Hubert Burda Media

STYLE AND SUBSTANCE

Don't judge a writer by her designer labels, TISHANI DOSHI says

STYLE AND SUBSTANCE

AN EXCERPT FROM Samuel Beckett’s most celebrated play, Waiting for Godot, starring a couple of vagrants:

VLADIMIR: Did you ever read the Bible ... Do you remember the Gospels?

ESTRAGON: I remember the maps of the Holy Land ... Very pretty. The Dead Sea was pale blue ... That’s where we’ll go, I used to say, that’s where we’ll go for our honeymoon. We’ll swim. We’ll be happy.

VLADIMIR: You should have been a poet.

ESTRAGON: I was. [Gestures towards his rags.] Isn’t that obvious?

There may linger in the popular imagination the notion that poets should wear their hearts on ragged sleeves and bear the privations of draughty attics, stale bread and boots held together with elastic bands lest they be considered insincere devotees of the power of verse.

But while the economics of the calling may habitually prove that there’s too much month for the money, 21st-century poets see no need to apologise for a dash of glamour here and a healthy dollop of style there, or three months a year on the road illuminating international literary festivals and enlivening company conferences. Well, at least one of them doesn’t.

In fairness, Tishani Doshi, half-Indian, half-Welsh, poet, novelist, dancer, journalist, Harpers & Queen fashion-magazine alumnus and joint biographer of cricket luminary Muttiah Muralitharan, couldn’t “do” the fabled poet’s rags if the poet laureateship depended on it. She has been known to star most elegantly in a Port magazine fashion shoot clad in Ralph Lauren, Armani and Hermès, styled, made-up and coiffured – and as a result has found herself in grave danger of giving poets a good name.

Although her default mode of dress at her beach house 80km south of Chennai may be rumpled casual – “most of the time I live in pyjamas and glasses, barefoot on the sand; my husband can attest to my ruffian nature,” she tells the Goa Writers and Readers Festival – Doshi sees nothing remiss in adding a soupçon of sparkle to her author’s uniform. Asked impertinently if poetry can be that difficult a vocation if Armani and company are sponsoring the costumes, she mounts a robust defence: “There’s this idea that glamour and poetry [clash]; that in order to be something you have to look a certain way – and that bothers me,” she says.

“You know, I like fashion. I like style. I have a particular taste that I embrace; I live in colourful waistcoats, or whatever. That’s something separate from me being a poet; but if being a true poet means walking around with my jhola bag in my Fabindia outfit, I can do that too. You don’t have to put poets in any particular box, and as a woman that’s another layer of irritation.”

Teasing aside, Doshi’s poetry, whatever she wears to write it, proved the real source of her initial celebrity. Debut collection Countries of the Body took the 2006 Forward Poetry Prize and was dedicated to the dancer Chandralekha, as was her second volume, 2012’s Everything Begins Elsewhere. After seven years in the United States and London, Doshi had gone back to Chennai, later admitting: “I didn’t want a real job, but time to write.” There she met the near-legendary, “intimidating” Chandralekha, who became her “best friend and guru. She made me so much more open to new ideas,” says Doshi. “We could talk about anything.”

She toured the world with the Chandralekha Troupe, becoming its leading dancer; and although her mentor died in 2006, Doshi, 39, remains close to her. “She’s still there,” she says. “If you have someone who is a massive influence in your life, even if they die, they’re still present, it’s just that you don’t have the daily dialogue and you move on in different directions.

“The poems [in Everything Begins Elsewhere] are very much a continuation of those in Countries of the Body and I felt it was right to offer again to Chandra, because there are lots of nods to her once more.”

Between collections Doshi published her first novel, The Pleasure Seekers, a fictionalised version of her parents’ story, one of conflicting cultures and defiant love, which was a contender for the Orange Prize and the IMPAC Dublin award. And last year saw the arrival of novella Fountainville, whose unusual genesis lay in Doshi’s ethnicity.

“That was a lovely project,” she says. “The book is based on the myth of the Lady of the Fountain, which is part of the Mabinogion.”

“‘The Mabby what?’ you may ask. The Mabinogion is a collection of medieval Welsh folk tales; I was asked to contribute to a wonderful series asking writers to respond to each of its myths and retell one any way they wanted. I was nervous saying yes, because it’s difficult to meddle with other people’s work – I know how aggravated people get when foreigners write about Indian stories.

“But it’s also important that outsiders do this because you’re not so attached to the subject matter. I had never read the Mabinogion; my Welsh mother had never read it. Now it’s having a big resurgence in Wales and they’re such weird, wonderful, magical stories that say so much about national identity. It was interesting for me to retell the Lady of the Fountain myth in my own way; so now it has opium dens, surrogacy clinics and an anti-hero. It turns the story on its head.”

Doshi admits that she has “always been bothered by issues connected to identity and place”, although marriage, in January last year, to Swiss-Italian journalist and novelist Carlo Pizzati, has resulted in a life, if not less peripatetic, then at least lived in tandem on and off the road.

“It just so happened that I met someone exactly like me, a nomad writer happy to have the same lifestyle,” she says. “Now we spend most of our time in India and for the rest we travel, together. It’s been much easier than I thought to accommodate each other’s routines – because we’re both self-employed slash unemployed!”