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Memory's quality

Shreekumar Varma, March 8, 2015, DHNS 21:18 IST
Seahorse Janice Pariat  Random House 2015, pp 290 499
A characteristic quality of memory is its availability. Faced with assembly lines of information and the protean slipperiness of the past that makes it difficult to pin it down with a finger of honesty, fiction is the answer to keeping our lives whole. Like myth, new moments are added on, building an amorphous past, a past without limits, through what we believe is powerful memory.

Janice Pariat’s Seahorse begins in Delhi when 20-year-old college student Nem (Nehemiah) is “abandoned” by his lover and mentor, Nicholas. Everything opens in medias res, he says, opening his story “in the midst of things”. This is a hint to the arrangement of a life that can accommodate promiscuously, beyond order or time, someone else’s memories filling in the blanks of one’s own, where music, atmosphere and accident add to or subtract from the quality and even veracity of experience. More than 10 years later, Nem is in London and is handed a clue and invitation to another tryst with Nicholas.

Memory is probably kinder to Nicholas and their shared moments together. Nem has already lost a dear one in his hometown. His friend Lenny has died and left behind a handful of memorabilia. “With Nicholas it was as though he had never existed.” When loss is complete, nothing remains. “No life can be traceless, and leave behind scarcely any imprints. Yet his hadn’t.

A great rushing tide had swallowed the shore and wiped it clean.” When nothing material remains, when we have nothing to hold on to, we create. Hanging on to moments, knowing and keeping them precious. “Perhaps that is why people write,” Nem reflects. “Because we are always, constantly, on the verge of unimaginable loss.”

Nem is in Delhi because he’s sent away from Lenny. Weary of Delhi, he goes to London seeking passage from the loss of Nicholas. From London he follows leads to other places.
Pariat’s sense of place is evocative.

Delhi’s academic corridors and the forest of secret trysts, its crumbling tower where a rude fall leads to his meeting Nicholas, whose house now becomes a repository of experience, are finely narrated, soaking the reader in the music of rain and song, love and expectation — a fluidity that becomes the narrative movement, hosting seahorses with their secret love — or London with its faces, bodies and strange places where lonely men and women explore their sexuality, extending limits to find fulfillment, a hive of random relationships that only sharpen Nem’s expectation.

And then, finally, the storm-lashed countryside and Nicholas’s “half-sister” Myra’s house, a fortress fiercely guarded by her father. There is also the small, weighty epilogue by the sea, an epitomising of reasons in the novel: “To love the sea is to long for inconstancy.”
Janice Pariat could have been an older male writer, probably European, riding the crest of his powers. That would have been understandable. Such is the quality and experience of her words.

Getting into the mind and dreams of a young male protagonist who is uncertain and learning, lapping up experience from all of the world and hoping the hope of the abandoned, Pariat narrates and describes as only a poet can, viewing from all angles, living the inside. It is difficult to believe this is her first novel. The consistency of her power is remarkable, supporting even weaker moments when a fine climax is hurried through, probably dwarfing a long-awaited moment because of it.

Nem’s story is a poet’s diary. There’s an aptness to where Pariat places her epiphanies. In a scene where Myra is filled with “a fiery energy”, the drawing room becomes her stage. She announces she’ll play for Nicholas and Nem, prolonging the moment, being with Nem as Nicholas watches. “She was stirring him like the wind whipped the sea.”

In Nicholas’s house, Nem wakes up in a room with no clocks or calendars. Pointers and markers abound, guiding us through the emotion of words that flow in many directions, time growing beyond past, present and future. “We are shaped by absence. The places that escape our travels, the things we choose not to do, the people we’ve lost.”

Nicholas and Nem are like Gautama Buddha and Ananda, Poseidon and Pelops. Master and acolyte, man and lover. But then “memory only gives us back what we had on condition we know it has been lost”. There are probably readers impatient with the languid, languorous procession of words that seek, point, place and reveal through codes and images. Readers impatient with poetry.

Almost 20 years ago, I asked Arundhati Roy about the magic of her words. She smiled. “It’s just the right word in the right place.” This casual suggestion makes Seahorse work, and the key to its success is perhaps the birthright of a poet.

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