This book was sent to me by Random House India in exchange of an honest review
Over the last few weeks, I have tried over and over again to sit before my buzzing laptop and will the words and views swirling in my head following my encounter with the ‘Seahorse’ to flow out through my stubby fingers. And every time, I find myself just staring at the screen hoping a coherent sentence will leap up to the forefront of my brain in place of the jumbled kaleidoscope caterwauling there. Where to begin and how to do justice to myself and this book?
The story revolves around a young man, Nehemiah (or Nem) from East India (or as I like to think of him as someone from a hill town), first as a young student at that sacred alma mater of the great Indian bourgeoisie as most of us tend to think of ourselves at some point in our lives, then as an editor for an art magazine and years later as a fellowship student spending a year in London. The story keeps moving back and forth between these timelines mixing history with the present. He isn’t a hero or an extremely talented genius or even incredibly successful, but an average student, a keen observer, easily influenced by strong personalities and a bit on the shy side. I kept thinking as I read his exploits that when Shakespeare said ‘All the world’s a stage….’ he must have meant some of us to act as spectators or witnesses to all the drama that is taking place all around us and that maybe Nem is one of those who were meant to chronicle it all. But maybe his show is one of those audience participation ones and so at times he finds himself thrust on the stage as a prop for the actors to deliver their punchlines or a particularly clever dialogue. He is eminently likable with the makings of a perfect non-judgmental, good listener friend.
Pariat’s writing is lyrical and the prose is almost poetic. There was an overwhelming sense of melancholia that seems to pervade the narrative almost from the first page itself. That feeling is heightened to pin-pricks of loss in ones eyes by the soundtrack that the author recommends as a background to your reading. I chose to listen to it later and as a background to finishing a painting and dreaming of home. The sense of loss that Nem seems to carry around with him at almost all times since his teens, first for Lenny and then for Nicolas, seems to swamp the reader in waves throughout the book, though it seems to get better towards the end. Unfortunately for me, perhaps the part that forms the core of the book, Nem’s introduction to and days in Nicolas’s bungalow, did not resonate with me at all. Was it perhaps because somehow that relationship felt false to me? He was after all a professor taking advantage of a vulnerable, grieving boy.
It also seems that Nem chooses to bestow his love on someone who is more of an idea than a real person, someone almost untouchable on normal human planes. So, while he seems to have taken the fact of Nicholas’s betrayal without much rancor, in awe of his intellectual prowess as always, as a reader I was not so forgiving. Nem moves through life at a his own slow pace, discovers joys and sorrows in his quiet way, makes friends with really talented and outgoing people and manages never to judge. As for Nem’s sexuality, he seems to not dwell on it at all. If it must happen, then so it shall be.
The author also manages to catch that deep-seated desire of the perfectly nice and normal, convent-educated, hot-shot Indian university students with a degree in English Literature aspiring to be ‘open and cool’ with the western concepts of what artists must ‘really’ be like – as in the case of Santanu. Only, there are times when the conventional Indian-grandma-reared conscience rears its ugly head and points out that maybe one is not ready to be as ‘cool’ as one believed one’s self to be.
Not having had a classical English/Art education in college, it was a little frustrating for me to come across references to classics or art history in the kind of discussions among the actors/protagonists that I have never had the pleasure to participate. That ability to see a work of art or a story and interpret its meaning in a completely new fashion always fascinates me. Those who have had this privilege always tend to look at/read a book in a decidedly unique way that seems to allude someone like me completely. At times it made me feel utterly inadequate as a reader of English literature, and at others I felt distinctly happy that I can read a book and just enjoy a story without the need to dissect it to its bare bones, leaving me with something new to discover at every reading.
But why ‘Seahorse’ I thought? Pariat refers to the tendency of a Seahorse pair to mate for a long time and a ritual that they share every morning. It is obvious that Nem thinks of himself as a seahorse mated to someone for life, but it was hard to discern whether his mate felt the same about him. A ritual also denotes somewhat conventional leanings and Nem’s relationship with Nicholas is hardly that. Will he forgive and forget and move back with Nicolas or finally move ahead with his life? The author ends her book perfectly I thought, leaving us to wonder and root for Nem nevertheless.