Dance and Discipline

Prize-winning poet Tishani Doshi tells Janet Phillips about the extraordinary meeting which influenced her first collection

The day before she flew to London to attend the Forward Prize ceremony, Tishani Doshi had been performing at the Frankfurt Book Fair. But she hadn't been performing her poems, nor reading from her forthcoming novel, nor the biography of the cricketer, Muttiah Muralitharan, to which she has contributed. In fact, she'd been dancing. And dance, the discipline of dance, and the person who introduced her to it, provide a key to Countries of the Body, the book which won her the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

We are sitting in the basement of the Poetry Café and she is sipping tea, petite and delicate on the blue sofa in the corner which now seems vast compared to her dancer's frame. At Frankfurt, she explains, she was part of a group performing the choreography of the legendary South Indian dancer Chandralekha. She met Chandralekha (known as Chandra) five years ago in Madras, Tishani's hometown, when Tishani was 26 and Chandra was 75. "It was to be the most important relationship of my life," she tells me. The meeting came about after Tishani had started taking Martial Arts lessons at the same theatre at which Chandra worked. "Writing is very sedentary: you sit and it's all in, in, in. I wanted an out", she explains. It happened that Chandra was looking for a dancer to join her group, and Tishani's instructor suggested they meet. At first, Tishani was unsure. "She was quite intimidating. She had this white hair and a big dark bindi and I thought, why do I have to meet this woman?" But the meeting literally changed her life. "It's a very Eastern idea that you don't go looking for a teacher, and that when you are ready for it someone will come into your life", she reflects. "It felt very much like that with Chandra". Tishani had only made the decision to leave London, where she had lived and worked since finishing her studies in America, a month before. As well as a desire to return home and find space to write, "partly it was about trying to make myself open to something else," she says.

Chandralekha grew up in pre-Independence India, she "rejected all institutions", never married, travelled widely – including spending some time in a Zen temple in Japan and attending the first Woodstock Festival – and worked as an activist, painter, poet, dancer and choreographer. "We could talk about anything", Tishani explains. "She was so open, and I opened out to her. Because of that it had an effect on my writing".

The writing was affected not only by this openness to new ideas, but also by the physical stamina needed by a dancer. "I'd never imposed a discipline on myself before, other than creating a space in which to write", Tishani says. "With Chandra you placed a demand on your body which seeped into the work. I became much more disciplined in what I ate and drank. I had to do this, in order to spend three hours every day in the theatre really working and making my body do things that it had never done before. Then I thought, OK, I have to do the same with my writing". She goes on to explain: "People say you have to wait for poetic inspiration but no, you have to write every single day for any number of hours. I thought, I'm going to change the way I live. Writing is going to be my art, and nothing else is important like this is important".

It is not surprising, then, that the body came to be the theme for Tishani's first collection. "I see the body as this repository of great joy and divinity: when you are performing you are presenting something perfect", she says. "But at its most mundane the body is always disappointing you and letting you down." Perhaps this is why several poems here entertain the idea of swapping bodies, or parts of bodies, to try to make the whole better, or to imagine a "parallel life". In the title poem, "...two women will lead each other out of a country / To sort out wombs, scars, faces, exchange the others for her own...". Other poems strive to reconnect the intellectual with the physical: "The body collects its wandering parts, / Leans back through layers / Of thickening water… / It's how the world reverses itself / How the distant sky finds the earth" ('What the Body Knows').

Another of the poems in the book won the British Council's All India Poetry Prize (for a poem written in English). 'The Day We Went To The Sea' was written in Madras after the tsunami of 2004. "It was one of those poems where you have a triggering image which stays with you," she explains. In this case it is a woman on the beach: "I saw a woman hold / The tattered edge of the world / In her hand, look past the temple / Which was still standing, as she was – / Miraculously whole in the debris of gaudy / South Indian sun..." Here Tishani captures the scale of the devastation and the sheer will needed to bring some kind of order back again. It is one of many evocative poems set in Madras (she prefers this name to the alternative Chennai), a setting she returns to often. "Madras has not been written about so much in fiction," she says. "I feel I owe it to this place which I love, and sometimes get annoyed with." In 'Homecoming' she powerfully combines the bustle of the city – drums, fisherwomen, cats,  bangles, scooters – with poverty: "I forgot how a man dying under the body / Of a tattered boat can ask for promises / How they can be as soundless as the sea..."

Despite being brought up in Madras, English is Tishani's first language and the one she feels most comfortable with. However, she is surrounded by different languages. Her mother is Welsh and her father's family is Gujarati. The state language is Tamil, and at school she also learnt Hindi, the most widely-spoken language in India. She regrets not knowing an Indian language as well as she knows English. But English was the language used predominantly both at school and at home.

Countries of the Body is published by Aark Arts which has offices in Delhi as well as London and Toronto. Its director, Sudeep Sen, had read Tishani's journalism and contacted Tishani to ask her to send him a manuscript. This was a happy outcome after five years of looking for a publisher in the UK, something which had not worked out even after Tishani won an Eric Gregory Award in 2001. "I'd lived with these poems for more than five years. I wasn't writing anything new, I wasn't excited about anything, it was like I was carrying this weight around," she admits. "But once it was published, I immediately thought of a theme for a new collection. It was just a question of freeing up the hard drive!"

The new collection will take a different, more spiritual direction. But before that, she has the publication of her first novel, The Pleasureseekers, to look forward to next year. There is a terrible poignancy to these last six months of change too, though. Sadly, after a long period of ill health, Chandralekha died last December. Not only is this a huge loss, but it also leaves a "question mark" hanging over the dancing career. "I will miss it so much if I don't have dance in my life", Tishani says. "But Chandra wouldn't have believed in us doing the same piece over and over again. And I wouldn't want to work with just any other choreographer." There is no immediate decision to be made, however, and this summer Tishani will dance in Salzburg, Switzerland and Amsterdam, performing the pieces Chandralekha choreographed for the troupe, in tribute to her life. After that, "I just have to be open, I guess, and see what happens". Perhaps another teacher will materialize. Or perhaps this prize-winning writer has now reached the stage where she can confidently rely on herself.

Poetry News Spring 2007