also death, encoding the memory of violence: “Why imagine both of you and the garden’s earth/gone, to a pit underground?” The poems inch towards a simple, slyly artless and almost naïve style, echoing Jussawalla’s collections of verse written for the young. The astonishing, odd and affecting first poem is emblematic, and deserves to be quoted in full: “The garden’s earth yawns./It has a pink tongue. It has ears./There are days when the garden’s dog/is also the garden’s earth./There are days/when every living thing in the garden/breathes with its earth.”
Vivek Narayanan’s most recent book of poems is After (HarperCollins, 2022). He teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at George Mason University.