Book Review: Small Days And Nights

It's a revelation of sorts in Tishani Doshi's novel, 'Small Days and Nights'

Small Days and Nights

Return is never the experience you hope for.”

That is how Small Days and Nights starts, and this is the underlying thread running through this story of Grazia, or Grace as she is called in her village in Tamil Nadu. Yes, indeed, return is not what one imagines it to be. Home is not what you had experienced years ago. “Do I dream? If I do, I remember only the feeling of it. I am in a place between places, childhood mostly, that transient land at the top of the Magic Faraway Tree, whirling, whirling.” And that is the rootlessness Grace endures, agonises over. She feels detached from everyone she meets, an outsider. She longs for roots, a family, to belong.

This yearning and isolation follow her wherever she goes. Even in her marriage, Grace feels the lack of something she cannot put a finger on, the longing for something missing. “There’s a loneliness that’s been swallowing me up in America and the thought of returning to my life there pounds like a great engine inside me.” This loneliness impacts her relationship with her husband, which is on the verge of a break when she is called away to India with news of her mother’s death.

A not-so-pleasant surprise awaits her when her mother’s friend, the dry and wry Aunty Kavitha, reveals to her the existence of her older sister. A sister she had no inkling about. A sister who has Downs Syndrome. The revelation leaves her shocked. So this is where her mother disappeared to every Thursday, to the home for the specially-abled, where her sister Lucia lives and which has been significantly funded by her mother. Her Italian father has moved back to Venice, having split from her mother years ago. Her parents’ relationship was quirky: happy at times and volatile at others, “like two serpents in their battle dance”.

She has also inherited a house in Paramankeni, deep in the south of India. It is to this place that she decides to bring her sister and make it their home, a refuge, giving her life some permanence and roots. A bunch of stray dogs make themselves a part of the family as does Mallika, who lives with them as help.

The day-to-day living of this family seemingly forms the narrative. But underlying it is the churn of emotions of coming to terms with new equations while battling with politicians, villagers, and school authorities who see Grace as the rich woman who is expected to contribute to their causes. Vile leery property mafia goons lend a subtly lurking sinister feel that most Indian women feel wherever they may be: a village, town, city, road, or mall.

There are plenty of hiccups for Grace in her quest for a new meaning in her life. Her path is cluttered with anger, frustration, tenderness, detachment, anarchy, but in the end, her resilience takes her to the goal she seeks. 

Small Days and Nights reinforces Doshi’s stature as an upcoming star in literary circles. Her first novel, The Pleasure Seekers, was longlisted for prominent literary awards. Her collections have won her awards for poetry. That lyricism is evident even in the prose of Small Days and Nights, giving it an added dimension. Her artistry with words transports the reader to the scene, much like in films and graphic novels. “There is nothing in the world like hill rain — epic, torrential — all drum rolls and whiplash. The smell of the earth, potent and warm like mud in your nostrils.” The sights and sounds of the narrative: the barking of the dogs, the hushed shimmer of the sea, the tinny Brahma Muhurta music from the temples at 4 am - bring alive the narrative and linger long after they’re read.

Doshi’s characters are flawed much like all of us are. And that makes them all so very human and understandable. Grace is strong enough, yet there is a touch of vulnerable in her that she keeps hidden. The frustration, the running away from problems, the fury and forgiveness, the understanding and finally acceptance is what reality is. “It’s not about living away from the world but living in it....” Doshi’s craft lies in putting difficult feelings down in words when many of us would have probably struggled to do so. The story had sufficient scope for falling into weepiness and mawkishness; it is to the author’s credit that the narrative stays rooted in practicality and realism.

However, at times, the switching from the present to the past and between continents becomes somewhat confusing and requires turning of pages back and forth. A bit more linear narration would have helped. But that is a minor glitch in an otherwise eminently readable book.

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