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Janice Pariat's Boats on Land - A Collection of Short Stories - Book Review
Reading Janice Pariat's short fiction was very gratifying on many counts. She is a young writer, originally from Shillong, worked in Delhi and is currently pursuing higher studies from the School Of Oriental And African Studies (SOAS) London. She is a frequent contributor to 'India Today' and 'Outlook' - front-runner magazines in the country.

I FIRST came across her writings as a poet on international magazines and websites. The first thing that struck me was the very cadence in her poetry and the use of deep evocative images ranging from Shillong to London, to the baroque architecture of the West. Random House has now published her first collection of short stories in English, titled, "Boats On Land".

 

I relate to these stories in many ways, as they are about an ethos which I intimately know and love, the pine clad hills of Shillong. She infuses her stories with mysterious if not mystical elements of mantras, the Khasi belief in Thlen, or some kind of ritualistic "snake worship" to propitiate the gods, the story of fairies ("puri"), the colonial days, its arid hangover, ethnic demands in the 80s and 90s by local organizations etc.

 

I find distinct autobiographical elements inter-woven into the texture of these stories, such as the convent school she studied in and sudden forays into the tea gardens of Assam, where she lived for a considerable part of her life. Above all, a major thematic concern seems to be love and relationship, from the adolescent to the adult, broken and tortured relationships which can be consoled by deep memories of the past or a rejuvenating childhood. Against this the backdrop of animosity towards outsiders, which Shillong faced in the eighties and nineties. There is no historical twist to the stories, but each one is set against a realistic background: colonialism, post colonialism, and Meghalaya after the inception of statehood facing troubled times due to recalcitrant voices, which seem to be ubiquitous. Inside this is the relationship between the local and the 'dkhar' or outsider.

 

Having a distinct felicity for expression, which is poetic and which can capture natural beauty, Pariat's short stories are not only evocative but present a political situation which creates conflict of interests, between say the local and the outsider or the 'dkhar' which in Khasi means in a generic sense outsider. However, bearing the brunt of political situations in the 80s and 90s when she was a young girl in her adolescent stage of her life, evokes deep memories and sensitivities which she looks at squarely and unabashedly.

 

There is more than a sprinkling of Khasi terms used in her stories, some of which she explains and translates for the benefit of the reader. "Boats on Land" is a series of short stories with a metaphorical interest and significance. One obviously does not expect boats on land but on seas, and it is this paradox which is the culminating force of Pariat's short stories. They are very well written and at times very poetic. I, for one can adjust myself to the inexorable wonder of the short stories which are disfigured in terms of time, continuity and space; as I have lived in this part of the country all my life and have seen the small town syndromes from ravishing beauty and innocence to change for better or for worse.

 

Pariat's collection of short stories 'Boats On Land' was released in a gathering in Shillong on October 13, 2012. There was a panel discussion with readings and inputs by the author, clarifying her 'position' as a teller of short stories.

 

She felt that short story writing is not in the fictional genre, for the reason that it does not have the overarching reach of the novel, also its flexibility. But it is story telling. For her the stories do not end on a note of resolution. The title she says reflects the quirks of life and some of its imponderables. But she is interested in looking at human relationships, by way of story telling, the gossip of every day life, myths, legends and folk tales which permeate a culture. This intermingling of realism and reality, fact and fiction interweaves her stories with poetic and folklore elements. The element of the spoken word for narration was pointed out by one of the panelists.

 

The word is the beginning and the end of telling stories and myths. In fact, the first story is based on the notion of the word, the spoken word. The word gets huddled into stories, legends and myths. Further it was pointed out that there is a mysterious focus in her stories, magic, propitiating the gods, by some form of sacrifice or Thlen as it is called in Khasi etc. Then people disappear and reappear, who knows why, only the truth is whispered and does the rounds by stories.

 

Janice does not find the transition to writing fiction from poetry surprising, as poetry she says, sustains itself in her fiction. Above all her concerns are history, the immediate locales and her culture which is a composite blend of the places she has lived in, including tea gardens in Assam, which she describes as 'beautiful'. A chronological sense prevails in her stories from colonial days, to post colonialism, clinging on to some of its vestiges, and contemporary life, climaxing in social and political change. The discussion focused on such narratives, with matrix of personal relationships, poetics of truth, folk lore and myths. Pariat is a story teller we have to watch out for, with her style, grace and finesse.

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