28 February 2015

I saw a Goddess of Small Things at the GLF

No, it was not Arundathi Roy, not in physical or metaphorical terms.  I put down her book after reading about 20 pages out of sheer boredom.  Perhaps I missed something by doing so, but hey, life neither sanctions nor forbids and missing things here and there does not mean we end up leading lesser lives.  I don’t know what the ‘small things’ in her book are. I do know that she sometimes adds a powerful voice to the objections and demands of the insulted and marginalized and this is a good thing. She is pea-brained at times too, especially when it comes to Sri Lanka

I did encounter a Goddess of Small Things at the Galle Literary Festival (GLF), as claimed in title. This is how it happened.

I noticed a quaint practice at the GLF.  People buy copies of books by various authors showcased in panel discussions or special-session one-on-ones with the boys and girls considered to be literature-savvy by GLF organizers. They attend these events and immediately afterwards rush to a booth especially set aside for ‘book-signing’.  So they wait in line until the celebrated author arrives and proceeds to put pen on paper. 

I attended a session titled ‘More than just a good laugh’, featuring Andrey Kurkov, Pauline Melville and Tishani Doshi.  I was inspired by what Kurkov read.  Tishani Doshi related a good story but I didn’t find her as compelling.  I went to the place where they were selling books. Kurkov’s ‘Death and the Penguine’ was Rs. 1200 if I remember right.  In any case it was more than I could afford.  I saw Tishani’s ‘The Pleasure Seeker’ and close by her book of poems, ‘Countries of the Body’.  At 700 bucks it was affordable.  A friend had a copy and I turned to a random page and picked a random stanza.

Page 28 was titled ‘At the Rodin Museum’.  Here’s the stanza my glance fell upon:

the ancient sky burrows in
with all the dead words
we carry and cannot use.

I had to read further:

He holds up mirrors
from which our reflections fall –
half-battered existence,

where we lose ourselves
for the sake of the other,
and the others still to come.

I bought. Stood in line. She signed. Then I went and read.  And read.  It was, I found, a book of poems full of short stories.  Each poem seemed a flash of lightening effortlessly issued from pen and heart to illuminate a vast landscape whose foreignness she describes and paints with such economy and detail that it becomes native even while retaining its ‘that-other’ signature. 

Tishani took me to a house on what she called an abandoned Portuguese hillside. There she introduced me to a handsome dark-haired boy ‘[who] cuts out a piece of sky, runs through the rubble dusting off stones, half-made alls, the solitary window’.  The boy, once he’s done, ‘folds up the sky and hangs it where the ceiling should have been to guard the village in the valley’.  Tishani reports that it was a house without history, but proceeds to people it with moment and emotion, incident and reflection, coaxes still life to bleed into human interaction and conversation. 

She does this to a lot of things.  The opening poem, ‘The day we went to the sea’ is the most accurate capture of post-tsunami human and social landscapes I’ve encountered, either in print or image.  In the aftermath of that day the sea came to us, was us, took us and abandoned us, Tishani describes how she saw an old woman ‘hold the tattered edge of the world in her hand,’ and how ‘in the gaudy South Indian sun’ this same woman ‘(moved a hand) across her brow, in a single arcing sweep of grace,’ and how in that simple gesture it appeared that ‘she alone could alter thing, bring us to the wordless safety of our beds.  That was not Madras.  That was Sri Lanka too.  And the woman is also the woman who stood before a Buddha statue which too remained ‘miraculously whole in the debris’ of gaudy coastal Sri Lankan sun. It is the same woman, I naturally extrapolated, who stood up and led us to wordless beds the aftermath of war and disease, flood and train-wreck.  Tishani doesn’t extrapolate, she just gifts small things that are made for replication.

‘The opening up of the sun’ is an immensely moving poem about a dying boy who she describes as ‘brother’.  Here’s lament, tribute, coping and closure (in part):

It is September
My brother is going to die
He falls through the gap in our family laughing
He stitches up the seams in the sun
He takes September
Like his pink plastic comb
And rests it on his chest
While underneath his damaged heart
Still and starts stills and starts. 

She speaks of children who never cried and we find ourselves acknowledging our own tears.  She speaks of play-villages being broken and re-made and we ask ourselves whether this is not what we do all our lives. 
Tishani Doshi takes doors and windows from disparate continents, puts many-coloured and differently wrinkled faces within their frames, reflects a hundred different suns from the carefully polished blades of her word-fan upon these countenances so we can read better the histories therein, the lost smiles and forgotten absences.  She stitches seemingly random skies together with thread drawn from a timeless love story and lines it all with the buttons tossed by undulation of the eternal verities.  She drew maps for me.  World maps that would break their length-breadth frame and shoot an axis to the sky so we get human-valley, human-hill, human-river and human-fire.  Her maps are of such great magnitude that they could be held on an open hand or an eyelash.

I think she can do this because she has eye for the small thing, within whose granule dimensions are resident the giant-thing calling out for recognition and submission, both of which exercises generate cowering impotencies.  There are no grand claims. There is no universalizing.  The poet does not strain to paint or point to human commonalities. She just tells some stories.  She’s ‘short’ in her narratives.  She goes ‘small’, one might say.  ‘Tiny’, someone might correct.

I am waiting among the bakul trees
for a line of the moon to catch the stones
at my throat, for the goddess to appear
with starlit palms at the doorway to save me.’

That’s from ‘Overnight at the dance theatre’.  It doesn’t matter where you choose to sit, under what skies and surrounded by who or what, sounds or silence, but there’s a good chance that Tishani Doshi’s poetry would arrive like moon-line and catch your throat.  I am not sure about being saved and being saviour, but I found her poetry to be like palms caressed by starlight. Lit up the GLF for me. Yes, she’s quite a goddess of small things, Tishani Doshi is.    


Mainda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.  This article was first published in the Sunday Observer of February 20, 2011
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