A God at the Door by Tishani Doshi, is the poetry of its time
As a poet, Tishani Doshi’s concerns are immense. In his latest collection of poetry, A God at the door, they extend their tendrils over a wide range of wounds. In ‘Do Not Go Out in the Storm’, for example, she talks about climate catastrophe and genocide in the same breath. But even in the largesse of disaster, Doshi has a knack for finding specific images of grace, a sense of the resilience of human beings and the vastness of the world itself: “After flattening, there are miracles ./Alive Babies in the Rubble, an entire novel smuggled upstream/in a tube of toothpaste.
It is in this spectrum that Doshi flourishes, between opposing ideas of hope and despair. In a poem about her ‘rotten grief’, she says: ‘Just the word throbbing, you know, alludes to desire, but also to distress, and suddenly the language opens up. In this poem, she deploys the startling imagery of elephants in the Okavango Delta dying of seemingly inexplicable causes, juxtaposed with her own inability to cry due to a “diagnosis of dry eye.” It’s one of the ways her latest collection navigates her own position in the world, as a witness and observer, but also an avid participant, and some of the biggest issues plaguing us today – environmental disasters, political and social.
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There are also striking visual poems, like that of imprisoned poet and activist Varavara Rao, in the form of the pen that made him dangerous enough for India’s right-wing 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 normalized than ever. The title of the poem “They killed cows”. I killed them.’ quotes a so-called cow vigilante, and Doshi wonders, “Where was his mother?” (…) She might have told how / he was misled by a gang of men in uniform./ Not brown shirts but pleated shorts / in which they practiced ideological gymnastics.’
In ‘My Country’s Stormtroopers’, Doshi head-on challenges the citizenship laws that have led to widespread protests in the country since their introduction – and more so, the promise of exclusion and violence that comes to fruition every time. . 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 which had run the reins of India’s 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 stores mosques stick / with pogrom atrocity death march love / march nothing like a clean termite to burn.’
A God at the Door, by Tishani Doshi; HarperCollins India, 128 pages, Rs. 499.
There is also the overarching concern with gender – both being in a gendered body, finding a relationship with the gendered self, and about the violence that is inflicted on people through the doors of gender. In many of these poems, Doshi displays his formidable range with humor. In the space of a single poem, she can go from a funny giggle to a deep sour one, as in ‘Counsels to Pliny the Elder, Grandpa of the Mansplainers’: ‘Once a month, when the blood comes, I go out to lie down in any field I find to feel the burning rising and the crops withering. / Our powers are very exhausted,” she says, of course referring to Pliny’s claims about the destructive powers of menstruating women. “Dear Pliny, I suppose you have never heard of curiosity. The cat is real. The earth never tires of giving birth. If you get too close to a volcano, you should be aware that it can erupt,” she concludes, speaking of Pliny’s death, which would be due to the eruption of Vesuvius. In this poem she remembers Pliny’s almost forgotten sister, as she recalls millions of missing Indian women voters in “I found a village and in this village were all our missing women” – an act of recovery that drives its collection The girls come out of the woods will already be familiar.
Doshi’s poems about the cruelty, absurdity, wonder and beauty of life as a female person are explosive and tender. This is a collection that goes ever deeper, deeper and wider than Doshi’s already impressive body of work, and dwells on the personal and the universal in ever more complex and arresting ways.
Shreya Ila Anasuya is an award-winning writer, editor, journalist and PhD student at King’s College London.