Review: Everything the Light Touches by Janice Pariat
By historicising global warming, the world’s most pressing contemporary concern, this novel becomes one of ideas
The narrative structure of Janice Pariat’s third novel Everything the Light Touches is like a matryoshka doll. Usually made of wood, these Russian-origin dolls are hollow figurines that separate in the middle to reveal a smaller figure inside, which in turn has another figure inside it, and so on. In Pariat’s book, stories part in the middle to reveal another story. And like the matryoshka dolls that usually follow a theme — folk tales or Soviet leaders — the stories in Pariat’s novel follow the themes of botany and travel.
Shai, an Indian girl in her early thirties, takes a flight from New Delhi to her home town Shillong. Evelyn, a botanist from Cambridge, undertakes a sea voyage from England to India in 1911 in search of a secret plant. These are the two fictional narratives in the novel. There are two historically factual ones as well. German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1787 tour of Italy, at the end of which he would write his first scientific work, Metamorphosis of Plants (1790). And Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’s famous expedition to Lapland in 1732, which would result in his book Flora Lapponica (1737).
Narrative structure has, of course, been a preoccupation of Pariat’s earlier prose works as well. In The Nine-Chambered Heart (2017), a woman’s life is narrated by different people who have known her — from a teacher to a series of lovers and roommates — revealing a fragmented, kaleidoscopic identity. Everything the Light Touches also has multiple narrators. While Shai tells her own story, Evelyn and Goethe’s stories are narrated by an omniscient third person, who is aware not only of their movements and actions but also of their thoughts. Linnaeus’s story is a series of poems, some in free verse, others in meter, conforming in some ways to August Strindberg’s declaration: “Linnaeus was in reality a poet who happened to become a naturalist.”
On the surface of it, these protagonists and their journeys have little to do with each other, separated as they are by time and distance. Each part of the novel could actually be read separately as a self-contained novella in itself. But, like The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, in Pariat’s book, too, the disparate narratives are welded together through an emotional and imaginative force. For one, Shai, Evelyn, and Goethe are all compelled to travel by a sense of being stultified in the places where they live.
On the very first page, Shai declares: “I’m travelling out of Delhi, this mad, magnificent city at the edge of a desert, to go back to where I came from — the wettest place on earth.” Mawsynram, which gets an annual average rainfall of 11,802.4 mm per year, is about 60 km away from Shillong. But it is not in Shillong or Mawsynram that Shai experiences what she is looking for — it is somewhere more obscure, in a village of a traditional Khasi community. Evelyn is sent off by her family to Calcutta (Kolkata) as part of the “fishing fleet” — young girls looking for a husband — but she has a purpose that she can barely confess to herself. And Goethe takes off for Rome almost stealthily, weary of administrative duties in the princely state of Weimar. Travel is a necessity of sorts, even an existential one — at both the physical and the metaphysical level.
In fact, the metaphysical questions of the novel unite its disparate narrative strands even more. The primary philosophical question it asks is this: Can we think of the relationship between humans and natural phenomenon, especially flora, beyond the objective rationality of Enlightenment philosophy? Do the ancient rituals of the Khasi communities or the rustic wisdom of Evelyn’s grandmother provide an alternative to the taxonomical desires of Linnaeus, who had declared: “Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit” (God created, Linnaeus organised).”
The answer, at least for Pariat, can be found in Goethean science that advocated a more subjective and personal approach, especially to botany. This was an approach that Goethe’s contemporaries, the Romantic poets, loved even as they revolted against the preceding Age of Reason. However, it is also likely to appeal to a contemporary reader, who finds that the relationship between humans and nature has turned irrevocably belligerent and aggravated through global warming. By historicising what is arguably the most pressing contemporary concern, Pariat’s novel become one of ideas.
But it is not only at the structural and metaphysical level that Pariat succeeds in doing this. She accomplishes it further through a radical act of converting Linneaus’s field notes from his Lapland expedition into poetry. The 39 short lyrical poems that comprise the core of the book could have been a chapbook as well. This section has witty micro poems such as How to Hunt a Bear, which is only a line: “Do not miss”. It also has poems in traditional forms such as a sestina, or quatrains, like Gutta Serena:
The people bring you a peasant’s daughter
a year and a half old, deprived of sight,
though she clearly enjoys being in the light
near the window. But first, some water
And there are concrete poems, such as Church Going, where the text is shaped like a cross. This section is also a gauntlet thrown to readers, challenging them to get out of the comfort zone of a prose narrative and step into the rubies and diamonds of poetry.
While Pariat is wonderful at the broad strokes through which her skills shine, it is the little details that elevate the narrative. For instance, while describing Goethe’s escape from Weimar, she describes the journey from Kaiserwald to Regensburg: “having covered one hundred and thirteen miles in thirty-nine hours.” This is an example of the sort of erudition that is curious not only about the big ideas but also about small details. Similarly, Evelyn resists the temptation of explaining to her fellow travellers that malaria is not caused by vapours at the Suez Canal: “Ronald Ross won the Nobel Prize for scotching this idea, didn’t he almost die experimenting on all those mosquitoes?”
To this reader, this section seemed like a well-placed tribute to Amitav Ghosh, whose 1995 novel The Calcutta Chromosome advocated an alternative science as opposed to the empiricism of colonial medicine, exemplified by Ross, who also features in the book. Ghosh has given a blurb to Pariat’s book, and it was his non-fiction work The Great Derangement (2016) that in many ways prompted Indian writers to wade into climate change fiction. Of course, this is only speculation on my part at this stage. But a reader will have no need to speculate about the necessity of reading the book under review as soon as they start on the first page.
Uttaran Das Gupta teaches journalism at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. His novel, Ritual, was published in 2020.
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