An Indian Poet, Dancer and Novelist…This International Women’s Day, we bring to you Tishani Doshi, the author of ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ tells us about her interests and life…and they are indeed as interestingly as her name sounds…
AG: You’re best known as a poet. How did the transition to writing novels come about?
TD: I’m not sure when I got hold of this notion that I should write a novel. Poetry, for me, remains the central and primary instinct, but I guess there’s a curiosity to try different forms –short stories, plays, screenwriting – it’s to do with language and words, after all. I do think that the transition from poetry to prose is more natural than the other way around. Many of the writers I admire began with poetry – there’s a quality in their writing where the image is very strong, and of course, rhythm. For me the big problem with the novel is the issue of time. How do you compress a lifetime into 300 pages. How do you fast-forward and rewind, how long to linger over one moment, how to manipulate memory. It’s not just about making wonderful sentences, it’s about stringing them together, and this kind of sustained effort and continuity – it really requires a special vision. In poetry, it’s all about distillations, so you can come up close, real close. For the novel you need to stand back a bit.
AG: Like Anjali Joseph, another rising Indian literary star, you’re a product of a creative writing course. It’s impressive that these courses are turning out world class writers like this when perhaps the traditional view is that good writing comes out of being ‘in the world’, rather than from academia. What are you thoughts on this, and how did you enjoy your course?
TD: Rising star sounds rather ominous. I have a chapter in my book called “What goes up must come down…” Anyway, about the whole creative writing course debate – I don’t know. When I was 20 I decided I wanted to be a poet. I’d been studying Economics and Accounting, which I was competent at, but didn’t find very inspiring, so I applied to Johns Hopkins, which offered a really zippy two semester MA course. I didn’t do much fiction there, mainly poetry. The big thing I learned at grad school was not to write any poems about grandmothers and to READ READ READ. It was nice to be around people who had made a similar commitment to writing, and I think when you have to share your work with a group you develop a better ear and eye. But you could easily do this with a reading group of your own. The real experience I had at Hopkins was teaching an undergrad course as part of my assistantship. It was terrifying and marginally gratifying, but it did make me realize that I didn’t want to be involved in academia. I wanted to be out in the “real world,” so off I went to London to get a 9-5 job, only to quickly realize that the “real world” wasn’t for me either. Now I’m a self-employed poet from Madras, who dances occasionally, and this suits me best I think.
AG: You’re also a successful dancer. Can you speak about what dance as an art form provides you with that writing doesn’t and vice-versa?
TD: It’s tough to say. Dance and writing are deeply entwined for me. I guess what doesn’t happen with writing is that when you’re done, there’s rarely an audience of a few hundred people standing up and cheering you on. Those exalted moments for a writer are usually experienced in solitude. The daily rigour and discipline is of the same intensity except you can’t cheat with dance. If you’re having an off day, the body is very quick to display it, but with writing, you can nurse a hangover, surf the internet and pretend that you’re “working.” Then, there’s the anxiety. Dance gives me a lot of anxiety. Before a performance I have nightmares that I’m going to get jelly-legs or topple over while I’m doing a headstand. With writing it’s just eternal self-doubt. I think the whole inward-outward, body-mind contrast and combination works for me. If I didn’t have both, I’d be very highly-strung.
AG: The Pleasure Seekers seems to bear some obvious parallels to your own story. As in the novel, you discovered a cache of love letters between your parents, a Guajarati father and a Welsh mother. In what ways is Bean not you?
TD: Young Bean is someone I identify with very deeply. The running away, ghosts, conflict with religion, all of it is drawn from my childhood. The grownup Bean is a bit of a whirlwind, though. Bean is an amalgamation of so many of my female friends who are fearless and feisty in ways that I guess I desire to be, but am not. She’s the kind of woman who would stake her lifesavings on a game of roulette, who cannot eat if she’s heartbroken, who stays up all night drinking scotch with strangers, and adopts stray animals even though she doesn’t know how long she’ll stay. I’m far too pragmatic for any of this, and I’ve always been a bit of a granny when it comes to routines and rituals, favouring balance over extreme. I do try to live in the moment, but a part of me is always thinking about how I’m going to live tomorrow. And no matter how devastating the love affair, nothing ever gets between me, food and sleep.
AG: I’d love to ask you a bit about Chennai. The big cities Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta have somehow eclipsed Chennai in the recent literary imagination. Can you talk about your hometown, (if that’s how you see it) and how it serves as a backdrop to your life and work?
TD: I have an interesting equation with Madras, sorry, Chennai just doesn’t roll off the tongue as well. Madras is home, and I think it’s a great place to be as long as I can always see the “exit” signs clearly marked. I think this is less a reflection of the city than my own restless nature. But when I’m here, (and I’ve lived here most of my life barring a few years in the US and in London), I feel I can get on with my work in a very focused way, I’m not easily distracted, and I feel the city doesn’t impose its pace on you in the way other Indian metros do. Madras amazingly still has the capacity for slowness, you can retreat and get on with whatever it is you do. And then there’s the sea. We have a marvellous coastline, which allows for an easy coming and going kind of feel that is so important because if I don’t leave it every so often, I feel like I’m being strangled. It’s really a classic love-hate relationship. I’m pretty resigned to having one foot in, the other foot out. Also, the people here know their coffee. I really respect that.
AG: Another thing which sets you apart, is your love for cricket? Is this a rare thing for Indian women, and can you tell us why you love it?
TD: Well, to be honest, I used to love cricket. That love has hugely diminished. In fact, I haven’t watched any cricket in over a year. The reason why I love cricket, any kind of sport really, is because I love watching the bodies of sportspeople. It’s a beautiful choreography in a way. The circularities and inflections in arms, legs, strides, the fluidity, the grace and apparent effortlessness of it. It’s the human body stretched to the most fantastic limits, and I’m interested in those possibilities. The problem with cricket, especially in India, is that it’s become so vulgar with all the corporatization. I’m not interested in how much money cricketers make from endorsements and which film actress they’re currently dating; cricket in India has become this merging of glamour and entertainment, and besides, it brings out the most barbaric nationalistic tendencies. It makes the cricketers much less heroic to me, and it’s not their fault really, it’s completely to do with the media and what the majority of Indians want to read about it. So cricket has become news. And it’s sad, but it’s getting harder and harder to appreciate the beauty of the game through the gauze of pompoms and commercials.
AG: In an interview, you said ‘When I write I feel I’m a part of the world.’ – Could you tell us a little more about this?
TD: Well, I’m not sure what the exact context was. I suppose what I mean is that writing is my way of engaging with the world. It’s not a direct engagement because you spend a lot of time in solitude reflecting on what’s out there – violence, politics, beauty, terror, love, death, relationships, all the rest of it. And you intersperse the writing with actual living that needs to be done. But I find when I’m in the world, living, as it were, I’m only sort of observing, and it’s only when I’m alone with the page, in the actual process of writing, that I discover what I understand about something. It’s a revelatory process, which makes me tolerate the world. If I didn’t write, I’m not sure how I would make those connections.
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