As a poet, Tishani Doshi’s preoccupations are immense. In her latest collection of poetry, A God at the Door, they spread their tendrils across a vast range of hurts. In ‘Do Not Go Out in the Storm’, for example, she speaks of climate catastrophe and genocide in one breath. But even in the largesse of disaster, Doshi has a gift for finding specific images of grace, a sense of the resilience of human beings and the vastness of the world itself: ‘After the flattening, there are miracles./Babies alive in the debris, an entire novel smuggled upstream/in a tube of toothpaste.’
It is in this spectrum that Doshi flowers, between opposing ideas of hope and despair. In a poem about her ‘rotten grief’, she says, ‘Just the word throb, you understand, hints at longing, but also distress, and suddenly, language opens.’ In this poem she deploys the startling imagery of elephants in the Okavango delta dying of seemingly inexplicable causes, juxtaposed against her own inability to cry because of ‘a diagnosis of dry eye’. This is one of the ways in which her latest collection navigates her own position in the world, as witness and observer, but also passionate participant, and some of the largest questions that plague us today — catastrophes environmental, political and social.
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There are striking visual poems, too, like the one for jailed poet and activist Varavara Rao, in the shape of the pen that made him dangerous enough for the right-wing Indian state to incarcerate. ‘Sir – are you warm?’ she asks him. ‘Are the crows bringing you the latest terrible news?’ This terrible news, of course, has to do with the current and ongoing political crisis in India, where murderous Islamophobia and religious fundamentalism have become more normalised than ever before. The title of the poem ‘They Killed Cows. I Killed Them.' quotes a so-called cow vigilante, and in it Doshi wonders: ‘where was his mother? (…) She might have told the story of how / he was led astray by a band of men in uniforms./ Not brownshirts but pleated brownshorts/in which they practised ideological calisthenics.’
In ‘The Stormtroopers of My Country’, Doshi challenges, head on, the citizenship laws that have led to widespread protests in the country since they were introduced — and even more so, the promise of exclusion and violence that is becoming realised every time there is a lynching or riot in which minorities, especially Muslims, are systematically targeted. Doshi is unafraid to call out the role of the ruling party that had led the reins of the Indian government since 2014, and its leader, Narendra Modi: ‘really sir you promised us good governance but the evidence is mounting of brown/ soldiers massacring brown shops mosques stick / with the pogrom atrocity death march love / march no such thing as a clean termite to burn.’
There too is the all-encompassing concern of gender — both being in a gendered body, finding a relationship with the gendered self, and about the violence that is visited upon people through the gates of gender. In many of these poems, Doshi displays her tremendous range with humour. In the space of a single poem she can go from laugh-out-loud funny to deeply acerbic, as in ‘Advice for Pliny the Elder, Big Daddy of Mansplainers’: ‘Once a month, when the blood comes, I go out to lie in whatever field I find to feel the scorch rise and the crops wither./Our powers are much depleted,’ she says, referring of course to Pliny’s assertions about the destructive powers of menstruating women. ‘Dear Pliny, I guess you never heard the one about curiosity. The cat is real. The earth never tires of giving birth. If you get too close to a volcano, you should know it may erupt,’ she finishes, talking about Pliny’s death, which is rumoured to be because of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In this poem she recalls Pliny’s almost forgotten sister, as she recalls millions of missing Indian women voters in ‘I Found a Village and In It Were All Our Missing Women’ — an act of retrieval that readers of her collection Girls are Coming out of the Woods will already be familiar with.
Doshi’s poems about the cruelty, absurdity, wonder and beauty of life as a feminine person are explosive and tender. This is a collection that goes ever further, in depth and breadth, than Doshi’s already impressive body of work, and dwells in the personal and universal in increasingly complex and striking ways.
Shreya Ila Anasuya is an award-winning writer, editor, journalist, and PhD candidate at King’s College London.