Boats on Land | Janice Pariat
Look at what’s going on,” says the young Grace in Laitlum, a short story which appears in the middle of Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land. “Is there time for folk tales when people are shooting each other across their own town roads?” Grace is unsatisfied when her boyfriend Chris replies, “Perhaps that’s when they need them most.” “Maybe once they taught people something about life, and how to live it but not any more,” she shoots back. “Now you figure things out for yourself, you can’t depend on anyone else to get you out of shit.”
Few conversations in the stories in Boats on Land are as explicit as this. Set in and around Shillong, spanning generations and centuries, Boats on Land addresses political conflict with the gentlest of touches, allowing war to shape the stories only as far as they shape the lives of the people in these stories, in the background of their chance encounters and sorrowful partings, unexpected friendships and quietly observed rites of passage. But the great commonwealth of folk stories and myths are also part of the air that characters—including the rock ‘n’ roll-loving teenagers in Laitlum—breathe. They mix themselves up with half-remembered memories and minute personal histories, and become, in this way, contemporary and private.
This mixing is one of the finest achievements of Pariat’s writing, through which she shows us that there is no such thing as a small life, even if it is lived in a small town. And her Shillong, for its part, may be small, but its weather and people, and the land surrounding it, make up the irresistible muse of this collection. In this setting, Pariat’s stories of broken hearts, sudden deaths, untamed nature and suspicions of ghosts stitch together a wonderful aesthetic of, shall we say, North-Eastern Gothic.
Not that Boats on Land is Ann Radcliffe in Meghalaya. Pariat’s universe skilfully balances light and shadow but is never really so dark that it rattles your bones. Her stock in trade is not pain or horror, even in utterly melancholy tales like A Waterfall of Horses, the terrific opening story about the ruin of a 19th century village. She deals, instead, in the feeling of faint but lingering suspense, in quiet dread, and gloomy recognition. The quietest of human exchanges, whether between a man taking a torn jacket to a tailor, or schoolgirls’ eyes meeting in a classroom, acquire a sense of destiny as Pariat carefully immerses her readers in the story of how they come to happen, and what they mean.
Her style is poetic and self-assured. There is a perpetual atmosphere of twilight and rain-clouds over these stories, but Pariat is romantic without being twee, largely because her point-of-view characters are invested with such life and possibility. A tragic love story, like the one in Embassy, is filtered through the doubts of the cynical young men listening to it; the baroque tragedy of At Kut Madan is seen through the eyes of a weary, pragmatic doctor.
There are times when this controlled realism slips, and the intimate third-person voice (in which many of these stories are told) takes wing a little too smoothly to be believable; lines like “He was about twenty-five, small, like a bird, with their restless energy rather than their grace”, given to a character not habitually given to thinking in similes, can test our involvement now and then. In some stories, like the short Pilgrimage, in which a young woman wanders through Shillong in the grip of childhood memories, the atmospherics can overwhelm any real feeling we may want to develop for the characters.
In others, like Sky Graves, about a family which hires a marksman to kill a tiger in the nearby woods, they can raise the hair on your arms.
Pariat leaves many of these spooky, sentimental narratives open-ended and unresolved, quite unlike the folk tales her characters bequeath to each other. This gives them narrative ballast, but also frees them of the traditional expectation of tight, linear short stories, which invite you to follow them through to a twist or punchline that closes them appropriately.
Although there are no characters or happenings literally repeating themselves through time, we are left with the satisfying sense that the stories in this ambitious and carefully-wrought book are meant to speak to each other. They do not teach their characters how to live; but in spite of what Grace tells Chris in Laitlum, folk tales are not meant to do so either