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The prose needs to have some elements of poetry: Tishani Doshi

 

Tishani Doshi’s deliciously lyrical debut novel, The Pleasure Seekers, draws on the story of her parents, her Welsh mother and Indian father, whom the book makes a dedication to. But to think that it’s their story will not be wholly true as Doshi takes fictional liberties and twists the truths to explore what it was for a foreigner to come to India in the late ’60s when India was so different. “We were not so globalised, so well-connected and mobile. The culture would have been very different and you would have felt a sense of isolation. I thought it was fascinating that anybody would do that just because he fell in love with somebody,” says the author about one of her protagonists, Sian Jones, who falls in love with Babo, an Indian who is working in London, gets married to him and starts living in India, leaving her world in Wales.
Doshi’s website describes her as “poet, dancer, writer and wanderer”. You wonder if she had the order on mind when she wrote it.“I never thought of the order, but poetry is the first influence in my life,” she says.

Her first collection of poetry, Countries of the Body (2006), which fetched her the Forward Poetry Prize, delved into the idea of body as a metaphor for love and betrayal. In The Pleasure Seekers, you notice the same strand — of body as some sort of a “universe”.

ON BODY AS A METAPHOR
A large part of Countries of the Body was inspired from my association with my dance guru, Chandralekha. Those were poems that I wrote from having worked as a dancer for five years. We all know our bodies to some degree, but when you dance and are into extreme positions, you figure out things about your body in different ways. When I was 26, I started serious engagement with dance.
I had been doing yoga before, but suddenly it was as if the body became a metaphor for so many things and then I read a lot about it: the Sanskrit idea that body is a universe and within the body are contained so many energies. We were exploring similar things in dance and Chandra’s whole life’s work was also about this exploration. So it was inevitable that it would come into my writing somehow. And I am still interested in body as an area of great renewal and energy and hope and beauty and love. And also as an area of betrayal through loss, illness or infidelity.

ON POETRY
I can write fiction, but poetry is something I will keep coming back to, again and again.
Done with this novel, I am now deeply immersed working on the second collection of poems.
I like to straddle different fields and genres because sometimes you feel a bit of stagnation or hit a wall and it’s nice to get the energy from something else — writing a novel or dance.

ON HER ASSOCIATION WITH CHANDRALEKHA
It was larger than a mere association. It changed my life. In every way. At every level. I met Chandra when I was at a crossroads. But I had never met anybody who was embodying so many mediums — writer, performer, dancer, painter. And suddenly, I started spending everyday with her. She was a woman with strong convictions and I respected that. When I met her, I had no idea of her status in the dance world, but it was just wonderfully open and I was going with the flow. I learnt so much about what sacrifices it means to be as an artist because so often you are fighting against the things in the world and you try to counter them with your art — dance, painting or a book.
You try and counter some kind of brutality or violence or whatever that is bothering you because you are sensitive and you are expressing it. And you try to be funny and gracious and elegant and beautiful in whatever ways you are trying to do. It was just lovely to have that living embodiment, that living presence of someone who you could just have a free relationship with.

It was not a guru-shishya kind of thing, of lying at the feet of the master. It was very equal in the sense that we could laugh about things, talk about love and travel, talk about a little bit of this, a little bit of that. She was a good 50 years older than me. I felt it was lovely and wonderful and I never had such a relationship with anyone else in my life. So, it was the most pivotal relationship that I had in my life.

pleasure

ON THE PLEASURE SEEKERS
I was not interested in writing a memoir. It would have been too hard as no one in my family is very talkative. So, to find out the real story would have been very difficult and I would have been paranoid that I am not saying the truth. But with fiction writing, you can lie happily and take reality and use whatever you want from it. A lot of the kernels of the book are taken from the real life — a lot of the characters and incidents are little bits of reality but what was so wonderful about exploring the world of fiction for me was that those things started to grow and develop in very different ways, sometimes in ways that you don’t imagine or foresee.

I am not the kind of writer who sits down and knows exactly what I want to do. I have an image or an idea, sometimes a character, who forms and that character knows what she or he is going to do. It is quite an interesting process how that happens as it happens over a long time. Because it’s very organic. I wanted to explore this idea of what it means to be a foreigner. I wanted to spin it a bit because we know a lot about an Indian who goes abroad. We have so many stories. I wanted to explore — may be because of my own childhood, my own life — what it was for a foreigner to come to India in the late 60s when India was so different.

I looked at my own mother and never thought about it until much later when I made my own journey. I realised how huge it is to leave behind a home. So, that idea of home is very important to me. I have now returned home. But I am always going and coming, going and coming. It’s a constant obsession and the thing that I am always trying to find out balance in. But in the book, I wanted to have this other view of the reverse story of a foreigner coming to India and I am trying to say that it’s actually the same experience as that of an Indian going abroad. It’s the experience of loneliness and alienation, but it’s also eventually about making your way and making your own life with your children or job.

It is as much about homecoming, belonging, and going back to your roots. The movement that is happening is huge and radical. And people are leaving behind their villages and going to cities. They are leaving cities and going to other cities. Each time you move, you have to readjust, to requestion what is your identity, where do you come from, There is a nostalgia aspect too. We are going to have to ask this question of where we come from more and more. Because we move that much more. It’s fascinating for me as I personally feel that I have also struggled with this thing of wanting to be at a place, but then getting restless and wanting newness and curiosity. I often think it will be great to just be satisfied and live in the same village or town from when you are born to when you die. What a different outlook to life it must have. The universe would make so much sense then, (laughs) but once you step out, then you are out.

ON POETIC PROSE
I think poets are more concerned with language. I am very interested in titles (each chapter of the novel has a title) that also comes from poetry. I like to title things. A lot of these titles are taken from songs, poetry or little bits of philosophy. The prose needs to have some element of poetry in it. It needs to have a beat. I read the whole thing when I am writing. I read the sentences aloud, again and again, because when it doesn’t work you can hear it. Basically, language is about sound.

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Jaipurnama: Part I

There are writers and there are writers. At the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, which concluded on January 25, I had an opportunity to chat with authors of all hues — some with shades of humility, others with hubris — milling around in the manicured lawns of the Diggi Palace, which has seen the festival take baby steps, and in its fifth year, outgrow itself a bit. I saw these authors jostle with the crowd for seats at well-attended sessions and saw them doing a little bit of pushing and shoving in the long queues for food. I heard them talk about their writing, speak of all that ails the world, of all that literature can do and of all that shapes literature itself, of the fastidiousness of faith and of the religion of love, of the poetry of prose and the power of poetry.
Even though it didn’t have many “stars”, the festival’s line-up, by all means, was stellar. It had Wole Soyinka, the first African author to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1986. It had the celebrated Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith (of the popular No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series fame) and the much-loved Irish writer Roddy Doyle — the bespectacled man from Monte Carlo with dancing, mischievous eyes, who took home the Booker Prize for Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha, the story of a 10-year-old Dubliner trying to describe, understand and misunderstand the world, in 1993 — Anne Enright (yet another Irish writer and Booker winner for The Gathering in 2007), Andrew O’ Hagan (he was the one who almost got standing ovation when he delivered his speech on the power of literature), Niall Ferguson, Hanif Kureishi, Roberto Calasso, Geoff Dyer (he had many female fans drool, as did Pakistani young writer Ali Sethi), Steve Coll, Stephen Frears and Lawrence Wright. From the home turf, there were veteran theatreperson Girish Karnad, Amit Chaudhuri, Amitava Kumar (who, I think, is the most sensible, sensitive and informed writer from among the current crop; we kept bumping into each other after an interview at the fest; he has this habit of addressing everyone as “boss” which I found is a reflection of the ease with which he meets everyone), poet Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Gulzar (I have written about him in earlier posts) and Vikram Chandra, certainly the most affable, the most grounded.
The sessions with Dalit writers and campaigners like Kancha Ilaiah and O.P. Valmiki may have been overshadowed by simultaneous sessions with better-known international authors, but they, along with other bhasha writers like Ashok Vajpeyi and K. Satchidanandan, lent the festival the richness and flavour of regional literature that the organisers of the festival aim at promoting alongside the best of writers writing in English.
The idea, even though not avowed, of any literary festival is to provide an interface with a set of people who write (they may not necessarily live off it) with another set of people who see the world — both imagined and real — through their favourite writers’ eyes. While the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival, a “literary show”, is increasingly losing its intimacy as it becomes bigger and bigger, it nevertheless has moments in which you can enjoy an audience with the authors you like, however brief and fleeting these moments may be.
I went to the festival to “know” the writers I admire, get a sense of their writing process and the several worlds they inhabit. Writers show the world to us in all its beauty and ugliness, splendour and sordidness. My mission was to get a sense of what makes some writers what they are, what makes them write what they write, the way they write.
I pick up two writers — Vikram Chandra and Hanif Kureishi — from as diverse a background as it could get, and yet they are linked, one albeit loosely, together by the city of Mumbai. Chandra divides his time between California and Mumbai; Kureishi, born and brought up in London, couldn’t be “more British”. While Mumbai —its people, its underbelly — comes alive in Chandra’s stories and novel, Kureishi’s father, Rafiushan Kureishi, was from Mumbai who left the city for England in 1947, married there and never came back. An aspiring writer, he made a “religion at home out of library books, discontent and literary ambition” and Kureishi writes about him in My Ear at his Heart: Reading My Father. When his father died Kureishi discovered the manuscript of his last novel An Indian Adolescence, parts of which were based in Bombay. In Buddha of Suburbia, which is based in London, Kureishi also draws on his father’s days in Bombay. Anwar, his Dad’s friend since the age of five, comes from Bombay.
Why I picked these two authors also had to do with the way the duo went about the business of attending the literary festival, holding forth on their life and writing and interacting with the press. While Chandra was the darling of the media, obliging everyone who approached him for an interview, an autograph or a photograph, Kureishi was through and through a “British”, who kept his upper lip rather stiff, wondering, thankfully towards the end of the festival, “What am I doing here?” He came to the festival, he said, because “I needed to get out of my house for some time”.
If Kureishi was inspired by his father, Chandra derives much inspiration from his mother, Kamna Chandra, who has written several plays and Hindi films (Prem Rog, 1942: A Love Story). Her influence is more evident in his epic, “anti-detective” second novel, Sacred Games, a thriller.
When you read Vikram Chandra, you surrender to his engaging, exuberant imagination. And in this lies his reputation as a superior storyteller, an accomplished stylist. When you meet Vikram Chandra, he floors you with his friendliness. Chandra is easy-going, unassuming and smiles often, a rare trait among critically-acclaimed writers, including Kureishi. I remembered the advice Lord Hanuman gives to Sanjay, a man trapped in the body of a monkey, in Chandra’s fabulous first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain: “Straightforwardness is the curse of your age, Sanjay. Be wily, be twisty, be elaborate.” While Chandra elaborates on his writing process and the subjects and themes of his novels and stories,
he is not “wily” and “twisty”. He is straightforward, yet another rare trait among good writers.
Chandra established how storytelling could be a conceit in Red Earth and Pouring Rain. When you ask him how did that come about, he says: “It emerged from childhood. I was always a kid with the thick glasses. As kids my age played in the ground, I used to make up stories in my head with dozens of sub-plots. As I grew older I became more and more conscious of the huge oral traditions and its value.” Red Earth… is half “psychological realism” with its other half being “fantastical”. “The idea of juxtaposing the two was really useful,” he says.
Chandra draws his characters from real life. And that makes his stories so rooted in reality. He may write about Bombay, but he doesn’t look at the city with a sense of nostalgia. Chandra is working on his next novel. But he tells you little of that. How long will it take? Seven years, as it did for Sacred Games? Chandra, who likes to work at his own pace, doesn’t know.

THE VOCATION of each writer, according to Hanif Kureishi, is to describe the world as he or she sees it; anything more than that is advertising. While Kureishi describes the world (tales of growing-up in London, racism and the immigrant experience) as he sees it, there is too much of his world — his father, his family, his ex-wife, his children — that gets in his way. His stories and novels have striking parallels with his own life and his family members, including his father who died in 1991, have often expressed their displeasure over family secrets (“Fabricated for the entertainment of the public for profit”, his sister, Yasmin, wrote in a letter to the Guardian), being “sold”. But Kureishi couldn’t care less. “The sort of writing you do comes out of your character and nature. You write from who you are and where you are. Writing comes from the wordspace in your head that is called subconscious,” said Kureishi.
As the 55-year-old brooding author walked around the venue, fending off people — fans, readers, journalists — I noticed his expressionless stare greet everyone, everything. “Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored,” the line from The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), his debut novel, came back to me. Cold and detached, Kureishi makes no effort to hide his conceit. A lady who approached him after his session with Amitava Kumar was asked to “read my books” before she could get around to speaking with him.
Kureishi carries with him a little irreverence and insouciance of Karim Amir, the funny, mixed-race boy from The Buddha of Suburbia. In the sessions at the fest, the author, who explores sex, families and middle age in his latest novel, Something To Tell You, talked about how he started as a pornography writer, using Antonio French as his pseudonym. “If you are writing pornography, it is good to have French in your name,” he quipped.
Kureishi, who had the opportunity to see Samuel Beckett during the rehearsals of his plays and calls him a “sound conductor”, also talked about theatre, “the most exciting thing to have happened to me”.
Kureishi takes his role of a playwright as seriously as that of a novelist, a short story writer or a screenplay-writer. His “version” of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre. His plays, Sleep With Me and When The Night Begins, have been the toast of the theatre circuit in London. In 2004, his play When the Night Begins was produced by the Hampstead Theatre.
Asked about race in his writing, he said: “I’m no longer interested in race. What I’m interested in is telling a story. What I want to learn is how to tell a story. If you tell it right, there is something about it that always works. I’m interested in economy, saying things in lesser space.”
The world, to Kureishi, seems to be very funny and tragic at the same time. “I just try to combine the two in my writing,” said Kureishi, adding that he doesn’t give a “f*** to reviews”. “All I care about is money,” he said.