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Framed
December 02, 2014

“All labels bother me!”

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

Straddling continents – and dipping deep into her cultural roots – award-winning author Janice Pariat explores vital social concerns in her works. With her first novel Seahorse releasing this month, she talks to Verve about her roots, stories and the inadequacy of stereotypes

  • Janice Pariat, Seahorse
  • Janice Pariat, Seahorse

She is the first writer from Meghalaya to receive an award from the Sahitya Akademi for a work in English – her debut collection of short stories Boats on Land also saw her bag the Crossword Book Award in 2013. Pariat – who lives in India and UK – is a poet, an art historian and a novelist too.

After bagging an award for your debut work, do you feel the pressure of expectations with Seahorse, your first novel?
What concerns me is that people may expect more of the same – Boats on Land Part 2, so to speak. Seahorse is vastly, and for me excitingly, different, and I hope readers will appreciate that rather than be disappointed.

What generated the idea for Seahorse?  
Seahorse, set between North Delhi and London, is the contemporary re-telling of a Greek myth, and grew from my interest in forms of story-telling. This, I explored in Boats on Land where many stories echoed oral folk tales and the way they’re performed and narrated. I started out wanting to write about a ménage à trois in Delhi, but the novel developed into an exploration of queerness, and the relationship between time, memory, and art.

Could you share one memory about the writing of Seahorse?
I’d been struggling with the structure of Seahorse for a year, when suddenly, sitting in a friend’s flat in Rome, the sun streaming in through the window, I started from scratch. And like the inner workings of a clock, things just fell into place. I’d like to think of that city as my literary muse.

After penning Boats on Land, a collection of short stories, did writing a novel require a different discipline?
Entirely, mainly when it came to structure. With Seahorse I felt quite an orthopaedist – breaking, setting, re-breaking structural bones. But both are underlined by narrative movement, of course, and keeping the story – whether short or novel length – moving and engaging.

For Boats on Land, what made you select Shillong as the geographical centre of your work?
I spent a large part of my childhood in Shillong. That’s where my grandparents (a mix of Portuguese, English, Khasi and Jaintia) had settled; it’s where I attended kindergarten and a few years of school, it’s where my parents now live, and where I hesitantly call home.

Did you try to address the question of misconceptions or stereotypes in your work?
Boats on Land is peopled by ordinary characters, wrestling with universal issues – home and belonging, love and loss, friendship and growing up. The act of writing about them in this way is in itself a thwarting of stereotypes. They cannot be labelled if the reader begins to empathise with them. In Seahorse, many of my characters are queer, choosing not to define their sexuality, and sometimes even their gender. It didn’t consciously start out as a political work, but with the upholding of Section 377 in India, I think it’s tremendously important that we address, constantly, how ridiculous and dangerous it is to label and judge people’s sexuality.

How different is Seahorse in tone and intent from Boats on Land?
It’s narrated entirely in first person, by a young man named Nehemiah, and focuses on his encounters, in Delhi and London, with an older art historian named Nicholas. While Boats on Land was anchored quite firmly to place, Seahorse is a bit of a drifter. The themes too, as you can see, vary a great deal.

Sea horses are mythical creatures. What is the significance of the title?
The Greek myth that Seahorse parallels is the story of Poseidon, god of the sea, and his relationship with a younger male lover named Pelops. Apart from the obvious — Poseidon’s carriage was drawn by seahorses, or ‘hippo campus’ (sea monsters) – the seahorse also serves as a symbol of resilience, of beauty, and queerness.

You started off with poetry – even though you won your awards for prose. Are you likely to be publishing a collection of poems?
My first should be out later this year. It’s called The Memory of Place: Poems from Shillong and Elsewhere.

Are your characters inspired by personal observations or family history?
Both, and more, depending on what it is I’m writing. It’s more appropriate to think of characters as odd amalgamations of many things – someone you see on the train, an old acquaintance, a bit filched from here and there, and in the end becoming a composite whole.

You have lived in Delhi, Shillong and London. Which of these places has influenced you the most?
Shillong gifted me stories for Boats on Land; they could not have been set elsewhere. I grew up in a community where, before the ‘civilising effects’ of the Christian missionaries, a largely oral culture flourished. Perhaps that’s why Khasis are so terribly fond of stories – mythical, folkloric, scandalous – and make for good storytellers at all sorts of gatherings, funerals, parties, around the fireplace. Delhi, or more specifically the north of the city, where I spent my college years, features prominently in Seahorse (which opens as a campus novel). It was a time of spectacular abandon, and I hope I’ve managed to capture some of that joyous youthfulness in my novel. London, too, I have loved and left. A large part of Seahorse is set in the city, and I’ve tried to capture its special contemporariness – grimy, vibrant, multi-cultural, but it’s a city in real life that I little desire to return to.

Are you bothered about the fact that you are sometimes labelled as a North East Indian writer?
All labels bother me – women writer, Indian writer and more. How tragically tedious (and lazy) to think in those terms and place the whole world and everything in it into neat little boxes! Labels often reaffirm the inequalities they set out to eradicate.

You are an editor and an art historian too – do your different interests collide or merge?
As long as I don’t wear the editor cap while writing (especially a first draft), it’s tremendously useful. I tend to edit and improve far more than what my editors are likely to point out. But there are days when I’ll work on a single paragraph for hours, aiming for elusive editorial perfection, and that’s tremendously frustrating. And in art as in literature, the past is prologue. Whether looking at Rothko’s No. 61 or an exquisite 11th-century Chola bronze, what matters is not merely the artwork but the web of tangled historical connections it emerges from. Writing fiction is all about orchestrating these thematic connections and revelations. I suppose the clearest, most obvious connection, though, is that one of the main characters in Seahorse is an art historian – a British academic who studies and teaches Gandhara art. Nehemiah’s encounter with him and his ideas shape him greatly, and also allows for the book to be an exploration of art, love, and preservation.

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