Friday, September 28, 2012

Songs From Shillong

A slightly-edited version of this appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai.

BOATS ON LAND Janice Pariat

With her debut short story collection, Boats on Land, Janice Pariat joins the company of those such as Anjum Hasan and Siddhartha Deb, Indian writers who have written evocatively about Shillong in English. From colonial times to recent past to present, the so-called Scotland of the East and its environs are a significant presence in these pages. Where Pariat differs from her forebears is in her folkloric style that depicts “the marvellous real”, in the words of the apt epigraph by Alejo Carpentier.

Pariat’s stories are suffused by legends, spells, charms and winds blowing over barren hills like restless spirits. Messily and uneasily, the old gives way to the new as her characters navigate walkways pitted by ghosts of the past. Here, retribution is visited upon boorish British overseers of a tea plantation; a doctor attends to a teenager who dreams of firebirds; water fairies are believed to make people disappear; a schoolgirl and her classmates hunt for a secret passage; and tales are told at funerals of the hunter who killed a shape-shifting tiger.

These stories are also about relationships and oppositions: between lovers, between families, between friends, between impressionable girls and blue-grey-eyed boys who play the guitar like Slash -- and, significantly, between outsiders and locals. As such, they’re peopled by an eclectic lot, drawn from various communities and professions.

Many stories are narrated not by their protagonists but by young observers or those looking back at their youth: vignettes of a time when innocence yields to a more nuanced understanding. Pariat’s prose is lapidary, and this rescues some of the tales from flimsiness. One story begins with a “corpse-cold” December evening with skies “the colour of razor blades”; elsewhere, chicken momos sit on a plate “like fat, happy priests”.

“I don’t know if Shillong has caught up with the world or the world has caught up with Shillong,” muses one of Pariat’s characters. The fifteen stories here are an elegant record of interactions between Shillong and the outside world.

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