Janice Pariat was born in Jorhat, Assam—a place she has no memories of. She tells me she’s mystified by people who are deeply sentimental about the places they were born, because her childhood was peripatetic. Her father worked in the tea industry and as a result they were transferred from estate to estate every few years. Much of these fleeting patterns of movement and the displacement of memory that accompanies them, is captured in her brilliant novel, Seahorse.
Horror vacui—fear of the empty—is the heartbeat of Seahorse, and it is what directs the novel’s intricate love story, as well as its investigations into art, literature and music. The love story is a triangulation between the narrator, Nehemiah, a young student of literature in Delhi, an art historian, Nicholas, who leads Nem into a world unlike anything he’s ever known, and Myra—athletic, blue-eyed, viola-playing Myra. There is a fourth in the equation, ghosting the corners of the book: Lenny—Nem’s mystical, Auden-loving, childhood friend.
Seahorse shifts from Delhi to London to Somerset, and it plays with memory and time in an extraordinary way. It is a novel that lingers, that hints at the tenuous connections we attempt to make, and suggests that in the end we are all cartographers—not just in the linear sense of mapping journeys, but in how we map others, how we map memory.
“Isn’t it fascinating that the images conjured in your mind while writing also become memories?” Pariat says. “And that they’ve layered and mingled with the ‘real’? What we choose to place on paper are strange clusters and conglomerations, a constant shape-shifting reservoir of experience. If, as Proust said, the remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were, then all our memories are mostly fabrication. And this is where our lives and fiction meet.”
Pariat tells me that she began the book as a simple linear tale interspersed with flashbacks, but because she was attempting to capture the inexplicable fluidity of time, she found her manuscript too compact, too neat. “So I shattered it. Broke it into a million pieces and somehow placed it back together, with repetitions and missing parts, with odd knobbly bits and sharp fragments…I had to deliberately ‘messify’ my novel, to unravel and disrupt it.”
In many ways the title of the novel is the perfect metaphor for Nem’s life. The seahorse belongs to that rarest of fish families marked by male pregnancy, and its name comes from the Greek, hippos kampos, which means, sea monster. This in turn informs the hippocampus that forms the seat of the human limbic system, the seahorse shaped organ that holds the keys to memory. In Seahorse, Janice Pariat has offered us a novel that aspires to the seahorses’ magical dance—a novel that is not only about actions but about ideas; that aspires to place the quest for desire and beauty at the centre of the human experience. It is also a novel about how life fills the empty spaces. “We are shaped by absences,” thinks Nehemiah, “The places that escape our travels, the things we choose not to do, the people we’ve lost. They are spaces in the trellis on which we trail from season to season.”