Writer Janice Pariat has been home at Shillong for the last few months. “It is the longest I have stayed here, since I left years ago, to study, to work, from one elsewhere to the next,” says Pariat, whose next book, Everything the Light Touches, will be out in the US, UK, and India in October this year.
Over an email, she talks about how her writing space isn’t confined to a particular spot, the odd assortment of things on the desk in her room, and how the plant on it is quiet, alive and growing—just like a book in progress.
Describe your current workspace to us.
I'd be lying I think, if I didn't also acknowledge how leaving Delhi, which has been home for many years, was also a relief. I was falling ill because of the terrible air at the end of last year, more so than the previous years, I had book edits to complete, a remaining half-semester to teach, and I fled to the hills--an extreme privilege, I know. It has been different being home this time. My parents, who are always here when I visit, are not around, away at my sister's and her family in the UK, and the house is entirely empty and mine in a way it hasn't quite been before. This means my writing space is not always confined to a particular spot--I am peripatetic, moving from a room upstairs, which has a nice view of the hills, to the kitchen which is cosy, to a spot in the sun outside if it's particularly chilly. The place at which I do most of my writing and editing and thinking though is a table in my room, placed by the window. It holds an odd assortment of things. A fluffy ruffles fern that is the only houseplant that has seemed genuinely happy to be at my side for any length of time, a skein of moss green eri silk yarn, a beautiful peach-coloured river stone I found atop a mountain, dried wildflowers collected on walks, leaves, pine cones, acorns, ink bottles, notebooks. It's a space, I like to think, where things continue to live, or be made alive again, renewed in some way by being placed there, inspiring in their shape, their form, and the lives they have led before they found me.
Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?
Before the pandemic, I never had a writing spot at my home in Shillong. It had never quite felt right, to be honest. Perhaps because my room then, though compact and lovely, wasn't quite aligned in a way that allowed for writing. I say this quite seriously--the energy in a space must allow for writing, for creation. How do I clarify this? Not in any tangible way, I'm afraid. But my first question while entering a potential living space is whether I can write in it. And this wasn't so at home for the longest time, if only because my visits were fleeting, hardly allowing for the immersion, extended and unhurried, that writing requires. Now, though, being in Shillong for months on end, a space has opened up. In a larger room downstairs. With a window overlooking pine trees. And an energy, perhaps drawn from the forest, that allows me to carve a writing (head)space here.
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How would you define your daily relationship with this space?
As with my relationship to writing--mixed. There are days I am immensely happy to be seated here, tapping away at the keyboard, the words, and pages flowing, the sun outside bright, the air filled with birdsong. On others, it is a struggle. Nothing seems quite right. And I sit there leaden, questioning every writerly decision I take on the page, doubting myself, my ability to write--and worse, wondering why I'm doing this in the first place. Those days are dark and dismal. But despite them, I am compelled to return, because no matter what, there is nothing else I would rather be doing. Writing is my centre, as this place has grown to be as well. Everything else revolves around this act, this space. No matter how fraught the relationship, I am certain there is nothing else that gives my life meaning as writing does.
Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.
This would have to be in December 2020-January 2021, when I was working on a round of edits for my (new) novel Everything the Light Touches. I had been struggling with a particular voice, a particular character who was central to the book, and because of the structure I was working with, would have meant that the manuscript as a whole might not hold together well if I didn't get her right. Who was she? What was her predicament exactly? Her dynamic with the people closest to her? Why does she do what she ends up doing? Staying where she ends up staying? So many questions, and yet barely a glimmer of illumination. Slowly, though, she emerged. And to be honest, I don't attribute this solely to the writing space--but the fact that I, after many years, was spending a considerable amount of time at home in Shillong. I suppose what I'm trying to say is that it was both--the physical space itself within a town, home, I usually only briefly spent any time in until now. The character, you see, was returning to Shillong to stay, and though she and I aren't the same person, I only understood this process because I too was there extendedly. Her voice sprung out at me from the page, finally. Her predicament was clarified. This is why she did what she ended up doing. At my writing table, something clicked, adjusted, fell into place. And there she was.
If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?
At the moment, absolutely none at all.
What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace over the years. Why?
A plant. Though, sadly, many have not survived to the end of a project. This is because at my study in Delhi, the light coming through the window is all wrong, and my leafy companion usually informs me of this by turning yellow and expiring. Here in Shillong, where my window has a view of the sky, my ruffles fern is thriving (so far, touch wood!), putting out all sorts of green fronds and new leaves. And why a plant? Because they are quiet. And alive. And growing just like the book I'm working on. They bring to my attention, constantly, a morphological unity, leaf, stem, flower, bud, root, that I would like all my books to display.
Describe your first book memory
Enid Blyton, but that is such a tedious, almost predictable answer. Instead, I would like to offer you my first story-listening memory--for aren't we all born listeners rather than readers and writers? Here it is: a chilly Shillong evening, the silence and darkness of load shedding, a candle on the table, my maternal grandfather spinning stories about Mr and Mrs Rat. I do not remember the stories precisely, but I remember him. His grey eyes, his grey sweater, the bulk and shape of him, his beret pulled low on his head because he felt the cold, his voice, rising and falling. I am drawn to this memory because I feel strongly that we cannot be (good) writers without being (good) listeners. I also happen to come from a place with age-old, vibrant oral storytelling traditions, a community without a script, whose histories and sense of identity has been passed on through the spoken word, through song.
The first writer whose work you fell in love with, really fell in love with. What about them appealed to you?
I must admit that in my reading habits I am extremely fickle. Unfaithful, you might like to call it. I may love a book by an author and then be unable to complete anything else written by them. And so, I flit, here and there, collecting favourite works like a finicky magpie. I suppose my first, early favourites are Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, for her writing of time. Amitav Ghosh's Shadow Lines for his merging of the historical and the individual. Nabokov's Lolita, for placing the reader in the toughest moral conundrum, that of following Humbert Humbert's narrative. Orwell's 1984 for its menacing, tragic, prophetic beauty. Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things because I read it at a time when I was only glimmeringly beginning to wonder if I could write, be a writer.
One genre you love but can't/ don't want to write. Why?
The living autobiography, as with Deborah Levy's series Things I Don't Want to Know, The Cost of Living, and Real Estate. They (especially the first two) are exquisite plays on form--part essay, memoir, personal, intimate travelogue, that also serve as reflections on writing, and being a woman writer in the world. I have very little idea how I would ever be able to pull such a thing off because the writing of these kinds of books requires a clarity and courage and voice that perhaps I am still in the process of (hopefully!) finding.
Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces.