‘I operate in a slow fashion'

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Her first novel, The Pleasure Seekers, has received much praise from the likes of Salman Rushdie and Roddy Doyle. Now all set for the book's India launch this week, Tishani Doshi opens up to RANVIR SHAH about the various influences that have impacted her style.

Tishani Doshi: Finding her own rhythm. Photo: Denzil Sequeira
Tishani Doshi: Finding her own rhythm. Photo: Denzil Sequeira

C hennai-based Tishani Doshi has so far been known as a journalist, dancer and award-winning poet. Her first collection of poetry, Countries of the Body, won the Forward Poetry Prize for best first collection in 2006. She also freelanced for various publications in India and abroad. Using her foundation in yoga, she worked with the legendary Indian choreographer, Chandralekha, and continues to perform all over the world. Tishani has appeared at Hay, Segovia, Galle, Berlin, Jaipur and Cartagena Festivals. Her first novel The Pleasure Seekers has been received with much acclaim abroad. In an exclusive interview in Chennai just before the book's India launch, Tishani talks about her maiden novel and future plans. Excerpts from the conversation:

How many years did it take you to write this book? I remember hearing in the media that it was coming out soon for quite a while now?

I moved back from London to write the book. It took a total of eight years. I met Chandra, started to dance at the same time as I started work on this and wrote poetry as well.

The last six years I was deeply immersed in it. I made the mistake of talking about the book in my enthusiasm, I was editing it for three years, it was invaluable. At the first draft I thought it was quite grand, but my publishers (Bloomsbury) in England guided me not to rush into it. This they said was my building block and foundation and everything else I did would be seen in reference to this.

Poetry or Literature? First love? Collapsing liminalities?

They work in tandem. I did my first collection of poems, Countries of the Body. I let it breathe. I travel. Dance with Chandralekha. I operate in a slow fashion. Poetry is very different. The process is very different. Lots of authors go from poetry to prose. No one suddenly goes back to poetry. Learning how to write the novel for the first few years was trial and error. To keep the big picture and get the little details. To step back and see the grand picture of a 60-year span.

Where do the boundaries of truth and fiction collapse? How much do you decide to share?

Well it's definitely not a memoir. You don't owe the reality anything, sometimes you can't make up these things. What you read you need to believe. The lines should blur and you don't ask what's real. Inevitably you know from your life. As Mary McCarthy says, “What I really do is take real plums and put them in an imaginary cake. If you're interested in the cake, you get rather annoyed with people saying what species the real plum was”. I live in my universe. Memory, you can imagine the way you want it to be. We all live a bit of fiction in our lives.

Does Ba as a character exist and is she inspired in some way by Chandralekha?

For sure, for sure. The house of swings is Chandra's place. Not idealised, I am projecting myself in some ways on all the characters. I learnt slowness from her; she instilled that in me. Understanding time was also crucial for my writing. For me the rhythm - a particular beat - is needed even if it is prose.

Since I started writing this and dancing in “Sharira” (the last dance production that Chandralekha choreographed to live music by the Dhrupad singers the Gundecha Brothers) at the same time. They are like twins. In May, I finished a performance in London and my agent came back stage and gave me my first copy.

Also the importance of exploration into slowness. Inhabiting a place and being there and then letting it sit and not questioning it. There are marked periods of intensity and then not moving in the writing and the dance.

The usage of Indian phrases seemed a bit forced. “Jhill mill” teeth – she - bang – she - boom et al? Comment.

Every family has words which are its own. Also there is a way in which I speak to my siblings, parents and then there are people who are close to you with whom you use different phrases.

Also, as for Rushdie, having peers before him who opened up that space, where Saul Bellow used Yiddish and so on, I suppose he opened up for us a new generation of writers, the freedom of chutneyfication.

Chapter titles are from inspired people like Bhavabhuti and J. Krishnamurti to Rilke, Harry Belafonte and the Beatles. How did that happen?

It started off as and was supposed to be a philosophical book. A lot of the inspiration for chapter titles came from my three major interests – music, poetry and philosophy. So, I was reading Krishnamurti and Rilke and I like poems ... a little lyric by Dinah Washington's better than just numbering your chapters.

Now that the novel is out, how do you feel, what's next?

I am back to writing poetry. I will travel and continue to dance. I don't want to be just a writer; also I never asked to be a dancer. It happened. I am happy straddling both worlds. I enjoy the physicality of expression too.

As for the book I feel quite distant from it now. There is a great tenderness towards it. It's mine, yet it no longer belongs to me. It's freeing. I can go ahead.


As for the book I feel quite distant from it now. It's mine, yet it no longer belongs to me.

Exclusive extract But when your daughters decide to do as Mayuri and Bean have decided to do – to change the direction of their lives, to pick themselves up and out of the house of orange and black gates – when they decide to do this simultaneously, it is about as devastating as it gets. When Sian starts up this wailing and cannot stop till it's all washed out of her, the other women begin to think about their own private sorrows and they let it out and let it out until there isn't a dry, smudgeless eye on that beach. Every woman, that is, except for Ba. Ba is not crying. Ba has gone looking for Babo, who's sitting by himself, watching the inky sea. He's thinking about the first English love song he ever heard – Nat King Cole's ‘Love is a Many Splendoured Thing'. He's thinking how that song used to play in his head over and over when his daughters were little, when they used to strip off their clothes and go running into the waves at Marina Beach while Sian and he held hands on the seashore. He's remembering leaning over to his wife and saying, Life really did begin in the ocean, didn't it? When Ba finds him she lowers herself on to the wet sand beside him. ‘Nobody said it was going to be easy', she says. Babo lays his head in her lap. ‘Only fools and lovers never learn how to let go', Ba says, opening her mouth to the rain, moving her fingers out of habit through Babo's non-existent curls. It's not what you think. It's not that I don't want them to go away from home, find love, live their lives as fully as they possibly can. It's not even that I want them to remain eternally innocent. But what I want, what I really want to know is what I'm supposed to do with the space they leave behind? What am I supposed to fill it with? ‘You fill it with love,' Ba murmured. ‘Like you have always filled it. With love and more love'.



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