The lush green Sunder Nursery served as a perfect backdrop as noted writers Janice Pariat and Aanchal Malhotra engaged in dialogue with a keen audience comprising ardent readers on a pleasant Saturday afternoon. The authors—Pariat has written the novel Everything the Light Touches, while Malhotra is known for her book The Book of Everlasting Things—discussed everything from revisiting history for narratives to the nuances and craft of writing in a session titled ‘How We Tell a Story’ as part of Suitable Conversations, an ongoing series of talks centred on books that is organised by A Suitable Agency.
Ideas that click
Pariat’s novel Everything the Light Touches follows the lives of four characters—Shai, Evelyn, Johann and Linnaeus. The author mentioned that the underlying theme of the story remains two juxtaposing worldviews towards life. Pariat shared, “The heart of the novel is a tussle between two ways of seeing the world. Linnaeus’ rigid approach wherein he wants to label everything, while Shai and Johann have a more holistic approach.”
Pariat also shared her inspiration—an exhibition on women botanists that she visited as a student in the UK. However, the whole story, she shared, came to her in bite-sized pieces over time.
Malhotra added that the idea for The Book of Everlasting Things came to her in December 2016, when she was researching for her novel, Remnants of a Separation. Talking about writing historical fiction, she admitted, “I am not a very imaginative person. I am not interested in building a world; I am interested in knowing how elastic the existing world is.”
A closer look
Every art and skill has its own language. For The Book of Everlasting Things—it follows the life of Samar Vij through the Partition, his complex family ties and his gift of smell—Malhotra explored the nitty-gritty of the world of fragrance. Recounting her research process, the historian and writer shared how she shadowed Jahnvi Nandan, a perfumer and founder of lush fragrances brand, The Perfume Library, for five years. Malhotra observed Jahnvi’s vocabulary, expressions, body language, and delved into the world of perfumery.
Pariat’s research, on the other hand, meant extensively studying Linnaeus—the father of modern taxonomy. For instance, she counted the days in Linnaeus’ daily diary entries to determine how long it would have taken to travel from the UK to India in the pre-independence era.
Both Pariat and Malhotra have revisited the history in their respective storylines, touching upon several themes including gender, nationality, environment, etc. Malhotra, who has written about the Partition in Remnants of a Separation, responded to a question by the audience on how to narrate a story while navigating history. She pointed out that there is no single way to tell or receive historical stories. “There is no single national project at play. It is important to tell the holistic story of decolonisation from four different perspectives. It cannot be done through a single archive and it cannot be nation-centric. It must be done through stories of people” the author concluded.