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Tishani Doshi on Small Days and Nights, writing about marriage and the bond between the body and language

Ever since her award-winning book The Pleasure Seekers and the sparkling works of poetry which followed it, Tishani Doshi has been admired for her lyrical and luminous oeuvre. Her new book, Small Days and Nights, offers what we have come to expect from the author – beguiling phrases decked with simplicity, heartbreaking yet realistic accounts of relationships, and a wry narrative that hides as much as it reveals about the scenes unfolding in front of us. Her keen sense of observation is critical but never cynical, and a sense of quiet looms over her lucid prose.

In this book, Doshi weaves a story of two sisters, Grace and Lucia, one fleeing a failed marriage and the other who has Down’s syndrome, living in the proverbial house by the sea. Safety issues, violence and real estate mafia lurk around the corner as the sisters navigate their lives. In this conversation with Firstpost, the author speaks about the characters, the setting of the book and how conversations around her inspire her work.

 Tishani Doshi on Small Days and Nights, writing about marriage and the bond between the body and language

Tishani Doshi. Photograph by Jonathan Self

Small Days and Nights speaks primarily of relationships – much like your other work, The Pleasure Seekers – it’s about marriages, bonds between parents and children, and between siblings. What drew you to discover the fragility in these intrinsic bonds?

I think family exerts such a strong presence in India, and part of writing the book was to find out whether I could create alternative families for my characters because the real family couldn’t quite do the job. I think those social bonds can be incredibly supportive but also oppressive and those traditional structures are in a period of flux now, so it’s an interesting time to examine what’s happening in India, particularly the choices that young women are making.

How did you stumble upon the characters of Grace and Lucia, and what was the inspiration behind building a house by the beach inhabited only by women?

Characters arrive in a completely mosaic fashion in bits and pieces. A lot of my work has been about examining lives of women, bodies of women, voices of women. My last book of poems, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods, also had to do with a lot of these issues, and as I was writing these two books together I suppose it was inevitable that some of the themes overlap and that there would be this stronghold house on a remote beach with only women in it.

How much does real life inspire your work? You live in coastal Tamil Nadu and the book is set in a similar landscape…

The landscape is completely inspired by where I live, and that’s why it’s such a part of my poetry and my novel. I’m so interested in how amidst such beauty you can feel danger and fear, and how in this kind of isolation you are either completely with the world or outside of it.

There is a subtle juxtaposition of Grace’s solitary life in Pondicherry against her socialising in Chennai. Was it a deliberate attempt to show that her loneliness was imposed on her?

I think it shows more her struggle to belong. You sense that she badly wants to be part of things, to feel in the skin of things, and she has fleeting moments of that at the beach and at some of those Chennai social gatherings. Mostly though, she stands outside of it. It’s a study in loneliness and solitude, and the ways in which we try to find our place in the world.

I found the two marriages in the book (both Grace’s and her parents) very striking. How did you demarcate the choreography of sequence of these two marriages while writing?

I suppose because I’d written my first book about such an idealistic marriage and love, in this one I wanted to talk about love and ideas of redemption but with slightly less lovable characters. We only know about these marriages through Grace’s memory and so it’s all very unreliable, but certainly, I wanted to play with the notion of security that marriage can offer, versus the cage that it can sometimes be.

The safety issues concerning Grace and Lucia, who live in small-town India, are always lurking in the backdrop. As someone who lives in a village yourself, how relevant are women’s safety issues in that milieu?

No matter which part of India you live in – whether it’s rural or urban, if you are a woman – you are thinking about safety issues. There is no place that is safe. Of course, Grace is in a position of privilege, and it’s unlikely in this story that anything will happen to her, but I want to stress that imagined fears for women are as real as the real fears. We cannot separate them or be rational about it, because, I mean, look at the news…

There is a strong undercurrent of violence set against the picturesque setting of a house by the beach. Is the violence a reminder that in the world of today it’s just a real estate deal or an election away?

Violence is part of life. Whether it’s violence to people because of caste, gender or belief, or violence to the environment, or violence for money or ulterior motive. We are surrounded and bombarded by all kinds of violence, so I wanted to include that in the novel, not without holding up the beauty because that is the other side of the human coin.

There is a lot of grief in the book (failed marriages, death and a child with Down's syndrome), yet it doesn’t overwhelm the narrative. Was it a conscious choice to not make it an overtly sentimental read?

I wanted to be true to the experience of raising a child who is differently-abled, not to sentimentalise it because I know the experience of it. I wanted Grace to be a questionable character with a moral compass, who fails occasionally, not because I was afraid of being sentimental, but because I think that’s how it is. Most of us are good people struggling along, sometimes we snap and we aren’t our best selves.

The cover of Small Days and Nights. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury

The cover of Small Days and Nights. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury

How much do the conversations around you influence you? For example, did the #MeToo movement inspire you to develop a protagonist who prefers a solitary life with dogs to a failed marriage?

I wrote this book before #MeToo took off, but of course, conversations inspire me. I’m interested in the choices that people make and how they affect others. The environment is something I think about a lot, living where I do, the fragility of the coast, of climate change, all that comes through. I also wanted to write between the rural and the urban, to show that there are different ways of living.

How much does your poetry inspire your prose?

I’m really interested in sentences and how they work on a singular level but also how they connect. For me the idea is to create beautiful language but with a clear sense of purpose and rhythm and perhaps that comes from poetry, yes.

You are a writer, dancer and poet — all creative forms. Does one form of art inspire the other?

Poetry is really the central axis from which I operate, and the starting point that I go back to again and again. Dance has been an enormous experience in my life, I so miss performing with the Chandralekha troupe – it was a real nucleus for me, but I do continue with my own practice and movement. I think the connection between body and language for me is very important, and also how they connect with time.

Many say that this is the age of distraction, with social media and streaming, when you are writing, how do you steer clear of distractions?

Hint 1 – move to an isolated beach where there is limited internet. Or learn to switch on aeroplane mode.

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Updated Date: Apr 27, 2019 09:28:54 IST