The right kind of book
Adil Jussawalla's new book of poetry for young adults, The Right Kind Of Dog, holds nothing back. There is the angst of adolescence and grim acceptance of growing up. Jussawalla tells Kareena N Gianani about how his own childhood shaped the poems
I turn the cover of Adil Jussawalla’s The Right Kind Of Dog rather timidly. Surely, poetry written for young adults by a poet as fine as Jussawalla would dive into teenage angst (I presume) and subject it to philosophical twists and turns. Now, that is all good, except for one problem. I was a rather dreamy teenager and experienced little or no tumult; that “well-adjusted” kid who didn’t see why her peers were seething. I turn the pages, doubtful that my head will nod as knowledgably as it should. And while I am at it, I also wish I had read more poetry.
It is the author’s letter that puts me at ease. There are no ‘shoulds’ in these poems, it implies. Jussawalla maintains that his poetry, like all other before and after him, can never be understood fully because it cannot be reduced to a single meaning. I take it to mean that I could take my time to linger and savour until I build meanings of my own.
I see stark, evocative illustrations by Ahlawat Gunjan and read about powerlessness. And a one-armed man. Greed, war, famine. Even an eight-year-old’s murderous thoughts, wishing that her Great Indian Family were nearly extinct like the Great Indian Bustard. Jussawalla’s poems are about a baffling variety of emotions, told from the points of view of children, young adults and adults. There’s one about a boy who does not know how to be good, and another about things that stayfrozen in time -- rummy, canasta and their long-dead players.
Some poems in The Right Kind Of Dog are wistful, but Jussawalla can be equally wry (during an interview, the poet admits that he thoroughly enjoys writing satire). Read the poem, Our Poets And Their Inspirations, to know.
Excerpts from the interview:
Why did you decide to write poetry for young adults (YA)? What feelings did you hope to run into while writing the poems?
That’s the tag the publishers gave The Right Kind of Dog (smiles). I did not have the segment in mind when I wrote these poems. I do not speak in a child’s voice in the book. There is no consistent YA voice there either. I wanted to try capture that seething inner turmoil only children know, the tumult and oppression they feel. Young adults may find something missing in this collection, perhaps sex. But they will identify with the darker tones in the poems. Children know what it is when you struggle to say things, or when voices are shut out. The Thoughts Of an Eight-Year-Old Girl is actually the inner muttering of a girl when she is asked to eat something she does not want to. They are her murderous thoughts.
Did you adopt a separate process because you were writing for a younger audience?
I allowed myself to be more childish than I normally think I am. I cultivated a sense of wonder, pathos and naïveté which comes when you shirk all adult-like thoughts. I thought, to hell with sophistication and complexities of reason. While writing these poems, if my response to something was childlike, I let it stay. I have tried to bring the innocence and experience some of William Blake’s works have. I think I have managed to do that in Three Ships.
Does The Right Kind Of Dog draw inspiration from your earlier life, too? What was childhood and adolescence like?
Yes, I did go back to my younger days while writing the book. I remember never being very happy in institutions of learning. I think it was more about me than them, because I do not disregard the dedication my teachers put in their work. The ethos of a school, to put it mildly, is not pro-individual creation.
I also remember the constant impulse to break out, fully aware that I wasn’t fit to be a rebel. I was always regarded as the quiet one, the “very good student”. In his autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour, British photojournalist Don McCullin writes that he felt ‘cast out, unchosen and the wrong breed of dog. I felt exactly that way when I was left out of football team in school. I did not know how to fill the lunch break, and took to drawing panels of stick figures. The solace of being able to outpour came at the age of 14, when I began keeping a diary. (Here, Jussawalla opens a file full of illustrations he drew from the age of 10. There’s a fiery Batman and Robin, The Fox and The Crow and Blackhawk toting a gun. Charming).
When did you start writing poems, and what were they like?
I was introduced to modern poetry only in class 12, and it was a rather hurried exercise. I remember reading Murder In A Cathedral and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. The first serious poem I tried writing was an imitation of TS Elliot. I have always loved walking around the city, especially in Mumbai and in London. At DN Road, I remember coming across a man who was selling toy boats in a basin. I wrote a poem likening those toy boats to us people, making a lot of noise and going around in circles. But I didn’t really take to poetry just then. I became more interested in poets when I was studying architecture. I liked the school more than the subject itself, and the repression made me write more than anything. My first published poem, Seventeen, gave me that release I needed.
What do want to achieve in your future works of poetry?
I would like to achieve a transparency there, because baroque poetry does not impress me at all. When I read Seventeen now, I find it gossamery and ephemeral. It was so long ago. I hope what I write now has more depth. But what we like to do and what actually happens can be so different. I’ve often told myself that I want to write about family history, but that hasn’t happened yet. I want to write more about issues of power within and outside the family, those which are political and social in nature. But I let divisions happen. I like surprises.
You haven’t left any feeling out of The Right Kind Of Dog. It is dark, fun and has the powerlessness and rebellion of teenage. How do you think young adults would take to your work?
Oh, I take great pleasure in imagining what the reactions will be like. I think there will be disgust, grim acceptance and genuine wonderment. If it makes a young adult feel differently about something for a while, the book will have served its purpose. Even after all these years, I try my best to begin afresh on a new page. Like all writing, poetry is an effort of rewrites. I don’t think there’s anything like experimental poetry -- it is a misnomer. I have not held back -- there is greed, famine and war in the book, and I don’t think the words are half as horrific as the images children and young adults have access to on television anyway. You cannot be politically correct all the time, not with children.
The Right Kind Of Dog
Adil Jussawalla Rs200 Published by Duckbill Books
I christen this sea ‘Ship’, its passengers garlands and ashes.
I christen this sky ‘Night’, its black sail stretched to the limit.
I christen this morning ‘Morning’,ship without outline, glorious.
The Way I
Walked Abroad I cut my nails but winter took my toes Their shoes repaired, my feet ran like wounds, ran on, but waited for me further up the road.
The Good-For-Nothing How do I learn to be good who am good for nothing, thinks the boy, rejected over and over for reasons he can’t understand.
He presses his face against glass to make it look uglier.
How do I learn to be tall who am only a dull story, never to be repeated, he wonder. Every day I grow stronger and stronger,
every day I get better and better, He tells himself over and over, as his father told him to.