An odd thing souvenir-hunting: now becomes then even while it is still now.
Even for a liberal arts-hardened mind, all fronts and cynicism for the materialism of souvenir-collecting go out the window the moment the eyes wander off to a pretty embroidered bag or a delicate sandalwood comb. What of the day when you solemnly swore about taking memories home and not ugly wood hangings and painted elephants?
Jorhat. Shillong. Delhi. London. Wonju. Galle. Rome. The places that writer and academic Janice Pariat has lived in and travelled to make a long list, but when I ask what she brought back from Brighton, where she was, seven summers ago in her own words, she says it’s a walk by the sea every evening.
“There is nothing quite like it. No matter the kind of day you may have had, all perspective is realigned at the sight of its endlessness,” she muses. Back in May, Janice wrote fondly about the city on the southern coast of England: “I read a lot, took long walks, and attended free outdoor movie screenings at the pebbly beach.”
Janice is one of those writers and makers of modern art that remind you of the veni, vidi, vici trinity. Her creations materialise before you in the form of her published work (Boats on Land, The Nine-Chambered Heart) and also on Instagram. It is through this medium that one often spots quaint natural objects at her writing table; the nautilus shell stays with one and the vintage ink pots send the envy glands in a frenzy.
“The fossil was a gift from a close someone, and I keep it near because it reminds me of deep time, and deep affection, and deep, complicated histories. The vintage ink pots have been collected, and gifted, from here and there, though they've mostly been picked up from Il Papiro, a tiny stationery shop close to the Pantheon in Rome,” she shares.
The question about books as souvenirs is a foregone conclusion when you’re talking to a writer. I remind Janice how she once said in an Instagram post that books transported you to the different places she had been at. “I often mark a journey with a book—either one I travel with from home, pick up along the way, or find at my destination. Most recently in Rome, a book on Fausto Delle Chiaie's street art. Every day, for over 30 years, Fausto has set up an open-air museum along Rome's Via della Scrofa—I was lucky to have had a chat with him last time I was there, and bought this wonderful book on his life and art,” she says.
“Of the many irresistible bookshops that I've come across is Libreria Berisio in Napoli, where I picked up prints—and a copy of the Odyssey in Italian (which I cannot read, sadly, but it's a beautiful little edition). Also, Livraria Bertrand in Lisbon, the oldest bookshop in the world, but I was a student backpacker then and couldn't afford to pick up anything. I also love Everyman's bookshop in Fort Kochi, and spend hours there when we visit during the biennale.”
Apart from money—which Janice is kind enough to mention—limited boot space is a constraint that often passes unconsidered. You pick up hackneyed doodahs and tasteless presents before really coming up on that treasured find, only to realise that the innards of your bags have already been claimed. The next time, you wait until the last hour of the journey only to return with a Toblerone (there, I’ve had my revenge against everybody who ever got candies and milk chocolate bars that could easily be got at CP’s paan stalls).
Janice, however, has a simple mantra. “[The souvenir] ought not be too heavy, or breakable, to begin with! Though in all honesty, I prefer natural souvenirs—leaves, flowers, pine cones, an unusual pebble, especially if I'm visiting the mountains, or a river town, or the sea. If I'm in a city, then something from a museum, or art gallery, and definitely something from an independent bookshop,” she shares with a flowing ease that seems to have become a sort of second nature to her.
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By now, my closet lust for anti-consumerism returns and I wonder: must souvenirs be always bought? I surely don't mean pilfering a chipped nose off a rock sculpture but what about deciding to pick that special flower up from the park bench or just pocketing a curious-looking little pebble from the banks of a stream?
“A souvenir could easily, like I said, be a leaf pressed within the pages of a book. If a souvenir must be bought, then preferably from someone local, with a set up selling locally made items. What matters is that the souvenir speaks to you in some way, brings you back to that moment, that feeling, that mood, that view. It could be a paper napkin even. But it serves as a mark of memory.”
Memory—Gah. Based on how you’re placed at a certain point in time, it could be the source of the highest wonder or the highest woe. The dried tea leaves I naively took away from a tea estate in Palampur and pasted onto the pages of an old handmade diary have me convinced for life that when in the proverbial flush, there is hardly a better sight than a tea plantation.
On the other hand, the kangri I got from an army canteen in Kashmir still reminds me of the road accident I had—as I returned with a couple of those winter wicker pots—that left me with a whiplash for the rest of my trip. For Janice, it was a sari she bought from Aurangabad that she later regretted buying. “I thought [it] beautiful then, but didn't feel the same once I returned home. So, I gave it away to someone who loved it. Now it's become their memory.”
Lovely. By now, the oversentimental antiquarian in me is back to coveting the Korean tea-pot and gorgeous flower press our writer has showed off on her social media. They might as well be the whole point of this interview. Where does she keep all those pretty-looking souvenirs closest to her heart—in case we wanted to break in?
“A handmade fan from a craft centre in South Korea. A pressed fern from my walks in the countryside there. A small celadon bowl from a street shop in Seoul. They're with me here on my writing table, kept close,” she answers, evidently quite unruffled.