Archive for October 11th, 2012

October 11, 2012

Janice Pariat, Boats on Land

Janice Pariat’s book of short stories has been one of the bigger releases in Indian publishing this year. I thought the collection rather uneven, but it’s also clever, careful, and often excellent. My review was published in last weekend’s TSG, and is here on the paper’s website.



The first story in Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land begins with the power of the spoken word. “Ka ktien. The first, a short, sharp thrust of air from the back of the throat. The second, a lift of the tongue and a delicate tangle of tip and teeth”. It’s a reminder that language is made with the body and that its sounds are physical; the written word here is “feeble and carries little power”. It’s also a reminder that the Khasi language originally had no script, and that the region has had a strong oral culture.

Perhaps that’s why the telling of stories is such a prominent feature of this collection. Many of these are first person narratives, and there’s usually a sense that these tales are being told to an audience; whether it be a very specific audience in the title story, or a more general one in “Echo Words” or “Keeper of Souls”. Other stories, like “Embassy”and “Sky Graves”, feature storytelling as a part of their plots.

The fifteen stories that make up this collection are set mainly in and around Shillong. It’s possible to work out from the details Pariat lets drop that they are also arranged roughly chronologically. “A Waterfall of Horses”, the first story, is set in the 1850s, “Echo Words” soon after Independence, “Laitlum” in the 1990s, and so on. The city’s past and the changes it has undergone over time are reflected upon throughout the book. The narrator of “Hong Kong” feels “the weight of everyone’s history press down on me like relentless rain”. She’s not the only one of Pariat’s protagonists to feel that way. The titular character of “Keeper of Souls” is burdened by an ability to see the souls of the dead. But “that’s what pilgrimages are for, really. To think about the places and people you leave behind”, says an elderly shopkeeper in “Pilgrimage”.

This is not the only way in which the passing of time is central to Boats on Land. There’s also a sense that the perspectives through which these stories are told are aging through the book – the child narrator of “A Waterfall of Horses”, the awkward young women of “Secret Corridors” and “Laitlum”, the young lovers of “Embassy” and “Hong Kong” all lead up to the adult couples of “Aerial View” and “Keeper of Souls”.

And then there is the magic. Pariat begins her book with a quote from Alejo Carpentier, “I found the marvelous real with every step”. The line between the real and the marvellous is being constantly crossed through these stories, though even that changes over time. Magic is resorted to outright in early stories like “A Waterfall of Horses” and “Echo Words”; prophetic dreams are taken seriously in “At Kut Madan”. But by the end of “Dream of the Golden Mahseer” we see the young boy who believes that “only old people” believe in spirits; henceforth magic must leak into the stories in more subtle ways. And so we have the tailor of “19/87”, who interprets lottery numbers from dreams and the shape shifters of “Sky Graves” who are removed from us by one degree by being the subjects of someone else’s story. In the story “Embassy” young woman fighting off unwanted advances “became a waterfall”. Pariat allows that simple statement a glorious ambiguity; is this magic, metaphor, or merely the rambling of an unreliable drunken man?

Boats on Land gives us few neat plots or easy resolutions. Pariat is at her best when she is most restrained and this, fortunately, is often. Which is why it is disappointing when she occasionally crosses over and gives us too much information in the form of narrators who have no visible reason to believe that their audiences don’t know about the political stances of various student unions, or the decade in which the story is taking place. It’s possible, for example, that there are readers who won’t recognise the cover art of Nirvana’s Nevermind as it is described in “Laitlum”, but it’s still jarring when Pariat insists on telling us what it is.

Compare that to a moment in “19/87” in which a young man visiting a tailor named Suleiman picks up the scissors from the tailor’s worktable. The story has already established a growing intolerance against outsiders in the city and so the author sees no need to tell us that Suleiman might be wary, or why. Yet we share his unease until the scissors can be put away. Pariat’s prose is frequently gorgeous but it’s in unobtrusive moments like this, moments in which the reader is trusted to play along, that Boats on Land really shines.