New Delhi: There was a definite moment in her life when she knew that she had to write poetry. And the place of verse in the larger scheme of things has forever intrigued her.While she works on a new book of poems titled ‘A God at the Door’ that responds to news headlines, author and poet, Tishani Doshi, whose recent work of fiction ‘Small Days and Nights’ was shortlisted for the prestigious RSL Ondaatje award and the Tata Best Fiction Prize, says, “The new book will have lyric poems about old themes- the body, hope, love, the idea of pilgrimage and arriving at yourself.”
For someone who writes both poetry and prose, and usually has two projects going on simultaneously, this process is a conversation between two forms and about many similar themes. “While one rests and breathes, I am with the other one. So it’s kind of adulterous, but I think of them as companion books, and readers will find echoes or riffs of song begun in one book and picked up in the other,” says the poet and author whose first poetry collection, ‘Countries of the Body’ won the 2006 Forward Poetry Prize.
Doshi, who lives a very quiet life in the Paramankenu village (Tamil Nadu) close to the sea, away from the glare of book launches and author get-togethers, not to mention minimal Internet and no newspapers, adds, “I do teach one semester a year at NYU Abu Dhabi, which is a very different landscape. As for the solitude, you can retreat from the world wherever you are, if you choose to. In these days of lockdown, all of us are becoming familiar with this peculiar kind of isolation. There’s a line from Small Days and Nights that captures it for me: ‘There are evenings here when you can’t believe you’re of this world. Everything is silent except for the sea’s measured hush…You think of the city far away- its harsh lights, its sodden ambitions. You feel excluded from everything that is alive.’ Sometimes I have an occasion to plug myself into a city’s pulsating centre, it is overwhelming and energising and ultimately depleting, but the place I like best sits at some distance from the city, where you can still feel its tremors. It’s a place I want to return to soon.’ ”
Ask if someone like her, who has several titles to her name — can survive on only on fiction and poetry, and she asserts, “No, but I don’t produce a book a year, and I don’t want to. I have been working as a freelance journalist since my mid 20s and I teach, so there are other ways to funnel the fund. But in a sense, they all stem from writing, so I do live off my words,” says this Master’s Degree holder in Creative Writing from John Hopkins University who has always believed that verse should not be fossilised and it is important to introduce youngsters to the work being done in contemporary times.
Doshi, who conducts interviews with major authors, both Indian and international for different periodicals says that when one writer talks to another, there are fewer traps. “At least, when I’m interviewing a writer, I’m not interested in catching them out on anything. I really just want to hear them talk about why they do what they do. The mystery of writing, where it all comes from, how it works for them – I have endless fascination for this stuff. So yeah, Deborah Levy wears pearls to write in a shed because she wants to look smart when she writes and not put the words to sleep, or Hector Abad giving up poetry for prose as a teenager because his friend committed suicide, or Rachel Kushner falling in love with the films of Antonioni when she was 18, or Rohini Mohan talking about what happens to individual and collective memory during a time of war-how when photos and drawings and houses and roads are gone and you have only the survivor’s memory to count on. You listen, and what does it mean to hear all these near-apocryphal stories that a community remembers as one? All this gives me a way to enter their work and I am as interested in these ladders to the work as the work itself.”
The author, also a dancer who worked with Chandralekha for 15 years, performed ‘Girls are Coming Out of the Woods’ on the music composed by Luca Nardon recently. Stressing that the sudden and unannounced end of her career with the Chandralekha group left her devastated and heartbroken, she adds, “It felt like the end of something which I didn’t want to end. So, to make my own performance and choreography was a kind of continuation, I suppose. Chandra always said that she passed on everything to her dancers, that they internalised her anger, her indignation, her joy, so I don’t know. I guess I figured I was ready, and Luca has been a dear friend and collaborator for a while, and with poetry you begin with the people who are close.”
And how close is Grace, the character in ‘Small Days and Nights’ who also lives by the sea in a small village, to her creator? “I am endlessly interested in biography, and have always written taking from the mud of life I stand in, but it’s not as simple as asking which bits are true and which bits are not. Fiction is a much more complex enterprise, because when you’re writing fiction, reality is the myth.”