Tishani Doshi has lovely central images and ideas that her poems cannot sustain, says Nikhil Govind
CAN THE still infant field of Indian English poetry handle an onslaught of criticism? Can we abandon the barricades shielding its internal content from “external” questions of location, ethnicity and multi-lingual heritages? Tishani Doshi’s new poetry collection,Everything Begins Elsewhere, allows us to concentrate on these questions.
Introduced as Gujarati-Welsh on the jacket, Doshi lives primarily in the village of Cheyyur, Tamil Nadu. An expectation that her work engages with both multi-culturalism and such hyper-local rootedness isn’t entirely misplaced.
However, the poems do not elucidate on this opportunity or adversity of location — and there seems no equivalent overarching theme to the collection either. If unity is to be found in form, as can be the case with poetry, this too is a lost chance. No clear or diligent linguistic form emerges. What makes the poems particularly hard to absorb is a listlessness of line. The line and verse breaks read limply.
Subtlety is also hard to detect in the poems. Perhaps Doshi’s work best lends itself to the directness of performance — Doshi is a dancer who has worked under the celebrated avant-garde choreographer Chandralekha. Indeed the last poem (and the book) dedicated to the departed Chandralekha is a repository for the strengths and weaknesses of Doshi’s poetry. It begins well enough: After the dance I imagine you/ resurrected into this uncertain world. But the lines that follow dim the impact of the mood with bland images of daughters and sons, deserts, moons, the audience, the heat, and the dark. A further redundant affect of astonishment at the memory of the dancer (“She was every-where”, italics in the original) leaves it floundering. There is partial redemption near the close, with a singular image. I see you sitt i ng in your favourite chair/ batting flies off your lips. This is followed by a pedestrian image of silver hair.
In the midst of many humdrum lines, Doshi does manage, in almost all her poems, to have at least one good core phrase (silver cattle skulls), or line (scattering Sanskrit kisses), or image (moon skids over/his spectacles), or mood (what will we call it,/when it’s no longer love?).
If edited with a severe economy, retaining only the foundational inspiration, the poems would have resonated in the mind, and been attuned to the ear. As it stands, the incisive, bare bones are lost in the fleshy wordiness.
Govind teaches at the Manipal Center for Philosophy and the Humanities