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The City and the Writer: In Madras/Chennai with Tishani Doshi

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Chennai as you feel/see it?

This has always been a city of dualities—a city of two names, two natures. Chennai. Madras. Tamil. English. Considered unapproachable and haughty by the outsider. Refusing to unwrap its tight, salty arms from around the insider’s neck. City of eight million, but really a collective of villages. Conservative in its fashions, modern in its industry, schizophrenic in its romances. A stronghold for music, dance, mathematics, chess. An antidote to Bollywood. We make our own dreams here in Kollywood. A port city that breathes slow. A city of rivers and stagnating waterways. A city of the most outrageous political history. A city by the sea that reeks of jasmine.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

A few years ago Chennai suffered terrible floods. On December 1, 2015, alone, the city received 490 mm of rainfall, a hundred-year record. The images were apocalyptic. Five hundred people died as a result, nearly two million were displaced. A lot of the damage was due to human mismanagement and shoddy civic planning. I watched from afar, stuck in the desert of Delhi, unable to fly home because the airport was closed for weeks. When I finally returned it was as though nothing had happened. The city had righted itself somehow. People had saved one another by organizing themselves. It was as if by being absent I had lost any future rights to participate. It was also a stark reminder of how much this city has disregarded the environment. The problem of illegal construction over water bodies, of using marshlands to develop industry, the ubiquitous invasion of plastic. All a signal of more traumas to come.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

How sneaky it is. If you stay long enough, you realize she has strapped you down with ropes of marigold. She has lulled you into a kind of comfort, so it becomes difficult to leave. She rewards only the faithful.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

R.K. Narayan is one of our greatest, even though he defected to Mysore. I always see his fictional town of Malgudi as a bridge between the South and the world. Little of Tamil writer Ashokamitran’s work has been translated into English, but if there was one writer who understood the citizens of this city, it was him. Of the current generation, there are women, fierce and multifaceted, whose words can make love and do battle—Salma, Kutti Revathi, Meena Kandasamy, Sharanya Manivannan. And Manu Joseph’s novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People, is one of the most tender, funny, sweet, sad tributes to Madras of the 90s.


Is there a place here you return to often?

I walk daily in the Theosophical Society. It is a kind of haven with its acres of ancient trees and the spirits of Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and J. Krishnamurti hovering around. It reminds me that this city always had cosmopolitan intentions even though it frequently gets stuck in ruts of bigotry.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

For iconic bookstores, there are two on my map of the city—Higginbothams and Giggles (famously known as the smallest biggest bookshop in the world). For places, there is only one: The home and theater of my teacher and friend, the choreographer Chandralekha, at Number 1, Elliot’s Beach Road. It is also known as “Spaces.” So many great minds have sat in her room of swings, so many performances and rehearsals have happened on her stage. The people who have passed through here, and that continue to pass through here, aren’t just poets and writers, but dancers, filmmakers, painters, mango farmers, heart surgeons. This place is a palimpsest. You feel it as soon as you walk in. There is Henri Cartier-Bresson, and there, Pina Bausch, and there, Harindranath Chattopadhyay, and look, they are all having a conversation.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

If you think of a city as a temple with a womblike inner chamber, then the inner chamber of Madras is Mylapore. Secretive, mazelike, dreamy. The past, present, and future cram up against each other here. Music halls, eateries, sari shops, small shrines, big temples. It’s the city’s beating heart. Very few people know exactly how to measure its pulse.


Where does passion live here?

If there is any blood in this city, surely it comes from the sea. Without our coastline this would be a narrow, unforgiving town. The Bay of Bengal’s largesse gives generosity to the city’s every dimension. As schoolgirls, my friends and I would meet the boys in our class at the beach. Always in the middle of the afternoon, our backsides burning in the sand, eyes fixed to the horizon. The beach is one of few public sanctuaries, and even though lovers are frequently being chased from here, they always find innovative ways of seeking refuge.


What is the title of one of your works about Chennai and what inspired it exactly?

My first novel, The Pleasure Seekers, is set in Madras, and is about a hybrid family trying to make their way in the world. Many of my poems draw inspiration from the city, but particularly “Homecoming,” which was written after the tsunami of 2004, and in a way it captures all the ambiguities I feel for Chennai née Madras. Whenever I leave it I long to return, whenever I’m there too long, I yearn to leave.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Chennai does an outside exist?”

Always, always. It is continuous. It taunts. There is always a sense that life is elsewhere, that this cannot be enough. And whenever we go in search of elsewhere there is a gap between what we imagine and what we dream. For me, it seems the only real journey can be in the return. When I’m at the threshold of home and I have traces of the world on my fingertips.


Tishani Doshi is an award-winning writer and dancer of Welsh-Gujarati descent. Born in Madras, India, in 1975, she received a masters in writing from the Johns Hopkins University, and worked in London in advertising before returning to India in 2001, where a chance encounter with the legendary choreographer Chandralekha led her to an unexpected career in dance. In 2006, her book of poems, Countries of the Body, won the Forward Poetry Prize for best first collection in the UK. She is also the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award for poetry and winner of the All-India Poetry Competition. Her first novel, The Pleasure Seekers, was published to critical acclaim in 2010 and has been translated into several languages. It was longlisted for the Orange and IMPAC prizes and shortlisted for the Hindu Fiction Award. Her most recent books are a collection of poems, Everything Begins Elsewhere (Copper Canyon Press); a novella, Fountainville (Seren); and The Adulterous Citizen: Poems, Stories, Essays (House of Nehesi). She currently lives on a beach in Tamil Nadu with her husband and three dogs.

Published Aug 7, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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