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Janice Pariat

Random House India

Pages: 306 Rs. 499

The queer case of memory ‘in the middle of things’

Janice Pariat’s first novel has the piercing insight and linguistic felicity of her short fiction. It is an ardent and highly accomplished meditation on art, love and sexuality, writes Shubrastha.

Shubrastha  10th Jan 2015

Janice Patriat

anice Pariat's Seahorse is the second book by the author, following her Sahitya Akademi-winning debut collection Boats on Land. Unfolding the story of a young boy, Nehemiah, in a non-linear narrative, Seahorse interrogates the complex forces of sexuality, art and love; their symbiotic relationship with the lives of its characters. The beauty of this novel lies in its delicate storytelling and the successful experiment it carries out in trying to intersperse various literary forms in this bildungsroman.

Seahorse begins in media res, a decision that reflects how "in the middle of things" is exactly the way a slice of life presents itself. This philosophy is part of a larger avenue of expositions on art, storytelling, life and experiences that Pariat employs frequently in the novel. Right at the outset, the author gives the book a density and depth quite inimical to the popular works — and increasingly, even literary fiction — of the day.

The novel takes the readers on a romantic and deliciously surreal journey built on the act of memorialisation. Through the protagonist Nehemiah, intrigued and torn as he is in the beginning, the novel launches a long journey. With Nehemiah's self-exploratory chase for his lost friend, the novel traverses geographies and nationalities, scuttling from page to page, agreeing to give the readers a detailed insight into Nehemiah's consciousness.

The book heralds a completely new, revolutionary age of writing around LGBT themes. It is concerned with the eternal search for belongingness and love amidst tender moments of self discovery. (The titular story in Boats on Land was also remarkable in striking this balance.) The novel refuses to titillate the readers with graphic details, yet creates a sensual experience made richer by the maturity with which the author goes about her job.

In his love — perhaps unrequited — for various people, Nehemiah, moves with a slow pace, trying hard to keep up with life. Just like the poor swimmer a seahorse is, Nehemiah struggles to swim with his emotional baggage of loss, longing and desires to own and be owned.

Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Seahorse introduces the eponymous creature in a very symbolic format. In his love — perhaps unrequited — for various people, Nehemiah moves with a slow pace, trying hard to keep up with life. Just like the poor swimmer a seahorse is, Nehemiah struggles to swim with his emotional baggage of loss, longing and desires to own and be owned. In a way, Pariat's book is an ode to the tragic hero, the description of a life where all of us are afflicted and diseased by loss; each one us look for hope — slowly, wearily trudging along each day of our lives. This excerpt from the novel captures this sombre mood aptly:

"The day passed as all others do, with relentless silence. In my room, I worked through my unpacking slowly — a pair of socks in the drawer, a book on the shelf, slippers under the bed — charged not with anger or despair, but faint, lingering anticipation. Something else had to happen, this couldn't be all. This wasn't the end. I'd receive a letter. Nicholas would return. Someone would come knocking on my door, saying there's a phone call. A message. Some sort of sign. An explanation. That night I went to bed in hope."

n long-winded paragraphs of incidents collated from memory, Seahorse attempts to create a pastiche of the modern-day novel's memory mischief. It has the art of absorbing new layers into the main story (like Myra's) as if they were always a part of the larger plan (which, of course, they were). This organic assimilation and unity of seemingly separate lives, is no mean feat for a novelist. All the while, Pariat's felicity with form shines through. Each literary style that she utilises, she excels in; stream-of-consciousness, detective fiction, poetry, free verse. My personal favourites, however, are the passages where Pariat slips into pure stream-of-consciousness mode.

"At first, I was gripped by nothing less than wild exhilaration. The clutch of excitement at inexplicably arbitrary times. While paying for oranges at Tesco's, or waiting to cross the street. Questions hastening like small sharp arrows — Why? How? What did he mean? What would happen now? And then it faded. The note transformed into a paperweight. While I wasn't looking, it changed shape. We are perpetually chained. Compelled to want and not want. To conclude and leave incomplete. Eventually, the note conjured annoyance. Somehow, even a trace of fear. By meeting Nicholas at the concert, I'd finally acquire what was called a verifiable outcome. It could be changed from the poetic to the quotidian. The lushly imagined to disappointingly real. There would be a continuation. Possibly even an ending. Quod erat demonstrandum."

The follow-up is always a writer's most perilous moment. If your debut effort sank without a trace, the pressure is on: another failure and your confidence will hit rock bottom. If your debut was super-successful (like Pariat), the expectations are that much more unrealistic.

Seahorse is as worthy a follow-up as Pariat could have hoped for, and a cracking read.

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