“For I mean not what’s bound by paper … Spoken. Unwritten. Unrecorded. Old, they say, as the first fire. Free to roam the mountains, circle the heath, and fall as rain.”
The prelude to Boats on Land conjures up the spoken word, ‘ka ktien’ in Khasi, which is the precursor to script, and of special significance for a people with none. Prior to Thomas Jones’ work in lending the Roman alphabet to the Khasi language in 1842, the Khasis knew no letters. There are no histories and no records. Whatever accounts have survived have done so on the precarious power of the spoken word. Thus the origin, milieu, customs and traditions of the Khasis are explained by folk narratives, which provide a way of understanding the world and imagining it anew. The word guards their memories, preserves their knowledge, and perpetuates it.
In this collection, Janice Pariat presents stories that evoke this particular reliance on the spoken word. While story-telling is a cultural universal, it bears inordinate weight in communities which for very long subsisted on oral traditions. As she says in “Sky Graves”, stories ‘reaffirm existence’ and ‘haul the past into the present’. This debut book thus mimics the folkloric tradition. Each story is fragmentary and yet self-contained, rich in atmosphere yet tantalizingly elusive. Resolutions are not battered out, but are quietly unfolded. The telling is dotted with discursive back-stories and recollections, startling revelations and insights of singular depth, constituting voices that, while varied, are all marked by a poetic wistfulness. In “The Discovery of Flight”, bits of a mystery are pieced together in a manner reminiscent of Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and the various accounts, each peppered with confident individual assertions, reflect the propensity to engage in a communal, polyphonic act of story-telling. Pariat gives physical shape to this act as well — the stories are told at funereal watches by men and women huddled around a warm chula (“Sky Graves”), by a rambling drunk to a blithe audience at a seedy restaurant (“Embassy”) and at home, by grandparents and older relatives bent with the weight of experience (“Dream of the Golden Mahseer” and “Laitlum”). Frequently, tales assume the exaggerated bent of rumour and hearsay (“Echo Words”) and the captious tones of scandal (“Secret Corridors”). The telling goes through shifts and changes, is multiplied and appropriated, and the act is thus reinforced in the process.
The epigraph to Boats on Land is a single line from Alejo Carpentier’s preface to The Kingdom of this World — ‘I found the marvellous real with every step’. This ‘marvelous real’, Carpentier adds later, ‘presupposes a faith’. For the Khasis, such a faith is borne out of a tradition steeped in folklore. Various originary myths exist, accounting for things ranging from the emergence of kingly clans to the appearance of spots on the moon. These are beliefs that have given the Khasis a sense of their history because they form an essential part of the folk discourses around which they organize and understand their world. As such, the uncanny has always coexisted with the real. This collection is underlain by a cognizance of such a world-view. Here, the word has immense power. Great monoliths that are speckled over parts of the Khasi and Jaintia landscape are believed to have been summoned into place not by strength of muscle, but of incantation. “A Waterfall of Horses” has a horrific, surreal denouement with its genesis in the mutterings of a gnarled old man. In “Echo Words”, an ancient family said to possess knowledge of ‘mantras that could cause great harm’ is believed responsible for the disappearance of the French woman and her lover.
While a sense of the supernatural informs most of these stories, they are nonetheless anchored in the real — in the ordinary lives of men and women, in the conflicts of human experience. The fates of a few are covered in mystery, whether it is the otherworldly ‘bilati’ girl Lucy with her strange dreams in “Kut Madan”, the reclusive Mama Kyn in “Dreams of a Golden Mahseer” with the horrors of war in his untold past, or the enigmatic youth Ezra in “The Discovery of Flight”, who disappears without a trace. However, the narrative voice in this collection is frequently that of the onlooker, the one who observes, awkward and uncertain, on the fringes of the main event. It is the human sensibility of this voice that lends the story its tremulous, transcendental nature. Much is unsaid and unexplainable: the grocer-narrator in “Echo Words” says, ‘That evening, I shut shop early; for some reason I was weary, and felt a strange sense of foreboding’ while the young boy in “A Waterfall of Horses” describes his premonitory state, ‘The hours passed by, glistening with sunshine and sudden autumn showers, yet they’d shifted, a little askew and out of line. I was nervous, constantly waiting for something to happen.’ The meaning of events to the spectator is evanescent as the mist, poised just beyond the scope of reason — did Mama Kyn wander the waters in response to water sprites, ‘ki puri’? Did the beautiful Angela fling herself off the cliff? What is this strange, impalpable ‘call of the void’? The fleeting epiphany revealed to the reader is equally mutable, filled with a sense of the ambiguous, gesturing towards the essential unknowability of the world we inhabit and the lives that we lead.
The backdrop to Boats on Land is composed of more than a century’s stretch of Khasi history. In writing fiction about an older, irrecoverable time, Pariat is assiduous in her detail and depth of imagination. The exchange between townsfolk in “Echo Words” — ‘I heard … that the memsahib is here to write a book on the Khasis’/ ‘Why? Are we some strange exotic animal species?’ — is redolent of the kind of anthropological studies on the tribe undertaken early in the last century (P.R.T. Gurdon’s important work, The Khasis being worth a mention, albeit for gems like ‘The Khasis are certainly more industrious than the Assamese, are generally good tempered but are occasionally prone to sudden outbursts of anger … the women are especially cheerful, and bandy jokes with passersby with quite an absence of reserve.’).
Pariat writes about this colonial past with great inventiveness, while at the same time imbuing it with a touch of wonderment, effecting an imaginative, revisionary perspective of the life of a people. On the other hand, the latter half of the book, depicting Shillong from its volatile post-statehood period to its more recent, citified phase is brimming over with concerns that seem to dispel the power of the mythic. The most succinct articulation of this is given by the rebel youth in “Laitlum”, ‘Is there time for folk tales when people are shooting each other across their own town roads?” In a city beset by curfews, riots, divisions and fear-mongering, it is hard to imagine ‘a time that was simpler and kinder’, as is observed in “19/87”. But in the relentlessness of tragedy—drowning, suicide, rape, untimely deaths occur in these stories — the folk asserts itself in different ways. It allows the grief of a community to find expression in the form of a retrospective reading of omens in “The Discovery of Flight”; it appears in the form of a hunt Bah Hem has to undertake in “Sky Graves”; even as the world around him is pulsing with the force of phenomena he cannot understand — birds hurl themselves into men’s torches to die, the wounded tiger he hunts has baffling links with the soul of a sick man — Bah Hem confronts his own buried grief over the loss of his son. The folk — that distinctive cultural expression of a community, replete with symbols and motifs gleaned from a long oral tradition, evolves and refigures in the popular imagination today. There has been no great or sustained disassociation from mythology for the Khasis, and in that sense, the folk is pervasive even as it is being constantly transformed (thereby occupying what Esther Syiem calls a ‘liminal’ space).
Finally, in looking at Pariat’s evocation of present-day Shillong, what comes through is a wistfulness, an anxiety borne out a troubled history, a frustration that is evident from ‘the singular weariness that settles over everyone’s features in a town locked by more than towering mountains’ (“Embassy”). Individuals push through lonely, disjointed lives. Like Dhruba Hazarika and Anjum Hasan before her, Pariat paints a picture of listless, middle-class youth in the city trying hard to find useful occupations and when failing, taking to drink and drugs, and joining dissident groups and insurgencies.
She says, in “Embassy”, ‘Here, people drenched their grief in alcohol, and stashed their dreams behind the familiar, flimsy darkness that smelt faintly dank and sour, the odour of defeat.’ Those who return to the city after spending time outside, like Barisha in “Pilgrimage”, the professional young couple in “The Keeper of Souls” and the unnamed, autobiographical narrator in “Hong Kong”, take uneasy steps back, and find themselves confronted with irretrievable pasts and an alien city that has changed cosmetically and disastrously. “The Keeper of Souls” is a quiet indictment of the kind of unwelcome transformation that has come over Shillong in recent years, one in which a consumer-culture has joined hands with ill-advised city planning to give rise to an ugly urban straggle. Elegance is bested by ostentation (as seen in the bizarrely opulent house Vera is designing), while the natural environment is steadily being destroyed. Pariat writes, ‘I look outside, at the immense sprawl of Shillong … the town has hardly any room to breathe. I can feel it, its raw, ragged breath.’ It is no wonder then that the only reprieve from catastrophe is in revisiting the elemental and the mythic — the eccentric artist Dariti sees the souls of her dead parents dwelling in trees, and their being cut down drives her to distraction. The small shifts and jolts affecting individual lives — the loss of love, the ugly awareness of class differences, being belittled and cheated upon — are subtly rendered. The events in these stories are not epoch-making, but quiet and restrained, as fragile as memory.
In the title story, the narrator encapsulates the experience that transformed her thus, “I went to a lake and drowned”. Water, that most shimmery and ungraspable of elements, innocuous as a puddle around Tei’s ankles, or terrible as the ‘living, breathing monster’ that alighted upon Sohra as monsoon rain, is consistently evoked. The raging waterfall devouring the mad horses, the deep, swirling waters dreamt up in Mama Kyn’s room, the rivers as wide as the sea — there is a sense that the ‘call of the void’ is synonymous with the thirst to follow rivers, as the nineteen year old in “Boats on Land” declares; to plunge into experience, to swim in the varying tides of life, to quest as much for refuge and escape as for meaning. In the legend about how the Khasis lost their script, the Khasi had to swim cross a great flood to save himself. He tried to cling on to his books by holding them in his mouth. When a great wave came over him, he gasped for breath, and accidentally swallowed all of them. While his letters disappeared forever, his knowledge and racial memory remained. One goes to the water to find lost meaning, and one tells a story to reclaim it.
Isawanda Laloo teaches at the Department of English, NEHU, Shillong. She is doing research on narratives of violence and women's fiction in North-East India.