This is a world in which the everyday is infused with folklore and a deep belief in the supernatural. Here a girl dreams of being a firebird. An artist watches souls turn into trees. A man shape shifts into a tiger. Another is bewitched by water fairies. Political struggles and social unrest interweave with fireside tales and age-old superstitions. Boats on Land quietly captures our fragile and awkward place in the world.
My Thoughts: Boats on Land – Janice Pariat’s first work of fiction – is a collection of 15 short stories which have a thread of likeness running through them although they are quite unique in their own ways. This is the second book I have read about India’s north-eastern region; the first one being the equally beautiful “The Inheritance of Loss” by Kiran Desai. Both these books are odes to the beauty of the seven sisters, from the POV of the natives in case of the former and from the POV of outsiders in case of the latter. Shillong plays a central role in all of Pariat’s stories.
Like most outsiders I was unaware of the true nature of the struggles and difficulties faced by the people of the north-east as I was also unacquainted with their stories, myths, history and their rich traditions. This alienation which we tend to forget after reading a few headlines in the newspaper is brought alive with words. The author mentions in the book that the Khasi was largely an oral tradition and storytelling, an important aspect of the tradition and hence all the stories have a retell-able quality.
The stories take place between the peak of the British colonial rule and the heavily militarised, factionalised, freedom-craving reality of today. The stories are about conflicts; conflicts between the past and present, between insiders and outsiders, between love and social status, conflict of one’s sexuality, and conflicts between dreams and reality. The question repeatedly asked in the book is “who are we and what is our place in this world?” Not all the protagonists find their answer but I guess, that’s the art of captive storytelling, to make each journey beautiful.
The author has efficiently blended the supernatural with the real, myths with the mundane and the shocking with the sublime. She, however, also tries to “prettify” certain parts adding unnecessary adjectives and descriptions to make it more magic-realism-y and that is where certain stories fail. In her effort of finding “the marvellous real with every step”, she sometimes lets go of the story’s conviction. The most beautiful stories in the books are the ones which are the simplest.