INTERVIEWED BY NIKITA BISWAL
Photo courtesy: Tishani Doshi
IN PARAMANKENI, a little-known village a few hours from Chennai, Tishani Doshi lives on the beach. Her desk, which had belonged to her grandfather, is in her bedroom, where it faces a wall, with the sea, “large and wide”, to her left. As she shares here, life on the coast isn’t quite as idyllic as one imagines. Outside her door, skeletons of fish can be found strewn among the litter of shells, where her dogs sit and laze in the photographs she shares with me. The setting evokes the landscape of her writing, a spirited body of poetry, novels and essays, where transformations are spectacular, but real, possible.
Part-Welsh, part-Gujarati, Doshi undertakes close explorations of questions of belonging in her work. Her Forward-Prize-winning debut, Countries of the Body, has been followed by the success of four other collections of poetry, two novels, and a novella, though not in that order. “Caustic and comic”, Aingeal Clare writes of her most recent collection, A God at the Door in The Guardian. Among other critical acclaims, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods was shortlisted for the prestigious Ted Hughes Poetry Award in 2019. Both her novels, The Pleasure Seekers and Small Days and Nights, were nominated for a list of honours and the latter went on to become an Irish Times Book of the Year 2019. What runs through these distinct works is a language, perhaps best described by Maaza Mengiste as “a blade, cutting through our defenses to illuminate what it means to love, and forgive, and truly exist in the life we have”. In her mid-20s, Doshi found another, unexpected disposition – dance – which evolved into a career under the guidance of the noted dancer and choreographer, Chandralekha. Doshi serves as visiting faculty of Practice, Literature and Creative Writing at New York University in Abu Dhabi, from where she spoke to me.
On the first of three occasions, she was at the writing desk in her apartment, which doubles up as the dining table. It was early in the morning in New York from where I called her, late afternoon in Abu Dhabi, and these ideas of time and place steered our conversations. We spoke at length about what spaces bring to the writing and how the practice is affected by travel and movement, both recreational, and the everyday, the walking, the stretching, and the occasional swim in the sea.
This transcript is an abridged version of the original interview.
NB: What brought you to Paramankeni?
TD: I have always been somebody who loved the sea and for me it’s the thing that made the city special. As a child I remember going to Marina Beach on Sundays, sometimes with cousins, the little merry-go-round and candy floss, or going for picnics, driving down the coast and swimming. For me, that still remains the most well-spent day – a day at the beach where you swim and you have been in the sand and the salt, and then you fall into bed at night with this happy feeling of being alive. For me, that’s been my dream – I wanted to live by the ocean. But then living there has been unexpected. It has also brought me closer to death in so many ways. It’s never static, it’s always changing. But what is always there is the sea. The sea is constant, like a kind of breath.
NB: Do you think living here enables you to pursue the kind of work you are interested in, or does the material follow the inspiration?
TD: I’ve definitely been very productive living in Paramankeni, partly because there is not that much to do and nowhere to go, so it’s a kind of cocoon that shifts time. There is this sense of being slightly away from the hectic. There’s a beautiful landscape all around, but it is dangerous and scary as well. That’s very potent. The point is when you are writing, it’s about inhabiting a third place, which doesn’t necessarily have to do with the place that you are in, even though that does feed into what you are thinking about. There are some places that are more conducive than others, but when write, you are entering another landscape, and that is the landscape of the poem or the book that is being built as you go.
I wrote a lot last year here in Abu Dhabi, which is not a landscape I find easy to enter or understand. I have been here for some time now and I’m still a little perplexed. I have not necessarily found points of entry in ways. But I wrote so much here during the start of the pandemic for the three months that I was here, when we weren’t allowed to go out. Right now, I am looking out at mostly desert, some buildings, a little patch of water, a building site that’s coming up with holes in the ground that look like empty graves. It really comes down to where you are in your head with what you are trying to create. I remember writing Small Days and Nights in Paramankeni and it was very front and centre to the process of actually being there, because the novel was about the atmosphere and landscape of that place. It’s a novel about days unfolding in this small town and the claustrophobia of that, so living there helped to write the novel. But I don’t think that it’s necessary. Honestly, the possibility to write can happen anywhere, but it depends on how you can create it in your mind and bring it to the page.
NB: As a writer, do you find it important to cultivate a kind of life that lends itself to the work?
TD: Yes. Well, two things. You need to live so you need to figure out how to live, so there is an economic side to being able to write which is something that all artists deal with. The other thing is making space for it. There is a fair amount of retreating from life that needs to happen in order to write. But then life is sometimes so appealing and so wonderfully distracting that you want to participate in it. You don’t want to constantly be away from it. You also want to have ideas for what to write about and so, it’s really about creating this distance. For me, it’s also to do with noise. I like quiet places to write – I find noise very distracting. I find it important to be able to keep things at bay to some degree because you can’t just say, I am going to do all this stuff and have two hours in between when I am going to work on my novel, because it takes this whole run up before you get to those two hours.
What I’ve understood is that my big Achilles’ heel, as it were, is that I have loved travel in my life. I have really loved the ability to go to places, wander around, lose my sense of self, find my sense of self. If I get an opportunity to travel, then I’ve generally taken it and that has been quite detrimental. What you need is continuity. It’s not just one afternoon, especially for a novel. You need day after day after day after day after day after day and that has to be the most important thing. It doesn’t work then if you go for a weekend trip somewhere. When you come back you’ve lost the hook, and then you might take a week to find your way back in again. You’ve set yourself back. At the same time, you can’t just not do anything. But you have to know where you’ll be in the creative process in advance to be able to say yes, and it’s very hard to predict these things. In general, most writers who manage their productivity need to know when they need to be still and when they can move. That’s a difficult balance. If you have other jobs that anchor you in some ways, then you can say I won’t beat myself up if I am not working during that time. But it’s not like you have a nine to five everyday. My life is divided into months where I am more still and months where I am quite garrulous and open, like “Hello world!”. And then I say, “Okay goodbye now”. I work with that dynamic. Paramankeni definitely helps me in that way to mark my retreat.
NB: How do you cut between this need to keep the world with its distractions at a distance, and this need to experience it, which in turn can fuel the writing?
TD: It usually comes through certain opportunities, as I’ve had with dance or writing. Mostly I have gone to places because I had a purpose first, for a performance or a festival, and then I’ve stayed on and made a trip out of it. I’ve always been quite utilitarian in that sense. It would always be the invitation to take me to the place and then I would use that as a jumping off point. But I guess there’s also the question of what you’re working on. I feel that urgency comes very much with the project itself. When I am writing poems there’s a real lightness to the process because I work on individual poems. I don’t work with book themes. The novel form in that sense is much more demanding because it does require a greater staying power and certain abstinences and fealties. You can’t be doing other things more than you are working on your novel. That has to be the main thing. The novel requires you to go into a particular timezone. It’s like a tunnel that you then have to stay in. If you keep popping out and doing this and that, you are going to be very disoriented. At least, that’s been my experience. Whereas essays and poetry call for a few days of sustained work, and then you can take a breather and go out and do things before you come back. For me, it has to do with the form that I am working with.
NB: Do you write when you travel?
TD: I have tried. There is some kind of travel which is very much about the experience, so then I am not necessarily writing. But there are some instances where I am not at my writing desk, but I set up a writing desk somewhere else. I find that very important, to be able to set up a little corner and a space and a routine. I am somebody who works on routine, who eats breakfast, lunch, dinner, with a tea time in between. I love routine. I love the discipline of it and I love the grounding that it gives. I am not somebody who forgets to eat and who gets carried away with what they are doing. I am a bit of a machine in that sense. I need to sleep and I need to eat to keep it well-oiled.
I have also had the good fortune of going to a couple of writer’s retreats. That’s a real gift – to have a residency. Writers get giddy with excitement that somebody is going to feed them. It’s the realisation that I don’t have to cook, I have some company at the end of the day and the rest of the time I don’t need to answer to anybody. Those are wonderful things. What you are trying to do is always create this space in life, in a very literal sense too. I am not somebody who can work in cafés. I need a door and I need to close it. I don’t need a view. I just need to be not approachable. If I am away from my desk and if I want to write then I need to have that, a place that I can call my spot, whether it’s a chair or a bed.
NB: What is this routine like on a typical day?
TD: When I am really working, I tend to wake up quite early. I like to walk in the morning and then after breakfast, I am essentially at my desk and I work till lunch, which is at one. Lunchtime is really the cut-off and then my day slides after that. Not much writing happens after lunch. It’s the time that I read, I answer emails. Again, I go out in the evening for a walk. The walk – a physical aspect is really important for writing. I need to feel that I am doing something with my body. Before, when I was dancing regularly, that was something I did in the morning, but that cut into my writing time. So I would get up earlier and squeeze in as much as I could. I don’t really look at anything else for the rest of the day. I might reread something I’ve written before I go to bed, and if I am working on an essay or a piece I can come back to it later in the day, but it’s the morning that really I am so possessive about. I am not somebody who likes to make plans for lunch, because then the whole morning gets spoiled because you are thinking about going to lunch.
NB: Has creating a cocoon for yourself by the coast allowed you to keep this kind of time, an artist’s time as it were?
TD: It has helped a lot. It’s not an easy space to be in because it can be quite alienating and lonely. There’s nothing to jolt the day out with some adventure so you begin to look at the landscape and the people in it as the only changing qualities. A long time ago, I had a real change of attitude towards cities. I am not just talking about Madras, but cities in general. I felt that they are expensive and that they were not, to my mind, offering enough to make it worth living there. I understood that what I was looking for were very different things. I wanted to have a sense of peace and quiet. I wanted not to be worried constantly about money every time I went out. I wanted to be free of that to some degree. Cities are magical places. They are places where some wonderful people collect and there is an energy and an alchemy that you can get so much from. But they are also depleting. There is this sense of being really beaten down by the daily grind. I did that for a long time too. I thought, if I have the choice, I would gladly have the city at a distance that I can visit when I need that jolt of electricity, but I don’t need it for my daily life.
Cities often impose their speed on you and it’s very difficult to hold your tempo of slowness if everyone around you is frenetic. When you leave the city, the tempo changes, and so you can grow into that expanded version of time. Sometimes that time can be overwhelming, and I think, what am I doing here? Is it going to overcome me? It’s too much! We do need something to fill time, a little eavesdropping in a café or some kind of adventure on the street or an interesting face while people-watching – just something! So it’s not an entirely rose-tinted, romantic, sentimental idea of a place. It’s also about grappling with the difficulty that you are not at the centre of where things are happening, the centre of our societies, that you out on the circumference and are perhaps being forgotten. In some way, I want this to be the centre. I want this to be the nucleus, and if I am lucky enough to be able to travel from it from time to time, then that is the most wonderful combination for me.
NB: In some way then, does it challenge the myth of the sedentary, hermitage of a life that writers are often made out to lead?
TD: Yes. Our coastlines are our most challenged ecosystems and to live on the coast, means to be acutely aware of the changes that are happening on the planet, with sea levels rising, erosion, environmental pollution, all the garbage that gets chucked into the ocean and gets chucked out. The fact that millions and millions of people are going to be displaced because of these problems. To live on the sea means to know that. You hold a sense of fragility and transience. You don’t have a sense of permanence. There is never a sense of this is how it is going to be always. This is how it is now. There is always death strewn on the shore, whether it’s the turtles that get caught in the fishermen’s nets or the dead animals that are drowned. Death is not hidden. I see these various stages of rigor mortis and decomposition every day when I go for a walk. Sometimes I just cover them up with sand. Then you see this whole ecosystem – the crows and the crabs come. So there is also life in the death. It’s remarkable to watch that and feel yourself moving towards it ultimately. I have never felt my sense of mortality as much as I have living by the sea. It’s a constant reminder of your aliveness and that each day is moving you closer to the end. I don’t think of it with morbidity, it’s just the way it is.
There is a particular beauty to this coast, the underlying aquifers and the many, many lakes and the migrating birds. An aerial view of this place will show all these little blue teardrops strewn among fields and you realise you are so privileged to be living in this place. And if you read the Sangam poetry of 2000 years ago they are naming these plants and flowers! You are living in that environment, you are living in these poems. There is a great thrill in this continuity and connection between the environment and emotional landscape. Luckily, there are people who are working and writing about the environment and trying to conserve this space. I definitely feel like I am perched on a piece of paradise, but that it is one of those sinking sands, those mud pits that suck you in. It is not firm or stable ground. Your life is infused both with a great sense of “Here is my day and I am going to fill it like this”, but also a sense of “How many days will we have?”
NB: In your writing, is there a similar deliberation to shifting this centre, particularly in Indian fiction written in English, from the urban, cosmopolitan to the margins?
TD: No, not really. I don’t have such grand ideas when I think about the project of fiction. I’ve written two novels and a novella, which was a retelling of a Welsh myth, and both of the novels have been rooted in Tamil Nadu, in and around the city of Madras, but scattered in the locations that I’ve spent time in. I don’t think that I am writing to highlight any particular geography as such. Small Days and Nights came about in the way that it did because of my personal experience, but I also felt that it resonated with other external ideas around me. I feel that there is always a very strong sense that the centre of where things are happening is in the big cities, and I would even go so far as to say that, in India, that is in Delhi or Bombay. Madras, a big city of eight or nine million, doesn’t hold the same weight. But it’s never been a way to speak back to that. I don’t think that’s the impulse at all. I am interested in the construct of what is the centre and how we position ourselves within it in a fictional world. What are the roles we play in society and how does society see us? How does that prism shift if you are, in fact, not living at the centre? These questions of belonging and finding one’s location have been very interesting to me.
NB: What is the impulse when you begin?
TD: My motivations for writing depend on certain triggers. Poems come from a certain area. Essays are always about things that I have in mind and am trying to understand, and it’s by writing them that I feel like I have arrived somewhere. And fiction, it is still mysterious to me why one would want to write a novel. It’s not like poetry, which is always there. With fiction, I think “Ugh, do I really want to get into that?” I had ten years between both novels but I published two books of poetry and this novella in between, so I have been happily going in whichever direction the inspiration takes me. I feel like when I am ready for it the idea that I have in mind will call for the bigger canvas of the novel.
In both my novels, I have been interested in different iterations of love. Ultimately, that’s the big idea for me. What do we put at the center of our lives?
NB: Is there a unifying tendency to the ways you work across these different forms?
TD: I wish I were a person who could begin and just keep going. But I am, in fact, a person who begins and then stops, and then goes back and begins and stops, and then takes a big run up and tries to keep up. Particularly with prose, I sometimes feel like I get tangled up. Because the scale of poems is smaller somehow, I feel like I can see the end and so I can give myself that breath to push through. A lot of the times, I either try to arrive at what I am trying to say too quickly and I try to stop myself and stay in it, or I get derailed by a thought process where I am interested in five different ideas at the same time. If you lose the clarity with which you initially started, you lose your way. As a writer, I know what I would like to do is begin and go through with it in one breath to understand the initial project before I go back, rather than being so precious about getting everything just so. So that’s an annoying tic about the way that I write that I would like to change.
I do write a lot longhand and that helps, partly because it slows down the thought process. You are writing a little slower than you could on a computer and with that there is also the lack of permanence of seeing it on the screen. It’s more tuned in to the body – the pen and the head and the heart and the hand – everything is more aligned. It also feels okay if you have to discard it, it doesn’t have that same weight as when you put it on the computer.
NB: Within this process, when do you know that you have arrived at the beginning?
TD: The thing is if you have the wrong beginning, you get stuck. I find this with every kind of writing – even if I am writing an email sometimes. I feel like I invest so much in beginnings. If you have the right beginning then the whole thing can flow out of it. But often, I realise where I start with something, that’s not actually the beginning. That actually needs to go way at the bottom, and everything before it is just throat clearing. It is through the act of writing that we understand that. I intuitively understand that the reason I keep going back is because this is not the right beginning and I have to find another way in. It’s a fascinating process, writing and revision and editing, but ultimately it’s about finding the place for everything – the right place.
NB: What are the challenges there, when you are restructuring as you go?
TD: Eventually, I try to finish a draft and leave it aside for a while. With novels, I leave it aside without looking at it for few months and then come back to it. Obviously with fresh eyes you are able to see what’s leaping out at you, what you are excited about, what’s opaque or dull. With poems, it’s different. I am a bit more obsessive and I work until I have a sense of closure. That period of rest is really important. At the same time, if you leave something for too long, it loses momentum. It really has to do with time. We write in certain periods of our lives in certain ways, and if you spend many years writing a novel where your voice changes over time and the novel doesn’t have that full flush of continuity, it comes to belong to different time zones. That’s not what I want. The ideal way for me to read a novel is to sit on the couch, start a novel and read it to the end, so it would need to feel to the reader that the novelist just sat down and wrote the novel in one breath. It doesn’t show the ravages or the difficulty of time because it appears seamless. For writers, the challenge is to maintain that sense of continuity, to make it feel that the novel has been written in that way, even though it definitely hasn’t.
NB: How do you train that sense of continuity when you are working on a longer project?
TD: It’s about how long you can actually stay in the world that you are creating. I think a lot of the times the difficulty is interruptions to your daily practice of writing. If you’re writing every day and you’re in this world every day the chances are that that continuity will be intact. If you then have a break in the middle of writing, you may not go back to the same place where you were. That sense of your position in the novel as the writer may not be the same. You might be standing too far or too close or to the left or the right. You’re not in that exact spot. Interruptions are lethal in that sense. If you write something in different periods, then you might have a big revision to try to ease it all out. It’s a lot of work. Even talking about it now, it’s so tiring and I am thinking god, why do people write novels!
NB: In your work, you write very closely to your own life. What are the difficulties when you are writing something that you know so intimately?
TD: I think that all writers are autobiographical writers whether or not they want to admit it. We write about the things we care about in life. I don’t mean so crudely as to say that characters are inspired by real people or events of your life but that we draw from life in whatever kind of work we do. There is always human emotion at the heart of it, that comes from your experience as a person living in the world. Whether you’re doing satire or auto-fiction, those concerns are quite apparent. I have never been a person who has found that difficult because I don’t think I’ve tried to say that this has nothing to do with my life. But I do think that fiction is a very different project from life. And when people, especially people who know you, start to look for certain hints and clues in your book, I do find that extremely annoying. I understand it, but that is not the point. Honestly, I think that’s why I want my next book to be a memoir. Margaret Atwood has that lovely quote about the gingerbread man. It’s about how a little bit of blood in the gingerbread man makes him come alive. I like that sense of investing your gingerbread character with a little bit of blood from your life. That relationship between memory and imagination opens up the magic within fiction. When I think of working with memory, which I would say every fiction writer is thinking about and relying upon in some way or other, I think of how much we invest it with the idea of truth, when we know that in fact we remember things the way we want to remember them. People growing up in the same families have different accounts of what happened. Our memories are unreliable. We are all fiction writers in that sense. I think that you can write as close or as far from your life as you want – you find your distance – but that is also a position. The idea that the ‘I’ doesn’t exist is false. I go into it thinking how powerful it is to be able to create and invest an entire world of whatever mix you’ve got in your bag, in whatever ratio, and sustain it for 300 or 500 or 150 pages. To me, that is remarkable.
NB: When you are closest to it, how hard is it to ask those questions?
TD: Actually, I wrote a piece recently for a book examining the idea of summer in Wales. I asked my mother for some childhood memories but she fobbed me off, so I asked her brother and one of her childhood friends. I told them I am writing this essay and I need specifics because I didn’t grow up there. I needed to know what plants are thriving in summer, and what games did they play as children in that small northern Welsh village in summer. I was respectful of the fact that my mother didn’t feel like doing it, so I had to find another way in, by speaking to the people who shared that world with her. I am really interested in how memories can layer one top of the other. For instance, there was Rhona’s memory of the farmer picking both of them up and putting them on a cow and walking them to school, or picking bluebells, or daring each other to jump off hay bales. When you hear people who are so invested in their memories speak about them, they begin to come alive in a way. There is a kind of incantatory power about this experience. There is the notion of memory as personal but then there is memory that is collective, particularly with collective trauma or collective joy. It feels like this rich source of material that we are connected with.
NB: The book you mentioned working on, is this your memoir about Chandralekha?
TD: I am not working on it. I would like to be working on it. I haven’t started. But yes, it is about the body and dance and Chandra. I have been going back and doing a long run up with this project for years now. The fact is I don’t know where to begin. I don’t have a form for it. I don’t have a container. I don’t know how I can just start writing it. I think my particular problem is that I am so emotionally invested in this that it feels like I am never going to do it. When I write essays on this, it’s a way of flexing my muscles. For me, a lot of it is figuring out the form and structure and then to just stop talking about it and write it.
NB: What does that look like on the page? Do you do that work in your mind or do you begin writing, rip the Band-Aid and see?
TD: I am just thinking about it. It’s there at the back of my head. I feel like I am waiting for some kind of Aha! moment which may not come. I love to read other people’s work and try to see whether I will find something in there that would be useful for me, like a structure, a way that somebody else has unlocked it, to know where to begin, because it is such a large subject. It’s got so many dimensions. It’s really a question of unlocking the form because I know my content more or less. It’s not like a novel where, at least for me, there is a lot of wandering around in the dark. I know what I want to write here but I don’t know how I want to present this information. The shape is it. It’s the main thing and I have not found it yet.
NB: Do you find it helpful to read as you write?
TD: Oh yes. I find it really hard to try to write in a kind of vacuum. I have always been interested in how different writers speak to one another, and am unafraid of being “influenced”. Maybe earlier, when I was younger, I felt that suddenly I was trying to write like Márquez, or Toni Morrison, but after a point you move beyond the imitative. You have so much to learn from people who have written and who continue to write. You could be reading a poem and it could unlock something for you. Why would I deprive myself? I think originality is overrated. People have been writing for a very long time, across different cultures, in different languages, and around the same topics. It’s really about the possibility of transformation. If you read something and it gets you excited about the possibilities of fiction or poetry, you get to go back and inject your writing with some of that. It’s a large resource. So I want to be reading all the time, I want to be reading a lot, I want to be reading deeply, not just thematically, but purely to be in awe of style or language. The surest way to unlock something is to be reading something that I really love. I am not threatened by it.
NB: Are there particular books that you go back to?
TD: Yes, lots and lots. I think in terms of novels, I don’t really go back and reread novels, but there are certain novels that somehow become guiding lights for a particular book. With poetry, it’s always shifting. I think what’s exciting is that’s you are shifting and with that comes shifting voices. There is a serendipity to how they just fall in. I always think of the dashboards in taxis with all these different gods that are just there, and I like to think that when you are writing you should have a dashboard. But instead of the gods, you get to have these books that are traveling with you.
NB: We spoke about movement earlier, in that larger mode of traveling across spaces, but also in the more routine, smaller mode of walking and stretching. What does this second movement bring to your writing?
TD: There’s always some kind of understanding between emoting and being still. I like to begin most days with a walk. I don’t always get to do it but I’ve started doing it again now since the weather is not so crushingly hot here in Abu Dhabi. I find that pace of walking in the morning leads me into the day. It’s a question of creating a kind of energy between the body and the brain and using that energy to then propel the work. It works in two ways, one is in a purely physical fashion where energy begets energy. Then there is the quest to create movement and stillness within narrative.
I am also very interested in stillness as a dancer because Chandra worked in a particular mode where she used a very slowed down tempo. The movements were almost unnaturally slow. As a writer, how do you create a scene like that, where you might have nothing much happening but there is still a sense of reverberation or frisson, even if it’s set around a dining table, in that mundane act, the small things that fill up the small days and nights. Those accretions of life also build in momentum and dip. Figuring out how to do that in fiction is interesting because you are not always operating at one tempo. I am not really interested in the idea of crescendo or climax. I am much more interested in the small epiphanies, the little darts of color, the little windows, the flashes of clarity, because the way that I have experienced life has never been in a Beethoven symphony. My experience of daily living is in these repeated series of actions and events. I try not be mechanized by them, but inevitably there is that press of the mechanical which pushes you. So how do you make alternative space? Within those day-to-day actions, there is the possibility for introspection, so even the quietest of moments can explode off the page if you know that the character has had news or an epiphany of some sort. Even if they are only darning a sock, there is still the possibility to invest that very boring moment with a lot of energy. I am interested in investing those scenes and characters with that rise and fall of tempo, the clip-clop-clip-clop.
NB: Do you feel you could write without such movement?
TD: Maybe. I am quite a physical person. I can get very sloth-like as well, but not for days on end. In general, I have found that the symbiosis between physicality and writing is very straightforward. I don’t know if it moves the other way. I don’t know what writing brings to the movement, for instance. For me, walking is a way of tuning the body, in the way that classical Hindustani or Carnatic musicians will always have the tanpura or the drone. It is a way of keeping a background hum that centers you and from which you go and make other explorations, but without that tanpura, it doesn’t exist. You can’t just launch in. With writing too, how do you find that background hum against which you then explore other ideas?
You almost need to need to have two different visions when you are writing. You are writing that page, but you are also trying to imagine where it fits into the larger lens of the narrative. You try to hold these two visions all the time, every day when you get to work. That’s quite challenging. So when you get lost, what’s going to bring you back? What’s that background hum? Having a routine which includes some kind of physical work means I don’t lose that background hum. I am able to maintain it. It really has to do with that mind-body-spirit connection. I don’t know whether I could write without it. Probably. There are so many situations where people do. But for me, it’s been an important thing.
NB: Have you found ways in which writing informs the way that you move, whether on the stage or in the world?
TD: I think the direction definitely starts from movement into language first. But I know that language has, in fact, affected movement. It’s just that because it’s language, it is very hard to express it. I am not sure how, but perhaps there is a sense of language having some sense of physicality or vitality or tautness. Because I am not trained in a particular form and because I don’t come from a vocabulary of ballet or Bharatnatyam – I am what Chandra called a non-dancer – I don’t have that vocabulary through which I can direct the vocabulary I have as a poet. But I know that poetry and language has given me an imaginative space through which I can move into the work as a dancer. There is a similar feeling that the dancer has walking out on a dark stage and that the writer has with a blank page – the fear and uncertainty. In general, the idea of the lyric and abstraction in poetry is what I work with as a dancer too. Poetry allows for so many suspensions, especially when you are stuck with the physical body. When there is a sensation of being overwhelmed and being trapped by the body, then there is a chance for poetry to elevate things.
NB: To your mind, is there a fundamental difference between these two forms, dance and writing? Or do you see them as different expressions of the same concerns?
TD: I look at them as different, but related. I definitely see myself as a writer primarily, and a poet at that, who happens to write fiction and essays occasionally. Poetry was the first impulse. Dance was not something I sought out, but it’s there in my life now. I am always writing or thinking about poetry in some way. It is a part of my life and what I do. With dance and fiction, there is always some kind of question about it ending. Even with the last novel I finished, I asked, will I write another one? Is it going to end with this? Those are valid questions to ask, to not feel like you have to keep doing something just because you’ve done it before. I like to stay open and work on what I feel most strongly about, but funnily enough, poetry is never really questioned in that way. It’s partly because I began with poetry and always return to it. I never actually stopped writing poetry. For me, it is my base and constant. There is no existential crisis about it. I feel it’s okay if I just have poetry and maybe if the poetry will end, then something else will come along.
A God at the Door is out with HarperCollins in India, Bloodaxe Books in the UK and Copper Canyon Press in the USA, where it is forthcoming in November.