This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.
How frequently we find ourselves profoundly unseated by the transience of it all, the impermanence of a life lived, the changing ways of the world. The Japanese have a term for it: mono no aware (literally: “the pathos of things”). Janice Pariat’s debut book, a collection of fifteen short stories called Boats on Land, grapples vividly with this sort of wistfulness. These are days quietly observed, reflections tucked away, fleeting impulses and stolen flashes unchained from the stillness of memory and set free into ephemera. What Pariat does is hunt these unwilling moments down with her wispy butterfly net of words and cast them down for permanence.
The opening story in the collection (“A Waterfall of Horses”) talks about just this quality of eternalness that the written word carries with it: “Once printed, the word is feeble and carries little power. It wrestles with ink and typography and margins, struggling to be what it was originally. Spoken. Unwritten, unrecorded. Old, they say, as the first fire. Free to roam the mountains, circle the heath, and fall as rain. We, who had no letters with which to etch our history, have married our words to music, to mantras, that we repeat until lines grow old and wither and fade away. Until they are forgotten and there is silence.”
Most of the stories are set in and around Shillong, and the landscape of Northeast India is stitched resplendently into the fabric of the tales. Positioned across a varied time span, from the 1800s to present day, each story is keenly aware of the passing of time, the particular beauty of forgetfulness, and the frightening tremors of change.
Many stories are sculpted into form by myth and magic, bordering almost on the paranormal and the gothic. There are ancient men who cause the downfall of their enemies with ka ktien, mantras that cause the sort of madness that cannot be contained; a doctor cures those who are possessed by thlen, the evil eye; a woman draws her husband back into her home with mysterious charms and echoes; there are dreams that liltingly merge into reality, visions that recall the unknowable, flickering spectres of spirits both good and evil. Pariat draws from Khasi folklore, gingerly ensconcing the tales in dark trickery and old traditions, and balancing them with the shifting forces of society, politics, and popular custom.
As one character struggles to understand a shadowy disappearance, he muses: “What does it take, I think, to have faith in things beyond the ordinary? Age? Childlike wonder? Is it right to cling so fiercely to the world? As they absorb my solitude, the silence of the distant hills and the drifting indifference of the clouds, I think of disappearances, the ones that surprise and those that don't. At first, I am steeped in sadness. Then I notice how the air fills with cicadas, the trees cast their trembling shadows on the water, the reeds bow in steady reverence, I realize that no one is truly ever gone. All voices are heard in a river's murmuring.”
There are youngsters who flirt with activism and clutch at identity, sharp-eyed old men who tell arching tales of ancient witchery, teenagers who listen to American rock music and ride motorcycles, young men who fly kites and interpret dreams, people who leave Shillong, but are inscrutably drawn back. Everywhere, there is change: “This town, according to my parents, with its constant unrest and wanton youth, was headed for nothing but disaster. They couldn’t understand it, where had it gone? The peaceful little place they’d grown up in, with its quaint British ways and pretty bungalows, its safe streets and pine-dappled innocence. They’d watched it transform before their eyes.”
Some of Pariat’s stories excavate the mystical and the vulnerable with nuanced, intense text, furtively capturing moods of displacement and stillness. In “Sky Graves,” Bah Hem undertakes a long and arduous journey at the behest of a boy who has eyes like his dead son. The title story is a revelatory coming-of-age tale that somehow steers clear of almost all growing-up clichés. Elsewhere, “Laitlum” captures the unsettling precariousness of freedom through the fretful wonderings of an adolescent girl. In “19/87”, a Muslim tailor, who has witnessed years of growing intolerance, hovers uneasily between the ideas of home and belonging.
Some trudge along more sluggishly than others, woodenly reaching out for meaning. In “Pilgrimage,” a young woman finds wisdom and meaning agreeably dispensed to her by a shopkeeper; in “Embassy,” stories are smashed together, the significance of which is later delivered by a suitable punch line. Characters think and speak in abstract premonitions and extended metaphors and plot connives to create meaning. But these are rare instances that are quickly blurred by Pariat’s brilliance.
Mostly, there are characters who dissolve and stories that beguile, leaving faint echoes; they are mono no aware.