‘There Are Still Things That Bring Joy’

Tishani Doshi is a well-known writer, poet and essayist who lives in Paramankeni and has a house in Kodaikanal. She was in Kodai in April, during this second wave.

‘It feels surreal,’ she told us. ‘To have access to green and air, to see it without the usual busyness of summer. A black eagle swoops around and around the house daily and two dogs from the neighbourhood come for biscuits and play. In a time of such uncertainty, such grief and anger, it seems miraculous to me that there are still things that bring joy, however fleeting the day seems.’ 

And, speaking to these themes, is an excerpt from Small Days and Nights, Doshi’s second novel, released last year to critical acclaim.

Tishani Doshi getting her vaccine shot in Kodaikanal. (Photo: Carlo Pizzati)


‘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 go from adult to child, that leaf-thin whiplash, that I had not expected.

We drove through kilometres of shola forest, the taxi careening dangerously around corkscrew bends. Lucia was at the window, pushing her glasses up the snub of her nose. One knee flat on the seat, the other jammed into her armpit. Out of her mouth a song, or a kind of song.

‘Look Lucia,’ I said, as we passed the Silver Cascades—that sad, depleted waterfall running crookedly down the rock face, overwhelmed by the many van loads of people who had come to pose beside it over the years, and the monkeys manning the walls—they were still there, even though they looked more sore-assed and disgruntled than before. Above them skeletons of new constructions thrust out of the forest, and crowded around these were two-storeyed houses painted bright pink and purple, buildings made of such shoddy materials they seemed to sway slightly in the breeze.

Centuries before, Indian tribes had lived in these hills in megalithic dolmens, collecting honey. Later, botanists and enthusiastic American missionaries who dreamed of large congregations came and built churches and elegant bungalows. Couples took perambulations around Coaker’s Walk and paused at the cliff’s edge to give thanks to their own intelligence for having escaped the heat of down there. Now Kodai is a place that bursts in summer. Its inhabitants complain about the invaders from the plains with their pallid cheeks and fat hearts. They complain constantly, as I imagine descendants of a failed royal family do, aware that their ancestors lived in a time of greater beauty, that these reduced living conditions were a kind of poverty.

I had made plans to meet Uncle Sundar for dinner at the club. ‘That old fox will pull out all the stops,’ Auntie Kavitha had said. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to come?’ Looking at him now, after all these years, I see how obvious it was. His eyebrows were radiant black arches, his hair a cathedral of black, even the way his jaws worked systematically through the club’s stringy roast chicken, displaying slabs of strong ivory tooth now and again, showed a man of conscientiousness. I imagined him going through his weekly toilette. The bottle of hair dye, the tweezers, the huge concentration in his sleek, morose face as he brushed and scalpelled his way to perfection.

‘What a tremendous thing you’re doing,’ he said, for the second time.

‘Do you think,’ I said, after serving Lucia another helping, cutting the chicken and vegetables into small pieces so she’d be able to scoop them into her spoon, ‘that you could tell me about your relationship with my mother? I know most of it, but there are so many gaps. I’d be interested to hear your side of it.’

‘Why?’ he cried out, sudden shots of colour in his cheeks. ‘Why would you want to know such things?’

‘There’s no one else I can really go to.’

‘I think your mother was sick,’ he said, ‘literally, heartsick for this girl.’ He looked meaningfully at Lucia and stroked her forearm. ‘Our relationship, whatever you want to call it, was really a friendship. She felt so alienated by your father.’

‘But he’s the one who was alienated, he’s the one who agreed to stay in India, even though they were meant to travel around the world with his job.’

‘And leave this girl here?’

He kept touching Lucia every time he referred to her, but she didn’t seem to mind. She was transfixed by the deer heads on the club walls, their dead, glazed eyes.

‘My mother could have done what I’m doing now. She could have left my father earlier.’

‘And what would have happened to you?’ 

‘What’s happened to me anyway?’

Excerpted from Small Days and Nights by Tishani Doshi with permission from Bloomsbury India

Tishani Doshi

Tishani Doshi has published six books of poetry and fiction. She is the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award for Poetry and her first book, Countries of the Body, won the prestigious Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2006. Small Days and Nights was shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2020.

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