Set in a small village close to Chennai, Tishani Doshi’s Small Days and Nights follows the story of Grace who returns from the United States to attend her mother’s funeral. She inherits a house by the sea and a long-buried secret, and she stays to tend to both. As she moves on from her old life and fraying marriage, she attempts to fashion a new existence built around family, dogs, solitude, and the occasional visit to friends in Chennai.
Doshi’s novel is a realistic, moving account of a woman with resources navigating caretaking, romance, life in a village and clashes around class and gender. But at the heart of Small Days And Nights is this question: what are the lives available to us, and can we fashion one that may not look like other people’s lives but is the right one for us?
Doshi spoke to Scroll.in about the epigraph of the novel by James Salter, the institutions after which she modelled the Sneha Centre, how social media allows her to connect with the world at large, loneliness in America, the role of dogs in the novel, interviewing writers, and the possibility of a woman forging a life alone. Excerpts from the interview:
The novel is set, as I understand it, close to where you live. You’ve mentioned you’ve written the novel in segments – did you write much of it in the village?
The novel only started to take shape once I decided to fix it in Parmankeni. I wanted to capture that particular landscape because it’s so remarkable to me – the extensive beauty of this coast, the isolation of it, the Bay of Bengal and her moods. I also wanted to write about how all of that can be suffocating and feel dangerous. A lot of these ideas are treated differently through some of the poems in Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, but essentially for quite a few years I was working on these two books side by side, and the mood I think, is quite similar and spills over into both.
Grace and Lucia’s dogs are central to the novel. Their brood reminded me of Goa where houses can similarly be far apart and remote, and dogs are considered almost essential companions as well as necessary safety measures. Would you talk a little bit about how the dogs may or may not tie into Grace’s decision to live far away from the city?
Grace’s decision to live there has to do with the inheritance she receives from her mother – the house by the sea, and a sister. Of course, she could have done things differently, sold the house, moved to the city, but part of her character is that she’s stubborn, so she accepts this new life as a moral responsibility although emotionally she is not fully equipped to deal with it. Living in the city would mean living more openly in view of others, and perhaps she isn’t quite ready for that.
The dogs come into her life by accident, they adopt her, as is often the way with stray dogs, but they become an essential part of the narrative because they are what connect Lucia and Grace, and they offer a sense of security, joy, and a narrative that runs parallel to their own lives.
Tell us a little bit about the epigraph by James Salter – “It is in the small towns that one discovers a country, in the kind of knowledge that comes from small days and nights.” It’s a particularly revealing one. When did you chance upon it? Has it shaped how you’ve thought about this novel?
I struggled with the title of this novel for so long. I would wake up in the middle of the night and think I’ve got it – write it down – and be disappointed the next morning. Titles are so important because they encapsulate the entire feeling of the book. For a long time I wanted the word “house” or “dog” in the title, but I couldn’t get anywhere with either of those. I’ve never finished a book and then found a title, it’s bizarre to me, it’s like the book can’t exist without a title. But in this one, it came after I finished it.
I’d had several working titles, none of which I liked. And then, like manna, it just arrived while reading James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, about the knowledge of small towns coming from small days and nights – and that was really what the book was about. This exploration of a woman’s life (so, in the literary realm, considered small, domestic, unimportant etc.) but also small in the sense of rural versus urban, and the assertion the book is trying to make, is that all these smalls make up something larger.
I’ve been thinking about the wide gulf between Grace and the other women of the village. What were you thinking about as you wrote about those dynamics? What did you draw from?
The thing about Grace as a character is that there is a wide gulf between her and everyone. She is an outsider wherever she goes. Whether it’s the women in the village or the women in the city. She doesn’t really fit anywhere, and she’s conscious of this, and bruised by it. Part of her decision to care for her sister is perhaps a way to shrink that gulf, to find meaning and a unique place in the world.
There are moments she has those things, but they are always fleeting. She’s a woman who never arrives anywhere. I’m interested in how this affects a person’s ability to create alternative support structures. When family or religion or caste or position in society are removed – when all those crutches are gone and you are simply singularly moving through the world – whom do you choose for your family and support? Whom do you belong to? This is Grace’s journey.
Is the Sneha Centre modelled after real-life establishments?
I’ve been in and out of a quite a few establishments like the Sneha Centre because my brother has Down Syndrome, so ever since he was a child, we’ve tried to find places for him to go to school, and he’s shifted around quite a bit. Lots of school days and annual dramas and all of that. So, this is an amalgamation of sorts, but yes, comes from places I’ve seen.
You interview writers frequently. What are some of the things you enjoy about that process?
It’s the most reaffirming act to speak to other writes about their process. It makes you feel as though you are taking to members of your tribe, trying to understand different approaches to essentially the same life commitment.
In a recent article on the influence of the internet on poetry, K Srilata celebrates the rising popularity of poetry, but ends with the following thought: “The relentless pressure to be visible and to promote your work could well come at the price of quietude.” Do you find that there’s a price to visibility?
It’s quite the reverse for me. I was off social media for five years, wasn’t doing much journalism, and was living in Parmankeni with limited internet, no newspaper, no TV, etc. So there was excessive quietude! I felt as though I’d completely drifted away from the world, and I’d lost sense of what people were talking about, the news, even my friends, because I no longer wrote letters in the way I used to.
I think to create there needs to be some sense of interaction, some measure of pulse beyond your own life. Books are huge imaginative corridors of course, but that again is a solitary adventure. Technology has allowed us to connect in such a remarkable way. It’s flawed, and there are dangers, but the idea of being able to pursue the life you want is immense. If you’re a writer you no longer need to go to Delhi, Paris, New York to be counted. I see that as a huge freedom.
There’s a single, stray sentence in Small Days and Nights, “There had been only one friend after a decade of living in America…” Recently, you posted about the one friend you made through your four years of college. Would you tell us about what you were thinking as you put that sentence in the manuscript?
I found being in America an extremely lonely experience. There’s something about middle-size America that is devastating in its ability to alienate. I had several friends in college but only one who could lift me out of that and I wanted to use that emotion for this novel. Grace is not the most social person, she’s quite awkward, and she choses to live in this lonely place, so I wanted the memory of this friendship to be a pivotal thing for her.
I often ask American writers whether they feel this loneliness too, and George Saunders described it best when he said, “It’s a loneliness inspired by how harshly we punish anyone who is not ‘making it’ financially…We are generally a pretty affluent country, lots of opportunity – but our ethos means that if you do fail or falter, it is a very long drop to a very hard surface. So our sense of community suffers. Americans tend to feel alone. Hence maybe all the shooting…”
I expect that some women will read Small Days and Nights and wonder what a life outside of conventional family structures and couplings, and far from city limits, might look like for them. I thought about it, and I wasn’t certain I would be able to live that life myself. Is Grace’s life one you can imagine for yourself?
This is really the question that got this novel started. I live in this place, this isolation, but of course, I’m married, I have a husband, a male presence. This changes everything. And I wondered, could I do it alone?
Having said that, I know several women who have chosen differently, who have gone off to live alone on an isolated beach – foremost that comes to mind is Chandralekha, who in the ’60s bought a piece of land on Eliot’s Beach Road in Madras, when there was nothing there but the sea and fishing hamlets. Instead of dogs for company she planted neem trees. Slowly, she built a theatre and brought life into that isolation. Now that place is teeming like Rio’s Copacabana, but it began as something quite different.
Not all of us have the strength and conviction to forge such unique paths, but I do think that given the rate at which old social structures are fraying, we must find different ways of loving and being in the world.