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Sisters and daughters

  • Tishani Doshi’s new novel raises questions of parental love and responsibility
  • ‘Small Days And Nights’ is a novel about contemporary India in the best sense

Doshi’s novel is about contemporary India in the best sense.
Doshi’s novel is about contemporary India in the best sense. (Photo courtesy: Jonathan Self)

Watching him, I understand that it is perfectly possible to exist in the world without being aware that someone close to you, someone of your flesh and blood, is moving about in the same air as you, occupying the same streets. That it takes all kinds of coincidences for trajectories to collide," says Grace Marisola, the narrator of Tishani Doshi’s novel, Small Days And Nights, as she spies on her father eating an ice cream in the shade of the Santa Maria della Visitazione church in Venice.

Grace has been in the city for over three weeks, to tell her Italian father that his estranged spouse, Grace’s Indian mother, is dead. But she is held back by what she has learnt about her parents’ secret past. And in this moment of epiphany she realizes what most of us never have to reckon with: that our parents are people with secrets and desires we may never know about or understand.

Small Days tells a tender but brutally honest story about lives colliding and moving apart, about the loving cruelty of parents borne of an impossible longing to protect and nurture. Before Grace has processed the loss of her mother, she is bludgeoned by the news that she has an older sibling, a sister called Lucia, who suffers from Down syndrome and has been kept away from her in a home for persons with special needs all her life. Shaken by this revelation, Grace decides to take Lucia to live with her in the house their mother has left them in a small coastal town in Tamil Nadu. Driven by a desire to right what she perceives to be a wrong, Grace devotes herself to caring for her big sister, who is like a small child. Stubbornly resistant to having a child, which led to the end of her own marriage, Grace is suddenly, ironically, thrust into a maternal role.

Grace and Lucia, who dwell in a “house without men", are characters worthy of an Ingmar Bergman movie. Their life by the sea, with hordes of dogs for company and a woman called Mallika who looks after them, has a touch of doom. The village headman assures them safety, but they are trailed by strange men along the beach, migrant workers who defecate in the open, ogle at Grace, and are unabashedly curious about Lucia. Political disputes, caste conflicts, avaricious land-grabbers, disgruntled locals and extortionists populate the microcosm that the sisters inhabit. Their lives are filled with moments of surreptitious joy but also jaw-clenching frustration, and, most of all, with a lingering premonition of dread, which grips the reader too.

Small Days And Nights: By Tishani Doshi, Bloomsbury India, 272 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499.
Small Days And Nights: By Tishani Doshi, Bloomsbury India, 272 pages, 499.

Distraught by the air of menace, Grace musters all her guile to navigate the patriarchal norms that govern small-town India. She is prevented from paying women the same rate as the men toiling in her garden. Her beloved dogs are poisoned en masse by mysterious interlopers. After years of married life in the US, her existence as a single woman in India drives her into a state of perpetual distrust. She fumes, like her father, that she is living among “savages", in the boondocks. But every few weeks, when she drives down to Madras to see her friends, she is left equally aghast by their thoughtless quips and hollow lives.

Small Days is a novel about contemporary India in the best sense. It’s not a literary Lonely Planet guide to inequality, women’s experience of public space, or the challenges of caring for a person with disabilities in the “third world"—even though all these concerns are at the heart of the story. Instead, Doshi’s writing is lit by palpable rage as well as visceral affection, often for the same things. Raw injustice is not always harnessed into forgiveness and if situations jolt us into questions, we do not always have the comfort of answers. “Will you give up your one life to completely devote it to this child who will never be independent," as Grace’s father asks her, “or will you do the kind, responsible thing, which is to entrust this child to someone who can take care of her, who is paid to look after her in a community of other children who suffer like her?"

For Grace, embracing her long-lost sister is atonement for what she perceives as years of neglect by her parents. But having loved, Grace, too, realizes that love alone is never perfect or enough—that having children will always be a complicated blessing. “In the days to come there will be children engineered to resemble our ideas of children," she says towards the end. “They will be born in Petri dishes and every chromosome, every strand of genetic evidence, will be tampered into perfection. And still, we will fall short."

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