Ayushman Jamwal is a shy man. In a room full of people looking at him and wanting him to speak, the journalist-poet is ill at ease. He reads his own writing readily but is diffident about it; he faces questions head-on but with a certain oblique look in his eyes that tells you he’d rather be somewhere else.
So when I sat down with him for a chat at Oxford Bookstore in Kolkata, I expected someone subdued, hesitant almost: someone who would find it difficult to fill the gaps between each question. The poet-speaker I met instead was one of the funniest, most evocative people I have come across.
In a freewheeling conversation that ranged from writing in the age of social media to the adrenaline of a newsroom, the senior output editor of CNN-IBN spoke to me about the process of creating Chameleon Lights, the book of poetry that took a decade to be born. Excerpts:
Q. I noticed a lot of movement in your life: from home to your stint at Doon School to studying at Cardiff University and then back to India. Has that impacted your poetry?
School was the root. It was the beginning. Cardiff gave me a lot of time to process a lot of things and to actually write about them. The problem was that I was happy, which meant that there was no despair to push me as a writer! Mostly, at the end of the day, I was worried about joining the rat race. I remember that I would write my resume and send it in, and then I would get no reply. You start worrying about it and doubting yourself. Then one day I was in a cafe and I was listening to this girl sing. And I think that suddenly broke something in me. Why was I so worried about things that were not in my control? That’s when I started writing again.
Q. How has your training as a journalist affected your writing?
The newsroom has a completely different emotion altogether, and I love it. I’m a journalist first and then a writer. But with journalism, you also tend to become numb to a lot of things. There is an erosion of empathy. If there is a bomb-blast or a terrorist attack of some sort, my immediate thought is, how many died? And then I just have to stop and think, oh my god, what am I doing? People are dead! So a lot of the things that used to move me to write in school don’t anymore.
Q. Your grandfather, Kunwar Viyogi, was a famed Dogri poet. How has he influenced you in your writing?
My grandfather has influenced me as an adult more than he did as a child. When he passed away, the Jammu media commemorated him as a great poet. I did not realise the impact of his poetry until then. I did not know he had that much swag! I knew my grandfather to be Randhir Singh, but he became the Sahitya Akademi award-winning Kunwar Viyogi overnight. I was intrigued and so I started looking. I saw so much of my struggle in his words: hurt and ecstasy were both there. I think I’m getting to know him more through his book than I did when he was with us.
Q. Are you a poet who reads other poets?
Would you count musicians as poets?
Then yes, I do! I love Hozier, he is one of my favourite lyricists. ‘No Masters or Kings/ When the Ritual begins / There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin’: I have goosebumps! And the way his sings that, with that pain in his voice, it just elevates the words. I just write about it, he breathes life into it. In school, Metallica were my gods! I felt as if they knew what I was going through. Like, ‘Unforgiven’, the song: ‘New blood joins this earth,/ And quickly he’s subdued./ Through constant pained disgrace/ The young boy learns their rules/ With time the child draws in/ This whipping boy done wrong/ Deprived of all his thoughts/ The young man struggles on.’ That hit me so hard.
Q. What emerges from both our discussion about your poetry, and these lyrics, is that a certain kind of masculinity affected you very negatively. Would you agree?
Of course. It did. As a young boy at boarding school, you are subjected to a lot of cruelty which traumatizes you. The idea was, suck it up! If you were hurt, you couldn’t tell your teachers: you had to be a ‘man’. That really upset me. There was a lot of toxicity there. My younger brother went to the same school, but that culture was gone by the time he got there. He had a great time, a pleasure which I wasn’t fortunate enough to have.
Q. If you hadn’t been through this experience, what else would you have written about?
I think I wouldn’t have written at all if I hadn’t been through this. In retrospect, this was key to my experience. I can’t imagine my journey as being other than what it has been.
Q. If you had to speak up against bullying, what would you say?
I would tell the kids that it’s a school, not a Spartan training camp! You’re going out to become wholesome individuals and not to fight a war. Secondly, I would speak to the teachers. There are some teachers that do terrible things to the students. They are guilty of reinforcing this culture, and that generation of teachers is still there. I would call those teachers out, tell them, ‘You are doing no service to these children. I am what I am today despite you, not because of you.’ There are many people who, once they’ve been in boarding school and gone through the bullying, become bullies themselves. That cycle needs to stop.
Ayushman’s poetry is gentle.
It encompasses an enormous range of emotions, from a desire to rebel in ‘Prayer to the God of Rebellion’, to a love letter to his first muse, to a ditty of affection for his dog. It is like the warmth of hot tea on a rainy day.
His book, ‘Chameleon Lights’, is out now. You can find it here: http://amzn.to/2lYFWSD
More from the launch of Chameleon Lights, that Kolkata Bloggers partnered and covered, coming up soon! Watch this space.