Review: Peace Has Come by Parismita Singh
In her short stories set in Assam, Parismita Singh depicts the complexity and fragility of lives caught between hope and conflict.
On the evening that she receives news of violence spreading to her district, Sultana chooses to walk home from work on her regular route that passes through Bodo villages. Though she has a scooty, she feels she would be safer if people can see that it is Sultana walking home, rather than some woman whizzing past wearing “markers of her community”.
Sultana’s initial nonchalance and irritation with calls from concerned friends and relatives is somewhat understandable:
Every day, people died, killed others. In this land, has it ever stopped? If it reaches the news and TV, people panic, otherwise they carry on. What did this have to do with her? (Sultana Walks Home, pg. 175)
Her cold but accurate summation of the reality of a life lived amid conflict is echoed in the thoughts of Bir Bahadur from another story in this collection, The House by the Highway. For people like Bahadur, residents of “sympathiser” villages near the highway where the security forces avenged their losses and picked up suspects, the much-longed for “peace” or ceasefire between the government and the militants had “announced the beginning of a new war.”
The irony of the title, Peace Has Come, becomes evident in its absence in the lives of the characters of these short stories set in the villages of upper Assam (the area called Bodoland). The writer’s focus is on ordinary people trying to live normal lives while sandwiched between the state and insurgents. But in a region scarred by decades of violence (secessionist, ethnic, religious, linguistic), ‘normal’ takes on an entirely different meaning — mostly, embracing fear and accepting the tenuous nature of peace.
These eight stories, many containing stories within, are told from the perspectives of people belonging to different communities — Bodo, Santhal, Rabha, Muslim, Nepali.
Though Singh recreates life in the Northeast with its diversity of cultures, languages, attire and customs, what stays with the reader is the commonality of all people. These are not simply accounts of individual lives upended or damaged by strife, but multiple perspectives strung together — stories of human suffering that transcend cultural identity. Fear and loss treat all as equals, their ethnic affiliation notwithstanding.
In The Relief Grant, the lives of Runa and her parents (who are Santhals) are thrown in turmoil when years after the losses incurred in the ethnic clashes of 1997, the villagers finally get compensation from the state. The village headmen refuse to pay a chunk of it to the militants and find themselves in jail under false charges. For Runa, it means giving up school and making long, endless journeys to see her father in prison.
Urmila, a middle-aged artisan, and her brother’s family, of the Rabha tribe, deal with a personal tragedy in The Stranger while still recovering from the physical and emotional trauma they suffered during the Bodo-Santhal riots of the 1990s. The story stands out not just for its unexpected ending, but also for the relatable family at its core — bound together by past grudges and filial ties.
Surprisingly, its subject matter does not weigh down this collection or make it a depressing read. Peace Has Come allows the reader to experience the kind of the delight that comes from reading about places and cultures she might not know well, and accessing experiences that can only be felt by losing herself and her prejudices in a story well told.
Supriya Sharma is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.