Janice Pariat’s debut collection of short stories, Boats on Land, is an anthology of folk tales and a chronology of history pertaining to the hitherto unknown territory of the North-east. In the 15 short stories that form the book, Pariat dexterously takes the reader through the unfamiliar beliefs and practices of the tribals or Khasis in the region. Each short story is a beautifully etched work of art, as the author marries poetry with prose. Glorious instances of her lyrical language lie in sentences such as “…and drops of water glistened on your cheeks, hollow like emptied lakes” in the title story. And there are numerous such haunting phrases to keep the reader riveted.
Pariat, a freelance writer from Shillong, is currently based in London. Her writing, whether poetry, fiction or articles on art and culture, have found pride of place in some of India’s leading publications. For her first book, Pariat went back to what she knew best, her home in Shillong, the years she spent in Assam, and offered the region’s infinite tales of wonder and magic through the book. The biggest challenge was to weave the wondrous with the mundane, and Pariat does it with élan.
The author is the carrier of ‘ka ktien’ or unwritten folklore of the natives, as she speaks of fantastical stories, often supernatural in content. The first few short stories are about horses jumping into a waterfall near the village of Pomreng and leaving destruction in its path; of a young girl at the bungalow at Kut Madan who wants to soar like a firebird, a place where birds go to die and a man who shape-shifts into a tiger. Whether it’s about ‘nongshohnoh’ or hired kidnappers or the quest for the elusive golden mahseer, the author imbues a sense of quiet foreboding into every story. Pariat’s stories are as ominous as JM Synge’s Gaelic elements in the Riders to the Sea.
Through the resilient beauty of the locale and the people, the author plays the role of historian, as she touches upon the creeping advent of Christianity among the pagan natives, and the silent tussle that follows with their tribal beliefs. The later stories are as much about furtive loves and unlikely friendships as it is about social turmoil between the natives and the ‘dkhars’ or outsiders in the 1980s. Soon, the stories move to modern-day Shillong, but the author robs the readers of the usual literary drama. Most of the short stories end in the most unassuming way; it leads the readers to brood over the contents long after the chapter is over. Pariat is undoubtedly a gifted writer who brings freshness in her stories through age-old tales, of a land far removed from the rest of the country.