Fiction

Boats on Land

By JANICE PARIAT | 1 September 2012
FN

ABOUT THE STORY: Fiction gives us not just a narrator observing a set of characters from above, but also a set of characters observing one another from within the space they mutually share. First-person narration, far from constricting the scope of this field of observation, can actually be an intensification of it, as the narrator is seen both living inside the world of the story and observing it from the outside with the wisdom, or longing, that comes with the passing of time. ‘Boats on Land’, the title story of Janice Pariat’s first collection of stories published this month by Random House, is a masterly examination of a Shillong teenager’s sudden encounter, in a tea estate in Assam, with another human being who is at once mysterious, seductive and damaged. “I began to protest but caught a glimpse of our image in the mirror, and in there I was someone else,” writes Pariat, and in this one sentence—as in the story’s title—we might ourselves discover an image of what the best fiction gives us, which is a sense of life, and of ourselves, that at first seems disquieting but slowly persuades us of its truth. Pariat’s evocations of landscape are definitely lyrical, but not gratuitously so; they communicate to us instead the heightened awareness of a young adult’s mind as it experiences the world for the first time in all its mingled beauty and danger. The economy and elliptical truth of Pariat’s dialogue, and her awareness of the small steps and shadows out of which one human being’s sense of another emerges, mark the sound of ‘Boats on Land’ as that of a major new narrative voice.

I CAN MEASURE OUR DAYS TOGETHER by the number of times we went to the river. Ten in fourteen days. Which by most accounts is not long, yet a dragonfly, you told me, may live for only twenty-four hours, and if we were dragonflies we would have spent ten lifetimes together.
When we went to the river that winter you said it wasn’t half as wide as during the monsoon, when the water stretched out vast and splendid as the sea. Instead, we had miles of sandy banks to write on with our footprints, or to sit on and watch the Kaziranga forest on the opposite side darken as the light faded. Those were sun-tempered, smoke-hazy days that lengthened with the evening shadows until the nights seemed endless and intimately ours. You smoked cigarettes in secret. The ones you rolled burned like slender torches, pinpricks of light in a dark and unknown universe. You conjured them quickly, like a magician.

“Years of practice,” you said.

You were nineteen then; three years older than me.

We met because my parents and I went on holiday to Chandbari, a tea estate in Assam, one of many sprawling plantations of neatly trimmed bushes that spread for miles like a dense green carpet. I’d only ever driven past them, on family trips to Potasali and Nameri, and they seemed far removed from the countryside’s lush wildness—ponds overflowing with hyacinth, thick clusters of swaying bamboo, and gulmohar that burst into a rage of orange and yellow blossoms. I’d always wondered what they were like inside, beyond the gated and guarded entrance. Our fathers, who had been in school together, friends, met at an Old Boys dinner, and yours invited us over for a fortnight in January. For my parents, it was tempting; Shillong, where we lived, was crippled by winter and cloaked in dull, monotonous grey.

“Is it alright to stay that long?” my mother asked, sounding a little doubtful.

My father laughed. “They have a battalion of household help at the bungalow. I don’t think we’ll be much trouble…”

While they looked forward to the break, I wasn’t keen to go. All my school friends were in Shillong, and during the winter vacation, we had plans to visit each others’ houses and make trips to Police Bazaar to eat momos at Peking Restaurant and cream buns at Floury’s. More than the culinary delights, though, it was a chance to meet boys, walk past them as though we didn’t care they were watching, be approached and asked if we’d like to go to Ward’s Lake for a boat ride, or to Udipi Hotel for a coffee. There was a whole world waiting to be explored now that we weren’t confined mainly to the grounds of our all-girls convent school. One boy in particular filled my waking hours with lucid daydreams. His name, I’d recently discovered, was Jason; he had longish brown hair that fell over his eyes, and wore a striped flannel scarf with élan. This love affair, of secret smiles and glances, however, would have to wait. 

“If your brother were here, you could have stayed behind, but we’re not leaving you alone at home,” my mother told me, and no amount of sulking would change her mind. My elder brother was studying law in Pune; my plans, also laid out clear and simple, were to do medicine at Lady Hardinge in Delhi. Our parents gently nudged us towards our choices: these were respectable, lucrative careers.

“And you’ll have company there,” she added. “The Hazarikas have a daughter your age…or maybe a little older.”

So I packed my dresses, made my friends promise to fill me in when I returned on all that had happened, and said a silent, aching prayer that Jason wouldn’t find somebody else to love.

Chandbari was eight hours away, and my father drove there in our trusty grey Ambassador. We soon left the pine-tree slopes and winding roads of Shillong behind, and from about halfway at Jorabad, the highway widened and flattened, flanked by vast stretches of paddy fields lying crisp and harvested in the sun. We passed dusty hamlets that my father described as “immigrant Bangladeshi towns” and great sandy lengths of rivers that only came to life in the summer. I drifted in and out of sleep, sometimes catching snatches of conversation—something about my brother’s upcoming exams, an ailing distant relative, a neighbour’s newly born baby. Halfway we stopped by the roadside to eat packed sandwiches for lunch. It was warmer in the plains, and the sunshine was pleasant and welcoming. When we resumed our journey, my father told us that his friend Ranjit Hazarika came from an old, wealthy Assamese family which had owned many successful businesses in Shillong, all of which folded during the trouble in the ’80s, when the locals turned against the outsiders. The Hazarikas then bought plantations in the Bishwanath District and, with the tea boom in the ’90s, had done exceedingly well. “They’re one of those families marked by tragedy, though,” he added, dropping his voice. “First they had to leave their hometown, then his first wife Mamuni killed herself…” The loud, dragging roar of the engine drowned out the rest of his words. At that age, though, the fear of death, my own or others’, hadn’t yet clutched me, and instead I found myself thinking about you and whether we’d get along, and become friends. Perhaps, I dreamed, we’d be like sisters.

I awoke much later when we turned into a side road with a gate held open by a uniformed guard. It was late evening and somewhere the sun had set, leaving behind orange gashes in the sky. We were on an avenue of tall birch, whose silver-grey bark glinted in the twilight. The bungalow stood at the end of a long driveway; it was white, open and airy, and our entire house back in Shillong could have probably fit into the veranda.

Your parents were there, having tea that had been brought out on a trolley. Your father was tall and well-built, dressed in crisp khaki trousers and a spotless white shirt. His skin was evenly tanned, and his hair stylishly grey at the edges. He shook hands with mine, and gave my mother a quick, neat hug. Your mother was a tribal Mising lady, with chic shoulder-length hair and flawless skin. She was dressed in a floral-patterned kurti and dark green pyjamas. I wished my mother was in something more appealing than a crumpled jaiñsem. Our luggage was deftly handled by two silent liveried bearers and we were shown to our rooms to freshen up. My parents were given the main guest room, and I had a smaller place in an annex joined to the bungalow by an open corridor overhung with coils of flowering thunbergia. Your mother had apologised for my room—‘It’s small but we hope you’ll be comfortable’—yet I found it more than spacious and, with its light walls and large, creamy bed, utterly delightful. There was a table with magazines, and a wardrobe large enough for me to hide in. I slipped off my shoes and walked across the carpet, thick and spongy under my feet. There were no signs of you. I thought it extremely rude you hadn’t emerged to greet your guests.

INSTEAD, WHEN I ENTERED THE BATHROOM, you were there, in the bathtub, fully clothed, smoking a cigarette. The window above your head was wide open.
“Oh,” I said, “I’m sorry.”
You laughed. “For what? I’m not taking a bath.” It was true, the tub was dry. You hoisted yourself up—“And technically this is your bathroom for now”—and taking a last drag, flung the cigarette out the window. Your t-shirt barely touched the top of your jeans. You were taller than me, and thinner, and even though your clothes were crumpled and your hair uncombed, it was I who felt inelegant and scruffy. Your movements were slow and unstartled, as though I wasn’t there.

You washed your hands at the basin and rinsed your mouth. “Don’t tell anyone about the smoking. Poor Shambu mali will get into trouble again.”

Why would that happen, I asked.

“Because he brings me the local stuff.” When you saw my incomprehension, you added, “Tobacco. The stuff inside cigarettes.” 

Only after you left the room did I realise you hadn’t apologised for being in the bathtub. Or asked me my name. Or said hello.

For the next two days you kept out of our way, emerging from your room only at mealtimes. And even then, you sat there, silent, eating small, finicky platefuls. Often, you disappeared for hours on end. Your parents seemed embarrassed by your behaviour but didn’t appear to know how to deal with you. In a way, I was relieved you weren’t around, to watch me clumsily adjust to a way of life I’d hardly been aware of—where morning tea was brought to us on trays, beds were made and rooms cleaned by invisible hands while we were at breakfast, towels were changed twice a day, dirty laundry magically reappeared in a neatly folded, ironed pile, meals and fresh fruit juice were ordered at the touch of a bell. During the day, the bungalow could be cool as a cave, its high ceiling soaring above us, its corridors deep and endless. I waited for the evenings in the veranda outside, and watched the countryside darkness close in over the trees and felt the sun-warmed air turn chilly and brittle. Later, we’d emerge from our rooms, showered and changed, and gather in the living room, where the fireplace was lit, the ice bucket filled, and bowls of roasted cashewnuts were placed on the side tables. Your father would bustle around the bar, mixing whiskies and opening bottles of homemade wine, of which I would be given a small glass. Even though I’d usually sit alone in a corner, looking through picture books on the shelf, it was a life entirely new and enthralling.

Your father and mine talked a lot about Shillong—their escapades at school, and where various classmates had ended up. They spoke of midnight shows at Kelvin Cinema and parties where they danced to The Beatles and The Monkees. The town, they agreed, had changed almost beyond recognition from what it was in the ’60s. Or what they referred to nostalgically as “the good old days” when it was safer, less crowded, and the roads were clean and empty. After a fair number of whiskies were downed, they’d speak of the trouble, and how it changed and took away everything they knew and cherished.

“One evening,” your father said, “Mamuni was coming back from the market, and this Khasi guy stopped her and slapped her, in the middle of the road…I remember when she got home and told me, I was so angry, but she only seemed surprised that he’d called her an outsider. She kept saying, ‘I’ve lived here all my life.’ That was it though…I’d tried to put it off for as long as I could, but I knew we had to leave…”

Then a long silence would settle, troubled only by the crackle of firewood and the faraway hoot of an owl.

Your mother and mine would join in their conversation sometimes, or carry on with their own intimate talk. I overheard your mother say you were studying psychology at Loreto College, Calcutta, but there’d been some “trouble” and you were sent home early. ‘We thought it would help to have someone close to her age around,’ she said, unaware that I was listening, ‘but she can be just like her father…headstrong and difficult.’ Mostly, though, they would exchange notes on recipes and gardening. Your mother called it a quiet life here, with not much to do or many people to meet, and said sometimes she’d fall into a restlessness that no amount of painting, cooking, or stitching could dissolve. She tried to visit her family village often but it was difficult with you around. It was nice, she said, that my mother ran a bakery—she too had always wanted to do something on her own.

There were traces of you littered all over the bungalow as though you were a visiting ghost. Occasionally, I’d catch the lingering smell of cigarette smoke even though you were nowhere around. Once, I found your slippers in the veranda, discarded under a chair. Your t-shirt slipped by mistake into my pile of washed and ironed laundry. At times, I had a feeling you watched us from afar, sullen and undecided.

One afternoon, we all went to the planter’s club. Even you, though you sat by the window next to my mother, who was in the middle, and stared out without saying a word. When we got there, we headed to the tennis courts, where matches were in progress. You, I noticed, were not with us anymore. My parents were introduced to everyone by your father as “old friends”, visitors from his hometown, Shillong. The afternoon was filled with chatter, the monosyllabic thud of tennis balls, and shouts of support and laughter.

At some point, a chubby girl in shorts, clutching a racquet, dropped herself into the white wicker chair next to mine.

“Hi. I’m Radhika,” she said. “You’re staying at Chandbari?”

I introduced myself and said yes, I was.

“How’s the depressed damsel?”

I asked if she meant you.

“Who else?” she laughed. “She has a soul too tormented to play tennis.”

I wanted to defend you but didn’t know how.

Radhika was about twenty-five, and had the friendly, bossy air of some of my seniors at school. Her black eyes were set within a round, plump-cheeked face that reminded me of an owl I’d seen outside my window the past few nights.

“Be careful of that one,” she said.

Again, I asked if she meant you.

She nodded. “People say she’s…”

Someone beckoned from the courts. “Coming,” she replied. “I’ll catch you later.”

But that didn’t happen. I didn’t see Radhika again because, after a while, I wandered off for a walk.

“I won’t be long,” I whispered to my mother and made off in the direction of the golf course, the only open space I could find. I soon discovered why no one else was on the grounds—the place was littered with pats of dried and fresh cow dung. Yet I trampled on, aiming for a distant hillock which had a trickling stream curled around its base. To my far left, bordering the course, stood a row of thatch shacks hazily covered in light rising mist. A few children, almost naked, ran after each other laughing and screaming. Further away, a boy was herding cows and their lowing, along with the chirrup of roosting birds, filled the air. On winter evenings, Assam dissolved into a careful watercolour of flat shimmering horizons and low, languorous clouds. So different from Shillong where the skyline loomed with pine-shielded hills.

You were standing by the water, smoking, watching a pair of dragonflies dance on the surface. You’d rolled up the ends of your trousers and, despite the winter chill, you wore only a light half-sleeved t-shirt. You looked up in alarm.

“Sorry,” I said, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Do you always begin every conversation with an apology?” You laughed at the look on my face. “No one usually takes the trouble to walk across this golf course—immaculately maintained as it is.”  

I scraped off bits of dung from my shoe against a stone. You sat on a spot of dry grassy bank. When I finished, I stood awkward and unsure, undecided whether I should stay or leave. Perhaps you preferred to be alone.

“Do you know,” you said, “that dragonflies sometimes live only for a day?” The ones you were watching now hovered over a clump of fluff-tipped reeds.
“That’s sad.”
“Why?”
I flushed. You made me nervous. More nervous than even being around boys or Jason.
“Why is that sad?” you repeated.
“B-because that’s such a short time…to be alive.”
“But the dragonfly doesn’t know that.”
I said that was probably a good thing. I remember how you looked at me then, sharp and searching.
You stubbed out the cigarette. “Come.”
We walked along the stream until it meandered into a marshy pond choked with blooming water hyacinth; we’d left the golf course far behind.
“Why aren’t you playing tennis?” you asked suddenly.
I too have a tormented soul, I wanted to joke, but instead admitted that I didn’t know how to; I mentioned my brother was the one fond of sports. That he’d wanted to be a football player.
“What does he do?”
I told you.
“And you? What will you do after school?” You stopped, and stood face to face with me. I could smell the cigarette on your breath, and something sweet, like cloves.
Again, I told you.
“Is that your greatest dream? To be a nurse?” You picked up a stone and tried to skim it on the water, but it hit a lavender blossom instead.
I said I’d never really thought about it, that it seemed alright.
“Alright.” You turned the word over in your mouth slowly like something precious.
Encouraged by your rare, sudden verbosity, I asked, “What do you want to do?”
You dusted your hands and stood up. “I want to follow rivers.”

THAT NIGHT YOU SHOOK ME AWAKE.
“Come with me,” you whispered.
“Where?” In reply you took my hand and led me outside. The lawn was bathed in shadows from tall trees, and even the flower beds disappeared into inky darkness. It was chilly and I shivered in my nightdress; you didn’t give me time to grab a sweater. You were in the same clothes as earlier, but slippers, a few sizes too large, slapped against your feet. We headed to the far right of the garden, behind the annex, through a gated gap in the bamboo hedge, where the path opened onto a wide overgrown air field. Years before, your father had explained, when the Chinese attacked in ’62, it was used to drop off food and weapons. Now it lay there benignly as a venue for evening walks, remarkable for its early morning views of the Himalayas. At night, the field could have been a shimmering body of water, the way the grass rippled silver in the pale moonlight. The countryside silence was pierced only by the steady chirrup of crickets. We lay in the field, undiscovered in our kingdom of weeds.

You asked me to look at the sky. The stars were numberless.

“Don’t ask me about constellations,” you added. “I only know that’s Orion’s Belt.”

I said I had Orion’s Belt on my neck.

You pushed yourself up on your elbow; for the first time since we’d arrived there was a look on your face I hadn’t seen before—interest.

“Show me.”

I turned my face away from you, and pointed to a mole just below my left earlobe. “That’s one.”

Another lower, near the centre of my throat.

“That’s two.”

I undid the buttons of my nightdress. The last one was far below the hollow of my neck. “That’s three.”

You traced a line over them all. You were smiling.

The next day, you were thoroughly charming. Not just to me, but even to my parents, whom until now you’d largely ignored. You accompanied my mother and yours on their walk around the large backyard vegetable garden; offered to show my father, since he was a professor of history, a collection of old journals your grandfather had written, and at lunch, which we ate at a table laid out on the lawn under a garden umbrella, you were an impeccable little hostess. You talked about where the cook acquired the freshest fish; how the nearest town Bishwanath Chariali was merely a small cluster of shops—“Blink and you’ll miss it”; you queried my mother about the bakery and asked if she could make us some lemon tarts. Your parents, I noticed, looked delighted.

“What are you girls up to today?” your father asked.

You looked at me and smiled. “I was thinking we could go for a walk…”

Everyone said it was a good idea. The plantation was dotted with historical landmarks from the days of the Ahom kings. We could go see the Vishnu temple, your father added, or the water tank that apparently dated back to the fourteenth century.

I waited, impatient and excited, as everyone retired for their afternoon nap—even my parents had given in to this rare indulgence. When you emerged from your room, sulky with sleep, I was sitting on the wooden swing on the veranda, swaying over the cool sea-green floor. I jumped off it quickly, feeling as though you’d caught me doing something childish. 

A little while later we set off. By then though, your energy had waned, and you’d retreated back into your brooding, reclusive self. As we walked, rather than making conversation, you rolled cigarettes. On both sides of the dirt road were miles of low-lying tea bushes, interspersed with tall silver oak, grown for protective shade.

I asked where we were going.

“Nearby.”

We didn’t go far; in fact we didn’t even leave the borders of Chandbari. You took me to a pukhuri, a large pond bordered on all sides by raised red-soil ground and rows of birch. In one corner stood a gnarled old banyan under which we sat, brushing away stinging red ants and fat black beetles. You lit a cigarette and let it smoulder between your fingers. Your hair clung to your neck in dark, sweaty streaks. Again, I wasn’t sure whether you’d prefer to be alone.

“Are you alright?”

You looked at me as though no one had asked you that in a long time.

“Someone I know,” you said, “tried to kill herself.”

“Oh.” I wasn’t sure whether to ask if she’d succeeded.

“It was one in a long line of unfinished projects. The end of life.”

In the stillness of the evening, your words skimmed over the water and sank without a trace. You told me how she didn’t want a decisive relinquishment—a once-and-for-all hanging, or fatal leap or bullet through the brain. She only had an inexplicable urge to extinguish herself and flicker back like a trick candle. She wanted, for instance, to throw herself in the path of oncoming buses, or fall down a steep flight of stairs, or constantly push the number of sleeping tablets she could take. Just enough to sink into a deep and dreamless sleep, where she didn’t have to be rushed to hospital and stomach-pumped and forced to open her eyes in a nasty little room so blindingly white and sanitised.

“That’s what it was,” you finished, “this duality she wrestled with for months.”

“And how is she now?”

“Still gathering courage.”

“To live or die?”

“Both.”

You stubbed out your cigarette and stood up, extending your hand. “Let’s go for a swim.” Then you pulled me down the slope, rough and strong, running faster and faster. I could see the edge of the lake, oozing mulch, and the water deep and dark, littered with leaves.

“Stop,” I shouted. “Stop.”

You gripped my hand tighter, and carried on, your shoes crunching grass and stone.

“Let me go,” I screamed and yanked myself away. “I don’t know how to swim. If you push me in, I’ll drown.”

The water lapped at our feet. It seeped into the edges of my sandals. I didn’t realise it then, but my eyes were wet with tears. Of fright mainly, and anger. We walked back to the bungalow in silence. 

That night you offered a wordless apology.

I was in bed when you walked in and went straight through to the bathroom. I could hear the sound of running water. I thought you’d come to smoke. I didn’t ask because I was still angry with you. Then you called me over.

“Why?”

“Please.”

The bathtub was almost full, and steam rose thickly, clouding the mirror, the windows. You stood behind me and started unbuttoning my nightdress. I began to protest but caught a glimpse of our image in the mirror, and in there I was someone else. Held by a stare, by your hands, quick and cold through the fabric. When it dropped to the ground you asked me to step into the tub.

I did. The water was scathing. In a moment you were out of your t-shirt and jeans. We fit snugly, like twins. Then you soaped my back, my shoulders, my hair.

I did the same for you.

And despite the steam I saw how you looked nothing like the woman I thought was your mother. That you came from elsewhere, a life cut unnaturally short, and that even though you were only nineteen you were filled with an old sadness. I noticed the delicate slope of your shoulders, the plane of your back like a smooth river stone, the tiny red beauty spots speckled on your skin, your neck, thin and long, swerving up in a tense line, your fingers pale and white. When you turned around and faced me, your eyes were closed, and drops of water glistened on your cheeks, hollow like emptied lakes. We lay there, perfectly still, until the water cooled. 

The next day, the world was washed anew.

The flick of a page, a sip from a glass, a leg crossing over the other. Sometimes your hand trailed over mine, your shoulder grazed my arm, or you’d stand close behind me, your breath on my neck. Every gesture, I thought, was significant, and added something unforgettable to our lives.

You never took me back to the pukhuri; instead we walked to the river that bordered Chandbari, that lay beyond a line of railroad tracks, at the end of a dusty, lonely road. We strolled down to the water, which spilled endlessly before us mirroring a vast, empty sky. All along the bank burned small lanterns, and in their golden glow fishermen sat and untangled their nets. Their boats were moored on land—long, narrow vessels that looked like elegant paper cut-outs.

“During the monsoon,” you said, “the river is as wide as the sea.”

Before I left, we walked there every afternoon; sitting on the bank for hours, doodling on the sand. You told me your mother used to write in journals, filling them out year after year, and that after she died you looked for them. They became the most important thing in the world, except you couldn’t find them and you thought perhaps she had walked here one day and drowned them in the river. Sometimes, we clambered around the bank like lost children, climbing large, rough boulders and dipping our feet into the pools that formed between them, crystal clear mirrors that reflected our faces and the sky. Once, we went much further than usual and came across a temple on a cliff, filling up for the evening puja. The worshippers were mostly women from the nearby villages, with solemn, earnest faces framed by their cotton saris. We stayed a while and listened to the chanting, watched the offering of lights. Nearby stood a large slab of rock, marked with strange lines, squares and squiggles. A woman from the village, who happened to pass by, told us “It’s the place where the gods play dice.” Another time, we found a stretch of stones that looked like pale, bleached bones. We tread on them gently, it could have been the graveyard of a herd of prehistoric animals. Close to where the fishermen sat, we climbed a hill from where we could see the dry sandy stretch of an old river.

“Don’t you feel,” you asked, “as though you are elsewhere?”

I knew what you meant; in the midst of Assam’s lush landscape it was a sudden desert hollowed by dips and dunes. When we were close to the dry river, you threw off your slippers and walked in, I followed. The sand was warm and slippery, shaping itself fluidly under our feet. It was hard to imagine that once where we were standing, a river flowed, swift and spirited. We found perfectly smooth stones that fit the palm of our hands, and strange, contorted driftwood, some large enough to cradle us like boats.  

On some evenings, when the light seemed to last longer, we’d hire a boat and a fisherman would row us out on the Brahmaputra. Mostly you’d ask him to go upstream and then allow us to drift, stopping before the current swept us too far out. We’d sit on the plank in the middle; it smelled of fish, and a certain wet wood dampness, like a forest, I thought, that grew in caves. You looked happiest then, when we floated past the world, gently rocked by lapping water. On some evenings, dusk fell around us, and we were guided only by lanterns and the fisherman’s song. 

Every night we’d curl around each other in the bathtub, like river reeds, the water deep and warm around us. Sometimes, down my neck, you traced the stars. Sometimes you spoke about your mother.

“Why did she do it?”

You shrugged, the water rippling over your shoulders, the steam quivering off your skin. “I know why even though I can’t explain it.”

Sometimes you tried; you sat up, smoking, feverishly talking. “Don’t you feel that way? This awkwardness, with your place in the world. You know, when I put my head under water I hear nothing, I see much clearer…” And you’d plunge into the tub, grazing against my stomach, my thighs.

THE MORNING WE LEFT, you were nowhere to be found.
“I do apologise,” your father said. “Ever since her mother…you know, ever since it happened, she’s been like this, a bit difficult.”
My parents, ever gracious, said they understood, that there was no need for him to be sorry, that they’d had a wonderful time. In turn, they invited your parents to Shillong, and although they promised to come, you and your family have not made a visit.

On our way back I was mostly silent, watching the landscape outside the window flash past. Everything seemed unreal—the low-roofed houses, the swathes of paddy land, the endless stretch of bridges—changing, I felt, on a screen at a distance. Soon, we were climbing, the engine moaned, and the valleys deepened. We passed the sweeping blue waters of Bara Pani, shimmering coldly in the sunlight, and I felt a great sense of emptiness—as though it had been drained and all the world lay hollow like the lake.

The Shillong we drove into was as cold and dispirited as we’d left it. I found it hard to believe we’d been away. Nothing, and everything, had changed. That evening, Sarah, one of my close friends called, as she’d promised, to fill me in on events I’d missed. She had a crush on twin boys, but couldn’t tell one from the other; someone else had been kissed behind the shelter of an umbrella at Ward’s Lake. Jason, she giggled, was eagerly awaiting my return.

“And you?” she asked breathlessly. “How was your holiday?”

I thought of you, your hands, your face. And folded them up, our secret lives.

I went to a lake and drowned.

“Nothing special.”

When I think of you now, it’s the feel of wet sand and long grass that comes to me, the smell of cigarettes, and cloves and creatures that live close to water. The stench of your old sadness. I imagine you waiting, like when I first found you, for someone to lead you out to where all rivers end, to the sea.

Janice Pariat is a freelance writer based in Shillong. She was previously the arts writer at Time Out Delhi.

ABOUT THE STORY: Fiction gives us not just a narrator observing a set of characters from above, but also a set of characters observing one another from within the space they mutually share. First-person narration, far from constricting the scope of this field of observation, can actually be an intensification of it, as the narrator is seen both living inside the world of the story and observing it from the outside with the wisdom, or longing, that comes with the passing of time. ‘Boats on Land’, the title story of Janice Pariat’s first collection of stories published this month by Random House, is a masterly examination of a Shillong teenager’s sudden encounter, in a tea estate in Assam, with another human being who is at once mysterious, seductive and damaged. “I began to protest but caught a glimpse of our image in the mirror, and in there I was someone else,” writes Pariat, and in this one sentence—as in the story’s title—we might ourselves discover an image of what the best fiction gives us, which is a sense of life, and of ourselves, that at first seems disquieting but slowly persuades us of its truth. Pariat’s evocations of landscape are definitely lyrical, but not gratuitously so; they communicate to us instead the heightened awareness of a young adult’s mind as it experiences the world for the first time in all its mingled beauty and danger. The economy and elliptical truth of Pariat’s dialogue, and her awareness of the small steps and shadows out of which one human being’s sense of another emerges, mark the sound of ‘Boats on Land’ as that of a major new narrative voice.

I CAN MEASURE OUR DAYS TOGETHER by the number of times we went to the river. Ten in fourteen days. Which by most accounts is not long, yet a dragonfly, you told me, may live for only twenty-four hours, and if we were dragonflies we would have spent ten lifetimes together.
When we went to the river that winter you said it wasn’t half as wide as during the monsoon, when the water stretched out vast and splendid as the sea. Instead, we had miles of sandy banks to write on with our footprints, or to sit on and watch the Kaziranga forest on the opposite side darken as the light faded. Those were sun-tempered, smoke-hazy days that lengthened with the evening shadows until the nights seemed endless and intimately ours. You smoked cigarettes in secret. The ones you rolled burned like slender torches, pinpricks of light in a dark and unknown universe. You conjured them quickly, like a magician.

“Years of practice,” you said.

You were nineteen then; three years older than me.

We met because my parents and I went on holiday to Chandbari, a tea estate in Assam, one of many sprawling plantations of neatly trimmed bushes that spread for miles like a dense green carpet. I’d only ever driven past them, on family trips to Potasali and Nameri, and they seemed far removed from the countryside’s lush wildness—ponds overflowing with hyacinth, thick clusters of swaying bamboo, and gulmohar that burst into a rage of orange and yellow blossoms. I’d always wondered what they were like inside, beyond the gated and guarded entrance. Our fathers, who had been in school together, friends, met at an Old Boys dinner, and yours invited us over for a fortnight in January. For my parents, it was tempting; Shillong, where we lived, was crippled by winter and cloaked in dull, monotonous grey.

“Is it alright to stay that long?” my mother asked, sounding a little doubtful.

My father laughed. “They have a battalion of household help at the bungalow. I don’t think we’ll be much trouble…”

While they looked forward to the break, I wasn’t keen to go. All my school friends were in Shillong, and during the winter vacation, we had plans to visit each others’ houses and make trips to Police Bazaar to eat momos at Peking Restaurant and cream buns at Floury’s. More than the culinary delights, though, it was a chance to meet boys, walk past them as though we didn’t care they were watching, be approached and asked if we’d like to go to Ward’s Lake for a boat ride, or to Udipi Hotel for a coffee. There was a whole world waiting to be explored now that we weren’t confined mainly to the grounds of our all-girls convent school. One boy in particular filled my waking hours with lucid daydreams. His name, I’d recently discovered, was Jason; he had longish brown hair that fell over his eyes, and wore a striped flannel scarf with élan. This love affair, of secret smiles and glances, however, would have to wait. 

“If your brother were here, you could have stayed behind, but we’re not leaving you alone at home,” my mother told me, and no amount of sulking would change her mind. My elder brother was studying law in Pune; my plans, also laid out clear and simple, were to do medicine at Lady Hardinge in Delhi. Our parents gently nudged us towards our choices: these were respectable, lucrative careers.

“And you’ll have company there,” she added. “The Hazarikas have a daughter your age…or maybe a little older.”

So I packed my dresses, made my friends promise to fill me in when I returned on all that had happened, and said a silent, aching prayer that Jason wouldn’t find somebody else to love.

Chandbari was eight hours away, and my father drove there in our trusty grey Ambassador. We soon left the pine-tree slopes and winding roads of Shillong behind, and from about halfway at Jorabad, the highway widened and flattened, flanked by vast stretches of paddy fields lying crisp and harvested in the sun. We passed dusty hamlets that my father described as “immigrant Bangladeshi towns” and great sandy lengths of rivers that only came to life in the summer. I drifted in and out of sleep, sometimes catching snatches of conversation—something about my brother’s upcoming exams, an ailing distant relative, a neighbour’s newly born baby. Halfway we stopped by the roadside to eat packed sandwiches for lunch. It was warmer in the plains, and the sunshine was pleasant and welcoming. When we resumed our journey, my father told us that his friend Ranjit Hazarika came from an old, wealthy Assamese family which had owned many successful businesses in Shillong, all of which folded during the trouble in the ’80s, when the locals turned against the outsiders. The Hazarikas then bought plantations in the Bishwanath District and, with the tea boom in the ’90s, had done exceedingly well. “They’re one of those families marked by tragedy, though,” he added, dropping his voice. “First they had to leave their hometown, then his first wife Mamuni killed herself…” The loud, dragging roar of the engine drowned out the rest of his words. At that age, though, the fear of death, my own or others’, hadn’t yet clutched me, and instead I found myself thinking about you and whether we’d get along, and become friends. Perhaps, I dreamed, we’d be like sisters.

I awoke much later when we turned into a side road with a gate held open by a uniformed guard. It was late evening and somewhere the sun had set, leaving behind orange gashes in the sky. We were on an avenue of tall birch, whose silver-grey bark glinted in the twilight. The bungalow stood at the end of a long driveway; it was white, open and airy, and our entire house back in Shillong could have probably fit into the veranda.

Your parents were there, having tea that had been brought out on a trolley. Your father was tall and well-built, dressed in crisp khaki trousers and a spotless white shirt. His skin was evenly tanned, and his hair stylishly grey at the edges. He shook hands with mine, and gave my mother a quick, neat hug. Your mother was a tribal Mising lady, with chic shoulder-length hair and flawless skin. She was dressed in a floral-patterned kurti and dark green pyjamas. I wished my mother was in something more appealing than a crumpled jaiñsem. Our luggage was deftly handled by two silent liveried bearers and we were shown to our rooms to freshen up. My parents were given the main guest room, and I had a smaller place in an annex joined to the bungalow by an open corridor overhung with coils of flowering thunbergia. Your mother had apologised for my room—‘It’s small but we hope you’ll be comfortable’—yet I found it more than spacious and, with its light walls and large, creamy bed, utterly delightful. There was a table with magazines, and a wardrobe large enough for me to hide in. I slipped off my shoes and walked across the carpet, thick and spongy under my feet. There were no signs of you. I thought it extremely rude you hadn’t emerged to greet your guests.

READER'S COMMENTS [16]

nice story...i just bought this book through flipkart. I am a huge fan of Mr. Ruskin Bond, also i have spent lot of time in Mussoorie. I feel the same intoxicating effect in your stories too.... they take you to shillong actually... before reading any story i explore about author so that i can read it from his.her perspective.. a sthis is your first book and beautifully written....I am sure u will grow into a great author. Keep writing for people like us.....best wishes...

I dont know whether i like this kind of testimonial narrative, sound much more accusative, which is not the right way to tell short stories. Although your wordcraft is great, i dont think they can resonate your story. your style of narration totally butcher your story. yes, you met someone and broke up, so wat? even a short story should answer the so what question. i think you should switch to novel.

Deep and haunting. Magical and sad. Too many emotions felt at the same time. Too many emotions that exists within us, often taken for granted. Loved how you played with memory. We all live in memories. Being a Shillong-ite myself, I could vividly create images through the words you so effortlessly weaved. You are here. You are here, forever.

Thank you so much.

Beautifully written.....to say the least.

Being an old Shillongite myself, this brought back memories of good old days. Very well written Janice, very suttle and descriptive. Your writing is way ahead of some of the acclaimed names in India now. Don't ever let the simplicity of Shillong leave you, that's the essence that comes out in your writing.

Brilliant! All aspects of it, so subtly told, yet so deep and holds you in the flow of style and language so well, you forget you are reading...

Simply Wow! Just finished this and can feel its melancholy and the pull that brings two together...meant to be

Lovely lucid smooth flow of langauge. Janice feel very proud to be your teacher and friend. Keep it up girl.

lyrical & touching. made me nostalgic cannot wait to read the book

This is one of the loveliest stories I've read on first love and coming of age.

The most beautiful writing I have come across in a while, can't wait to get my hands on the book. And looking forward to many more to come!

Thank you so much. The book should be in stores end of September. Do hope you all enjoy the rest of the stories too :)

Speechless...

Brilliant... evocative... lyrical...

Excellent!!! Wow! Janice I loved the way you write. The story was just amazing. Being an young wanna-be- author your writing has inspired me and given me insights to narrative style.Wishing you best.

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