By Sukant Deepak
New Delhi, Jan 31 (IANS): Lyrical, and with a certain delicacy, Janice Pariat's latest 'Everything the Light Touches' carries multiple narratives, with diverse tales of four people, whose lives may not touch, but tales seldom lose connection with each other.
In contemporary times, Shai, a young woman, just out of work goes to her hometown Meghalaya (Delhi-based Pariat grew up between Shillong and several tea estates in Assam), and explores her roots. In British India, a woman botanist wants to prove herself in a system that favours men. In 1786, legendary German poet, novelist and playwright Johann Wolfgang Goethe travels through Italy, realising the shortfalls of the scientific processes while in 1732, botanist Carl Linnaeus journeys through the Lapland region in Finland.
Pariat says about the book, drawn richly from scientific and botanical ideas, "These are stories that come from places that were colonised and how we learn about the natural world... These are also tales that are not given enough importance even within a cultural context. Thus, these are the unequal stories that I kind of set out to equalise. The story of Linnaeus is as connected to Shai and how they exist in a continuum," she tells IANS.
Smiling there were not many apprehensions about having real-life figures in the novel, but more about who they were -- white male figures -- geniuses in their own way.
"Linnaeus was the father of taxonomy, and Goethe is almost this national figure for Germany; here I was, this very non-white person from a little corner in the world wishing to place them on a page. Of course, I did ask myself many times -- who am I to do this? How did I have the courage to? I had to really work to overcome that fear and hesitation. It felt like I was not capable and did not have the right to that. At some point, I began reading other fiction that placed similar figures into this fictional world, that gave me courage."
Talk to her about the fact that the effort to build a monolithic culture is an attempt to erase local stories, and she asserts that in the grand project of nation-building, the places she comes from have always been a risk.
"Our histories have been forgotten or passed on even within the people who live in those hills. We have little idea about our own wars. So yes, it is sad but it has been happening for a long time -- with both colonisation and neo-colonisation."
Considering, Pariat is not a science student, was the research tough? She stresses that she was infinitely fond of botany but the "ridiculous" education system made her choose between the arts and science.
"Hopefully it is changing now. I would have loved to study botany with literature. There is so much these disciplines can inform each other. Before writing this book, it was about beginning from scratch. I sat with a book on botany for months... I had to learn what it was, to begin with and how mainstream sciences were -- it was like going back to college. It was only when I understood how botany was taught and what it was, then I managed to read and understand it," says the author, who was at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival organised by Teamwork Arts.
Pariat, who finished the draft during the pandemic-induced lockdowns, says the period was about multiple responses. While many writers stopped, the same deeply reconnected her to the earth and she zeroed in on the question being asked at the heart of the book -- why the pandemic had begun.
"Deforestation and our inhumane treatment of animals, creating an ecological crisis was ideal for a pandemic to take place. So the question I was asking was, what is our relationship to the planet? That is what I was exploring while writing the book. And there was this profound echo of what was happening in the book and in the world," says this recipient of the Young Writer Award from Sahitya Akademi and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction in 2013.
Pariat believes that it is important for writers to be disruptive for this is what they are here to do -- to make everyone question things and make them a bit uncomfortable.
"And that always takes some degree of discomfort. You cannot undergo a transition without some kind of pain, grief, or loss."
She adds that while writing does offer comfort and hope but it also offers a chance to think differently and see the unfamiliar in new ways and observe stories in a new light.
Also, a poet -- the section on Linnaeus' expedition is told through prose poetry and verse -- she says there is always an element of the poetic in her prose.
"I come from a place with a deep tradition of oral storytelling, so I am in tune with rhythm and rhyme, and these spill into any kind of writing. Whatever I write must sound well in my ear. And that dismantles the boundary between poetry and prose."
Needing a break from historical fiction, Pariat has been thinking about a relationship trilogy.
"Something that examines human relationships under the microscope. It is not a sequel to the 'The Nine Chambered Heart', but it contains themes close to it."