I had been prepared for ugliness because that’s what grows in India, sprouts and flourishes like the hair on a dead person. But the space in which you from adult to child, that leaf-thin whiplash, that I had not expected.
I do not need the freedom I imagine I need.
Dancer, poet, writer and literary critic Tishani Doshi’s second novel Small Days and Nights is about thirty-something Grace who is half-Indian, half-Italian. Upon her mother’s death she discovers she has a younger sister Lucia. Lucia has Down’s syndrome which their Italian father insists on referring to as “Mongoloid”. Grace decides to take charge of her life and one of her first decisions is to move her sister home. This despite protests from Lucia’s Teacher at the home. The sisters move to a home their mother had bought many years earlier for a song. Now it is considered to be prime property. Ten acres of land with a detached house by the sea. Grace relies upon a young girl from the village called Mallika to help her manage the house and Lucia and the many stray dogs they seem to have become responsible for. This is a domestic scene that is quietly idyllic. It is a feminist utopia with no men in the household. Although men from the village come to Grace regularly seeking funds and offering unsolicited advice. The sisters also get unwelcome visitors like hostile property brokers.
Small Days and Nights focuses on a tiny slice of domesticity, a world that is usually invisible to most, at least in literature but is all around us. There is something reassuring to know that women’s fiction can make matters of “little” importance such as “caregiving”. Even the frustration that Grace feels for Lucia one day and vents it upon her younger sister by becoming physically violent is understandable to those who are caregivers 24×7. Caregiving is a relentless and an unforgiving responsibility but to those on the outside incidents like this became an occasion to pass judgement. Whereas it is far more complicated than it looks. The outcome is that Lucia is taken away from Grace’s care and back to the home.
While it has the makings of an internationally acclaimed novel there are moments in Small Days and Nights which are bewildering such as the act of Grace taking Lucia out of the home where she was well provided for and Lucia was obviously at ease. Why was it necessary to remove Lucia from her comfortable environs? Or an equally inexplicable act of Grace taking off for long weekends to the nearest city, Chennai, to be with her friends. Wanting time for oneself is a self-preservation act which is necessary for every caregiver but taking time out like this can only be managed if there are reliable people to step in while the primary caregiver is away. Caregiving is a responsibility and not a noble act. It is a constant in one’s life and impossible to take a break from even with support staff to help with the minute-to-minute supervision. And as Grace discovers to her dismay that once she was away Lucia was not being provided for instead she had been abandoned by the maid. Another cause for friction between Teacher, the villagers and Grace.
Small Days and Nights has a way of consuming one with a seemingly insignificant women’s domestic drama but lingers for much longer for the larger issues it raises such as what is the definition of a household, of a family, of relationships, of love etc? The responsibility of caregiving is a thankless task where every caregiver needs their safety valve moment without also having to tackle the judgement passed upon them by outsiders. It forces conversations upon readers about women and their world that would otherwise not under ordinary circumstances be considered as worthwhile.
Small Days and Nights is an unforgettable novel.
5 June 2019