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'Poetry has lost its place in society'

March 6, 2007

Text: Lindsay Pereira

What is Tishani Doshi like? There are no easy answers to that one.

This bewilderment springs from details of her life that I pick from sundry sources. I learn that her father Vinod is Gujarati; her mother Eira, Welsh. I know she was born in Chennai, educated at Queens College and Johns Hopkins University in the US, and returned a few years ago to study dance under the late, legendary Chandralekha.

Chandralekha: A legend passes on

I am aware of the fact that she writes powerful, evocative poetry. I know this not because she received an Eric Gregory Award in 2001 or won the 2006 Forward Poetry Prize for best first collection -- the first Indian to do so. I know it because poems from her collection, Countries of the Body (Aark Arts, 2006), refuse to budge from my mind, three days after my turning to its first page.

'The day we went to the sea,' she writes, in a poem about the 2004 tsunami, 'Mothers in Madras were mining the Marina for missing children.' Rarely is anything so alliterative as eloquent. At a time when journalists publish collections of verse and proclaim themselves poets, I find it refreshing that there are a great number of people conferring the title on Doshi of their own volition. She has read alongside writers like Margaret Atwood and Seamus Heaney at the Hay-on-Wye festival, and alongside Wole Soyinka, DBC Pierre and David Mitchell in Colombia. No ordinary honours, these.

From inns in Cleveland, to convents in Kerala, museums in Sri Lanka, back to the raucous streets of Chennai, Doshi's poetry shifts constantly from the local to the metaphysical. It is an exploration of boundaries, within and without. 'These bodies of countries,' she writes, in the poem that gives her collection its title, 'They are our tracks of line and dirt, our own set of timeless days in the park.'

There are clues to what she aims for when one reads about her relationship with her teacher, Chandralekha: 'In a sense, Chandra's work wasn't concerned with dance at all. It was a lifelong quest to know the body: to decipher its many beginnings and endings, to contextualise the body in terms of space and time, to recognise the body as a source of unlimited energy and to nurture it as a medium to connect with nature, society, the cosmos.'

This is poetry of questioning; of trying to get to the heart of an observation. There are motifs running through that lend the poems a cohesion many collections lack. When you turn the final page, then, it is with a sense of coming to the end of a journey, through birth, sex, death. For me, it also led to a sense of despair.

I am told 31-year-old Tishani also writes fiction. I assume she must be good at that too, considering the UK-based publishing house Bloomsbury intends to publish her debut, The Pleasure Seekers. She is also at work on a biography -- of Sri Lankan spinner Muthiah Muralitharan.

So, yes, it really is hard to figure out what Tishani Doshi is like. I made an attempt nonetheless, the only way I know how.

My questions. Her answers...

Photograph: Bandeep Singh

Also see: Seth and Chandra win Crossword awards

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