Moments after being privy to a conversation between two women regarding children — the need to have them or not — Grace is asked by one of them, does she want kids? “I have inherited a kid, that’s plenty,” the protagonist of Tishani Doshi’s Small Days And Nights replies. The word “inherited” — so sterile in its implication — seems like an apparent misfit here, a wrong usage almost. One inherits inanimate objects, land, wealth, not children. And yet, Grace indeed had inherited a kid, one she had no knowledge about — her elder sister Lucia.
Doshi’s latest novel is a deeply layered work underlining the existence and experiences of outsiders, their inability to belong, that often later transforms into their refusal. It is also a richly cut portrait of a dysfunctional family, of love fading between a married couple through years of cohabitation till nothing is left to offer to the child. The author — using this as a framework — raises questions about responsibilities, relationships and chooses to focus on the most intimate and private of them — motherhood.
The sudden death of her mother impels Grace to return to India: the personal tragedy not only mirroring her own dead marriage in the US but also providing her with an excuse to run away from it. But what was supposed to free her, fetters her instead. Her reluctance to have a child had contributed in causing a defining crack in her marriage. A day after coming back to India, Grace is told that she has an elder sister, afflicted with Down Syndrome, quietly growing up at the Sneha Centre for Girls.
Mother as the Other
Doshi, who narrates the story from Grace’s perspective and borrows her staid voice while doing so, unpeels — first gently and later urgently — various layers of motherhood and examines each of them, without vilification of any. Grace’s mother, Meera, could not bring Lucia home. Her father did not allow. Grace identifies this as irresponsible at first, deception even. “My mother could have done what I’m doing now. She could have left my father earlier,” Grace says. But through the course of the novel, Doshi presents Meera not as one who is ambivalent or reluctant towards motherhood, an enfant terrible of mothers, but as one who had to fight long to not only be but become a mother. She is not the “Other Mother, the reluctant mother, [who] is smothered by traditional ideals of motherhood,” author Michelle Kennedy writes about in her article Freeing The Smothered (M)other: The Refocalisation of the Reluctant Mother in Modern Irish Society as Evinced Through the Works of Anne Enright, though her daughter views her as so.
Although focussing primarily on Anne Enright’s work, on the Irish author’s ability to negotiate a space for those women who did not willingly choose motherhood, Kennedy’s words make a compelling case for several other mothers situated outside the Irish society, those who had been Other-ed for not embracing motherhood as willingly as they were expected to.
Anuradha Roy illustrates this ambivalence and reluctance in Gayatri Rozario, the Other mother in her 2018 novel All The Lives We Never Lived. Gayatri, an artist and dancer is married to a man who is incapable of appreciating either. Her marriage reeks of unfulfillment and decay and her son Myshkin is viewed by her as an extension of that. Gayatri is shown to be continuously wrestling with this ambivalence which, Kennedy writes, “is deemed both personally intolerable and socially unacceptable”.
She chooses art over family and the day she decides to leave, she asks her son to come back home early. Myshkin arrives later only to find his mother has left him. In that decisive moment when Gayatri had to make a choice, Myshkin was left behind. The liberation that follows is documented in the letters she writes to him and to her friend, and though guilt percolates in both, regret does not find its way to the pages she sends to her friend.
Meera is not Gayatri, although Grace thinks her to be: a mother who left her child bereft of any care, whose act of leaving is akin to abandonment.
The Other as the Mother
Grace’s anger towards her mother, bordering on aversion, stems not from finding the latter as someone she could not recognise after the secret was out, but as someone she knows too intimately. Her mother’s ambivalence towards Lucia reminds her of her own reluctance to have a child. On finding shades of her own disinclination reflected in the way her mother treated Lucia, Grace is angered, terrified almost. Her impulsive act of bringing Lucia home, at least initially, then becomes her way of showing herself, more than others, that she is better than her mother, better than who she feared herself to be.
If Roy articulates a woman’s reluctance towards becoming a mother in Gayatri, Doshi anticipates it in Grace. Except she is not one. She is already an Other and Doshi expands our accepted definition of motherhood to accommodate Grace.
Her mother had to fight against her father to bring Lucia home. She failed. “She was the most stubborn person I knew…I don’t know how she lost that. It’s as though she got thwarted a few times and she just gave up,” her mother’s friend tells Grace. In order to keep Lucia home with her, Grace had to fight bigger battles — the rowdy men in the vicinity, the villagers who regularly extract money from her and her own self who in moments of isolation reminds her of her parents — each upheaval, small tragedy inching her closer to her own mother, helping her re-identify the latter’s reluctance as helplessness.
Doshi, in her novel, detaches the deeply-entrenched ideals from the idea of motherhood, strips off the societal responsibilities associated with it, making the experience private. Grace struggles with Lucia, evidently, viscerally. Stranded with a role she did not particularly want, Grace is frequently annoyed, infuriated even with Lucia’s listlessness. “She is unremittingly dense. We repeat the same actions day after day. Beyond shoving a spoon in her mouth, there is little she can do,” she writes, and later confesses exasperatingly, “I sometimes shout, losing my patience after two hours of watching her chew.” And yet the cyclical repetition of days, sharing space with Lucia in the seaside property near Madras — unmoored and alone — helps Grace to find her own self, she who always found herself on the fringes, “standing behind glass, looking in”.
Grace had long held her parents responsible for not being able to make a home out of a place, forge human connections out of relationships. Her father, hailing from the Italian town of Vicenza and her mother from Tranquebar (Tamil Nadu) had tried to piece together a life in Madras. Having failed to do so, they moved to Kodaikanal. But they remained outsiders, to each other as well to others. “I was always the bastard at the wedding, the stranger at the feast,” she writes. The discovery of her sister informs her that she was not the only one standing on the edge, that there was someone else too who was treated with more unkindness by her parents and the rest, an outsider among the outsider(s). A solidarity is formed.
Motherhood: Giving and taking care
Doshi, through Grace, shows how there is not one way to be a mother, that she need not serve as a refuge for the child alone but can also take shelter in the latter. Over the course of living together, of disappointing each other and laughing over inanities, Grace ceases to be a caretaker of her elder sister. She frees herself from feeling entrapped with the sense of responsibility the term entails — what perhaps had discouraged her mother, even Gayatri — and becomes a caregiver instead, taking something back while giving.
Tending for Lucia gives Grace a sense of purpose. In helping Lucia survive, Grace learns to live among the dogs and wilderness. By forging a semblance of a connection with Lucia, by fighting the unkind stares the latter would often get from strangers, by mourning over dead dogs together and by noticing how they both open their mouths while smiling, “exposing the pink tinge of our gums”, Grace is reminded that they both are related and fated to stand outside, forever on the periphery. She is also reminded that she is not alone. She might still be standing behind the glass, but there is Lucia with her. They stand outside, but they stand together, and one will help the other to survive the small days and nights, together.