In Search of Lost Time

Through its story of love, abandonment and search, Janice Pariat’s debut novel performs an act of rescue.

Written by Amrita Dutta | Updated: January 10, 2015 4:04 am

Book:  Seahorse
Author:  Janice Pariat
Publisher:  Random House
Pages:  294
Price:  Rs 499

We are shaped by absence. The places that escape our travels, the things we choose not to do, the people we’ve lost.” Janice Pariat’s debut novel, told by a thoughtful narrator, is also shaped by loss. Through its story of love, abandonment and search, but most of all, through its fine sentences, through language that shines a light into the haze of everyday life, Seahorse performs an act of rescue. It shores up fragments against the ruin of time. “Perhaps this is why people write. Because we are always, constantly, on the verge of unimaginable loss,” writes Nehemiah or Nem, the protagonist of this novel.

Nem is a diffident, almost unremarkable young man from a town in the Northeast, who “looked into the mirror and wished that he occupied more space, that his reflection was less inconsequential”. But with Lenny, a friend with whom he escapes to the woods of his hometown, he comes close to touching the wellspring of all that is consequential. An artist out of joint with the pragmatic dullness of small-town life, Lenny pins a map of the world above his home (“I have to get out of here, Nem”) but is punished with all the ferocity of small-town prejudice. In Delhi, as a student of English literature in Delhi University, Nem will find another like Lenny, someone who too lived “so much out of time”, the art historian Nicholas — and lose them both.

That loss he attempts to retrieve by remembering. And appropriately, the novel splices up time, moving back and forth between the days Nem spends with Nicholas in a stately bungalow off Delhi University’s North Campus, and his time in London, as a research fellow and art writer. This is a novel of aesthetes, informed by knowledge and love for art and music, and with descriptions of lovemaking that will make it to Good Sex Writing award shortlist. (Even Delhi, most abrasive of cities, is bathed in a gentle glow, the most brutish thing being its sunlight and heat.) A reworking of the mythical love between Greek god Poseidon and the boy Pelops, in the novel Nicholas leads Nem into a world of Wagner, Verdi and Stravinsky, and of great physical pleasure. In him, he finds the beauty of kintsukuroi, “the Japanese word for the art of repairing pottery and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.”

The “beautiful life is brief”, Nicholas mutters in a conversation, and sure enough, one day, he leaves. That unexplained abandonment is the hole in Nem’s life, the past which is ever-present. A letter from Nicholas during his London visit will set him off on a search for the answer to that question. The novel gains an urgent sense of mystery from this quest, a skein of longing that paradoxically frays at the end. “Yet how are we to truly map others? To fully navigate the rooms they carve in their hearts.” Seahorse reveals the inscrutability of human hearts, even between people in love, and then fritters away that truth in a pat resolution.

At times, too, the weight of symbolism burdens the work (Nehemiah, the builder of worlds, in search of “a chariot of winged horses”) and the poetic mode calls out for a restraining dose of the prosaic. But for its rumination on time alone (“Time doesn’t hang on a wall. It doesn’t tick by on a wrist. It’s infinitely more secretive and intimate. In our heads, it hastens and halts and stumbles. On occasion, it dissolves. It ceases to exist.”; “Time is viscous. It resists.”), this is a book to be returned to.

Her first book Boats on Land, a collection of stories, was remarkable for its assuredness of language and imagination, its openness to both contemporary and ancient life. Seahorse is a confirmation of Janice Pariat’s talent. In its tracking of time and loss, it fulfills the promise of literature: that the reader while journeying through its pages is struck by a resonance, the echo of the lives of others to her own.
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