Boats on Land is an Awkward and Unsatisfying but Beautifully Written Book
If I had to describe this book as a whole in a word, I’d say it’s “unsatisfying”. If I'm asked to expand, I'd just quote the blurb, which says, “Janice Pariat, through these fifteen stories, quietly captures our fragile and awkward place in the world.”
How accurate that is! Nearly every story is awkward, fragile, and messy – not usually my cup of tea.
But every one of them is written beautifully!
In simple, lilting prose, the author zooms in on tiny moments in the lives of people in Meghalaya, across generations and timelines. There’s a little bit of magical realism, but none of the stories can be categorised as fantasy.
Some of the stories showcase life during the British Raj, some of them happen against the backdrop of the World Wars, while some are just timeless…
The blurb, which emphasised the supernatural aspect of the stories, was a little misleading, though. The water fairies, shape-shifting people, and everything else mentioned are just tiny themes in the not-very-much-larger stories.
Each story left me adrift; unsatisfied; craving more. But that, perhaps, is the wonder of Pariat’s writing – the way she captures the messy, awkward, even fleeting nature of life in those stories.
There is beauty in ambiguity, I suppose, but I’ve never quite appreciated it…
Since this is a collection of short stories, I can’t exactly write a blurb – that would be too vague. But I’ll try to give short, one-sentence descriptions of each story – and I’ve done that below…
On the whole, though, I recommend this book to anyone who really wants to diversify their reading to North-East Indian writers, preferably those who don’t mind ambiguous stories that leave you wondering what you just read.
A Waterfall of Horses:
The village elders decide to do something about some pesky British workers troubling their village (contains supernatural elements).
At Kut Madan
A young girl dreams of being inside a firebird that crashes on the earth and bursts into flame (ambiguous supernatural elements, hints of mental health issues).
A French Lady arrives in Shillong and has an affair with a married man... (contains supernatural elements)
Dream of the Golden Mahseer
A war veteran and avid fisherman disappears, rumoured to have been kidnapped by water fairies. (Contains supernatural elements. Obviously.)
A wannabe mean girl meets the most bullied kid in school in an abandoned corridor. (LGBTQ...romance? I don't know what to call it.)
A dkhar (anyone who's not Khasi in Meghalaya) tailor befriends a young Khasi customer.
The uncool sister of a beautiful girl spends a day out chilling with her sister and her much cooler friends.
A genius storyteller and renowned shooter is called upon to kill a tiger that's been troubling some villagers far away. (One of the only unambiguous stories in the book)
A woman living in South Delhi gets nostalgic about an old flame while visiting her parents in Shillong.
Boats on Land
A young girl reminisces about her short-lived relationship with the quiet daughter of her hosts at a vacation home in Assam. (LGBTQ romance, mentions of trauma and suicide)
A young man goes to a local bar to get drunk after being dumped, and meets an interesting old fellow there,..
The Discovery of Flight
A young boy goes for a walk during a storm and doesn't return...
A young woman catches up with a man in her past, years after she moved away to study in London and he stayed back in Shillong...
The Keeper of Souls
A man who's recently moved to Shillong with his wife and dog has an enlightening conversation with the creepy lady who almost ran him over with her car.
An Aerial View
A woman who has recently moved to London to stay with her husband finds out that said husband has been cheating on her...
About the Author
Janice Pariat was born in Jorhat, Assam, and grew up between Shillong and Assam. She did her schooling in Loreto Convent, Shillong and The Assam Valley School. She then got her BA in English Literature at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and went on to do an MA in History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.
Her work, including book reviews, art reviews, fiction, and poetry has been featured in several national and international magazines and newspapers. She now edits the online literary journal Pyrta, which she founded in 2010. She’s currently living in New Delhi with, and I quote, “A cat of many names.”