Boats on Land

01 September 2012

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.

Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse: A Novel and Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories for which she was awarded the Sahitya Akademi’s Young Writer Award and the Crossword Award for Fiction in 2013. She is currently based in New Delhi.