So This Is Where Poetry Goes To Die

ONE WAY to look at Tishani Doshi’s debut novel is to consider it a literary litmus test. Either you like overweening granny stories, or you don’t. The old matriarch Ba “smells” people approaching her house “from over the hills” — “it was a special talent that had come to her in her fifty-third year when she lost her husband to tuberculosis and her knee-length hair turned white overnight… it was life’s way of compensating: to take with one hand and give with the other. This was the law of the universe.” Later on the page, Ba “savours” Welsh words as “a kind of wind — a wind that rushes through the forests and shakes all the leaves off the trees”. The Pleasure Seekers is that kind of book.

A teen’s dream of London takes up “space in her abdomen” and feels “like a sadness”. When grownups try “to understand the darkness and the divine being that threaten them”, they remember “there was a beautiful time once; it was childhood. They carry it around inside them”. It’s that kind of book. Sex is described as a boy putting his “Whatsit” into a girl’s “Ms Sunshine”. It’s that kind of book.

The Pleasure Seekers is those familiar things: the chubby family saga and the slothful immigrant novel. This time it’s about the Gujarati Babo and his Welsh wife Siân. The novel germinated in the teen Doshi’s discovery of some love letters between her Gujarati father and Welsh mother, and the Welsh lady’s letters are the best things here — the form demands Doshi’s narrator to drop her pedantic curlicues and say things simply and directly, in the voice of a woman lost in love, loneliness and Madras.

The Pleasure Seekers Tishani Doshi Bloomsbury 320pp

Everywhere else, though, Doshi seems mainly interested in being cute. Her precious narrator sounds like PG Wodehouse’s mushy Madeline Bassett, who believed that stars are God’s daisy chain and that every time a wee fairy blows its nose, a baby is born. Doshi writes like a phoren ma’m delighted at her grasp of exotic India: a young girl on the back of her father’s bicycle is “a princess being guided by a troubadour”; things like Lord Mahavir and Navratri festival are helpfully explained; teeth are “jhil mill” and voices are “hullabulla”. Doshi’s language suffers in this twee, sylvan mood — “almond eyes”, “willowy waist”, “thick river of black hair”, “drunk as a skunk”, sleeping “stretched out like a corpse”, time “stretched out like the Sahara”, a sari like “a tent in a storm”, an accident where the car is a “potato crisp” — this ‘poet’ gaily splats out clichés, assured in her whistling confidence.

DOSHI HAS said in interviews she worked on the book for eight years, and the drippy, risk-free prose shows its years of sandpapering. Throughout, she relies on the clumsy effect of repetitive incantation of phrases and even whole sentences to give her pages some charge. Intermittently, she also hastily links some bits of the story to political events: Babo and Siân fly to London during the 1971 Indo-Pak war; breast cancer strikes Babo’s mother at “the precise moment” of Indira Gandhi’s assassination; Babo’s brother Chotu’s love affair collapses on “the same day” as Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination; etc. Every chapter is a neat pellet of one major event in one character’s life — a marriage, a pregnancy, a , a visit — each neatly tied up by the end.

The fey, childish voice with its outdated earnestness, the caricatures of Indians abroad, the immigrants’ bathetic heartburn, the renewal of Indian exotica, the gauche politicisation of personal storylines — there is a moral failure in such writing.

Many senior blurbers have provided apocalyptic advance praise for The Pleasure Seekers — Salman Rushdie, Louis de Bernières, Roddy Doyle. Who is going to call their cynical bluff? This book, and this review, are irrelevant.

First published here.