Tishani Doshi cuts a striking figure amid the bustle of the George Town Literary Festival. While those around her wilt wearily in the heat and humidity, she is boldly draped in white and appears impervious to the discomforts of a crowded hall on an unforgivingly hot and sunny day on the island of Penang.
Bold is perhaps the most fitting adjective to use in portraying the award-winning writer and dancer, whose latest poetry collection, Girls are Coming Out of the Woods, is described by The Guardian as “a chilling call to arms whose forceful, oracular incantation compels us to listen”. The titular poem illustrates girls “wrapped in cloaks and hoods,/ carrying iron bars and candles/and a multitude of scars, collected/on acres of premature grass and city/ buses, in temples and bars”.
A steely spine runs through the imagery and ideas in the book, but the underlying sense of rage and retribution is tempered with humour, sometimes grim and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.
“I am deliberately injecting more wit into my new work,” says Doshi.
Her writing encompasses journalism, fiction and, of course, poetry, distinctive literary expressions that have in common a celebration of truth (yes, even in fiction) and creativity. She writes a regular column for The New Indian Express and articles in The Guardian and The Hindu. Her first novel, The Pleasure Seekers (2010), was endorsed by Salman Rushdie, translated into several languages and shortlisted for The Hindu Best Fiction Award. It is her poetry, however, that wins her the most acclaim. Countries of the Body (2006) won Britain’s Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Other poetry trophies in her cabinet include the Eric Gregory Award, given by the Society of Authors to British poets under 30, and the All-India Poetry Prize.
“I talk a lot about loss and it is not a fun subject,” says Doshi. “These days, I want to retain the seriousness of the subjects I cover while introducing some levity and irreverence. For instance, I recently wrote a poem called Why the Brazilian Butt Lift Won’t Save Us. Kim Kardashian makes an appearance in it but the poem is a very serious observation about being a woman and ageing, and what we are doing to our bodies in an effort to be beautiful. It is also about the loss of childhood and innocence, when we used to feel perfect in our bodies.”
The inspiration for Girls are Coming Out of the Woods developed as a graphic visual that came to mind while she was looking out the window of a bus in Ireland, listening to Bollywood music on her earphones. The Madras-born Doshi is no stranger to seemingly incongruous cultural juxtapositions, being of Welsh and Gujarati origin and effortlessly assimilating into the cosmopolitan capital of London while calling Tamil Nadu home.
“I was staring out the window when I had this vivid image of mutilated women emerging from the woods,” she recalls. “I have a sense of despair living in India, which has been voted one of the most dangerous places for women in the world. I know people who have experienced abuse and violence and I have to respond to it. Part of that response is wondering what we can do with the voices of those who have been killed, murdered or raped. Do they just fade away into the never after or is there a way to resuscitate them? Can we remember them or do we just forget and move on?”
This poem is reminiscent of an earlier poem she had written. River of Girls was a reaction to a statistic she had read, citing that over 10 million female foetuses had been aborted in India within two decades in an attempt to secure male heirs. “Forget the dangers you face as a living girl; you are not even allowed to enter the world because of your gender,” she shakes her head. “That was shocking. I had an image of those girls, a river of girls, emerging from under the ground. I went back to the myths of Durga and Kali, where they are described on tigers, going into battle, and I tried to harness that fierce, almost militant, avatar of women to say that we have to change the way we treat each other, especially in India, a country that pretends to worship its women.”
Researching Doshi prior to our meeting revealed that she has been criticised for writing about suffering, from which she is somewhat removed or has no first-hand experience of. “I do think about that,” says the writer. “I am not speaking on behalf of others. I look at it as a human response to something atrocious. Horrible stories are ongoing, from that infamous Delhi rape case to reports of heads being chopped off and bodies being burnt. This catalogue of horror pointed at women can really depress you. I believe in reclaiming voices, and poetry allows me some measure of that, and it naturally extends to scenarios beyond myself. Girls are Coming Out of the Woods was used in many other countries and contexts, and I was happy a poem was allowed to transcend boundaries and that it could mean different things, depending on perspective, and could be a source of strength.”
Reclamation of the feminine voice is a prevalent theme in her works, which endeavour to command respect, autonomy or value for women. Doshi’s poetry in particular has been described as the anthems of her generation, and the question of feminism naturally arises in our conversation.
“I think we are all feminists, or we should be, but the notion of feminism is under threat,” she says. “What does feminism actually mean? It is becoming a marketing tag line for consumerism in many ways, with ‘The future is female’ slogans and merchandise. I am more interested in deconstructing the patriarchy and changing systems. Frankly, I do not think we are anywhere close to doing that and we might not see it happen in my lifetime, but I do see a change in the younger generation of women who are looking at the world differently and challenging things that did not occur to me when I was their age. Women have been pushed to the margins of or erased from so many stories. Look at art, for example, and history has privileged men throughout. As part of my proactive behaviour, I consciously champion other women and try to discover more about those who have been deleted from our stories.”
Expressing herself in the aesthetic and rhythmic language of poetry not only allows her to explore the human and advocate the humane, but to convert despair into something more bearable. “Poetry is the transformative act of turning a howl into a song, I think. We, as a species, do horrible things to each other. I am perplexed by our capacity for violence and destruction. But we are also capable of great beauty. This art form allows for that dichotomous approach of loss and darkness alongside the insistence of beauty and joy.”
The strong fraternity of writers in London, where she lived for some time, supported the exploration of the human psyche in prose and poetry but Doshi credits much of her creative inspiration to India. Europe, she says, has been in a cultural decline over the past decade and has stagnated while Asia has boomed and buzzes with vitality and movement.
“India is a place of reinvention right now. It is terrifying because some of its entrenched sentiments, such as the caste system, are so wrong, but it is also a place of much energy and change. A lot of things happen in the open there, rather than behind closed doors — you just have to walk down a street and you hear or pick up stories. It tends to be the centre of my work these days and I am very happy to be living in India and writing from India, mainly about India.”
Watch her speak about her poetry collection on TEDxTalks:
This article first appeared on Feb 11, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.