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Janice Pariat’s Boats On Land brings us a selection of short stories that are both believable and unbelievable all at the same time!
Review by Anne John
Author Janice Pariat’s debut Boats On Land is a collection of 15 short stories, all dealing with life in India’s North-east. The North-east has always remained a somewhat removed and fascinating place for most Indians. Boats On Land takes us on a picturesque and intriguing journey through this land of ancient legends, misty mountains, gushing waterfalls and towering pines. The stories are set in different phases – beginning from the Colonial period and ending in contemporary times.
Many of the stories have a hint of the mystical and the magical; we have shape-shifting tigers, water fairies which bewitch and prey on hapless souls, prophesying dreams and spirits which force one to waste away. Not everything is spelled out in black and white – there lies a subtle suggestion of something more lying just outside of one’s grasp. The undercurrent of something sinister lurking around, along with the small-hill-town setting and the British era, often reminded me of Ruskin Bond’s stories.
Janice Pariat has a lovely writing style – her prose is so free-flowing and evocative that it often seems like poetry. She effortlessly sets the tone, pace and feel of the stories by conjuring up striking images of Shillong in our minds. The customs, beliefs and way of life in India’s North-east is at once relatable as well as alien. There is a liberal sprinkling of words in the local language such as ’bilati people’, ’kem ksuid’ and ’knupmawiang’; some are explained, while some are left to our own conjecture.
While Boats On Land is about a land that remains fascinating and strange to many of us, it rises above exoticization using the common thread of human emotions that links us all – be it the trepidation of living in troubled times which is captured aptly in ‘19/87’ or the helpless angst that arises out of futile attempts to resist the winds of change in ‘The Keeper Of Souls’.
‘Secret Corridors’ captures the spirit of life in an all-girls’ convent school and the story ‘Boats On Land’ after which the book itself is named, is a captivating one of self-realization and growing up. I found myself agreeing completely with the protagonist in ‘The Aerial View’ as she says: “… he’d fought, and cried, and pleaded her forgiveness. Yet forgiveness couldn’t be given away like old clothing. It had to be nurtured and coaxed, springing slowly from some sort of understanding.”
Many of the myths are somewhat hard to believe and would easily be dismissed as mindless superstition and grandma’s tales by a cynic. Nevertheless Pariat keeps reminding us that the characters, their sentiments and their challenges are real enough; and the stories that she weaves are bound to linger in your mind, for a long time.
Publishers: Random House India.
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Anne John plays with words for a living and would probably do the same even
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