Longlisted author Janice Pariat, on the characters that make up her novel, their oneness with the natural worlds they inhabit, and story’tellers’who have inspired her.
The quartet of characters in Everything the Light Touches came to life in different ways—even though they each followed each quite naturally and chronologically in my head. It all began with an image of a woman botanist, from Edwardian England, travelling across the seas to India, and what was she looking for? Well, in some ways, I wrote the rest of the book to find out. But Evie, my botanist, led me to Goethe, not as poet and playwright, but as passionate scientist, pitting his worldview against the mighty Linnaeus—who I knew was imperative to include in the book to add balance, a counterpoint, a resonance, a centre for all the others to resist. Shai came to me last, and most secretly. She was me and not me.
Apart from overcoming the great intimidation I felt writing two white male European characters, the process was easier with Goethe and Linnaeus simply because I was working with primary historical sources, their journals and texts and letters. With Evie, I relied largely on Anne deCourcy’s The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj and A Glimpse of Empire, an account of Lilah Wingfield’s travels through India in 1911. Shai was difficult to bring to life because so much of her experiences echoed mine, and yet, she needed to be herself, and stand on her own.
Everything the Light Touches spans almost four centuries, but is written entirely in present tense—deliberately so, because I wished for these stories to occupy the same time frame. To say look, what happens in the past doesn’t stay in the past, it lives on. The past is always present. It is continuous. I was hoping to offer the reader a glimpse of a long perspective by cradling a deep ambit of time within the pages. To suggest a vastness to our stories, our lives. So much lives on, and all is entangled—Linnaeus making an expedition to Lapland in 1732, the anti-uranium mining movement in present-day Meghalaya, Goethe writing a book about plants, a young woman taking a bus to a remote village in the mountains. All is resonance, all is connection.
To bring the natural world into the book, I needed, as one of the characters in Everything the Light Touches says, “to be more in the world.” To be present and purposeful, to feel boundaries dissolve, to revel in some kind of unbridled oneness with landscape and sky. In Delhi, I was very fortunate to have access to a small green space at the front of my ground-floor apartment, where I tended to plants through the lockdown months. In Shillong, Meghalaya, I was lucky enough to be able to explore landscapes that are some of the most dramatic in the world—vast canyons, mighty waterfalls, and sacred forests. Or perhaps writing a book that required nature to be so exuberantly alive also shaped the way I inhabited the world. It’s a duality, I suppose, each feeding into each, one impossible without the other. And this I hope is what permeates into the book—that rather than being an “additional character”, the natural world is the very breath and bones of us and that the protagonists—as are we—are a part of it inextricably.
If you notice, the dedication at the beginning of Everything the Light Touches is “For the ones who told me stories”. This, because my “literary” influences have been people who’ve never written a book in their lives, some who didn’t even know how to read or write. But they were marvellous storytellers, weaving tales around a fire, changeable and transient as the smoke that curled into the air. Having grown up in Shillong, and being part of the Khasi community, whose creative expressions comprised song and story-"telling", I place these at the heart of my writing practice and of who I am. I have learnt from each, my father, my grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles, aunts, my nanny, strangers, friends—the power of voice, silences and pauses, urgency and suspense, comic timing, rhythm and rhyme.
Pranay Lal’s Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent
Robin Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey
It’s a secret :)