Shillong comes alive in Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land. We are spared nothing. Pariat takes us by hand and guides us through the mist that shrouds Shillong. She takes us to a town where tradition hangs precariously onto its pine-clad hills. We are shown its beautiful sights, its hangout spots, its idiosyncracies and its simmering disquiet.
Pariat is not new to writing. A freelance journalist, her name often pops up in the art and culture sections of magazines and newspapers. Perhaps, it is these years of practice that has given us a gem of a short story collection in Boats on Land. With a mastery that belies her debut-author status, she sets about demystifying one of the beautiful, but mysterious, regions of India.
She begins with its British-influenced past in ‘A Waterfall of Horses’. By the time we move on to ‘Dream of the Golden Mahseer’, we could grasp that for Khasis, folklores are not mere narratives passed on through generations, but something deeply entrenched in their psyches – their way of life. Having set the template, Pariat pours in the contemporary and records them for posterity.
There’s a lot of poetic elegance in Pariat’s prose. Her words cast an ethereal spell. But from it emerges characters so strong that they envelop us with their worries and happiness. Names and such become immaterial. If her title story, Boats on Land – where Pariat descends from the hills of Meghalaya to the lush and sultry Assam – introduces us to the ‘depressed damsel’ whose brooding keeps us hooked, in ‘An Aerial View’ we are introduced to a nameless character in London who lingers on long after we put the book down.
The command Pariat has over her characters and surroundings could also be because she plucks her stories from her life. What you glean of her life from various sources – that she gave up her job in Delhi as a journalist, giving into the longing she felt for Shillong; that she moved back to Shillong to and began editing the online literary journal Pyrta; that she is at the moment in London studying history of art – you could also read between the lines, in the straying thoughts of her characters.
It is also remarkable how Pariat brings out the tumult that the region went through, with factions of the society turning militant. Never once she gets explicit or takes sides. What she does is look at it from every angle. She observes how it has changed the fabric of the Meghalayan society. In ‘19/87’ she tells you the story from the point of view of Sulieman – possibly an immigrant from Bangladesh. In ‘Laitlum’, she continues her tale but focuses on a Khasi girl. In ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Embassy’ she hints at the contempt the locals have for the others, and vice versa. And what she brings out is far more potent than perhaps the narratives of the actual violence could have achieved.
Pariat, it’s obvious, is exasperated with where things are heading to in Shillong. But her love for her hometown shines through. And it percolates to us, unadulterated.
Shillong, we are convinced, must be one hell of a place.