A poet, dancer, author, freelance journalist… Chennai-based Tishani Doshi dons various hats. While her first collection of poetry, Countries of the Body, won her prizes, her debut novel The Pleasure Seekers, won her rave reviews. Tishani was in Thiruvananthapuram in connection with The Hay Festival in Kerala. Excerpts from an interview.
Poet at heart
I began penning poems when I was in college. I must have been in my early twenties then. There is something powerful behind poetry; it speaks to me. The central theme for Countries of the Body is the body.
The Pleasure Seekers
I have always wanted to write my parents' cross-cultural love story after coming across the love letters exchanged between them. The basic story is of a Welsh woman and a Gujarati man who fall in love and of the woman coming to India, all in the name of love. This book is in part a reinvention of my family history and so there's a fair bit of me and other members of my family in it. But there are snippets of other people's families and experiences too. I met so many women like my mother who had left their homelands (Germany, Sweden, America, Denmark…) and their families for love. In those days the distance of communication was huge. There were no easy telephone calls, emails, Skype, cheap air fares… Most of them lost touch with their families. The tales of the women were inspiring.
A bit of Tishani in the book
There is a lot of myself in the young Bean (a character in her latest book The Pleasure Seekers). The running away, ghosts, angst with God, self pitying…it's me all over. The grownup Bean is a blend of my women friends who are fearless, feisty and a little bit crazy. I'm more pragmatic. At times I do wish I was more like Bean.
Playing a balancing game
Balancing two worlds is a large part of the novel. Since I'm a product of two cultures, I guess I'm in a way still exploring my roots. But I think being an outsider is a universal human experience. However, I haven't written the novel to sort out the confusion. It deals with the dilemma of people on the move.
The house of swings
Ba's house (Bean's grandmother), the house of swings, is based on the late danseuse Chandralekha's place. When I moved back to Chennai after several years abroad, I joined Chandralekha's group. During the day I would work my body in ways I never thought possible and in the evenings, the house would be streaming with artists, writers, dancers… For me, Chandralekha's place was magical.
I first attended the Hay-on-Wye Festival in Wales six or seven years ago and I am a regular at the festival. It was fun meeting and talking to people whose works you have long admired. When I won the Forward Poetry Prize, an annual poetry competition in the United Kingdom, I was fortunate to be invited to share the stage with some remarkable people. I'm lucky to be a part of the first Hay Festival in Kerala. Such events give both the authors and readers a platform to meet and discuss. It is also a way to introduce and encourage up-and-coming poets and writers.
I love travelling and visiting places that are slightly chaotic, colourful, interesting history, good food… I visited Antarctica and although it is stunning, I could not connect with it as there was no civilization to speak of. In Switzerland, I found it beautiful but scary as it is too picture perfect. I prefer places like Mexico, Greece, Ethiopia, Italy…
Love for Kerala
I love Kerala and have visited Wayanad, Varkala, Kochi… Kerala is a different shift from Tamil Nadu. It is more organised, cleaner and greener and yet at the same time I know I haven't gone too far from home. I love the coconut in the food and also the appams.
I'm working on a collection of poetry. I'm performing Chandralekha's ‘Sharira' at the end of the year as a tribute to the late danseuse.