In Part 2 of the interview with Jonathan Gil Harris, Professor of English at Ashoka University, we further catch up with Prof.
The Right Kind of Dog: On Poet Adil Jussawalla’s Forthcoming Collection
This is a continuation of Nabina Das' previous post on a forthcoming work by the Indian poet Adil Jussawalla.
Poetry International Web’s biography of Jussawalla states: “He writes a complex poetry – ironic, fragmented, non-linear, formally strenuous – that evokes and indicts a dehumanised, spiritually sterile landscape, ravaged by contradiction, suspended in a perpetual state of catastrophe.” The last poem in Jussawalla’s forthcoming collection embodies these ideas:
“A Song of Ekalavya”
Ekalavya must cut off his thumb
the boar step aside for the lion
for the other’s Arjun
the royal Arjun
for the sake of his family
there must be humility
for the sake of our welfare
Ekalavya must cut off his thumb
Ekalavya has cut off his thumb
now you can hear him
cry in the jungle
the deer stand startled
who fled at his step
our kitchens are empty
fasting or starving’s
the same to us
It’s Ekalavya who’s cut off his thumb
Drawn from mythology, the popular story of the young boy Ekalavya is no longer fiction for us here. The refrain “Ekalavya has/must cut off his thumb” highlights the “dehumanized.” This is no pretension to epic discourse but simply “a song”—a song that is plaintive, tragic and contemporarily relevant in light of modern India’s underprivileged – women, Dalits, Tribals, and other minorities.
In my conversation with Mr. Jussawalla we discussed the significance of the word “dog” in the collection’s title. The young personas in this collection are the “fringe people” quoted in the epigraph:
“The title of the book refers to the autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin who writes that as a boy he felt ‘cast out, unchosen, rather as though I were the wrong breed of dog’…Later, he became a professional photographer. We look at his photographs now, of soldiers, of landscapes, of the people of India, and think he was the right kind of dog.”
From reading his earlier poems we know that in face of a market economy-driven bourgeoisie culture, a dog-eat-dog one, Mr. Jussawalla’s poetry offers a kind of resistance straight from the streets. One might also interpret the usage of “dog” as so-called ghetto language in today’s context, one that confronts the main street and the mainstream. So, in a way, McCullin’s cast out, un-chosen, wrong breed of dog is restored back in Mr. Jussawalla’s poems as the right kind. The words “cast out” reflect lines in several poems where a boy is in casts or with shoes that somehow help him walk; the allusions to physical discomfort results in exploring frontiers of imaginations:
New pairs, but pointing to old journeys,
take the floor. They don’t know
what’s brought them to this shady joint,
the deformed bone or the doctor I want to avoid.
As a writer I cannot help but notice the use of the tense, death-wished imagery in the lines from the section “On my Own Feet” in this poem:
The road does nothing,
its blood poisoned, your car
a nasty growth.
I’ve managed a few more inches this week
with a crutch I made of paper,
and a straw.
What is this paper crutch? Only a book, a sheaf of papers, or a manuscript could be tied together with elastic bands or staples. The “crutch” is a support for the real life this child will face soon:
"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.
Mr. Jussawalla’s poetry has been discussed in postcolonial contexts, but it is to be seen if this young readers’ collection incorporates any of his political penchants, given that the poet has been a highly political individual in his younger years. PIW states: “The poetry is born instead of a decision to look the present unflinchingly in the face, in all its disfigured and fractured reality. There is no attempt to escape ‘the various ways of dying that are home,’ no resort to a visionary romanticism, nor a nostalgic recreation of a more innocent history.”
Taking that into account, if one asks, what is “real” and “fictional” in Mr. Jussawalla’s poetry, the lines below from “A Boy in the Forties: Remembering Andrew Thompson,” set the tone at the outset of the book. The young classmate knows how to face the world in the 1940s: Wars, divisions, departures and shifts are to be taken with a pinch of salt and big dollop of humor:
And when Jesus comes to his side,
he’ll tweak him with Marx Brothers’ jokes,
delight him with Zorro’s curses.
In one hand a cutlass,
the other high on a rope,
he spits at the King’s ships,
and as a captain tunes his telescope
kisses a slave-girl on the lips.
Dawn comes up like the credits:
so-and-so killed or missing.
The poem is full of terse irony and uncomfortable images like “leaving treadmarks, blood and sludge.”
If the 40s –when India was in the throes of changes unforeseen – are a recurring, but subtly stated theme in his work, Mr. Jussawalla’s European child voice is explicit in her anxiety in the piece “Two from British India”:
Stop that noise, Jack.
Nehru’s on his rounds.
He’ll take you away
if you stay awake.
Don’t make a sound.
[This certainly is how the reality is reported by the little girl Sally in the first part of this poem. This is balanced by the Indian child’s pleading in the second half]:
Stop hugging and kissing me.
Why is father always away?
He can’t be at war.
He always has one with you.
India, Nehru, independence – what would this have meant to a white girl who was born and brought up in the country that stops being hers at the stroke of an hour? Or what is “home” to a “native” child for whom the object of fear is the chaos in the streets and his Indian school masters? “Home” is a concept that the poet explores within a child’s perspective.
Allusions to physical pain, decay and filth play out in a slow cadence. Whether this is an “evocation of chaos” as some critics choose to label or not, does not seem to be the poet’s main concern. He tends to agree that the so-called chaos, disintegration, stark despondency, etc. converge to form a complex layer.
Critics concur that Mr. Jussawalla’s is not an immediately accessible poetry, nor does it aspire to be. When asked in an interview by Peter Nazareth in 1978 about the peril of being incomprehensible, the poet responded: “Well, I think the situation of the poet in India is such that being misunderstood is part of his function.”
This context can again be connected back to the title. I’ll end with a poem that showcases the unique imageries Mr. Jussawalla’s métier spins.
Perhaps my mother died mad.
The nine o’clock siren reminds me of something like that,
so I howl and the sobs come naturally.
They don’t allow it.
I do not love them.
I merely fear another loss if I escaped,
another dog destroyed.