Boats on Land is a bewitching voyage to the Khasi heartland spanning over a century and a half, offered through a string of stories by Janice Pariat. The journey affords a panoramic focus on the lives of the ethnic people and the deep bond they share with their scenic habitat, unveiling a culture molded by forces real and occult. The frictions caused by the interplay of the tightly knit community with the immigrant settlers forge and feed their future. Gossips fomenting in jadoh stalls and mantras reverberating in waterfalls are as much a part of life as are the undulating mountains and the frost possessing the rooftops and gardens. If they have the living they have the dead too, the doctor is more of a shaman, the puri haunts the weak of heart as the niangkongwieng wails in the forest.
A Waterfall of Horses, the very first of the gripping tales, sucks the reader irrevocably into the mysterious world. It begins in the middle of the Nineteenth Century when the British ruled with their cannons, guns and horses. Fierce and formidable as the ‘bilati’ men were, they found themselves overpowered by the hitherto unwritten syllables, the trance of the tales told over generations in dimly lit nights, the force of Ka ktien, “old as the first fire. Free to roam the mountains, circle the heath, and fall as rain.” The rest of the stories dance ahead fusing folklore and truth, right across the murderous parochialism of 1980s and 1990s, into the present day.
The beauty of the stories lies in the ease with which they juxtapose the mysterious with the real. Often the two are spoken of in the same breath. “The elder brother was taken by the drink. The younger by fairies.” Thus begins a story, Dream of the Golden Mahseer, about two brothers called Mama Heh and Mama Kyn who have been through the World Wars. As Mama Heh fades away to his end, he keeps hallucinating about his son who had died in a wet, cold Burmese war camp. Before he dies “at four in the morning when the rooster crowed, he smiled. Aunt Ruth, who was watching by his bedside, said he muttered, ‘He is here.’” When Mama Kyn starts disappearing for days on end, it is naturally deduced that he has been ensnared by some water-fairy. A broom is planted at his door as the only possible sentry that could be effective. The broom is found displaced indeed when he vanishes forever, causing a furor.
Imaginatively titled 19/87, symbolizes rift between the Khasi and the ‘dkhars’, or the locals and the outsiders. Suleiman, whose father had come to settle in Shillong when he was merely two, doesn’t know where to go back when stones rain on his roof in the nights and the streets rend with the shrieks of “‘Dkhar liah, mih na Shillong.’ You bastard outsider, get out of Shillong.” His father is dead already and he doesn’t remember anyone else. Kites are used as a beautiful symbol representing both strife and yearning for freedom from curfews. What can sum the senselessness of the ethnic rebellion more than the beautiful close of one of such stories, “As he walked, scanning the road for a taxi he was sure he wouldn’t pass, rainwater gushed around his ankles. It was dark and murky, it could be blood for all he knew. Wounds ran deep in this hill-station town in the middle of nowhere”?
Pilgrimage is a touching story of a girl who has drifted away to Delhi and has come to Shillong to refresh her roots. Remembering her Assamese boyfriend of the adolescent years, she desperately seeks his house which seems to have been swallowed by the altered landscape. Owner of a kwai kiosk offers her the wisdom, “And that’s what pilgrimages are for, really. To think about the places and people you leave behind.”
The stories in Boats on Land are often told from the perspective of young characters who seek refuge in their childhood homeland replete with mysteries and nature’s bounty. The adolescents are restive and rebellious, never far from cigarettes, wine and drugs. There is a strong undercurrent of existentialism in many of the stories where the meaning of life keeps eluding the protagonists. That the stories seldom strain the credulity of the reader is a remarkable feat given the generous mix of the supernatural with the earthly. What is more, nearly all of them manage to retrieve a worldly, if philosophical conclusion at their poetic ends.
Never before I have come upon stories so potent and musical that represent the Khasi ethos as holistically as in Boats on Land by Janice Pariat. The dreams, beliefs, rituals, omens and folklore are as much a part of the canvas as are the rains, rivers, valleys and mountains. They seep into the indigenous spirit and follow it to the dreary abstractness of metropolises, tugging at it forever. The crises of relationships, identities and death are played out against a terrain which is both physical and metaphysical. Vagaries of colonialism and racial strife, possession and dispossession, provide impetus to the emotions of the indigenous, the British and the ‘outsiders’ alike.
Janice Pariat’s prose is remarkably light and intrinsically lyrical like the warbling of birds. It is luscious and deeply evocative, holding the narration from plummeting in mundane moments. The line between prose and poetry is as thin as the margin between fables and facts, resulting in a perfect marriage of content and style. As a matter of fact, it can be marked as a point of reference to simplistic yet forceful writing in English which has unfortunately come to be represented by hackneyed, slang-ridden variants of late. Her book is also a glowing specimen of how good literature can teach more about a way of life than several volumes of scientific and statistical treatise.
Boats on Land
Author: Janice Pariat
Publisher: Random House India