“Anyone who thinks a leaf is just a leaf,” writes Tishani Doshi, “is missing the point,” in the opening poem Mandala from A God at the Door, her latest poetry collection—a powerful, empathetic and playful reminder of the nature of our humanities. An award-winning poet, novelist and dancer, Tishani's work is intricately passionate, bold and generous.
It was during a cold winter morning in Cincinnati, from the state of Ohio in the Midwestern U.S. that I first experienced Tishani’s poems. Holistically moved, serendipitous is the best word to describe reading or rather listening to her ‘Monsoon Poem.’ At a time of yearning to be back home in Chennai, as most people would’ve amidst a roaring pandemic, Tishani’s poetry was nothing short of Godsend. Her words transcend space and time in ways that are inconceivable, telling us of the extraordinary in the ordinary. “We are homesick, everywhere,” she writes in A God at the Door, “even when we’re home.” There are notes, reminders and consistent nudges in her poems conveying a sense of urgency that is piercing and relevant to our times—all carefully dusted in humour so witty, you will find yourself smiling, nodding, maybe even crying in quiet acknowledgements while at a coffee shop, or by the ocean as I did.
In an interview that explores A God at the Door, we also discuss her idea of home, what it means to read as a writer, and the different themes of her poetry.
Can you talk to us about your poetry collection, A God at the Door?
Honestly, I feel a little distant from all of it. Estranged, in a sense. In the past, especially with poetry, I've always been trying to link the launch of a book with a performance. My relationship with the novel is different. With novels I’m happy to just sit in a room and read it, without ever wanting to interact with the author. And as a novelist I don’t feel the desire to meet my audience. But poetry is different. It has this elasticity that allows for greater interpretation through film or performance or music, and because of my work as a dancer, it's always been interesting to think of poetry with performance. But with this book, that hasn’t happened. Partly because, this past year, we’ve been leading such disembodied lives and there’s been a kind of disconnect and fatigue that comes with the screens.
With this book, I'm just happy it’s out in the world. I haven't thought too much about how it will land, really.
A poetry collection, releasing at this time is a godsend for a lot of us. What was the inspiration behind A God at the Door? How did you know you had to put it out as a collection?
Well, I tend to work without a great sense of a finished project. I wish I were a writer with a larger vision of where I'm going when I begin a novel or a poem, but I'm not. I tend to work because I feel compelled to, so it’s poem after poem after poem. And suddenly you arrive at a kind of critical mass where you think oh, these poems belong together. They all belong to a particular concern or time and are meant to be part of the same collection.
When I finished Girls are Coming out of the Woods, I kept writing poems that would go into the same folder. Last year, it was mostly the sense of uncertainty of the pandemic—the fears, the loneliness, the inability to be in touch, separation from family, loved ones and friends, or feeling trapped with family, loved ones and friends that reminded you of your freedoms or lack of them—all the membranes between us, all the questions of micro and macro. It's all part of this collection. The assertion of the individual “I”, but also where that individual “I” fits into the community: the responsibilities, how can we rethink the communities we are part of. I think of it as a very potent, disturbing time of great loss where many things have fallen apart around us. There have been so many losses. People, lives, employment, social structures- but I wonder if that's a chance to rebuild something, how we come out of it.
It's a time of movement and metamorphosis. Add to that the climate crisis and political divisions around the world. This is the heightened time that we’re living in. A lot of these poems are grappling with that energy.
It is both overwhelming and grounding to hear that. Interesting that you brought up Girls are Coming out of the Woods. The poem “Grandmothers Abroad” feels relevant even today. Every time I read it, it's a reiteration of the idea that one must find home, go home—within the context of whatever home means to every individual. On that note, can you tell us about your journey? I know you started out with a business degree. Did you always want to be a poet?
I studied Business and Communications as an undergraduate. But I’ve always loved language—books, stories, the escapism that reading allowed. I was drawn to the magic of books from a young age. But I think when I took this creative writing course in a Liberal Arts college in America, I understood that I had found something that deeply connected with me. It demanded that I change my life.
I felt so connected to what I was reading, American contemporary poetry mainly, and it was so unlike the poems I’d studied in school. The language felt alive, and it made me feel I could add my voice to these other voices. It was such a revelation. Poetry became the thing I cared for more than anything. I was perfectly decent at Economics, but I didn't want to keep doing something just because it was there. So much of the Indian education system is strictly divided into one stream or another. A Liberal Arts education allows you to delay decision making and nibble at a lot of different possible paths in the hope that something will spark for you. It gives you time to figure out what you want to put at the centre of your life. Poetry was it for me.
But being a writer is something you need to keep figuring out. There's so much uncertainty and each poem or book is like renewing that contract you’ve made with your art. There’s no one time deal. I like that. It means you never grow too comfortable. For me, poetry is always about inhabiting this realm of uncertainty and yet with every poem you're putting something forward that's certain, that you hope will last. The poem, of course, is open to interpretation and everyone will read it differently, but you’ve created something and that gives you a sense of footing in the world.
Do you sit down when you have an idea and need to put it down, or is it in the back of your mind? How does your creative process work?
The process has changed so much since I first started writing. When I began, I was working largely with an internal struggle. I was a student in America, away from home and family. My concerns had a lot to do with identity and belonging. Those are still important themes for me but the dynamics between inner and outer have changed to encompass a larger perspective.
A lot of my poems are now about things I read in the news, events that are happening out of my life as such. So, it’s a question of changing the focus. It’s moved from how do I make my way in the world to this is the world and where do I fit in here. It’s still always considering the membranes between the inner and the outer, but I guess there’s been a change of vision.
When it comes to contemporary poets, at least in my experience I've felt like there’s a lot to relate to. I remember listening to “Monsoon Poem,” on a wintry Saturday morning in Ohio and how cathartic and life changing the experience was to be reading a poem that reminded me of Chennai. That was when I first took to writing poetry. Starting to explore this craft, also then gave me a sense of where poetry comes to life in our country and in what ways. From a larger perspective, poetry is still a growing art in India. How do you think we’ve evolved and where do you think we’re going?
That's a huge question. Because, there’s also poetry in regional languages in India, but as I write in English, let me speak to poetry in English in India. I’ve spoken about this with Jeet Thayil, who is editing a fabulous new anthology, The Penguin Book of Indian Poets, out this April, about feeling something of a pariah to be a poet who writes in English in India. English is both an insider and outsider language here. Language of the colonisers but also, a language that has become ours – as Rushdie so memorably said, The empire strikes back! The greatest difficulty I think is how one lives or survives as a poet.
In America, for instance, it’s difficult to be a writer but if you do make it to some degree, there are so many more structures to support you. There are grants, there are prizes and jobs and magazines and teaching jobs. It’s possible to live as a poet. Ultimately, we have to talk about the economics of it.
We’re constantly expecting artists to do things for free. It’s not just in India, but because the other structures aren’t in place it becomes more difficult. The problem then becomes that only people who can afford to become artists do that, which brings up questions of elitism. Things are changing now as poets find other ways to support themselves, but the general idea that there is no money in poetry holds true. I’d like to see poets being able to live as poets. For that, society has to assign an economic value for poetry.
At the moment, poetry is largely perceived as a nice hobby but economically not viable as a career. The fact that more people are reading poems on Instagram and on the internet does not automatically translate to poets making money. For it to work, the whole economy around magazines, books, television that make up the greater cultural economy of a country, needs to include poetry. I think the scope for making a living out of the arts in India is quite difficult. Every profession deserves dignity and for that it needs to be assigned economic value. We’re still a long way from that.
Talking of dance, it’s a wonderful combination—being a writer and dancer. How did you bring both art forms together? Can you also talk about your guru Chandralekha in the process?
I met Chandralekha in my mid-twenties, when I moved back to Madras to live with my parents, I wanted to try and be a writer. I was struggling and didn't want to worry about work and money at the time, there was the whole economics question again. I just wanted to be a writer. Around this time, I met Chandra. I had begun taking kalaripayattu lessons at Spaces, and she was looking for a new dancer. I’d also reviewed a book of her poems before meeting her, so in a way, it was poetry that brought me to Chandra. She asked to meet me, and I did a few backbends in her drawing room, and the next thing I knew she was asking me to work with her. It was a very unexpected thing. I had not planned to become a dancer, I had no desire to be a dancer and didn’t know much about Chandralekha’s work. I knew of her, of course. She was such an icon. But I hadn’t seen any of her productions. She asked, I said, yes, and my life changed.
At the time I hadn't published anything, I was just trying to be a writer, and that’s another thing, at what stage do you become a writer. Are you a writer even if no one else acknowledges that you are? Writer, wannabe writer, these divisions are strange. Let’s say I had ambitions of being a published writer when I began dancing. And dance became this concrete thing- daily practises, routines and performances- Chandra was already 73 at the time, so these were the last 5 years of her life that I worked with her. She was such a remarkable person, had lived such a rich life, had such a strong sense of politics. Working with her was my real education.
I performed Sharira for 15 years, which is a long time, if you think of it. One production. Five years with her and 10 more after she passed away. I guess when we stopped performing, I thought now what? Because I had not trained in Bharatnatyam, my background was yoga, and of course, Chandra had trained me to do her work, but I had no classical background in dance, so I wondered if I would have to stop being a dancer and just be a writer. And I really didn’t want that because I liked having these two worlds of words and movement, this ability to have a dialogue between two different forms. To have one world of stages, visuals, performances and then this whole different world of written language. I needed to be able to keep that connection, so I started making my own small choreographies with whatever physical vocabulary I had. It was terrifying. Especially after you’ve worked with someone at such a high level, you wonder if you have a vision of your own. I think of these as experiments. But I’ve just performed in the Sydney Opera House, and so while I don’t think of myself traditionally occupying a space in the world of dance, I certainly take dance into my life as a writer, and it remains the most grounding experience for me.
We’ve been talking about the love for houses and spaces. Pretty much every poem where the premise is set elsewhere, so much emphasis is given to spaces, the seasons, how your house feels at a certain time- where did that influence come from?
I've been obsessed with houses and spaces for the longest time, I just didn't realise it until two years ago. There's a sense that—I think it’s more to do with belonging—I've been an outsider pretty much my whole life. On my father’s side, my great grandfather came from Kutch in Gujarat when my grandfather was two years old. My grandfather then came and settled down in Sowcarpet, then Kilpauk, then Sterling road. My family moved to Besant Nagar when I was 13 or so and now, I've moved further south down the coast. I see it as a steady movement towards the sea. Then there’s my mother’s journey from a small village in North Wales, going to Canada on an adventure, meeting my father in Toronto, coming to India, and getting married in 1968. Just imagining the places that have been left behind by everyone in my family, how far my ancestors have travelled, and yet the only place I would call home is Madras, there’s no doubt about it. And it’s funny because most of the time people here ask me where I’m from, assuming I’m not from here. So again, there’s always this insider outsider thing happening. I’ve come to understand this feeling though, and I think it’s really potent for a writer, and probably why I’m a writer in the first place. Finding your place in the world is about creating footholds, and one way of doing that is to literally ‘belong’ to a place, the other is to make your own place, and for me, that has always been the poem, the novel, the story.
Last year, I was at a festival in Italy and I had not been able to come back home in ten months and someone asked me about the question of place in my novels, how it was almost a character. I got so emotional I almost started crying. I hadn't been home in so long and I felt so far from my own creation, everything I wrote about felt foreign to me almost. It was so strange. When I’m away too long I begin to lose my centre. I lose my sense of where I stand. So, for me, a house isn't just a place that provides a sense of safety, however false that may be. I've written about this in terms of violence; gender violence towards women, how we’re always expected to stay home when we know that homes can be unsafe places for women. But when I think of houses as places that can give us protection from the outside world, especially with the pandemic, we’ve all been kept in our boxes. They’re the shells we retreat to. As a writer, I'm fascinated about why we call certain places home, why we leave our homes, why we make certain places our home, what happens when we have multiple homes. Home as a concept is extremely weighted and emotional for me.
V: That’s a beautiful thought. The theme of this issue is Home.
It's always in the small things, right? The fact that I don't get to see crows here in the midwestern US, makes me miss home. As much as we talk about people that we’re with, being home I sometimes think is also about the space—non-living objects like streets, or birds or the kind of stairs that the people in Chennai build versus people in Ohio do, especially when you stay longer.
T: People also shapeshift depending on the place they are at, right? I know I do. You are a particular person depending on the place you are in and depending on the time in your life-- childhood, adolescence, coming of age, middle age... There’s a sense of multiplicity that comes with that. All the selves you have been. I think one of the interesting things that has come out of this pandemic has also been our inability to move from one place to another, to commit to one place. For those of us who are used to moving between different environments, suddenly that became difficult. You think if something happens, I’ll just take a flight, but what if you can’t? Where, then, do you choose to belong? It really raises the emotional stakes. I think it’s also possible to feel alienated when you are home, and that’s a strange but familiar feeling. When you have all these emotions invested in an idea of home, but arrive and feel distant, a stranger. This sense of being alienated can come from all sorts of movements, whether you’re going from Chennai to Delhi, or Ohio, or wherever. It’s a question of displacement. Like you said, people can ground us in certain ways, people can become homes and give us that sense of place, but there’s also the environment, the atmosphere, being able to identify the trees, birds and plants, the quality of life, smells, the way people stare at you, or look away, these are all ways we connect to one another and also how we find our place and I think all of this is about the constant recalibration of feeling centred. That’s just the constant dance.
V: The first time I read the monsoon poem was over two and half years ago, in Ohio, in peak winter, craving sunlight and I was deeply homesick in a way I'd never been before. I remember realising you were from Chennai and listening to a poem somehow rooted in Chennai was healing. It's been two and a half years and the way I feel about home hasn't changed. I came back to Chennai as the pandemic was tapering, and I did feel a little out of place. My home feels different and I don't know where I belong. I’m pretty sure everyone relates to this to some degree at the moment. Listening to you feels very cathartic. You do readings of a lot of other contemporary poets. Do you have a favourite poet? Someone who inspires you.
T: Yeah, I'm always going to poets, in fact I always say when people ask, “oh what about writer’s block?” - I say I don't care about writer’s block. If I haven't written in a while, the world’s not going to run out of poems. But if I’m not reading, I feel bereft. As long as I'm reading, I'm okay. Even if I’m not writing. It’s through the voices of other poets that I find my way back into writing. There are so many poets I adore. This semester, I'm teaching Jericho Brown, AK Ramanujan’s translations of Sangam love poetry, Wyslawa Szymborska among a lot of other poets. I feel like these are poets that have helped change your ideas of poetry, there are constants and there are transients. One of the first poets that affected me was Kamala Das. It’s all about replenishing. Some poets travel with you, you take them with you and grow with them. Others are limited to one time in your life, and when you go back to them, you may not feel as in sync with them as you once were. I always want to be reading and discovering. As a reader I’m haphazard, and greedy. It’s as if I’m always making up for lost time. I just want to read, read, read.