Grace Marisola’s mother is dead. The half-Italian half-Indian who is struggling with a failing marriage in the US, returns to Pondicherry in India for the cremation but little does she know the surprises that are in store for her – and not all of them pleasant. If by way of an unexpected inheritance she comes to own a lovely beachside cottage in the south of Madras, Grace also discovers a secret her parents hid from her – that she has an older sister who has Down’s Syndrome and is autistic.
The plot of Tishani Doshi’s 2019 novel Small Days and Nights, which has just been shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje Prize, does have some parallels with the author’s own life: Tishani is half-Indian half-Welsh. She has a house on the beach in Madras. She has a brother, Ajay, who has Down’s Syndrome…
With so many similarities, was it easy or more challenging to craft this novel, I ask the award-winning author in a telephone interview. (The Covid-19 crisis meant I could not drive down to Abu Dhabi where she is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Practice, Literature and Creative Writing at NYUAD, for a face-to-face interview.)
“It’s never easy to write any novel regardless of whether you have a plan for it before you start it or not,” says the 44-year-old author, poet and dancer. (Yes, dancer, but more about it later.) “There is something mysterious about writing – you begin with some ideas and then it takes you in directions you never initially thought you were going to explore.”
Tishani did have some ideas when she started Small Days and Nights – to write about women who are living alone in India, the challenges they face, what it means to be a care giver “or to be in a certain kind of isolation”. But as she progressed, nature, environmental concerns, real estate conflicts, among other things, began to nudge their way in. “And I suppose that led to subsidiary themes,” she says.
Thus, boorish businessmen, merciless goons, pitiless politicians and roguish real estate developers sneaked into Small Days and Nights, a book The Guardian praised as “a concise novel of staggering depth”.
But Tishani did not start out as a novelist.
Born in Madras in 1975, she grew up learning music, the piano in particular, playing tennis – “For a while, I thought I was going to be the next Gabriela Sabatini” she once said – and practicing some Indian dance forms when she was not busy with her studies.
It was while on a scholarship studying economics in the US in the early 90s that she “discovered contemporary American poetry”. That would change everything. In an interview to The Guardian, Tishani mentions how “I had found the thing that I love and it felt like a duty to follow it through”.
Follow it she did and was fortunate to taste success early. Her first book of poems, Countries of the Body, bagged her the 2006 Forward Prize for best first collection.
“Winning the Forward Prize was very important,” she tells me. “Poetry is a very difficult world to enter and to be published, and for me, the prize opened doors. It came at a time in my career when I needed it – at the beginning. I needed a kind of affirmation from peers and from the community around. It’s a prize I cherish.”
Perhaps quite as much as the prize she also cherishes the Hay festival that year where she was on stage reading poetry alongside such luminaries as Seamus Heaney and Margaret Atwood before a 1,200-strong crowd.
“That’s the power of poetry,” says Tishani. “One moment you could be reading poetry to a crowd of over a thousand people and the next moment you could have an audience of one,” she says.
Which does she prefer?
“I find both [a large crowd and a small one] equally worthwhile,” she says.
The 44-year-old believes that if a writer has committed to reading to an audience, they have to fulfil it whatever be the number of people that has turned up to listen to them. “As poets we have a lot of practice in that we do not know how many people could turn up to an event and there is no guarantee that it will always be a large number. But I deem [all gatherings] worthwhile.”
Clearly, few things give her greater pleasure than reading poetry to an appreciative audience. “I think there is something very profound when a writer meets with their audience and that live interaction which I think is what we need these days as we seem to be in an age of connectivity but also disconnect.”
Happy to be part of literary festivals, including the most recent Hay festival held in the capital Abu Dhabi, she believes they provide a platform for the “very magical thing to happen – the coming into contact of the reader and the writer”.
There is another “magical” emotion that Tishani holds close to her heart – the one that develops when performance is interwoven with words.
Although she was introduced to dance while growing up in Madras, it was never formalised. That would happen in her mid-20s when she returned home from the UK after her studies and happened to meet Chandralekha, one of India’s most acclaimed choreographers and Bharatanatyam dancers, in Madras. Known for fusing India’s traditional dance form with yoga and kalaripayattu (the martial art form of Kerala), Chandralekha, Chandra to her fans, was looking for a female dancer and invited Tishani to be part of her troupe. “I joined her on what would be her last choreography,” says Tishani. “It was she who saw in me something that I did not see in myself – the possibility to be a dancer.”
The piece Chandralekha created was titled Sharira (the body), and Tishani performed it for 15 years. “It was a very long run for a piece; very rare to perform for so many years... We continued performing even after Chandra passed away in 2006. I felt like I didn’t want to let go of dance,” she says. “I didn’t want to let go of the physical training and the performative ability.”
Keen to push the boundaries of performing arts further, Tishani mulled how she could “synthesise the two lives of mine – a dancer and writer”. The result was Girls Are Coming out of the Woods – a poetry dance performance piece that takes its title from a poem in the collection of the same name. The piece and the collection were well received – the book was shortlisted for the 2018 Ted Hughes Award.
Tishani, who has been touring with the piece for the past two years, is pleased with the “intensity of responses” the performance is eliciting. “The poem stands by itself but when you put music and dance to it, [it morphs] into a different being; it’s like multiplying something you have created. The move from one type of discipline and genre to another is amazing. I’m really interested in [developing] a connection between the reader and myself, and performance allows me to do that.”
Tishani finds a lot of common ground between dance and poetry, including the “ideas of rhythm, time and abstractions”. She believes fusions are interesting now – a time when the world is not so compartmentalised or highly defined in terms of how we perceive art. “This is just the time to bring together different forms, whether video, music, movement or installations,” says the soft-spoken poet. “The possibilities are truly endless.”
Just as Tishani smoothly fuses poetry with dance, she also effortlessly flits from verse to prose and back again.
“I write poetry and fiction,” says the writer, who has three collections of poetry and three novels to her name.
Novels, she admits, are projects which require going “underground” for a long period of time. “And they take a lot out of me,” she says. That was a reason that after finishing Small Days… she was reluctant to go immediately into another prose project.
“Poetry allows me to a different kind of existence. I’m able to do many things and I’m able to be slightly above ground,” she says, with a laugh. “My next will be a book of poems.”
Is it difficult to move between the two? I ask.
“They are different,” admits the writer, who writes long hand with a fountain pen on paper. “But at one level for me it is language, so whether I am writing a poem or fiction, I am still paying attention to some of the same things. It’s just that the form is different.”
Tishani includes many aspects of both in any piece that she is working on “because I work in both forms, I don’t necessarily divide them as such although I agree that if you read my poems there is a distinct form, while if you read my prose you will find elements of poetry in it although it is still fiction. However, it is not a verse novel or anything like that.”
Tishani’s first novel, The Pleasure Seekers (2012), surely was no verse novel. If anything it had the tender feel of a family history with the two protagonists sharing several similarities to her own parents. Celebrating the love of a couple who belong to two very diverse backgrounds and cultures, it also posed the question on the minds of most expats and immigrants: where is home?
“I wanted to write a story about a kind of hybrid family, a multicultural family; I myself come from such a family,” she says, adding she wanted to explore “what it feels like to have one foot here and another foot there”.
Tishani’s father is Gujarati, and mother Welsh and the couple decided to stay in India and make their life here “at a time when most people would go to the West because that was the sensible economic choice.”
The author, who is married to Italian journalist and writer Carlo Pizzati, says she was piqued by the reasons some Westerners chose to come to India – it was not because they were Indophiles or interested in spirituality (common reasons people usually visit India) “but because [they] happened to fall in love with an Indian and wanted to make [their] life here.
“I also wanted to examine the nature of feeling like an outsider, what it means to leave your family behind, the loneliness…”
She admits there is some autobiography in the book. “This is a novel that comes from life. It is a tender love story of desire, independence, choices… I was interested in the fact that my parents come from quite conservative families – my father, from a Jain Gujarati family, was the first person to go abroad, to London to study, while my mother comes from a little place where nobody had even seen a brown person, forget getting married to one. Yet they made this very cosmopolitan decision about their lives at a time when it was rare to do so.”
She believes there is something to rejoice in the fact that her parents have been married for 50 years. “To me, that was such a great love story. There were all chances of the marriage failing, but it succeeded.”
Perhaps because the story was so close to her heart, the outpouring of her emotions was poignant, powerful and persuasive, clearly overwhelming the critics. The UK’s Independent gushed that Tishani’s writing “…sparkles with exuberance”; the book “charms its readers” and the “episodic narrative has a carnivalesque feel”.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Tishani’s dream is to keep writing. “I’d like to do this [writing] for the rest of my life. I want to create a shelf of books with my name on it. This is my calling,” says the writer, who is working on a collection of poems, which she hopes to finish this year end. Her next work of prose will be a memoir. “It will be about dance and the body,” she says.
Since autobiographical references frequently find their way into Tishani’s works, I ask if her experiences and life in the UAE might figure in any of her books soon?
“Living in Abu Dhabi for more than a year now has given me a lens to look and examine my home [in India] in an interesting way,” she says.
“But places take some time to seep into your work. This is a very cosmopolitan place at one level and I am not racing to fit it in. But I hope something will come through.”
Would the fear of a pandemic figure in a future novel?
“I’m not sure. I do write about fear in small ways of life. Fear is universal in the sense that once something comes to mind, it begins to work on the imagination in such a powerful way that it is very difficult to separate what appears logical from what feels outlandish.
“In my book I write about violence, specifically about gender violence in India within the context there. I’m very interested in knowing about the nature of fear and how it works because at one level it doesn’t matter if it’s irrational because once it is inside you it is real. I’m interested in how fear works; the sense of mass psychosis and how we act as a community; how the individual is part of the community and when everyone has a certain fear how it affects us, a society. These are things that I have thought about fear and not specifically as a fear of, say, a Covid-19 scenario. I’d like to explore how we can create a society where we can get rid of that fear… where we can have true equality.”
Collaboration with cricketer Muralitharan
“I did work with [Sri Lankan cricketer Muthaiah] Muralitharan for a while. I had done some journalistic pieces around him and hoped to be part of the biography of his and had done a lot of research – on his family, his school life, and on what it means to be a Tamil cricketer in Sri Lanka, his humanitarian initiatives. But the book did not happen. Apart from his cricketing career, he is also a very interesting figure.”