Author : Janice Pariat
Publisher : Random House, Rs399
Janice Pariat, former Sahitya Akademi award winner, tells ANANYA BORGOHAIN about her debut novel Seahorse, and what drove her to write this book based on the story of Greek sea god Poseidon and his male lover Pelops
In 2013, debutant writer Janice Pariat’s collection of short stories titled Boats on Land won the Sahitya Akademi Young Writer Award for the English language, and a Crossword Book Award (fiction). It was also longlisted for the 2013 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the 2013 Tata Literature Live! Towards the end of 2014, Pariat returned with her debut novel, Seahorse, a fascinating story based on the love story of Poseidon, a Greek sea-god and his male lover Pelops.
Seahorse narrates the tale of Nehemiah, or Nem, a student of literature who is drawn towards his art history professor, Nicholas. One day, all of a sudden, Nicholas disappears. The story is narrated by Nem with personal anecdotes and passionate intensity. Pariat merges the real and metaphorical in an enthralling way and has a powerful grip over language. Her words are evocative and the narrative style is poetic. Born in Assam, Pariat grew up in Shillong, Meghalaya, and currently shuttles between Italy and India. In an interaction, she tells us more about Seahorse:
Why did you choose to focus on the Delhi University landscape of the 1990s?
I studied in Delhi University in the early 2000s, so it’s a landscape with which I’m quite familiar. Looking back now, I recognise that it’s a peculiar place; part of the capital city yet removed from it in so many ways. It’s a bubble, really.
And I wanted Nicholas and Nem ensconced within a space that truly felt distant from the bustle and modernity of South Delhi. Nem calls his lover-mentor someone “out of time”; North Delhi always felt that way to me. I chose the 1990s, because in a way, their relationship mirrors the sudden ‘freedom’ of India’s swift, sweeping liberalisation — the experience of dizzying newness. This gauche young boy led into artistic and pleasurable discovery, and transformed.
What were your challenges in entering Nehemiah’s psyche and how did you think while writing the novel?
I read a terrifically interesting article on how an ongoing study (at Durham University in the UK) found that writers ‘hear’ the voices of their protagonists, rather than ‘see’ their faces. Often, the main character registers as a blank or, in one case, pixelated like a censored photograph. At the beginning, I struggled immensely with a third person narrative, until I changed it to first.
After that, Nem became a voice. A clear, particular, manifest. In a sense, he began telling his own story. The challenge, as always, was to infuse a voice with life — believable, vibrant, humorous.
What is the origin of his name?
Facebook. I like trawling through friends’ lists of friends, for interesting, unusual, striking names. There was something pleasingly archaic and regal about ‘Nehemiah’. It’s a Biblical name which means ‘builder of cities’ — in the book, I tweak it to ‘builder of new worlds.’
What essence does the story of Poseidon and Pelops hold for you?
The story of Poseidon and his young male lover Pelops is filled with all the things that make a story — abduction, love and passion, winged horses, a death-defying race, betrayal. But it appealed to me mostly because it’s about a person breaking apart, being put back together, changed, incomplete. It isn’t one of the major, well-known myths, but I felt it was most close to life.
You have attributed a multitude of strong, evocative images with seahorses. Please elaborate a little about why you chose the title for your book.
Seahorses are ancient, mystical creatures; in Greek mythology they feature as the fantastical winged horses that pull Poseidon’s chariot. And given that my novel is a retelling of a myth featuring the god of the sea, it somehow seemed imperative that they be placed at the heart of the book.
Seahorse is set within a world embrasive of gender fluidity, captured, I thought, extremely well by the fact that seahorses belong to that rare family of fish marked by male pregnancy, upturning, overturning, all ‘gendered’ expectations. For me, they also transform into a symbol of resilience, surviving storm and shadow. My characters are also eventually shaped into similar creatures of grace.
As her creator, how do you look at Myra’s essence in the two male protagonists’ lives?
I’m not sure what you mean by “Myra’s essence”, but she plays a central role in the lives of both the protagonists, at varying points in time. Indeed, she’s a pivotal character because their transformation is woven through her. I’ve also come to see Nem and Myra as doppelgängers of each other, each irrevocably changed by Nicholas.
Your prose is gripping and your metaphors are very effective. What triggers a thought in you, or what inspires you to frame these vivid and powerful landscapes, both natural and human?
I draw a lot of inspiration from personal encounters and experiences of place. Because of this, a number of passages in the book were laced with my own memories, carrying the story of how I came to be touched by them.
On a different level, the vivid prose of other authors I draw inspiration from can introduce one to different experiences of place, veritable dialogues between our moods while dwelling in them and the materials they naturally seem to lend to us to feel ‘at home’.
Do notions of absence, belonging, incompleteness, or finding meaning in nothingness also mean something to you in personal life?
I’m fascinated by the things that didn’t happen. The boy I thought I loved, who left. The cancelled plane ticket. The last-minute decision not to. The people I will never meet again. The places I won’t visit. I’m haunted by the million ways in which my life could be different. This is not to say that I don’t appreciate and value what I have, and am unhappy with the way things are. I just think fiction lies in those shadows, the may-have-beens and the what-ifs.
Are there any contemporary writers you follow and appreciate?
I’m quite a literary drifter. And a terribly shallow reader — if the first few pages don’t impress, I will rather ruthlessly abandon the book. The ones that have recently gripped me to the end are Donna Tartt, Damon Galgut, Samanth Subramanian, David Mitchell, Jim Crace, Madeline Miller, Jeanette Winterson, Mira Jacob.
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