Few novels come with the promise of the perfect prose, the art of movement, and the secret to elude time. Janice Pariat’s debut novel Seahorse is like a dream written in cursive, lush and delicate, promising all of the above. The book is like one long, complete oeuvre that develops on itself: starting on a single note that appears in-the-middle-of-things and tells the story, picks up rhythm, swells and thins, and finally, turns into a brilliant symphony. Everything opens in medias res, [page 3] the first line itself is a dramatic declaration of a story that promises to defy time, linearity, laws of space and motion and refutes the idea of positionalities, referring to any arbitrary point along the narrative of life as a potential critical-point where the story may unfold. For beginnings may come in the middle of someone’s life, at its end, or somewhere in-between [page 3].
In this book, time folds, bends, and lingers: one moment rolls out and becomes eternity and at other times the universe merges into itself and becomes a dot. Events preceding the ‘opening’ run in tandem with events that follow in an intricately designed narrative, brought out alive by the first person voice of Nehemiah, aka Nem. It is through his memory that we traverse back and forth and learn about his shared history with Doctor Nicholas Petrou (referred mostly as Nicholas in the book) and the broken chronology of his past. Nem, a student of English Literature at Delhi University finds his world slipping out of reality when he falls in love with the olive skinned, dark haired, enigmatic art historian, Nicholas. As the book begins, Nem chooses to start with an abrupt disclosure: the disappearance of Nicholas from his life. He recollects his passionate affair and his love for Nicholas and how that love defined the absolute control of his world, formed the crux of his being, until Nicholas’ disappearance. The book is then about the trials and aspirations at finding, rather re-discovering Nicholas through a series of clues and codes. While this trail forms the spine of the story, other events break out in patches of remembrances. Throughout the book, Nem is constantly haunted by the memory of Lenny who is shown to have a rather ambiguously amorous but strong relationship with him. Lenny, who is now dead, keeps coming back at every point, rising up to the surface of his memory and reminding the reader of Nem’s life back in the hills, their unsolved camaraderie, his grief and the disturbing ghosts of his past. Pariat establishes absolute control over the process of unfolding, the right amount just at the right moment and tenderly steers between Nem’s life in Delhi as well as his hometown. Most times while speaking of his life in the university, in the summers, about the hostels and the cafes, Pariat gently shifts to the timelessness felt in a forest, a line of mountains, slow murmuring streams, jays and sparrows, of the smell of pine, mist and rain. The story in its telling-style is a chiaroscuro of random colours, slowly merging and separating, taking shape. Each point radiates into a spot revealing one aspect of the plot and returns like a camera to focus into another direction, another aspect. This gives a water-like quality (also clarity) to the chronology of events, making everything so fluid yet tangible. The effect is further accentuated by the addition of various vintage compositions in the background, starting from Liszt’s Etudes to Haydn’s symphonies to Ravel’s Boléro to Schumann’s songs. Lines and passages are carefully inserted to buffer it up further:
When I was with him, though, time dissolved into insignificance.
It lost its grasp, and loosened, unfurling endlessly as the sea [page 15].
I was searching for water, holding in my hand a blue and silver fish,
running through a building that could only appear in dreams – stitched
together from many others, familiar but difficult to place. In my dreams,
I was looking for a room with an aquarium [page 93].
It was someone smaller, lighter, with longer hair,
and a softer mouth. A silky gown that slipped off easily.
Someone with skin smooth as a seashore pebble,
a neck that arched, a pool of deep, endless wetness [page 246].
The second half of the book is about Nem’s journey through events and geographies. After qualifying for a fellowship in London, he finds himself close to hope through a coded note sent to him by Nicholas. He follows the trail and finds Myra, who in the first half of the book is introduced by Nicholas as his step-sister. Later, when he visits Myra at her faraway countryside house, where she lives with her father, Philip, he gets to know a different version of the whole truth. He is pulled into another passionate affair with her but Nicholas’ memory doesn’t let him live in peace with anyone. Nicholas is intricately woven to both of their lives and Nem fails to free himself of the web of remembrances. Midway along the course of his life in London, he meets other characters like Santanu, Eva and Yara, all of who rise up as fleetingly as they disappear along the progression of the story. But throughout and till the end, his obsession over Nicholas doesn’t cease to control his existence and choices.
As Pariat mentions in her acknowledgements how Seahorse arose from an interest in Greek Myth, the reader is later able to decipher how the book is a modern re-telling of the myth of Poseidon, the Greek Sea God and his young, male lover, Pelops. Once in the knowledge of it, everything seems to fall in place and one realizes the timelessness of events and the aquatic appeal of the whole book, which, Pariat at every moment brings out with absolute clarity. At places, some of the passages are so lyrical and vivid, that it leaves you wanting for more.
Back on a carriage the world rapidly fell behind. Time, I’ve often thought,
could easily be captured inside a moving train. When the natural light
outside has faded until it is even with the artificial light inside.
And a passenger, looking at the window, sees two images at once.
The dim landscape rushing past and the interior of the carriage,
reflected with its motionless occupants. Moving and still. All at once.
Moving and still [page 201].
The ending, which may seem muddled to the careless reader, is like a dream sequence in an unknown, snowy town by the sea Nem travels to. Walking down a seashore, surrounded by ruins and seagulls, and wondering about the incompleteness of his past, Nem at last discovers the ultimate meaning of his longing. Pariat, since Boats on Land, has maintained the signature style of her rich prose even in this book and preserved the technique of opening up the plot layer by layer like almost all of her earlier short stories. Seahorse is overall, in its essence, an elegant piece of music, a cinematic play of words and scenes and a tour-de-force – for a debut novel – achieved with the skills of a remarkable story-teller.