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A deeply therapeutic novel, Janice Pariat’s Everything the Light Touches individualises ways of seeing

Drawing upon diverse worlds, this a masterclass in storytelling, that adapts seamlessly to its different settings

In each installment, Pariat shifts her writing to suit the vocabulary, geography, ethos and spirit of the historical placement of her characters. (Photo: Amazon.in)

During his expedition to Lapland in 1732, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, writes about the uncertainty upon entering “a cave formed by nature”: Not everything the light touches can be seen. A little earlier, he jots down another keeper of a sentence: The starting point must be to marvel at all things, even the most commonplace. In essence, these simple sentences form the crux of Janice Pariat’s third and latest novel — Everything the Light Touches — that weaves together four stories from different geographies and timelines, bound by a love for the flora, a bone of curiosity and, at the centre of which is a growing concern about the erosion of nature itself.

We are introduced to Shai in the first installment, who lives in the present and returns to Meghalaya after being out of a job in New Delhi. It is evident that she is trying to find herself at home, between a suspicious mother and benign father. She grounds her quest in the remote Jaintia hills, where her old nanny has taken ill, among a tribe of people who resist the invasion of their mountains from the forces of capitalism. Shai finds herself at the cusp of folklore, about angered mountain spirits, taking shape in a modern world.

In each installment, Pariat shifts her writing to suit the vocabulary, geography, ethos and spirit of the historical placement of her characters. (Photo: Amazon.in)

The second installment brings us to Evelyn, a student of botany from Cambridge who is now sailing to India from England in 1911. Evie, as she is fondly called, is part of the “fishing fleet”. She has to pretend to be on the lookout for a suitable husband, from the range of English officers posted in India. Alongside, she has to curtail her curiosity of being deeply interested in an expedition near Assam, in the wettest region of the world. Goethe’s philosophy appeals to her, to not categorise things and consider their individuality.

Then comes the German philosopher and writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s expedition to Italy in 1787, which later establishes him to the world, and to himself, as someone with an affinity for plants, for things that take root. Through seasons, changing landscapes and engaging conversations with his peers, Goethe and his narrator urge us to subvert the analytical mind that longs for uniformity.

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In the middle comes Carl, the oldest of them all, whose notes during the expedition are presented to us as short verses, sometimes humourous and joyful, sometimes earnest and philosophical.

In each installment, Pariat shifts her writing to suit the vocabulary, geography, ethos and spirit of the historical placement of her characters. It is no coincidence that each story sets sail with the protagonist travelling, especially to find what might be a “root”. Pariat also brings to the fore the need for an old-school wisdom that does not violate one’s personhood. This is evident in the way the two women protagonists, the only ones who are also fictional, Shai and Evie, seek and speak of Oin and Grandma Grace, respectively. For Shai, Oin, her nanny, is the person that nurtures her and for Evie, Grandma Grace is the person from whom she learnt how to nurture, by looking at how she tends to plants. The wisdom these women impart also reflects the personhood they may have been denied.

It is not surprising that simplicity means the same thing for a writer and a reader: to write structured sentences that explain life’s strangest philosophies and tie it together in a story using short, unembellished words; to read lines that connect the dots between one’s most complicated lived experiences and the joy of finding them translated into words that fit. To be a simple writer is to also be a simple reader, which Pariat gives us a masterclass in. A deeply therapeutic novel, Everything the Light Touches individualises ways of seeing without making the self too important. Additionally, Pariat also looks at parts, including human emotions, not as derivative but as coexisting forces.

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Pariat is an interdisciplinary writer with a truly modern approach to her writing and she brings this to her writing without disconcerting her reader. Her approach to this style is also cleverly taken from a non-linear understanding of history thoroughly supported by a set of anomalous characters.

First published on: 03-12-2022 at 16:00 IST
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