Armoured with the Battle Scars of Patriarchy

Iris C F Gomes

Tishani Doshi has quite an impressive oeuvre as a poet, author, journalist, and dancer. The Madras-born Tishani has written essays, poems and short stories that are part of anthologies. Her first novel, titled The Pleasure Seekers, was shortlisted for The Hindu Literary Prize. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the Johns Hopkins University, USA.

Countries of the Body, her maiden collection of poems, won the Forward Prize (Best First Collection) in 2006, while ‘The Day we went to the Sea’ from the same book won the 2005 British Council-supported All India Poetry Competition.

As a dancer, Tishani was mentored by the late, famed choreographer Chandralekha and was part of her dancing troupe till her death in 2006. The release of Tishani’s new collection of poems Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods will be held at The Cube Gallery in Moira, Goa, at 7pm, with a reading of her poems and a performance of experimental dance by Tishani. (Follow this link for the event).

It was at the age of twenty that Tishani became entranced by contemporary poetry. She was on course to attaining a double degree in business and communications when she decided to take a class in creative writing on a whim. That class changed the direction of her professional career, prompting her to throw over banking to follow the calling of the creative arts. She says, ‘I really believe in that Nerudaesque idea that you don’t choose poetry, it chooses you. There is no logical reason to choose poetry as a medium of expression, but most of us at some point in our lives have attempted it. Perhaps the nursery rhymes and lullabies as children, perhaps our innate sense of rhythm, time and intonation? I don’t know.’

The poems in Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods were written over a number of years and derive their inspiration from many sources. However the focus of the poems remains mainly women of a particular age facing issues like mortality, motherhood, etc. Tishani says, ‘They are to do with temporality and resisting fragility. And also, about an accumulation of rage, and what one can do with it.’ The rape of Jyothi Singh in 2012 had a tremendous impact on the country as a whole, changing perceptions and reactions. She says, ‘…it broke something in us, and opened us as well. And since then, there has been so much breaking and opening. The poems are both personal meditations within this rubble, but also wider, more universal contemplations.’

What stands as the most powerful poem of the collection may differ from day to day for Tishani, but, without a doubt, ‘Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods’ is the anthem poem of the book, resonating profoundly with many people. The poem is dedicated to Tishani’s friend Monika Ghurde who was murdered in 2016 in her apartment in Goa. Tishani says, ‘…part of why I wrote the poem was because I had to respond in some way to the unrelenting stories of violence that kept coming, but also to say that these ghosts and stories will not be buried, that this chorus of voices will echo back with all the horror. Poetry can do that—it can hold the haunting in a way, give the dead a voice.’

This feminist poet does not place the blame for the undiminished continuity of patriarchy in Indian society squarely on the shoulders of its men. The culpability is to be shared by women who as primary caregivers have the power to influence a great deal of change, but they mostly do not raise sons and daughters equally, refuse to support other women and can be judgemental about choices made by other women. ‘There’s a huge amount of social conditioning that we are dealing with as men and women in this country. That said, I do think that women have been having more of a conversation around what it means to be a woman—our struggles, our stories, our fears, our strengths—than men have. I think this individual and collective questioning about what it means to be a man in India and what masculinity means, is key,’ says Tishani.

Tishani acknowledges a monumental change that is occurring in India and the world with regard to sexual transgressions. Many events have provoked this process of transformation. Jyothi Singh’s rape seems to have urged the media in India to be more vocal about incidences of sexual assault that may have been once ignored. The aftermath of uncovering the sexual crimes of Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein has been that the idea that men in positions of power cannot be held accountable and toppled, is no longer held true. The vocalisation of sexual abuse of women through campaigns such as #metoo has essentially made tangible and inescapable the fact that sexual misconduct and assault is prevalent at gargantuan proportions. Almost every woman has been a victim in one way or another. Tishani says, ‘But by allowing everyone to say it and name it, it releases a collective understanding to the scope of the problem. Let me stress here that this isn’t only to do with female emancipation but with men too. The root of this has to do with desire, power and the idea of consent. We need to negotiate these complicated territories and understand how they connect.’

To the question of how gender equality is to be promoted and violent acts perpetrated against women mitigated, Tishani points out that the foundation of a strong legal framework is important, aside from institutions, academia, corporations and places where certain power structures are at play being equipped with enforced guidelines to combat gender imbalances and aid women in seeking justice without victimising them twice over. Tishani emphasises the necessity of including men in the discussion. She states, ‘We also have to change the language around violence, which always seems to be in terms of violence done to women rather than violence done by men. The fact is that there are many men who are also victims of violence (at the hands of other men primarily), so we need to be reframing the dialogue, and asking where does this violence come from, and why? We need to hear a lot more from men in this conversation and turn it into the active, roaring thing it needs to be.’