Book: Boats on Land
Author: Janice Pariat
Publisher: Random House
Price: Rs 399
In the beginning was the word: Spoken. Unwritten,unrecorded. Old,they say,as the first fire. Free to roam the mountains,circle the heath,and fall as rain. In the opening story of Boats on Land,it allows villagers to unleash terrible vengeance on the white men,driving them to the abyss of madness. The spell of dark magic destroys the village too,which is abandoned by men and given over to the wind and the wilderness. But the landscape retains the memory: the one thing that remains is the waterfall,throwing up a sound,a word that is ungraspable and constant.
The world changes and its mysteries diminish with time in Janice Pariats debut collection of short stories,which is set in and around Shillong and Sohra (Cherrapunjee),and spans two centuries. In subsequent stories,a 10-year-old scoffs at the idea that spirits of the waters follow men home and summon them back (Dream of the Golden Mahseer),and teenagers argue about the relevance of folk tales to their lives (Laitlum). But this older,ancient realm of rumoured black magic and water fairies,tailors who can interpret dreams and mythical women who leap off hills and become waterfalls is a forceful presence in Pariats stories,like the swirling clouds of mist that always hover on the rim of the Sohra sky,and swoop down unannounced on an ordinary day to obscure it in sudden mystery.
Boats on Land is an addition to the slim pile of books by Indian writers in English set in Shillong. While Siddhartha Debs elegiac novel The Point of Return (2003) showed the dispossession of the outsider (the dkhar) through a strained father-son relationship,in Anjum Hasans Lunatic in My Head (2007),the city comes to life through three characters. Pariats stories too are rooted in this once-sleepy town and its urban legends; she deftly captures the back-and-forth of gossip in its tea stalls and the natural beauty that frames both violence and friendship in the town. But even though Pariats characters often feel the weight of history pressing down on them,war,political conflict and unrest are never foregrounded in the stories. In 19/87,a dkhar tailor and a Khasi young man strike up an unusual friendship,while in Laitlum,a group of teenagers escape the curfew-stifled town for a small road trip
Of the 15 stories,a few can be faulted for lack of heft,but the majority makes for rewarding reading. The cast of characters in the book is impressively varied,untouched by the navel-gazing middle-class-ness of a lot of Indian Writing in English. They are people who often seem to feel the tug of the void,who disappear for days when the water fairies summon them,who feel the urge to extinguish themselves and flicker back to life. The surging rivers of the region,from the Brahmaputra to the Subansiri,the Ranikor and the Lai Lad,the gushing waterfalls and placid pukhuris that reappear in the stories,seem to express this desire of the characters to unmoor themselves,and plunge into a different world. In the title story,a beautiful tale of two young women awakening to the awareness of each other,this transformation is described in these terms: I went to a lake and drowned.
But epiphanies are rare in Boats on Land,and even the inner turmoil of characters is approached elliptically. This ties up with the way Pariat contemporises the rich oral tradition of her culture: myths are not used to explain away the world into neat categories,but deepen the mystery of human life. To that extent,they are reminders,like the waterfall left at the end of a ruined village,of the unknowable nature of the human heart.