Boats on Land: A Bewitching Voyage

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

Pages: 283


  1. Hey Uma! Busy days now? Do not see much of you! This review – as good as ever – reminded me of my batchmate at IIM – Mawshandong Baskhem Blah – of the Khasi tribe. A more misnamed person I haven’t seen – Blah was as silent as they came 🙂 From what I understood from him it is one of the few communities that have a matrilineal inheritance policy.

  2. This is a great review once again Uma. And I absolutely agree with the last point. Literature often is just so much more than a scientific treatise on any subject! It has that power indeed.

  3. Bewitching voyage, bewitching stories, bewitching review! A great opportunity to learn about our own people from the north. Mr Pandey, you are peerless!!!

  4. It looks like a book that takes the readers on a voyage to a relatively unknown territory of India. I have added it to my list. It looks very interesting.

  5. Sounds like some really intriguing short stories put together. As always, a high quality review. Makes even a non-book addict like me to take up a book and read. 😀 Thank you, Pandey ji.

    1. Akshay, you should exploit your temporary confinement to the hilt by reading books. Boats on Land is a mesmerizing collection of short stories. Do read them.

  6. We do not know much about the North-East — be it literature, culture, customs or even people—do we? I have an English translation of folktales from the Northeast and am Amar Chitra Katha on Folk Tales from Arunachal Pradesh. That sums up my literary exposure to this region. Thanks for another wonderful review, Umashankar; this book seems to be a must read. Just one question though: does the intriguing book cover reflect its contents?

    1. Sudhagee, you simply cannot afford to miss this book. Thanks for liking the review. The cover is a photograph titled ‘Phantasmic Cycle’ by Neil Craver. It is a beautiful image and a unique choice for the book. It is probably symbolic of the intimacy certain humans experience with the elements of nature. It is a book with rather serene contents and you might want to proceed to the photographer’s website for further forays into his breathtaking collection.

  7. Seems like an interesting read. Anyway we are not much aware of the people in NE and this can be an eye opener.

  8. Umashankar, Interesting review!

    Many stories have emerged from the mighty banks of Brahmaputra. I know Mamoni Baideo (Indira Goswami) personally. I met her when she was teaching in the Department of Modern Indian Languages at the University of Delhi, I met her through my sister-in-law who was also a Prof in DU those days. Have you read her autobiography ‘ Ada lekha Dastavej…(An unfinished autobiography)…? Do read it. Even her short stories are just too good….
    I have not read this book. I want to read it now…Thanks for sharing..

  9. Wow! I bet these stories opened out a whole new world. It does sound very enlightening. And seriously, I didn’t know anybody could do such great work reviewing a collection of short stories.

    1. They did open my eyes to a surprising new world. “Revelatory” is what Jeet Thayil called them and I couldn’t have agreed more. Thank you for your continued support.

  10. Looks like another interesting read. I never heard about the Khasi tribe. I am suprised as to how each books potrays different backgrounds,
    Teaches us different histories, cultures…will keep this on my list..thank u for the review..

    1. Now you have heard more than just their name, haven’t you! You are correct: books are like windows to far off worlds. Don’t miss this one. Ask the gentleman carrying the bag of books for you to include this one in the lot. Many thanks for those words.

      1. That’s what I thought too..had I read the review last week, rather had you written it last week, it would have been just perfect. I already placed the order in flipkart. Will try to place now. Thank you so so much 🙂

  11. Its a treat to read your reviews….havent heard of this book or the author. Since I like short stories, this one piques my interest.

    1. Thank you, Alka. These stories are light, lyrical, deep, profound, mysterious and yet so very real. And you may want to read them again and again!

  12. Good one .. (can i get away by just saying this ) he he he 🙂

    I have not heard of Khasi tribe.. so would be a good read and also Learn something new for sure .. and since you mentioned its set of short stories , that makes it good as sometimes long stories become boring ..

    1. I am glad I have goaded you enough to pick up the anthology which I am sure you are going to enjoy. And hey, you are supposed to dole out just the right adjectives! Thank you so much for your continues support, Bikram!

  13. Thats another interesting book, umashankar. You are becoming a touchstone for all bloggers to test how voracious readers they are. And all of us are beginning to feel uncomfortably like dim witted trolls .

  14. I bought the book last night. I didn’t check the option to deliver in U.S. I bet they must be charging a lot for shipping. I shipped them directly to the person in India who is bringing them 🙂

  15. Every time you provide me with a recommendation for a compelling and wonderful book. I really love the way you scan the several layers of the book and give us a glimpse of the author’s mind and his style. Your reviews are wonderful celebrations of the book’s genius. It shows how much have enjoyed reading the book. This one sure does seem the kind of book I would love to read. I already have a wonderful list of books to read thanks to your reviews. This one goes right into that list.

    1. Raj, The Boats on Land is indeed a compelling and wonderful book. I am happy you have decided to read it and allow me to assure you it will delight you thoroughly. As a reviewer, I strive to understand and represent the book’s core to the reader. Many thanks to you.

  16. Sure sounds like an interesting book, and I look forward to reading it. North East is an exotic place inhabited by really fascinating people. It’s a pity that the rest of the country knows so little about them (as averred by one of your readers). Being from there, I am frequently quizzed about many facets of life in the North East and I find that people display curiosity and ignorance in equal measure. Janice Pariat’s book will hopefully create greater awareness about the region and also kindle fresh interest and curiosity among the rest of the Indians to learn more about its people and diverse culture. Congrats for a wonderful review. You have definitely played your part in bringing NE closer to rest of India.

    1. Sir, I was waiting for your precious views here, especially since the book is such a brilliant mix of facts and folklore from the very region you hail from. I am sure Janice Pariat’s book will prove to be a milestone of literary writing because of its unique content. I do not see myself in a role more than that of a messenger’s. A million thanks to you.

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