Boats on Land
Random House India
Rs. 399 PP 286
There’s something about Janice Pariat’s short stories that makes you want to linger, to return to particular lyrical descriptions of the north east, to set down the book and contemplate the point where folk lore and reality intersect. “I grew up with a lot of stories that my dad told me; my grandfathers were big story tellers,” Pariat says when you meet her at Café Turtle in Delhi adding that her community, the Khasis, generally have a vibrant tradition of story telling as they were largely an oral culture before the arrival of the British in the mid-1800s.
“I think our stories serve as the reservoir of our history and of our understanding of the world,” says Pariat who has written on art and culture for various national magazines and is currently a postgraduate student at SOAS, London. “Our landscape was marked by folktales – why’s the mountain shaped in a certain way, why the cock crows in the morning… With Boats on Land, I’ve taken these folk stories and interwoven them with the Shillong, Assam and Cherrapunji of today,” she says suggesting that a reality imbued with folklore and even superstition is perhaps imaginatively richer.
In her stories this mingling of myth and reality hints at difficult truths: the suicide of a young man in The Discovery of Flight, the fear of the army in Sky Graves. “I wanted to find the marvellous real,” she says.
The most powerful story, Boats on Land brings together sexual yearning, beautiful descriptions of Assam, where Pariat spent much time when she was growing up, and a damaged character so well fleshed out she seems real.
“It started as a story about a relationship between a boy and a girl and it felt wrong. I couldn’t find the right narrative voice. Then I read Once In A Lifetime by Jhumpa Lahiri where she used the third person narration and brings in the ‘you’. That evening, I sat down and rewrote the story. It became a story about two girls and it just felt right,” reveals Pariat who seemingly writes effortlessly in the male voice. “Even at school, classmates asked: ‘How are you writing as a boy?’ I really don’t know. I try and imagine what it’s like for a particular person and the thing about being a man or woman comes naturally,” she says. “Gender is such a construct.”
Still, writing the book wasn’t easy. “I always had these stories floating around in my head but they didn’t have a context, a place to reside. I went back home to Shillong to spend time with mum and dad and to write about the place that I’m from,” says Pariat who is glad the north east, which is “forever exoticised”, is emerging as a “place with fresh voices and fresh writers”. “People think it is a timeless, ageless place untouched by many things but I’ve tried to show that pockets were also affected by vast sweeps of history, the world wars, the missionaries, Christianity. These are things we forget Meghalaya and Assam were affected by; we forget it shaped the people living there now,” says Pariat, who, much as she loves Shillong, doesn’t intend to ever live there permanently. “I am attached to Shillong in a way that people who leave home are attached to an idea of home; so it’s a home of eternal return. I think there’s a particular attachment that comes from not being in a place,” she says sounding like one of the quiet revelations that stud her stories.
It isn’t the firebird or the dreams of dead kin that make you linger on Janice Pariat’s short fiction; it’s the truth they help you arrive at, that fresh understanding of an old world.