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Anything But Books

One of the best things about literary festivals is meeting another writer with whom you feel a sense of immediate fellowship. Tishani Doshi (writer, dancer, poet) and I met in Galle and then saw each other for several days over the Galle and Jaipur festivals this year. Eventually our conversations led to this.

Writing is always known as a lonely activity. But, even when in a house on the hills of Ranikhet, you're never alone when writing fiction. And especially when you have canine company. Here's what we talked about — obsession for dogs, living in the boonies, sea versus mountain, painting, pots, pine cones, and daring to climb trees…. Anything but books, really.

TD: We share a somewhat similarish lifestyle, Anuradha, in that we both live in back of beyond places—you the mountains, me the ocean, our spouses are involved in the making of books, and we have three dogs each. It’s the dogs I want to talk about first, because I know for me, living in an isolated place makes the presence of the dogs that much more integral. We begin to narrativise their lives, talk about them as if they were children. Sometimes they are the only other beings we converse with for days. They mark the hours—meal times, walk times etc. So I want to ask you to talk about what it is about these dogs, about the essential dogginess of dogs, that begins to obsess you. Were you always a dog person? How did this come about, and how has this relationship with these canines affected your life as a writer? 
Barauni (left) and Piku
AR: Have been mulling over your question, trying to type out a reply, interrupted each time by the demands of Piku, who is the youngest of our trio of dogs. She's still a puppy who believes that play is the only thing that matters. She appears holding something delectable in her mouth -- a torn sock, a pine cone -- and looks at me as if to say, Is that computer a patch on this? And then I am forced to stop work and play a demented game with her. My first dog came when I was seven. After that it has always been this way. No human relationship brings this combination of happy absurdity and endless love and this sense that every single day is crowded with new things to find and toss joyfully in the air.

This is really the centre of it for me -- in relation to work and the dogs. They have such a different notion of things that matter. We tend to view dogs as four-legged-humans but when my old dog Biscoot used to join the forest's foxes howling, her head vertical towards the sky just like their's, we remembered she had a whole universe inside her that we could only guess at. Their sense of what is important is so different from the hierarchies of the human world. Their needs have changed the things I value as well. If I have to choose between work and playing with a pine cone, I invariably end up choosing the pine cone.
TD: I’ve been fixating on the idea of pine cone, I can almost smell it. It feels quite removed and foreign here where I am on this stretch of the Bay of Bengal. Tell me a bit about what you see out of the windows of your house. Do you have a room with a view when you work? What are the challenges of living in a place like Ranikhet, and what do you miss most about it (other than the dogs) when you’re away?
Pine Cones, 1925, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh
AR: There's a lovely study of pine cones by Charles Rennie Mackintosh of which I have a print on my wall, deceptively simple looking watercolour. I tried drawing pine cones too and realised via many clumsy attempts that the tree's structure mirrors the tightly nested, pointed structure of the cone. Nothing like drawing (even inept) to make you look at things more closely.
Our house is surrounded by forests of chir pine, oak, cypress, and deodar (cedar). There are 3 village huts down the slope from us and then forest and hills and finally a long, unbroken arc of snow peaks. What I miss when I am away is this sense of huge space and the silence -- as well as the sounds this silence carries. The sound of rain on our tin roof, the roosters next door, foxes and owls at night, the bells on grazing cows. And the wind in the trees -- which can sound much like the waves in your Bay of Bengal, actually. I miss walking in the woods and the possibility of climbing trees -- though I've not dared to climb one for years. When I see an intrepid village woman high up on a swaying tree, I feel very incompetent.
TD: There’s an old debate about sea versus mountain… I suppose much of it depends on personality type and what you’re used to. I grew up by the sea, and so, I sometimes find being in the mountains beautiful but isolating. There’s a fear of getting lost in them, of losing myself and my connection with the world (I once spent three weeks in a cottage in Kodaikannal by myself—not exactly mountains, I know, but still, by day 3 I was having long monologues in an effort to fill the silence) By the sea, I don’t feel that same quality of loneliness, although it does remind me that I’m a smidgen, and with every newly rusted hinge in the house, ushers me towards a heightened sense of mortality. Do you have a dichotomy about sea/mountain? And what’s your equation with loneliness visavis writing?
AR: Right now, thunder is rolling over the hills and although the wind has fallen, there's still rain on the roof. That's all that is audible -- and tomorrow will be the same! I know people who go nuts in places like this. We started living here 15 years ago, and at first the isolation did feel unsettling at times. It was a slow process by which I began to actually long for this solitude and feel irritable when I did not have it for a length of time. 
I think I could live by the ocean just as happily, though I never have and maybe you're right, maybe mountains are more isolating. But I don't feel lonely when I am writing, I feel intensely alive, sometimes so much that I can't sleep at all -- but also very, very unsociable, reluctant to meet people, cook meals etc. I don't believe you are ever alone if you are writing fiction. I know that physically it's a lonely job: you don't have coffee breaks with colleagues. But there's so much going on in your head. I am a mess only when I am not writing, or painting or making pots. Whether in a city or in the hills.
TD: Ah, the pots. I wanted to get to the pots. And the painting. What kind of paintings? What kind of pots? When did you begin? When you’re writing, do the pots and paintings take a backseat?
AR: It's nothing very serious, I just like messing around, making things. The painting is particularly frivolous -- I just paint things for fun. Doors, windows, cupboards, walls, nothing is safe. But the pottery means something more -- and I've been doing it for years, since I was a student. Everyone who works with clay will tell you there's something addictive about it: despite long breaks when I didn't touch clay at all, I keep going back to it. It absorbs every molecule of your attention while you're doing it and even when you're not. When I am in the middle of testing out glazes, I can't think of anything but colours and chemicals and minerals. So I don't go near my wheel when I'm writing.
Blue Jug, by Anuradha Roy. (Stoneware clay fired at 1200 c with oil spot glaze)
TD: And are you writing now? Are there periods when you are not creating either books or pots? How are those days filled? 
And finally: I’m curious to know how you felt when you finished Sleeping on Jupiter…. Eudora Welty said of endings: "Proofs don’t shock me any longer, yet there’s still a strange moment with every book when I move from the position of writer to the position of reader, and I suddenly see my words with the eyes of the cold public. It gives me a terrible sense of exposure, as if I’d gotten sunburned.” Do you have a similar journey of moving from writer to reader? 
AR: I don't have this "sunburnt" feeling about what I write, though I can understand it. I am neurotic and thin-skinned about the book right till the end -- but once it's out I feel a sense of detachment very quickly, as if it's not mine any longer. Maybe this is just a survival mechanism.
With anything I make, if it somehow turns out roughly the way I wanted it to be--that makes me feel calm about it out there. I found the writing of Sleeping on Jupiter a thing of turmoil, difficulty, anxieties -- and I was unbearable bore to family and publisher through the writing of it. But when I finished it, I felt as I do with a few of my pots: that nothing  that anyone says about it will make a difference to me. (I don't know how long this feeling will last.)
As for writing now -- yes and no. At least I'm past the huge empty space that comes after finishing a book when everyone other than me appears to have a life, a real job, a reason to wake up. You know what I mean.
(Copyright Tishani Doshi; read it here in The Hindu)

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