It is understandable that Tishani Doshi as a poet would prefer to write slowly. But she extends the principle of slow writing to her prose works too, speaking of its value in a note at the end of her debut novel The Pleasure Seekers (2010). This means that her publications are spaced widely, but are crafted exquisitely. Unsurprisingly, Small Days and Nights, a novel Doshi published nine years after her first, has a richness of texture and a narrative fluidity. Wannabe writers in this day and age who cannot wait to sprint their way to writing glory can in fact learn a thing or two from her. The novel is indeed a beautiful ode, at the level of style, to silence, slow time and smallness (small in the Schumacherian sense). It is the poetry of her writing—its immediacy reinforced by the continuously sustained present tense—that helps to make the melancholic and heart-breaking story of estranged marriages, parental negligence, aloneness, and of sisterly solicitude bearable and even compelling.
Small Days and Nights is a richer work of fiction than The Pleasure Seekers. The latter, with its inter-racial love story, has been taken to be a portrait of Doshi’s own parents, a Welsh mother and an Indian, in fact, Gujarati father. The second novel, however, is richer not by virtue of treading on a different imaginative territory. It impresses by its more radical working through of the root idea of inter-cultural love and the ‘in between space’ that Doshi explored in her first novel, especially with regard to the offspring of the original inter-racial adventures. Small Days and Nights is then the story of the second generation. It shows that Grace, the daughter of the inter-racial lovers, has no predefined script to follow.
So the second novel registers a shift in the emphasis of the first novel, namely that ‘love, having no geography, knows no boundaries’. For, unlike in the case of the Welsh Sian and the Indian Babo of The Pleasure Seekers, whose love endures, the lovers in Small Days and Nights—Indian Mira and the Italian Giacinto, but also the Indian Grace and the American Blake—drift apart. The wrecked marriage of parents has consequences for their daughters, especially for the elder daughter Grace, the protagonist of the novel, who grows up utterly alienated and alone due to this estrangement between her parents. Here is a key passage in which Grace tells why she is the way she is. ‘I cannot imagine the security of being born in a place and knowing it to be mine. To think of ancestors whom I resemble, who knew this land, its language, its people. There must be such confidence in this existence, this knowledge that everything you have lived has been lived before by your parents and their parents. All my life I have stood outside, like my father, like my mother, standing behind a glass, looking in’ (p. 202).
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The quote above—especially the expression ‘standing behind a glass’—serves as a metaphor for the Indian novel in English, its desire to view Indian life through an estranging, and, somewhat distorting, lens.
Above all, Small Days and Nights sets out to tell a woman’s story, of woman as an outsider and a survivor. Grace, freed of the myths about the ‘binding vine’ of the great Indian family and clan, can also observe some home truths about modern consumerist India, its accelerated urbanization with little regard for the environment, the growing class and caste divide and the criminalization of Indian politics. What is more to the point, she can cut through all this hardness and craze in modern life to its essential source in men’s desire for mastery of the ‘softness’ (p. 245)—read mother nature and woman in its nurturing avatar, that the world needs. In what is probably a manifesto-like passage on eco-feminist writing in recent literature, Grace tells us about how our trouble stems from our desire to use the body as a weapon, as a ‘ladder’—for ‘climbing, conquering, descending, dwindling’ (p. 180)—rather than seeing it as a spreading ‘lake’ (p. 180). Though spoken in the context of lovemaking, the vocabulary expands to acquire a wider connotation about how to relate to other people and to nature.
A quick tour through the novel now. It has layers of reminiscence—these were originally actions, of course, wrapped around a slender thread of action. Grace arrives in Madras from America—it is always Madras, and not Chennai, such is the sentimental value of the vanished landmarks for the author—at the news of her mother’s sudden death in Pondicherry. The arrival has about it the finality of return as she says goodbye to her American life—a possible diasporic story is mercifully stopped in its tracks. She also says goodbye to her marriage to Blake, one that founders on the issue of having a child. Instead, she decides to act on her mother’s wish to get to know her younger sister Lucia she never suspected existed. Doshi manages this suspense adroitly as she blithely guides us through Grace’s misty childhood recall of her mother’s mysterious Thursday outings back when she lived with her parents in Madras. In fact, she wants to do more than just know her sister; she turns into a caregiver for Lucia, a girl with the Down’s syndrome. What unfolds is a deeply human story of the two sisters living in an idyllic ‘pink house’ on the beach with their furry friends in the vicinity of a not so idyllic village on the perilous edge of an expanding city.
The story is alternately inspiring in what it tells us about Grace’s sisterly concern for Lucia and frustrating in what it reveals about the difficulty of dealing with a Down’s child without institutional support. In Small Days and Nights, a potentially unmoving subject has been rendered with all the drama and lyrical grace it commands.
Himansu S Mohapatra is former Professor and Head, Department of English, Utkal University, Odisha.