My review of Tishani Doshi’s collection Everything Is Elsewhere in Biblio.
The world is raging outside when I start reading Tishani Doshi’s new book of poetry and I have to switch off the incessant buzz of the news channels, the sound of thousands of women typing their fury and the thump of my own irate heart, following the gang rape of a young woman on a bus in New Delhi. It is surprisingly easy. Everything Begins Elsewhere quickly draws me into an entirely different space, quieter and older, a monastery perhaps, or a mountain retreat. Doshi’s first book Countries of the Body (Tranquebar Press, 2008), which won the Forward Prize in 2006 for Best First Collection, owed much allegiance to dance and as Doshi’s attribution to Chandralekha bore witness, to her rebellious and enigmatic teacher. This book is dedicated to “Chandra, Again”. It too is concerned with the body in many ways but where there was a kinetic energy running through poems in the earlier book, here Doshi is preoccupied with stillness or an impossible nostalgia for stillness.
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This is the poem:
The meaning of quiet – those corridors
Knew it well. Softly girls. This building is old,
Mother C lisped up stairs, her wimple
Flaring like a halo. At table, tennis, we twirled spins
like neat habits. A single smash could dismantle
our world. Outside school, a man with a cleft lip
spiced slices of raw mango. Red chilli
burst into our mouth like explosions of sea water.
The heat moved us to shower. We limp-toed
into womanhood in spotless socks,
a generation afraid of bringing things down.
A backyard of bramble and weed was where
we found noise. It wandered knock-kneed
and had a tongue full of pins.
This is no movie[i] about the children of women, about wombs, the aftershock of them, the loving heave of them. This is no poem that can stitch tears in skin, bottle up blood or plasma, cauterise fears–but let me get away from known tropes and images. Children as beacon, children as hope, children as coiled, white serpents at their pitchers of milk[ii]. All that sort of…let me instead say these things aloud and you’ll know what I mean: a bed in a room, vomit patterns the curtains, the smells of neighbourhood restaurants slam through the nostrils. Later, there is burred tongue, bent knees, a pain that claws you ragged. Everyone does it. It’s the most natural thing in the world. Later still, the fear of a million creatures on cloth or skin, in air[iii]. The breasts burst as the mumble continues. Our grandmothers had ten children. Twenty. An army of children marching through their bodies[iv]. A bored elephant rambles inside each nipple. The eyelids are full of nails.
[i] Children of Men (2006), directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is about safeguarding a pregnant woman. Based on PD James’ disturbing vision of a world gone infertile, it chronicles horror and loss at the global as well as the personal level. For 18 years, there have been no children. We come to know that ‘as the voice of children faded from the world’, governments collapsed, chaos gained and humanity disintegrated. Children as adhesive, holding our fragilities together. Children as cohesion. Britain is one of the last stable nations, guarding its precarious stability by rounding up immigrants (refugees) and caging them. In this landscape, there is Kee, a young female refugee from Fuji, pregnant. Everyone wants to hold up the crying bundle when it comes, claim him (naturally, they think it will be a boy) for their cause. Children as bearers of news. Children as bargaining tools. A former activist tries to escort her to the Human Project, a mysterious group that travels by sea and who will apparently protect her and her child. On the way, she is small and harrowed, vulnerable in the midst of violence. She goes into labour on a bus making its way to a refugee camp. She delivers on a bare, dirty mattress in a dark, grimy room. There is a bucket of water in a corner.
[ii] Loss, fertility, containment in loss, the natural rhythms of the earth—Plath incorporated many powerful themes in ‘Edge’, a poem from her collection Ariel published in 1965. More than forty years later, these lines continue to affect me.
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.”
(Sylvia Plath, Edge)
[iii] Soon after labour, I am angry. Resting in my comfortable bed in a room at Breach Candy hospital, staring out to sea, I am angry about visitors. I am bleeding into clumps of sanitary cotton wool and onto the bedsheets. I am nervous and worried about breastfeeding. Over the din of everything else, I am terrified about this tiny baby I have delivered and what it means to now protect it. Every visitor who walks into the room is a vessel brimming with disease. I glance past their smiles to the shoes that have been on the roads, the clothes that have been inside cabs and buses. I can get them to wash their hands but how can I sanitise their entire bodies? I can’t wait for them to leave. I feel ungracious.
[iv] “Five direct complications account for more than 70% of maternal deaths: haemorrhage (25%), infection (15%), unsafe abortion (13%), eclampsia (very high blood pressure leading to seizures – 12%), and obstructed labour (8%). While these are the main causes of maternal death, unavailable, inaccessible, unaffordable, or poor quality care is fundamentally responsible. They are detrimental to social development and wellbeing, as some one million children are left motherless each year. These children are 10 times more likely to die within two years of their mothers’ death.” From this page at the World Health Organization website.
After the frenzy of labour; after the panic about colostrum (also called ‘beestings’); after the snarled-sleepy nights; after the perineal soreness sharp as a needle dragging through soft tissue; after the stitches had dried to an itch and fallen, one by one, like insects from the body; after Mastitis had swollen my breasts and transformed my idea of pain; after I had stood in the shower and cried because deargod, when is my body ever going to feel normal again?, much after all of that, I thought about the women who do not have access to doctors, advice, pills and help. To beautiful rooms. To proper food, toilets, water. To safety from violence. The women who make do. The women who don’t make it.
As a 2013 New Media Fellow for the International Reporting Project, I will be exploring issues related to maternal and reproductive health. In many ways, Mumbai (where I am) is a story of hope because Maharashtra has actually managed to bring down the maternal mortality rate to 104 per 1,00,000 live births. I am going to look at some of the reasons for that hope even as I examine the scope for other interventions.
Please follow me on Twitter @Anu_Sengupta if you’re interested. Some updates will also be tweeted @UltravioletFem. I’m curating some documents on these issues at Storify and here is the link: http://storify.com/Anuseng/maternal-health-in-india. And of course, there will be articles at Ultra Violet. Do read, listen, view, and share your thoughts.
***This was first published at Ultra Violet. Slideshow Credits: Photographs – Anindita Sengupta; Music – The Dark Room by Chris Cook