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Tales from the marvellous and the real

Suneetha Balakrishnan 

Fiction voices from the Seven Sisters have always been distinct, with a flavour of the elusive or the mysterious, and with the depth of the unusual and the rare. With the (Indian Writing in English) in bloom, many writers with an authentic voice on the region have made the cut in literary fiction — Mitra Phukan, and Anjum Hasan, to mention a few. now joins this pantheon of excellence with her debut anthology, Boats on Land.

There are 15 stories, all of which cover the period from British colonial rule to the hartal-ridden, angst-filled, factionalism-threatened today — that’s about two hundred years. As we read from the first story to the last, the events unfold in chronological order with different protagonists.

The opening scenes are from anti-British days: they speak of “bilati men”, “memsahibs”, tea plantations owned by them and how they connected to local life. This was when Shillong was Laban and “lay at the end of a rough, day-long, horse-cart journey on a dirt track twisting through forested hills or miles of desolate country side”. It’s these word pictures, which Ms Pariat serves all along the text, that give the reader a fascinating ride — through not just the realms of a land not much known, but also through a superbly controlled style from a skilled pen. The canvas is Shillong, and there are locales like “Sohra” or “Laitumkrah” that recur, and they reiterate in gentle nudges that you are “here”, in these village and sleepy towns.

Ms Pariat’s narrators, many of whom are tweens or teens, stand at the margins of history, observing the turbulence – whether in politics, society, within their clan or even inside the minds of their loved ones – but they are never really in the thick of the action. Still, the reader leaves each story with reluctance: the shared pain and empathy remain long after you have turned the pages.

The opening sentences reveal the craft of the writer: she uses sensitive wordplay. The story “Secret Corridors” opens with “That morning the world had shrunk to the size of a mole”, and goes on to draw us into the very small but intense world of teenage angst in a group of girl students at a convent school. In “Laitlum”, Ms Pariat starts with “Every other day the world ended”. This story is the most poignant one in the entire set; it speaks of the world, within and without, of a typical middle-class family and its teenage daughters. It’s also in this story where the most telling sentence of the anthology appears: “Don’t you Khasis have a story for everything?” The themes then go on to touch missing kinsmen, displaced and returning natives, everyday people and life, and much more.

Yes, there is mention of that disturbing hostility one reads about all the time, but it is balanced by the deep kinship and camaraderie of the folks inhabiting Ms Pariat’s pages. As we read, the histories and mysteries are replaced by the legends of urban life, but there is an inward and outward unrest – be it of love, loss or a curfew-stamped street – that throbs throughout. The people in the stories sipping tea may do it in a cosy drawing room of a plantation bungalow, a doctor’s house, a middle-class home or in a cramped tea stall on the street, but the story that is told has a connect at all levels with human anguish, spoken or unspoken.

The author uses a liberal sprinkling of Khasi words and myths; they are, in fact, the building blocks of her storytelling. At times, the reader needs to pause to reflect on what could possibly be “Ka Ktien”, or “kwai” or “suidtynjang”, but the words are woven into the narration in a way that does not take away from the reading experience. In fact, they create an ambience. And no, the book does not insult your reading faculties by offering footnotes.

Ms Pariat experiments a bit with lesbianism too. The title story, “Boats on Land”, and the “Secret Corridors” have hints of this, but the subject is dealt with sensitivity. The reader also meets spirits that live in waters; souls who inhabit bodies of live animals; magic, myth and the stark reality of those who are lost in the real world. Yet, there are the dkhars, or outsiders, who tell you how they can never hope to step into the closed magical world of the insider. The story “19/87” has a protagonist of this dkhar kind: Suleiman, the dorji, the kite warrior and the man who interprets lottery numbers from dreams.

A character in “Echo Words”, on hearing that a memsahib wants to visit a Khasi village to write a book on the Khasis, says, “Why, are we some rare exotic species?” That life, one the “outsider” hopes to write out, cannot be complete or authentic. is quintessential Shillong, sketched by an insider. And that makes all the difference.


BOATS ON LAND
Janice Pariat
Random House
286 pages; Rs 399

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