W Power 2024

Janice Pariat, the forest seeker

Sahitya Akademi Award-winning writer Janice Pariat is emerging as one of the most distinctive literary voices from India

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Mar 20, 2024 04:54:55 PM IST
Updated: Apr 8, 2024 01:53:23 PM IST

Janice Pariat, the forest seeker Writer Janice Pariat Image: Madhu Kapparath

When we speak in February, Janice Pariat is in the middle of a busy schedule at the Ashoka University, where she teaches creative writing and the history of art. It’s only after the semester that she can dedicate all her time to writing. She is not sure what her next book will be, but says that it will, in some way, continue the conversations around climate change and the ecological crisis that she started with her latest book, Everything the Light Touches.

“It’s hard to not place a story or a set of characters in a context that does not accommodate that,” she says, adding that it has taken her a long time to emerge from the world of Everything the Light Touches, which took her 10 years to write.

The book is a work of fiction that spans across continents and centuries. It tells the story of four people whose journeys bring them close to nature. The book, which released around November 2022, was included in ‘The Best Books of 2022’ by The New Yorker. It went on to win the 2023 Sushila Devi Award and the AutHer Award for Best Fiction in 2023, and was longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature.

Pariat also won the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize 2023 in the fiction category.

Janice Pariat, the forest seekerHer book was picked by a panel of jury members, who chose it from a longlist of titles recommended by readers over the course of the year, says Lakshmi Sankar, co-founder of Atta Galatta.

The book won for a variety of reasons, she explains. “First, it is a gentle voice from the Northeast. Second, it focuses on a topic that is most important and relevant today—the environment, humanity and the relationship between the two. Third, it uses different forms, like poetry, prose, essays, short stories, letters etc in a very clever manner,” Lakshmi says. “Janice has drawn on all her strengths and put it all into this one book, which is beautiful.”

Pariat grew up in Shillong, a solitary child in the lap of nature, who spent her childhood in gardens and orchards, playing with ducks, chickens and dogs. She then spent a large part of her life in cities, starting with Delhi where she moved for her undergraduate studies in St Stephen’s College.

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During the Covid-19 lockdown, her association with nature was rekindled when she had to keep the plants in her Delhi home alive in the absence of the gardener.

When she went back to Shillong, she discovered an entire forest behind her house that she had not entered before. Maybe being immersed in the world of her book made her more receptive to nature, but as the lockdowns continued, she went on long walks in the forest, and something shifted in her. “There was a grace and quiet that I had been searching for, and it was right there in our backyard,” she says.

Pariat, who calls herself a forest seeker, feels that there’s perhaps a pattern in her writing, where she has to go home to find and write certain stories. Her first book Boats on Land—which won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar in 2013—was a collection of short stories anchored on places and people in Shillong. It is a narrative where the ordinary and the extraordinary coexist, just like they do among the people in Shillong, who speak about the presence of water fairies and forest spirits as par for the course in everyday life. The opening line in the short story, Dream of the Golden Mahseer, for instance, reads: “The elder brother was taken by drink. The younger one by fairies.”

Also read: Jahnavi Phalkey: The scientific storyteller

Pariat says that for the longest time, the literature she encountered from and about Northeast India was either collections of folktales, or realist novels by authors like Anjum Hasan, Siddhartha Deb and Dhruba Hazarika that were gritty and set during the conflicts in the 80s and the 90s. “My experience of growing up in Shillong was different. It felt as though there was always a convergence of the fairy tales and the realist narratives, which coexisted quite easily in our daily lives,” she says.

While questions about her identity as a writer from Northeast India and whether she represents the region through her writing are frequently asked, Pariat says she does not set out to write a story that constricts her within the questions of identity and representation. “Am I Khasi enough? I don’t know. There are no answers to these questions. But the characters in the books that I write sometimes find themselves asking these very questions,” she says. “All I can do is tell my story and hope that something larger is reflected in the telling of that story.”

(This story appears in the 22 March, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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