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Photo by Jonathan Self

My Small But Relevant Paramankeni Novel

By and
Q&A | 10 minute read
Tishani Doshi talks pariah dogs, lizards in toasters, and finding her place in the great history of Indian fiction in English

Could we start with the title, and the accompanying epigraph by James Salter: ‘It’s in the little towns that one discovers a country’? It chimed with the lovely line about the love story between Grace’s dogs Raja and Bagheera: ‘And between the two of them they spun kingdoms’.

What is the attraction for you of small worlds, castes, places – not least as the means to tell grand narratives about family, nations and the world?

I’ve lived in cities most of my life, but about eight years ago I moved to a coastal Tamil Nadu village, and began to be affected by this particular landscape which permeates Small Days and Nights. The nature of mortality, fear, solitude, your place in the world, everything changes when you take away the hordes, the noise, the architecture of the city. Here, I had the horizon of the Bay of Bengal, a scattering of fishing communities. Time slowed down and began to expand around me. Gandhi said that the future of India lies in its villages. It was probably a romantic idea even then, but we seem to have moved far from that idea. Everything is seen through the urban prism, including most Indian fiction in English. We have the Great Calcutta Novel, the Great Delhi Novel etc. I wanted to write the Great Paramankeni Novel. Or at least, the Small But Relevant Paramankeni Novel.

At one point, your heroine Grace is talking to her estranged husband, Blake: ‘I try to explain what it means to live two lives, to inhabit two different spaces.’ This means many things in the novel – about her parents, their own nationality, how Grace’s experiences of living in America and India form her character. What is the challenge for Grace – and indeed for her creator – of living such a dual existence? Both spent time in America, both have parents from Europe and India, both shuttle between India and Italy.

Duality is often presented as something that widens the imagination rather than restricts it, and being a hybrid Welsh-Gujarati who moves between many spaces, I generally take that view. However, while writing this novel, I also wanted to acknowledge the bruising that being an outsider can sometimes bring. The continuous feeling of unbelonging can wear you down. Grace inherits this house on the beach from her mother, and she tries to pin herself there, tending to it, tending to her sister, in the hope of finding her place, but she struggles and is beset by the fatigue of wanting to be wherever she is not. People are moving at an unprecedented level, and interestingly nationalism is also on the rise, so there’s this battle between the dispossesed and those who have a strong sense of birthright and entitlement, and I’m interested in how these states are in conflict with one another and how they will play out.

Grace’s duality applies also to your portrait of modern India. She chooses a rural existence whose people live in close proximity to violence (and the threat of violence), death, illness – but also hospitality, community, nature, beauty.

But Grace longs too for life in gilded metropolitan society – wild bohemian nights, sex, drugs and international cuisine with educated, witty, wealthy friends who are also complacent, narcissistic and vacant.

Is this a fair portrait of India today – and are the two halves (however crude) inseparably divided?

I think it’s impossible to present a fair portrait of India. It’s immense and there is no one narrative that can encompass its immensity. I wanted to talk about my own personal disconnect arising from moving between these states of rural and urban, to acknowledge the privilege I have in accessing these states, the luxury of abandoning one type of life for the weekend because it gets too much. My sense is that people with some amount of wealth and freedom can travel these divides with ease, but it is not so fluid the other way around. These divides are undeniable and part of every reality of India. We have one of the most extreme socieities in the world – extreme division of wealth, extreme division by caste, extreme division by gender, an extreme chasm between tradition and modernity. India has been a plural and secular country for a long time and there is a sense of that vitality, of all things being possible, but there are also these underlying societal fissures that trap us within these divides, and that will take a long time to overhaul.

Grace’s return is defined by inhabiting a space largely defined by women – her mother’s old friend Kavitha, her housekeeper Mallika, her sister Lucia, the Teacher, her friend Rohini. The space is at once empowering and vulnerable, safe and under constant threat in an increasingly consumerist but still patriarchal India. (I am thinking too of the way the formidable Nila recedes after Valluvan recovers). How much courage would it take real life Graces to live outside the established rules and traditions?

One of the working titles for the book was A House Without Men. I knew that exploring female friendships was going to be a big part of the novel, but I hadn’t realised that I was defining these relationship via the exclusion of men. So, not a house of women, but a house without men… I think it’s partly because I moved to this remote beach house with my husband, and the question that kick started the idea of the novel for me was: could I live here alone? The fact of a man being in the picture somehow gave me a standing, approval even though it was still weird – this couple living out there with an army of dogs. But he gave me legitimacy and I wanted to explore the idea of not having that, of braving it alone. Having said that, I know stories of quite a few real life Graces who have moved out to live by the sea or the mountains by themselves. My teacher, Chandralekha, was one of them. In the sixties she moved from the centre of the city out to a remote beach. Her house was the only one there except for a few fishing hamlets. Instead of dogs, she planted trees for company. She built a dance theatre, she kept her doors open so friends were always passing through. Now that place is part of the city and not so remote at all, but it still has all the energy of that early pioneering spirit.

Could I ask about Lucia? What was the motivation – both real and metaphorical – of making her a character with Down’s Syndrome?

It’s something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. My brother was born with Down’s Syndrome and the experience of growing up with him in Madras has been a profound and difficult one. I have addressed it tangentially in a few poems, but it’s always felt too close to write about. Then I read this story about how Arthur Miller and Inge Morath had institutionalised their son, Daniel, who was born with Down’s, and it gave me an opening into my story. The idea of discovering a sister you never knew you had, the idea of freedom versus duty. What would you do? How would it change your life? There is a huge invisibility with people who are differently abled in India. I hardly ever saw any other kids with Down’s when I was growing up, hardly anyone who was not ‘normal’ – and so society does not know how to behave, how to look, how to interact. There is little to no state support, and for a short while my brother had to go to the blind school until my parents could find a place for him. But my family is what it is because of my brother; he brings understanding to us that is hard to describe and I wanted to write about this relationship that was filled with challenges, but also incredible love, without sentimentalising it.

Lucia fits a broader theme of the unwanted and the untouchables – the murdered girl marrying outside her caste, the killed dogs, the baby who died from lack of health care. How much does this broad category – the people and issues so-called educated elites don’t really want to engage with – define not just India but the world as a whole?

Could I ask too about the significance – again real and more figurative – of Grace’s dogs in the story? They seem to tell the whole history of India.

Ah, the dogs! In India the strays are called pi dogs, pi from pariah: one that is cast out or refused. Pariah is anglicised from Paraiyar, a low South Indian caste, shortened to parai – a common derogative in Tamil Nadu – to mean low, worthless. But it is also the name of the drum the Paraiyars play – parai in Tamil means to speak or tell – so yes, it goes full circle and it can indeed tell the whole history of India. The story of caste is the story of India, and the story of Grace’s dogs is, in a way, a story of resistance. Tragedy but also survival. What you see in Indian streets is always dichotomy – in one corner a beggar sharing her pakora with a street dog, in the other a kid throwing a dog off a balcony just for fun. Dogs for me represent not just a wildness, a refusal to be tamed, but a sturdiness, which is needed to survive this environment. The astuteness to align themselves to certain bipeds, to begin on the periphery and slowly work their way in, dissolving boundaries, marking their territory. My husband and I howl with our dogs on the beach when we go on walks with them and those howls are as ancient and ever-resounding as those drums. They tell our story, and it is the rarest love I have ever known.

Among Grace’s more unnerving experiences is the encounter with the land broker, who persuades/cajoles/threatens people to get them to sell their land to large corporations. Does this reflect a real threat to people’s way of life in rural areas? The dark side of a modernising nation?

Absolutely, there’s been a lot written about land grabbing in India, particularly in rural areas. Farmers, who may be illiterate, or whose children want a different way of life, sell their lands so that concrete buildings can spring up from the soil. India is up there with China, South Korea and Saudi Arabia when it comes to land snatching, and this transference of resources from rural poor to urban rich has been happening for decades now. The threat of a coal power plant being constructed ten kilometres from Paramankeni that I write about is a real one. The degradation of that coast is real. Development in India has not given much thought to the environment, but this doesn’t only affect the lives in rural areas. The problem of plastic, the problem of potable water, the problem of soil erosion – we are going to be fighting these wars very soon.

Your writing about nature is lyrical and powerful. It is both a force for good – Lucia’s joy at being battered by the ocean – and also perhaps deceptive. I am thinking of Grace’s driving away from visiting Velluvan in hospital and Lucia in Senha feeling ‘a sense of confidence returning’ after gazing at dappled light on a road…

Are such moments a cheat (a distraction from the harsh reality of gangs using violence without retribution) or is there something restorative in the natural world?

One of the aspects of living in a rural place as I have been is that you squash up against nature in sometimes uncomfortable ways. Snakes hiding behind the cookbooks, mouse in the washing machine, lizard in the toaster. But then you turn and see a delicate orange moon climbing out of the sea, or you catch the brilliant blue wings of a kingfisher as it darts between trees. These things go together. People who live on this coast know that nature is wild. We’ve seen a tsunami, cyclones, floods. Add to that erosion, plastic, overfishing and using nets without turtle exclusion devices so that the beach is awash with detritus and dead olive ridley sea turtles. All this combines to produce a rich, terrifying feeling that we are surrounded by threats, but every once in a while we are offered windows of grace, and when they arrive we must take them.

It is a novel about change, and the challenge of change – personal, national and global. Grace changes in part by accepting which parts of her are stuck or unchangeable. What does change mean for you? Both personally and in terms of India.

A follow-up question – do you feel any hope about India’s broader future?

I’m always asked as a poet whether I’m pessimistic because I write so much about loss, and I always say I’m an optimist because I’m a poet. To imagine that someone will find or read your poems is such an act of optimism. The poem itself is turning a howl into a song. This optimism runs through me despite the fact that all the reports we are getting now – whether it’s the recent UN report on the environment which confirms that ten million species are facing extinction, or the ever-increasing violence against women – do not bode well; and yet, while we are alive, we must believe that change is possible. India is a country of impressive continuity and my feeling is that while things will get worse before they get better, there have been things to cheer about like decriminalising Section 377. India is also an incredibly young country – half its population is under twenty-five, two thirds under thirty-five. Change is not so threatening when you’re young. In fact, change is inevitable.

I liked the passage about the ‘Book of Life’ in the temple at Kerala – which people can read and discover things about themselves that even they didn’t know. Did writing Small Days and Nights work like this for you? Did you discover things about yourself and India that you didn’t know before?

It’s strange how writing helps you understand what you’ve been thinking about for a while, and it’s so mysterious, only through the actual writing do you arrive there. I began the book with such vague ideas. I had a character, Grace, and her sister, Lucia, but it’s only when I locked in on place, when I fixed upon the idea of them living in this isolated house in Paramankeni, that the story came together. I understood that my concerns remain primarily environmental and gender-based, but I was surprised at my own quiet fury.

Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi is published by Bloomsbury