Pliny don’t preach: K. Srilata reviews Tishani Doshi’s ‘A God at the Door’

The poet performs her rage at gender injustice with wit and sarcasm in these politically charged poems

October 09, 2021 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Contemporary dance.

Contemporary dance.

Tishani Doshi’s stunning new poetry collection, A God at the Door, performs the difficult task of locating the body within the broader politics of state power and gender. Through it all, her voice remains clear as a bell, her hold over craft unwavering. Over and over, the poems pose the question: How does one return to the body when trapped in the systemic violence of structures designed to make you forget who you are?

Disparate though they may be in terms of theme, tone and approach, the poems nevertheless sit brilliantly together, the effect achieved akin to that of a single long narrative. Doshi doesn’t given in to the temptation of taking shortcuts, of saying the trite, politically correct thing. Everything is held up to the light so that we arrive slowly, by gradual steps, at a way of looking at the world.

Eye for the incongruent

Foundational to Doshi’s collection are four aspects and it is through these that I would like to readthe poems. The first, and perhaps the most significant, is the clear-eyed nature of her moral universe and the tongue-in-cheek sarcasm and wit with which she responds to all that ails the world. Doshi has an eye for the incongruent — it is on this that the poems rest.

For instance, her poem for Margaret Mascarenhas, ‘I Found a Village and in it Were All Our Missing Women’ is woven from two stories: one, that 21 million Indian women were denied the right to vote (because their names were not registered on voting lists) and two, that 4,600 women sugarcane-cutters from Beed district of Maharashtra had undergone hysterectomies so they would not miss a day of work. The poem’s quiet, hard anger plays out via the construction of a surreal universe — a village which is a holding place for all missing women who have been sending proof of their existence to offices of the registrar and have received in response “a rake and a cobweb in a box.”

Similarly, ‘After a Shooting in a Maternity Clinic in Kabul’, which takes off from a May 2020 attack, speaks to the cognitive dissonance of the city — the happy, fertile image of orchards overlaid by that of a graveyard into

which babies are born. The title of the poem, ‘We Will Not Kill You. We’ll Just Shoot You in the Vagina’, based on Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s orders to soldiers to shoot female communist rebels in the vagina, is a story in itself. In lines reminiscent of Mahasewta Devi’s story, Draupadi , Doshi writes, “It’s true. We’re useless without our vaginas./ How will you rape us?”

‘Hope is the Thing’ builds on the story of 12-year old Jamalo Madkam, a migrant worker who died of exhaustion during the long walk back home from Telangana to Chhattisgarh during the lockdown. It offers the striking image: “A god at the door sitting/ on a giant buffalo offers you a sip/ of wine to make the bitterness go away.”

Serious and funny

Another equally striking aspect of Doshi’s work is her pitch-perfect awareness of a poem’s performative life. The beat and the rhythm of ‘The Stormtroopers of My Country,’ written in response to the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in 2019, convey an urgency that feels like a call to action: “The stormtroopers of my country love/ their wives but are okay to burn/ what needs to be burned for the good/ of the republic often doing so in brown/ pleated shorts and cute black hats with sticks…”

The shape poems in this collection, ‘I Carry My Uterus in a Small Suitcase’ and ‘Advice for Pliny the Elder, Big Daddy of Mansplainers,’ perform the body visually.

Doshi can be deadly serious and funny at the same time. ‘Advice for Pliny the Elder...’ begins with “Great Man, now that you are dead, allow me to squeeze your hand” and gets us with the lines: “I am a mere woman — inferior lettuce… Once a month, when the blood comes, I go out to lie in whatever field I/ find to feel the scorch rise and the crops wither.”

The strategy of evoking Pliny the Elder, who in his Natural History spoke of the calamitous power of the menstruating body, only to recast him as the “Big Daddy of Mansplainers” does its work. Both in this poem and in ‘What Mr Frog Running Away from Marilyn Monroe Taught me about #MeToo,’ Doshi eschews sermonising, choosing instead irony and humour.

Finally, Doshi brings to her poetry a specialised toolkit of simile and metaphor. In ‘Why the Brazilian Butt Lift Won’t Save Us’, lips burgeon “like a Hokusai wave”. ‘A Dress is Like a Field’ begins with the evocative lines: “A dress is like a field./ Lift a hem and flowers/ will fall.” The visual reach and music of these lines linger with us.

The world is a mess and there is no way to square it all. But Doshi’s poems help us sit with all that is incongruent and awry.

A God at the Door; Tishani Doshi, HarperCollins, ₹499

The reviewer’s latest collection of poems , The Unmistakable Presence of Absent Humans, was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai .

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