Shillong and its neighbourhoods stand on the cusp of change in a number of beautifully crafted short stories, says KANKANA BASU.
The northeast never ceases to surprise, startlingly articulate voices emerging at regular intervals on the literary scenario. The newest voice from the land of mists has to be among the most mesmerising of the lot.
Author Janice Pariat is no stranger to the written word. A prolific writer, Pariat writes poetry, fiction, articles on art and culture, edits an online literary journal and in her new novel Boats on Land , she marries her considerable literary talent with local histories, folklore and superstitions of her homeland to produce a collection of short stories that is, for want of a more imaginative adjective, purely enchanting.
Shillong and its neighbourhoods stand on the cusp of change in a fair number of the short stories. While it still clings to the old gracious lifestyle inspired by the colonists, winds of change are beginning to sweep in.
The early days of the British Raj, the World Wars, conversions to Christianity and the inexorable march of modernisation form a common backdrop for the stories as does the political unrest of a region turning increasingly hostile towards outsiders. Yet, argues the author convolutedly, who could be defined as an outsider in a land inhabited and enriched by the Nagas, the Chinese, the Bengalis, the Marwaris and so many others along with the local Khasis?
The book begins with a story set in the age of colonialism. It weaves around a bunch of white soldiers posted in a godforsaken place in the back of beyond.
Nobody is quite black or white in character here, neither the locals nor the foreigners, and the white men emerge as gray as their local counterparts. Frayed tempers resulting from lives led in isolation, a pretty girl creating the kind of tensions that pretty girls all over the world do, a combustible situation, a spot of Khasi black magic and a herd of horses ride down a waterfall in a story that can only be described as vividly visual and wholly surrealistic.
The rest of the stories follow in the same mould; a sliver of emotion here, a whiff of latent drama there, a whisper of tragedy, a flash of the inexplicable and fearful, each thread plucked carefully and spun into a fascinating tale.
Thus, a grown man dreams of catching a golden Mahseer fish while all the time being wary of being abducted by the water fairies who desire men and drag them to their watery lairs. Forbidden desires blossom in the hearts of schoolgirls in one story while in another a disconsolate young woman comes home only to lose herself inside a treasure chest of adolescent memories. Suleiman, the last of the Muslim tailors, dreams of flying an all-powerful kite even as he strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young Khasi betting enthusiast in times of communal disharmony.
In the story “Sky Graves”, the author explores the age-old belief of shape-shifting and the dividing line between man and beast blurs in a story that raises goose pimples with its chilling paranormal possibilities.
The title story is complex; it’s about a girl who wants to follow rivers, as much about the anguish of being suddenly labeled an outsider in a much loved land as the strangeness of coming of age in tandem with another.
“Laitlum” is a story that etches very clearly the creeping in of Westernised values, with its portrayal of music, irreverence and the rebelliousness of young people straining to break free of age-old customs.
Pariat writes with exquisite finesse, capturing subtle nuances of everyday life, nuances that miss most people. She depicts the landscapes of her homeland with an artist’s brush never once tripping into the pothole of clichéd strokes or hues. Local landmarks and terrain are depicted with a vividness that gives the places a sense of warm familiarity.
Pariat has the gift of capturing silences and injecting them into her prose, a rare gift in these times of busy cacophonous writing. While some of the stories are chiselled to shape, most others are left open-ended, provoking the reader to draw his own conclusions and imagine multiple ends. A lovely exercise for those who shun overcooking and prefer their stories done rare….
The mists, the mountains, the pine-scented silences, and the simple yet convoluted lives of the local Khasis as well as other communities who have made Meghalaya their home make these stories a calming therapeutic read.
There is a sense of timelessness to this collection of beautifully crafted short stories which are almost faultless in their perfection. They deserve to be read over and over again.