In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2015), scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about a sense of “place”:
Everything the Light Touches
Fourth Estate / HarperCollins India
“I once knew and loved a man who lived most of his life in the city, but when he was dragged off to the ocean or the woods he seemed to enjoy it well enough—as long as he could find an Internet connection. He had lived in a lot of places, so I asked him where he found his greatest sense of place. He didn’t understand the expression. I explained that I wanted to know where he felt the most nurtured and supported. What is the place that you understand best? That you know best and knows you in return?”
This question, of the things and values that centre us, creating a special “place” out of simply space, is a good way to approach Janice Pariat’s novel Everything the Light Touches. This is a book about vastly different protagonists—the botanist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe working out a system of looking at the spiritual essence of a plant; Evelyn or Evie, a 20th century Edwardian female explorer finding herself in a patronising world full of men; Shai, a young woman in the modern time, who stumbles from Shillong to Mawmalang village, and from English to Khasi, in a pilgrimage to be with her dying nanny. There is also the brief narrative voice of botanist Carl Linnaeus (delivered mostly in poems).
Yet, all these protagonists—with differing ages and agency, voices and reason—are searching for ways of understanding the world and their place in it. The common thread is the plant. Many of the motivations of the protagonists centre around botany. But plants, which form the ecological basis of most ecosystems, also provide living metaphors for the knotty questions of life in the book. Such as the places which root us. The branches and bonds of our lives—intertwining and connected. The timelessness of trees and natural spaces, and the way certain questions of life are cyclical and also timeless.
Shai’s questions about making sense of the multiple identities modern life thrusts upon us can be appreciated without an interest in botany. She contrasts the mindless bustle of urban life with the quiet of rural repose, as she exhales in the middle of back-breaking physical chores: “thinking about the height of pea shoots”. She contrasts the ideas of mining as development with the tribal way of life—looking at humans as just one component of the world, not as the sole drivers of it. Reading this book as a conservation biologist with a field site in Nagaland, the portions on village life—peppered with a rich, unobtrusive dialect, with circadian rhythms of waking with the sun and sleeping with the moon, hole-in-the-ground toilets, fishing for opportunity and food whenever possible, and cooking edible finds in communal kitchens—resonate with a deep and felt authenticity.
In a sense then, this is very much a book on north-eastern India, with questions on illegal mining, the brain drain from towns, tribal versus modern medicine (and systems of belief), and how one must treat the endemic, biodiverse wilderness of the region. It is important though that the novel wears its political issues lightly. These nagging questions are not boxes to be ticked off but queries to be lived through. The best gift this book imparts thus, is that of time. In binding together philosophical questions of narrators searching for themselves through various centuries, the book is an exploration of the often opposing world views of science and art, but also how we must live through life’s largest questions through time and patience and long meanders. A sense of peaceful surrender to these big questions and, consequently, to the natural world, pervades the book.
Those who like period writing will especially enjoy the portions on Evelyn, who with two academic degrees, is far too qualified to be wallflower or wife material. Her visits to Calcutta’s huge banyan tree and her feeling of being anchored only when away from cloistered city life are beautifully penned. The sense that an “expedition” (we now call this fieldwork) is as much an inner as an outward journey is peppered with the idea that a sense of wonder is an integral part of looking at life.
This is a broad, expansive work, and it is richly served by the author’s luminous prose. Pariat’s writing style, which some would describe as magic realism, is very much her own, and the book experiments with poetry, prose, and dream-like passages. Yet, writing styles and genres do not need to be labelled, only enjoyed, and Pariat’s is full of a sense of motion. “Quicker than breath,” she writes, “this becomes routine.” In another passage, she writes: “How it begins with mud and seed and leaf, and how even if you think you need more, this is enough for you to begin to see widely, deeply. For eyes to open not just in your head but in your hands, and skin, and feet.”
If you have watched James Cameron’s award-winning movie Avatar, that treatise on tribal sentience, you may remember the passage on (truly) seeing—that seeing is not just viewing but to feel and experience something in its true essence. Like Sumana Roy’s How I Became a Tree, Pariat’s book becomes an important contribution on seeing the world with depth and breadth.
“The novel wears its political issues lightly. Nagging questions are not boxes to be ticked off but queries to be lived through.”
I especially enjoyed the female friendships that this book is shot through. At least one character, Evelyn’s Grandma Grace, reminds me of Robin Wall Kimmerer (who describes herself as not just a scientist but also a mother). Similar to Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar’s writing (The Adivasi Will Not Dance, The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey) that brings tribal voices into the spotlight—but in a non-contrived, unaffected way—this book should also be read for indigenous places and names most would never have encountered.
At a time of climate change, reading the book’s philosophy on biophilia is a strange, affecting contradiction to our current headlines—even as India attends the 27th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it has approved the cutting of 8.5 lakh trees in Great Nicobar Island’s endemic, indigenous primary rainforest, a biodiversity hotspot just like India’s north-east.
In the end, Pariat’s book, similar to its own themes, defies easy categorisation. It is a walk in the woods with trembling footsteps and an expectant gaze. Like the Indian forest, the book delivers gifts that are not easy to explain but will stay with you for a long time. And, the light touches all of us, but sometimes one does need a guide in beautiful prose to help us see.
Neha Sinha is a conservation biologist and the author of Wild and Wilful: Tales of 15 Iconic Indian Species. She tweets at nehaa_sinha.
- All protagonists here—with differing ages and agency, voices and reason—are searching for ways of understanding the world and their place in it.
- This is very much a book on north-eastern India, but the novel wears its political issues lightly.
- The book experiments with poetry, prose, and dream-like passages.
- The book’s philosophy on biophilia is relevant in this time of climate change.