“Not an ‘Indian’ Writer”: On Janice Pariat’s Books + Column

Boats on Land by Janice Pariat (2012, Random House India)

One very talented young writer whom I have been following regularly over the past two years or so is Delhi-based Janice Pariat (@janicepariat). Originally from the northeast of India (Assam and Meghalaya), Pariat studied English Literature at the prestigious St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, and later, History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has also lived in Italy.

Pariat writes poetry, prose, criticism and opinion pieces. She is the author of two beautiful books: a short story collection called Boats on Land (2012) and a novel Seahorse (2014). She is represented by Pontas, a literary agency in Barcelona.

Set in and around the regions the author herself grew up in, Boats on Land contains 15 tales that run from the mid-nineteenth century to contemporary times. Local folklore, customs and superstitions are interwoven with historical events – the British Raj, the two World Wars and conversions to Christianity. As the narrative moves, we also get an idea of the political and ethnic tensions in the area – insurgency has long been a huge problem there.

Seahorse by Janice Pariat (2014, Random House India/2016, Unnamed Press)

Seahorse (published in India and the US), on the other hand, is a re-telling of the ancient Greek myth of Poseidon and his younger male lover Pelops. The story takes place across Delhi and London and revolves around Nicholas and Nehemiah – the former, a mysterious British professor (of Cypriot Greek parentage) of Eastern art who travels to India for research; the latter, a university student in Delhi who, upon graduation, turns to art journalism and criticism, ending up in England in search of the former.

I personally enjoyed Boats on Land more but feel that both works have been carefully realised and compellingly executed. The first enchants the reader with its descriptions of old magic and its lush imagery of natural scenery – forested hills, constant covers of clouds. The second impresses with its lyrical exploration of forbidden love, its meditations on loss, time, imagination, reality, brokenness and beauty.

I have shared excerpts from the books below but before I let you read them I want to mention an impassioned, indignant – and very important – article titled “Not an ‘Indian’ Writer” that Janice Pariat wrote back in September 2015 for her literary column in The Hindu Business Line (newspaper based in Chennai in south India). The write-up exposes the problem of racial discrimination in international publishing. It also makes a case for the right of creative practitioners – all creative practitioners irrespective of ethnicity and nationality and gender – to claim imaginative spaces and a “nowhereness” – that is, a clean and blank frame of mind where they can forget where they have come from and within which, they can be free to construct anything and everything, whatever they wish.

Speaking of her inability to find a British publisher for Seahorse, the author reveals:

As the rejection letters trickled in (yes, such is life), I noticed a few recurring concerns. And, annoyed as I might have been, for them to denounce style, character, plot, it was far worse to catch the underlying implication that Seahorse was not quite an ‘Indian novel’.

She continues:

Over the summer, a friend I was visiting all the way in Italy, was facing a similar problem. He’d been rejected by an Italian publisher because his novella — featuring an expat Indian living in Rome, rootlessly, irreverently wandering its ancient streets — did not deal with ‘Indian’ themes. He too was exasperated. What the hell did that mean, we complained over our aperitivos? Dusty villages facing drought? Mangoes? The City in New India? Caught between the ancient and the modern? Wrestling with economic change? Else, were we forever relegated to writing about (shudder) the Immigrant Experience? The splitting of our lives between the East and the West. The splitting of our tongues between English and insert name of quaint, preferably almost extinct, regional language. Or (that indefinable, intangible term) ‘poverty’? Are we doomed to be forever postcolonial?

“Dusty villages facing drought? Mangoes? The City in New India? Caught between the ancient and the modern? Wrestling with economic change?” (Photo: Pexels)

Adding:

I’m not implying that we ignore that we live in a decidedly skewed world whose inequalities were shaped by Europe’s horrendous imperial ambitions, or the insidiousness of contemporary colonisations, and the capitalistic power structures they support. In no way am I dismissing literary attempts to counter these concerns, to dismantle, explicate, question, condemn. But my grouse is with the ‘West’ that gives itself far too much credit. The (ex) Empire continues to write back, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or doesn’t occupy itself with anything else apart from colonial experience. The ‘West’ that allows for imaginative freedom only to its own (dare I say, White) writers.

This article immediately reminded me of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”, in which she points out how a professor (supposedly white and male) had once told her that one of her novels was not “authentically African”. So what is true and proper “African-ness” and “Asian-ness”? “Indian-ness” or “Nigerian-ness” or “Brazilian-ness”? That is for the Indians and the Nigerians and the Brazilians to decide, respectively. I’m afraid we cannot go about imposing our conceptions of other people’s cultures on them.

I understand that publishing is business, and gatekeepers in London and New York are under intense pressure to make immediate money, which makes them resistant to stories that are new and original. Stereotypes are easier to sell, they have a ready market – but wouldn’t we be emotionally and intellectually richer if we allowed ourselves to be receptive to a variety of voices, even those (especially those) that challenge our preconceived notions of a people or a place?

I just hope that writers like Janice Pariat – from Asia, Africa and South America – continue to produce one lovely book after another in the face of rejection and opposition. As the world gets more and more connected, I am sure we will be able to topple the power structures that limit and muffle sincere creative expressions emerging from (politically and economically) weaker territories in the name of commerce or newer forms of colonialisms.

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And now, an excerpt from Boats on Land (2012), from the first story “A Waterfall of Horses”:

How do I explain the word?

 

Ka ktein.

 

Say it. Out loud. Ka ktein. The first, a short, sharp thrust of air from the back of your throat. The second, a lift of the tongue and a delicate tangle of tip and teeth.

 

For I mean not what’s bound by paper. Once printed, the word is feeble and carries little power. It wrestles with ink and typography and margins, struggling to be what it was originally. Spoken. Unwritten, unrecorded. Old, they say, as the first fire. Free to roam the mountains, circle the heath, fall as rain.

 

“Free to roam the mountains, circle the heath, fall as rain.” (A view along the road to Shillong, Meghalaya by User “Pamathai”, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)

 

We, who had no letters with which to etch our history, have married our words to music, to mantras, that we repeat until lines grow old and wither and fade away. Until they are forgotten and there is silence.

 

How do I explain something untraceable? The perfect weapon for a crime. Light as pine dust. Echoing with alibis. Conjuring out of thin air, the ugly, the beautiful, the terrifying.

 

Eventually, like all things, it is unfathomable. So, how do I explain?

 

Perhaps it’s best, as they did in the old days. to tell a story.

—-

An excerpt from Seahorse (2014):

Michelangelo’s ‘Prisoners’. Placed in a dark corridor, rows of figures commissioned for the never-completed tomb of Pope Julius II. They are unfinished, perpetually wrestling with stone. Unlike most sculptors who built a model and then marked up their block of marble to know where to chip, Michelangelo always sculpted free hand, starting from the front and working his way back. These figures emerge from stone as though surfacing from a pool of water. They will not stun your mind into silence, rather they rouse it. You are moved by their frailty, their endurance. They are endless metaphor. And infinite possibility. Much the same as anything unfinished in our own existence.

 

Michelangelo’s David and Prisoner in Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence (David by User “Jörg Bittner Unna”, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons/Prisoner, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons)

 

We treasure the incomplete, for it lends us many lives – the one we lead and the million others we could have led. We are creatures of inconsistency. Passionately partial. Unexpected. Unperformed. Undone. Unaccomplished. And un-concluded.

 

David will only be David.

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