Publisher: Random House India
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I have always been fascinated by the cultural intricacies and varieties of our country. From the North to the South, from the East to the West, we are a land of diversity. Boats on Land is set in yet another corner of this diverse country- the Northeast. Exceedingly distinct from the rest of India- both geographically and culturally- this is a land of mysteries and mystics, of legends and charms, of folklore and spirits. This is a land where reality and myth have interspersed in time to create a unique blend of life. In these forests and hills, lies an enthralling world that has changed so much in time and yet in many ways, remains untouched by the world around. Janice Pariat brings alive this mystical land through her excellent collection of short stories.
Most of the stories are set in Shillong- the ‘Scotland of the East’- which is Pariat’s hometown. She talks about the city in a very nostalgic sense-also sounding quite poetic at times- and through her characters, reflects on the changes that have taken place in the city. She almost seems to yearn for the Shillong of the old- untouched by modern vices. The city is like a character in her stories and she acquaints you with Shillong in a way only an ‘insider’ could. Her stories carry the feel of having grown out of anecdotes she must have heard from her grandparents and parents while growing up. They carry the sights, sounds and smells of the fascinating world they talk about. Here, the supernatural is a normal part of everyday life. A shape-shifting tiger, a man bewitched by water fairies, souls turning into trees… the everyday in this world is filled with things like these. Pariat brings out the hidden world of the North-East and makes it hauntingly real.
She presents us with an eclectic set of characters and pitches them in a variety of historical backgrounds- colonialism, conversions to Christianity, post-colonialism, insurgency, conflicts between the locals and the ‘dkhars’(outsiders) and the separation of Meghalaya from Assam to form a separate state. The stories being set in chronological order, the 15 stories take you right from the early days of the British Raj to Meghalaya in the current time. Against this larger historical canvas, she paints characters who are emotionally fragile and relationships which are unrefined. Like, the title story features a girl who is faced with a huge emotional void in her life and finds solace in the company of another girl during a short vacation. Laitlum features a young girl dealing with her emotional insecurities and her rendezvous with true freedom one sudden afternoon in the midst of curfew-imposed Shillong. Hong Kong is about a couple who are much in love, but separated by the demands of the society. We often have this tendency to look at the people of the Northeast as people who are ‘different’ from us. Janice Pariat gives us characters facing emotional conflicts that can be faced by any of us in any part of the world. While the backdrop is exclusively Shillong, the emotions are not so.
Pariat is writing about a land and a people that are extremely close to her heart. Her writing is powerful and touches all the right chords. The stories tend to linger much after you’ve read them, and you’re often left wondering where fantasy ends and reality begins. In the end, it is all the same.