In the late 1990s the Welsh-Indian writer Tishani Doshi was on a postgraduate writing course at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. A literary scout came to visit and asked to meet her. “This was not long after The God of Small Things,” she recalls. “Everybody was looking for the next Arundhati Roy.” The scout was pretty direct. “He said: ‘You’re a poet. But you should be writing novels.’ I was actually quite offended. And dismayed that the publishing industry just wanted to re-order and replace. I had no plans then to write fiction. In fact, years later, when I wanted the larger canvas a novel can provide, I eventually did. But that instinctive loyalty to poetry never left me. I had discovered this thing and wanted to figure out how to do it. How to be a poet. I’m still attempting how to figure it out.”
Doshi’s loyalty was soon repaid. Her debut book, Countries of the Body, won the 2006 Forward prize for best first collection. Her first “proper” public poetry reading – as opposed to bookshop audiences swelled by “blood or friendship”, as she once put it – was at the Hay festival that year. She was on stage in front of 1,200 people, reading alongside Seamus Heaney and Margaret Atwood. “It was pretty stellar,” she laughs. “But that is the great thing about poetry. One minute you’re doing that and the next you’re reading to five people in a basement. And both events are always worthwhile.”
In the years since, Doshi has completed two more poetry collections, most recently the 2018 Ted Hughes prize-shortlisted Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods (Bloodaxe). Her third novel, Small Days and Nights (Bloomsbury), was published earlier this year. But while there have always been writers who produce both poetry and novels, what makes Doshi’s subsequent career unique is her additional deployment of another mode of creative expression: dance. She took up the discipline in her mid-20s, when most dancers are starting to think about retirement, and in the two decades since has explored a set of “overlapping concerns” through verse, prose and movement. Her first two poetry collections were dedicated to her Indian dance mentor, the influential choreographer and feminist thinker Chandralekha, who died in 2006.
“The idea of the body, usually the female body, has always been central to my work,” Doshi explains. “My precise preoccupations might change over time, but I’ve always been interested in how the body connects to the wider world, which is then linked to questions of belonging, and what is meant by concepts such as ‘home’ and ‘elsewhere’. In particular I have long been thinking about what it means to live as a woman in India. My most recent novel and poetry collection were written at the same time and share certain themes – although they are handled differently – in relation to women. Most obviously around safety and danger.”
The title poem of Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods conjures back to life Indian women who have been brutalised and murdered. Their ghosts, and their stories, refusing to be forgotten: “Girls are coming / out of the woods, clearing the ground / to scatter their stories. Even those girls / found naked in ditches and wells, / those forgotten in neglected attics, / and buried in riverbeds like sediments / from a different century”. After she completed the poem one of her friends, Monika Ghurde, was raped and murdered, the details then salaciously picked over in the media. Doshi dedicated the poem to her as another act of reclamation. She also asked the percussionist Luca Nardon to compose a score for the words to which she choreographed a dance. “It seemed to lend itself to using the body,” she says. “To begin I just stand there, my two feet spread apart. There is a rootedness to the earth as the women start to come up from the mud, from out of the forests in their states of mutilation. Poetry is so wonderfully elastic and open to collaboration. Here the physicality and the poem speak to each other to add another layer.”
Male violence is just one of the threats present in Small Days and Nights, in which three women, finding themselves living together in coastal rural India, also have to navigate economic and environmental hostilities. Doshi herself lives, with her husband the writer Carlo Pizzati, in an isolated house in a coastal Tamil Nadu village. The area has seen illegal land grabs and environmental destruction. “We’ve had a tsunami, cyclones, floods. There is erosion. It is a fragile place to live. Then there is your personal safety. I’m interested in what happens in the head about those fears, because even the imagined ones become very real.”
Doshi acknowledges that she occupies a privileged place in village life. “It’s the insider/outsider thing,” she observes. “For instance, I can go out alone at night, without my husband, in a way that is much more difficult for local women. But that doesn’t mean I am above it all or immune. The dangers don’t go away.”
Perhaps the most graphic illustration of Doshi’s “hybridity” as she calls it, is the name of her beachside house, Ar Lan y Môr, which is Welsh for “beside the sea” and the title of a Welsh folk song. “I have Wales and India, the city and the village, poet-novelist-dancer and so many more,” she laughs. “No wonder I am so interested in what ‘home’ means.”
She was born in Madras in 1975, the middle of three children, to a Gujarati father and a mother from a small village in north Wales. The touching tale of how they ended up together in India is told in Doshi’s Orange prize-longlisted 2010 debut novel The Pleasure Seekers. “I had read some of their letters and thought it was this amazing love story,” she explains. “But I also wanted to write a reverse immigration novel about a couple choosing to live in the apparently less prosperous country. I don’t think they had decided they were going to have the rest of their lives there, but they are still in Madras and have now been together for more than 50 years.” Doshi still prefers to use the old name for her home city. “I do sometimes use Chennai, but Madras was the place I was born in and now Chennai seems a different avatar of the city; more modern and technological. Madras is more romantic for me. Just one more example of hybridity, I suppose.”
She remembers lots of music in the house when she was growing up – “a bit behind the times: Abba, the Beatles, some jazz and blues”. She learned the piano and did some Indian dance, but sport was more important (“I was quite good at tennis and thought for a while I was going to be the next Gabriela Sabatini”), as was art and literature. In 1993 she won a scholarship to study economics in the US and while there “discovered contemporary American poetry”, citing poets such as Mark Doty and Mary Oliver. “That changed everything. I had found the thing that I loved and it felt like a duty to follow it through. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had become a banker or something, but then again I have travelled the world with poetry so you never know how things will turn out.”
Doshi drew on her hybrid heritage for her second novel, Fountainville, in which she infused a medieval Welsh folktale from The Mabinogion with contemporary concerns about healthcare and the surrogacy industry in India. She has also drawn on her own family history for Small Days and Nights, saying one of the sparks for the novel was reading about how in the 1960s Arthur Miller had institutionalised his son who had Down’s syndrome. Doshi’s younger brother, Ajay, was born with Down’s syndrome in 1977.
“What the Millers did wasn’t unusual and they probably thought they were doing the best for their child,” she says. “When Ajay was born, differently abled people were pretty much expected to be invisible. They were just kept away at home. It’s still often the case. But my parents didn’t do this and as a result we were always coming across this stare, a look of incomprehension from people. As a child it had a huge impact on me because you’re very protective. I still can’t understand why people are so threatened.” She says it was always a subject she wanted to write about and had done tangentially in a few poems. “But then I thought I would like to write about sisters and the emotions of having to care for someone in this specific landscape and that gave me the tension I needed around the story.”
The three women in Small Days and Nights living together in a house without men allowed Doshi to explore alternative infrastructures and support networks. While she is wary about generalising about Indian life – “it is too large and diverse” – she acknowledges for many women, particularly in cities, there are more freedoms. “So it’s a great moment in some ways with many role models of strong independent woman. But is it filtering down? It is still a very patriarchal society. There is a focus on the male child and a horrible sex ratio because of infanticide. Every time there is a violent incident people think that maybe it’s better we don’t allow our girls to go to work because it may not be safe. Maybe we don’t send our girls to school. There are steps forward and back. Today everyone is a feminist, but that used to mean demanding structural change. We need to think about that.”
As to the future, Doshi says she is in the early stages of planning another dance piece. “I briefly stopped performing two years ago after many years, but quickly realised I was not ready to give up on performance as part of my identity. I didn’t want to be just a writer”. She is also hoping to write a memoir about dance and her relationship with Chandralekha. “And always there is the poetry. Whenever I finish one thing I will have a poem on the go to return to. Since the beginning it has been at the heart of what I do. After all these years it is still my default.”
• Small Days and Nights is published by Bloomsbury.
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