I recently read an interview that the Egyptian writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif had given to Tishani Doshi, poet and novelist (and dancer).
“Do you think your fiction would necessarily need to be informed by politics?” Doshi asked Soueif, to which she responded with characteristic insight:
“This is the core question. I need some support now. (Lights a cigarette). I can’t imagine a book that I write which is not informed by politics, but the issue is, how do you do this? For me a novel has to have a central character or a few central characters that the reader cares about. It has to come from a personal space. At the moment, the political stuff that’s happening is so big, so volatile, it just pushes me over every time I work because it’s almost as if there’s no room for the personal. In a way, what does it matter what happens to one or two people when the stuff that’s happening to thousands is immense? But you have to find your way around that because you can’t write a novel about hundreds and thousands.
I found Soueif’s answer to be of particular interest because at the time I encountered this interview – mid-March or so – I was reading the galleys of Doshi’s new novel Small Days and Nights, which is about two central characters – Grace and her sister Lucia – and their several dogs, set, for the most part, in Paramankeni, a tiny coastal village in Tamil Nadu, a haunting sea-swept place that is at least three hours away from the sound and fury of big city life and at least a generation away from globalising, galloping new India, with its globalising, galloping “hundreds and thousands” of new Indians. Paramankeni is also the place where Doshi herself has lived for close to a decade now.
Grace and Lucia
Crafted in a remarkably poetic, first-person narrative, Small Days and Nights is told in the voice of Grace, a (half-Italian, half-Indian, lapsed Catholic) woman in her thirties, who sheds her old life in the United States to return to Pondicherry, where her dead mother awaits cremation. It is the year 2010.
After the funeral, a blur of forgotten family and friends, as Grace formally inherits the family legacies – a parcel of land by the sea – and family secrets, she learns of Lucia (“My sister Lucia. How strange it is to say the word”), the mysterious shadow that has trailed her all these years. Living with Down Syndrome and declared “Mongoloid” by their neurotic acousticophobic father who refuses to be a part of her life, Lucia has spent her entire life in a residential facility their mother helped build, under the baleful gaze of “Teacher”, an ambitious if competent woman who has overseen her life and well-being from the time she was committed.
Against Teacher’s well-meaning advice, Grace moves Lucia home with her, and the two sisters begin to invent a strange kind of life together on the 10 acres of beachfront property their mother had bought “for a song”, in the pink house with blue shutters and no men. They share their life with Mallika, a village woman who comes to work for them and lives on the property as a guard, and many beloved adopted dogs.
It is a sort of feminist utopia. And it is as though Grace has paused the narrative of her life and segued into this innately resistive existence:
“It is a still day. Nothing moves. Even the sea is lifeless – a sheet of metal suspended out of the sky’s head like an exhausted grey tongue. It’s the kind of day that allows for openings – makes me wonder how it happened that in another life I lived in America. I had a husband, a job, people I socialised with.”
But lurking at the edges of their 10-acre utopia are dangers, big and small, the shadows of the world that constantly attempt to intrude upon their small lives: casual lovers, coal plants, real estate brokers, disapproving locals, money-hungry neighbours and, of course, visitors from past lives.
The price to be paid
The novel’s epigraph is drawn from John Salter’s remarkable novel A Sport and a Pastime:
“It’s in the little towns that one discovers a country, in the kind of knowledge that comes from small days and nights.”
And while this points to the genesis of the title, it also offers, as it were, a methodology to read the book.
Grace chooses to bury the ghosts of the past by attempting to do the right thing – providing a loving home to Lucia, confronting her inner life with honesty, even reconnecting with her father in Venice. At the same time, she resists doing the things that society wishes to impose upon her: a baby, a career, conventional coupledom. But what is the price of this separate life, the audacity of inventing a small utopia (like all utopia, this one too is based on class hierarchies)? And how far is she willing to negotiate with the macro-world pressing in upon her to protect her independent nation?
Flowers of salt
“A sudden vision of the future. I am going to be one of those women who is alone. In her car, in restaurants, in the rooms of this house, waiting for a sign from the world. A telephone call. A letter. Nothing will come...I plant the champaca in front of the house. I want to see if it will survive. If it will bring forth flowers of salt.”
An intense meditation on solitude, on a semi-moored life, Small Days and Nights belongs more to the tradition of Doshi’s poetry – most specifically, Girls Are Coming out of the Woods – and less to the tradition of her prose. Those who loved the jauntiness of her writing in The Pleasure Seekers, the energy of the classic immigrant story and the richness, the drama of a family saga, will be surprised by the quietness of this innately inward-looking book.
The novel is filled with luminous lines that you will find yourself pausing to admire, to re-read, to return to. But the characters do not draw one in quite as much. While Lucia, Auntie Kavitha and Nila are memorable figures, Grace is not a very likeable protagonist herself, and the meandering navigations of the past take away from the tightness of the narrative. One empathises with her voice, her doggedness, her condition – but one doesn’t fall in love with her. And that is perhaps the lot of the ever-questioning, ever-resistive protagonist who stands separated from the humdrum world full of action and the silence of complete renunciation.
Small Days and Nights, Tishani Doshi, Bloomsbury.