There is a moment of bitter comprehension in Tishani Doshi’s new novel, Small Days and Nights (Bloomsbury), when Grace, the narrator, is with her friends, drinking wine in a Chennai hotel bar days after an unknown attacker has killed five of her village dogs with poisoned meat. “No one has asked me how I’m coping with my recent dog tragedy because they’re not furry house animals. Because they’re a pack of wild things, the expectation is that wild things might happen to them, such as being poisoned en masse.”
Reading the novel, my thoughts returned to an afternoon in a scruffy Delhi park several years ago. Usually a friend and I walked our dog there together, and our evenings followed a pattern: our car approaches and a whole squad of eager park dogs are assembled by the gate waiting. They live a half-starved life and we — and a few others — come with milk and biscuits for them when we walk our dog. Each park dog has become familiar and lovable to us, though we know that every now and then a few will go missing and never come back.
One week, my friend is away and I am doing the round alone. I drive to the park earlier than usual, to avoid the evening crowds. It is an enormous unkempt stretch of green snaking through the bowels of East Delhi’s slums and apartment blocks for several kilometres, with a highway along one side. It feels strangely empty this hot afternoon, but for the skeletal dogs who have crowded around me as I fish out their food.
All of a sudden, they scatter and I see why: I am surrounded again, but this time it is by a group of burly men, the park maalis and chowkidars, with sticks strong enough to pulverise. Two of them hold garden rakes prong side up. They are yelling at me simultaneously, and, for a few minutes, I can’t understand what is going on until their babble resolves itself into words: they are angry with me for feeding the dogs, they are accusing me of spreading disease. I shout back, even as I realise I am being foolhardy — I’m alone with five or six aggressive men in a deserted park. The men move closer, their tirade continues. But miraculously, one in the group, who has been hanging back, comes forward and persuades the others to leave me alone. When they finally scatter, I am shaking, my legs feel as if they will fold under me. The strays don’t come back that day for their food. Some weeks later, we find one dog’s charred body in a manure pit.
I now understand why, when Tishani Doshi and I were in conversation at a literary festival some months ago, she asked me about the role dogs and other animals play in my fiction. I hadn’t read her book then and didn’t know that for her as much as for me, the killing of stray dogs symbolises deep social depravity and moral degeneration.
Her central character, Grace, lives with her sister Lucia in a large house on the coast near Chennai, but it is not a pastoral existence. The village headman asks her, “Are you scared?” She replies, “I am always scared.” She feels a constant sense of danger: out on the beach in the dark, torchlight shines on her and is switched off in silence; the headman keeps demanding money — and then he is savagely attacked by his own political enemies. Property sharks are forever on the prowl. More mundane things go wrong too, and they are captured by Doshi in unreached-for, casually memorable sentences. “This rushing about to preserve door jambs,” she writes, of “washers in taps disintegrating, coats of rust thicken the lips of every mechanical appliance.”
The book’s setting is domestic, the meals in it are often Italian, but the rage and disgust about the ugliness of modern India are Naipaulean. This is a country in which inequality means there are starving people who must steal into wealthy gardens to hunt for rats to eat. Women can’t walk alone at night without fearing assault. A sense of the fury that Doshi feels about this violent world came through in her recent collection of poems, Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods (2018). In this novel, too, Grace sees violence all around her and is repelled, exhausted, shaken. She reminded me at times of the girls in Doshi’s title poem who are likened to birds battering themselves against windows: “all you can hear/ is the smash of their miniscule hearts/ against glass, the bright desperation/of sound.”
In the glib way that writing is usually sectioned off, a novel about a life of bright desperation such as Grace’s may not generally be seen as “political”. Just as history is usually written as a narrative of wars and treaties rather than an account of small events and ordinary lives, political novels are widely thought to be those that are about national crises: refugees, civil wars, terrorism. The infinite small and large oppressions in the daily world, the brutality that is routinely directed against the defenceless, especially in societies that have become as dysfunctional as ours — to write about this is not thought to be sufficiently political or activist. Fiction that chooses the domestic for its sphere, especially fiction populated by women, is routinely considered narrow, feeble, written for women. Yet the battles for power and control in the domestic sphere and in the community, in the “small days” of this novel, are what shape the fabric of life, and Grace’s struggles hold a many-angled mirror at society which reflects back uncomfortable truths. Can we accept that people who poison and burn dogs, and those who claim that such cruelty is regrettable but understandable, might find reasons for lynching human beings too?
The stories of Alice Munro are usually set in the most humdrum of surroundings and populated by men and women who appear entirely unremarkable. Munro’s strength lies in destabilising these apparently mundane worlds and transforming how we look at them. There may be a sudden stab of a knife or an explosion of meteors in the sky that a girl witnesses from a moving train, and, through a gradual accretion of events that start out seeming inconsequential, we find that at the end of her stories we are standing on shakier, boggier ground than before, our mind full of questions. Munro’s writing makes me think, for some reason, of what the poet Adrienne Rich called “difficult, ordinary happiness”. And that the struggle to find it as Grace is doing — and we are all doing — is political and significant in the deepest sense.
Anuradha Roy is a writer, most recently of, All The Lives We Never Lived.