A northeastern lore

Boats on Land
Janice Pariat
Random House
2013, pp 285

Janice Pariat’s Sahitya Academy Yuva Puraskar Award winning book, Boats on Land, is a collection of short stories focusing on India’s Northeast. As stated on the blurb, the 15 stories cover a variety of themes and time periods, from the days of the British in India to the modern era. There are references to tea plantations during the Raj, social and civil unrest, and eventually, present day travails.

Traditions, customs, and beliefs are beautifully drawn out in Boats on Land. The author’s use of language is fluid. Descriptions are surreal, and the emergence of the supernatural eloquent. Shillong and its people are swathed in an air of suspense. Added to the wistful, whimsical tone of the narrative, the hills truly come alive. Some phrases, such as “We, who had no letters with which to etch our history, have married our words to music…” (from ‘A Waterfall of Horses’), and “…the sky had darkened, and London lay in front of her like a fine pencil drawing, smudged into infinite shades of grey…” (from ‘An Aerial View’) are poetic.

The anthology begins with ‘A Waterfall of Horses’, where the young narrator of Pomreng witnesses a preternatural event. The story is beautifully laid out, evenly paced, and well told. Characters blend into the hushed whispers of magic and myth. The following tales, ‘At Kut Madan’ and ‘Echo Words’, are also interesting reads. ‘Kut Madan’, with its references to folklore and with its characterisation of Lucy and her enigmatic dreams, is especially mysterious. Superstitions find their place in the supernatural, and the haunting of dreams that may or may not be prophetic.

‘Dream of the Golden Mahseer’ is a tale of fairies and their mischief, and the disappearance of one man. Like its predecessors in the book, this story captures the beauty of the hills and the quaintness of the setting. Both Mama Kyn and Mama Heh survived war, and both dealt with its horrors in their own way. As the story reveals in its opening sentence, “The elder brother was taken by drink. The younger one by fairies.” The sprinkling of local words is done well, just enough to convey their meaning without breaking the flow of the narrative.

‘Secret Corridors’ captures the ambiance of school life. The bantering schoolgirls and their clique, the power of a leader over the others, and the desire of those less popular to impress the more popular, are convincingly portrayed. An air of suspense is carefully built up...and the story peters out disappointingly towards the end. ‘19/87’ and ‘Laitlum’ have references to civil unrest, and “…the antics of the KSU and HNLC, the CRPF…” reveal youthful idealism and aspirations during turbulent times.

The question of identity and the sense of belonging, or not, that the characters face are realistically told. Growing up during those times appears to have its fair share of conflicts, beginning from the older traditions that live on to the idea of modernisation and the concept of rebellion. ‘Sky Graves’ again delves into the supernatural, where a strange form of shape-shifting rears its head, and ‘Pilgrimage’ ends rather quickly.
Part of the problem with Boats on Land lies in the narration of the stories themselves. While tales like ‘Boats on Land’ (after the title of the book) and ‘Embassy’ are, as the entire book is, well written, the stories themselves are either far too subtle to capture any real meaning or far too abrupt. There is also a sense of repetitiveness that pervades the tales that has nothing to do with the consistency of the setting.

Characterisation is, overall, less impressive as the stories go on — save for a few characters that guide their stories, individual voices lack real identity most of the time.
Without the shadow of a doubt, Boats on Land recreates the landscape of the Northeast. There is no disputing the standard of the writing, nor the meticulous detail that goes into descriptions of the land and its people. However, Boats on Land perhaps is overstretched with its 15 stories. There is also a slight problem with the pacing and plot of the stories — many of them seem to close unfinished, as if only part of the tale was told and the rest erased.

Those that begin well lose their intensity towards the middle, those with vague beginnings do not seem to end at all. A case in point is ‘Hong Kong’, where the intensity of the beginning is lost as the tale progresses. And again, ‘The Keeper of Souls’ and ‘An Aerial View’ begin well, are continued well, and then both stories are done with, finished. Some stories desperately grab at meanings in an attempt to make them profound.

Overall, Boats on Land certainly has promise, however, some of the stories could have been better fleshed out.

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