Everything the Light Touches

Photo by Pankaj Khanna

Everything the Light Touches Janice Pariat


“When I was seven and plagiarising stories by Enid Blyton. I stole her plot lines, settings, characters, particularly stories involving the Famous Five, and passed them off as my own to my intimate readership — my parents — who were very supportive despite the pieces being…derivative,” recalls author Janice Pariat of her first memories of writing. Today, her ingenuity as a writer is well known and widely acclaimed. Her literary oeuvre is diverse, “With every project it differs, I suppose, depending on life experiences, interests, and my own personal journey — but I have realised that in most of my writing, my attempt is to question, and even hopefully dismantle labels, categories, the boxes we place people, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, all the uncontainable living things in the world into…”

Her recently released book, Everything the Light Touches, contains within it an epic journey for its readers, through the lives of four characters, belonging to entirely different places and times, yet connected in the most resonant of ways. “The tussle between fixity and fluidity,” says the author, constitutes the core of the book. Below, we delve further into the writer’s craft and the creation of her new book.

When did you first realise language and literature had power?
It wasn’t a singular epiphanic moment. In some ways, I’m still realising their power, every day, and perhaps will, hopefully, continue to do so, all my life. There are instances that stand out though — gatherings at my home in Shillong, where friends and family would sit around and tell stories long into the night. Huddling by the fire, in load-shedding darkness, listening to my grandfather’s made-up tales. Spending my winter holidays reading two, sometimes three books a day. How they would transport me from a wild, isolated corner of Assam to around the world. At university, learning to look at texts closely. Writing for a city magazine, seeing my first by-line. The chants and singing and poems at the anti-CAA protests more recently. All these moments serve to fuel and bolster this belief.     

After so many years, how would you describe your relationship with writing today?
In some ways it has remained the same — I am still in thrall of it, still in awe, still a little intimidated, overwhelmed, aggravated by it, frustrated by it too on some days. The mechanics of it still seem a little elusive, beyond my grasp, and in this way, writing remains to me always mysterious. In other ways it has changed. I feel I have a sense of voice, and style, and — dare I say it? — confidence, that I might have lacked as a younger writer, even though sometimes on the best of days these are all tested. What I have come to realise strongly though is how collaborative writing is for me — from seeing it as a lonely, isolated practice — think writer in their ivory tower — to learning how writing is fed by many conversations, by other texts, by the generosity of other people, by their time and effort. All storytelling, whether written or spoken or visual, is from and by community.  

What inspired Everything the Light Touches?
A long-ago visit to a garden somewhere in England, I think it was Salisbury but I’m not sure, where I came across a small exhibition on Victorian women botanists and their wild, unruly lives. The character of Evie popped into my head — a young woman scientist travelling on a quest to India. What was it that she was seeking? I had to write the book to find out…  

What did your creative process behind creating this book entail?
A lot of research, years and years of sitting in libraries and reading rooms, photocopying, taking notes. I’m not a “science student”, so I had to begin from scratch, with a book called Beginner’s Botany — and then on to other things, Goethean Science, the ideas of Carl Linnaeus, travel during the Edwardian era, uranium mining in the hills of Meghalaya…and then the process of working with these historical texts and contemporary reportage and transforming all that material into a story. It has been one of the most difficult, most challenging projects for me as a writer…   

What was the biggest challenge you faced with this novel?
Transforming “non-fiction” into story — choosing from a wealth of historical detail so that the novel isn’t weighed down by “research”, which needs to sit appropriately and lightly on the page. Conjuring characters with the stamina to carry stories of this length and depth through. And always, structure, structure, structure. How to place information just at the right place at the right time. 

Could you give us some insight into any particular influences, literary or otherwise, that guided your creation of this book?
So many! The wonderfully wise Robin Kimmerer and her guide-to-life book of essays Braiding Sweetgrass, Pranay Lal’s wonder-filled Indica: A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent, Craig Holdrege’s illuminating How to Think like a Plant, Jay Griffiths’ astounding travelogue Wild…while apart from text, I think my deepening understanding of indigeneity, and indigenous forms of knowledge, of indigenous community and their ability, in the past, and in some places even now, to live lightly on the planet with gratitude. In the writing of this book, there were so many moments when I’d stop to ask, What is our relationship with our planet? And the gentlest answers I found were in these books and in these ways of living.   

What do you hope the readers take away from this book?
I hope only that a reader and the book travel well together. May they take away what they wish — what they happen to because of who they are and their life experiences so far. And I hope it is a transformative journey. 

How have you been coping with the pandemic personally, and as a writer?
I wrote this book, and probably finished a first draft in the time that I did, because of the pandemic-induced lockdowns. I wrote. Nothing else seemed to make sense. The world was unrecognisable, but even then the question I was asking myself, What is our relationship with our planet? was also being asked across so many conversations, especially at this time, when the ecological costs of our ways of living were being so closely assessed. This was strange and surreal alignment. 

Lastly, what are you working on next?
The second book in what I’m tentatively beginning to call the “Relationship Trilogy”, not a sequel to The Nine-Chambered Heart, but one that also explores love and desire and relationships, and places them under a writerly microscope… 

Text Nidhi Verma
Date 14-11-2022