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Myths, meaning & poetry as geographical marker

Janice Pariat’s debut book Boats on Land won the 2013 Crossword Book Award (Fiction) last week. She talks to Sharanya Manivannan about life, art and being an outsider.


Janice Pariat

Q. Since its inception, many winners and nominees of the Shakti Bhatt Prize have had some affinity with the deceased editor in whose memory it was founded. Did you know Ms. Bhatt, and if so, what was her impact on your work?

A. Somehow, it feels like coming full circle. Years ago, I'd sent Shakti some early stories and she'd been, as she usually was with young, uncertain writers, terrifically encouraging and supportive. I remember she suggested that I push my writing to find greater depth and originality, and I hope I've managed that with Boats on Land.

Q. You're a writer from the Northeast, of mixed European and Indian parentage, a resident of London, represented by a Spanish agent and married to an Italian. Perhaps these are not large leaps in the cosmopolitan imagination, but there is something about the longing for places that Boats on Land has so much of that makes one curious how you - as a writer and a person - see yourself inhabiting the world.

A. Given that the question I find most difficult to answer is 'Where are you from?' my notions of 'home' and 'belonging' are joyfully messy. I grew up between Shillong and the various tea plantations my father was transferred to around Assam, and studied and worked in Delhi and London. As a result, my love and longing for places shifts like sand, multiplied every time I travel, or relocate. My poetry tends to serve as miniature geographical markers, like photographs, of passing through a particular place – St Anthony's church in Lisbon, a ruined castle in Wales, a street in Rome, a restaurant in Shillong's Police Bazaar. My fiction is more anchored in the landscapes I'm familiar with, cities I've lived in or visited over longer stretches

of time.

Living in the UK now, where (similar to most of Europe) anti-immigrant sentiments run high, I am more convinced than ever of the travesty of national boundaries. Most people wouldn't exist if their ancestors hadn't migrated or loved 'outsiders'.

Q. You've found acclaim as a writer of prose, but many of us first knew of you as a poet. Do you see yourself publishing a collection of poetry soon?

A. I wish my answer could be emphatically positive – yet, for the moment, my poetry collection dwells in the shadowy recesses of my computer, gently gathering dust. Although it perpetually feeds into my writing – the poetry, I hope, continues in my prose.

Q. Boats on Land is still making its way in the world, with a recent Sahitya Akademi award and now the Shakti Bhatt Prize nomination. When you began the work, did you see it journeying so far - and what do you hope is still to come?

A. I have a feeling Boats on Land began years ago, long before I was a writer, when I was a child listening to tales of water fairies and evil kidnapping 'nongshohnohs'. While An Aerial View is the earliest story (from 2005), the rest were written when I moved back to Shillong after long spells away. At the time I wanted to bridge the literatures found (in English) in Meghalaya (for instance, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih's Khasi Legends and Anjum Hasan's Lunatic in my Head) spaces between folkloric narrative and 'realism'.

The response to the book, in terms of literary prizes and nominations, has been overwhelming and thrilling, yet I am especially moved by long-lost acquaintances and strangers writing to me, saying how much the stories mean to them. How they connected with places and characters. How the stories «helped them grasp some abstract feeling they couldn›t even explain to themselves.» This is one of the main reasons why I write, because the words leave my hands and journey to people›s souls.

Q. You are also an art historian. What are the conjunctions, and conflicts, between your varied interests?

A. In art, as in literature, the past is prologue. Whether looking at Duchamp's Fountain or an exquisite 11th-century Chola bronze, what matters is not merely the artwork but the web of tangled historical connections it emerges from. Its presence in time and space, and unique existence at the place where it happens to be. Writing fiction is all about orchestrating thematic connections and revelations.

I'm intrigued also by the cultural biography of objects. One of my favourite texts while studying at SOAS was Richard Davis' The Lives of Indian Images, which explored how the identities of artworks are not fixed at the moment of fabrication, but are repeatedly made and remade through interactions with humans and places. Artworks too are shaped by stories.

I suppose the clearest, most obvious connection, though, is that one of the main characters in my next book is an art historian – a British academic who studies and teaches Gandhara art.

Q. Tell us about your novella, Seahorse, which is forthcoming.

A. My attempt at writing a novella has been an epic failure. While working on Seahorse, the story lengthened of its own accord, certain characters begged for longer screen time, and the plot unfurled beyond what I'd earlier envisioned. While I wasn't looking, it grew into a novel. Seahorse is set between Delhi in the 1990s, during India's swift liberalisation, and contemporary, multicultural London. It tells the story of Nehemiah, a boy from Shillong, who meets an older academic during his time as a student of English Literature at Delhi University.

Many stories in Boats on Land explore the entanglement of the folkloric and the mundane, and how folk tales function as reservoirs of history and identity. Seahorse expatiates my interest in myths. Written as a contemporary retelling of a lesser-known Greek myth, it parallels the story of Poseidon, the god of the sea, and his young male lover Pelops. Myths unveil common patterns through which we derive meaning, and I'm intrigued by how these timeless narratives emphasize, as TS Eliot explains in his essay Ulysses, Order and Myth, the underlying commonality of ostensibly disparate times and locations.

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