Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Book Review - Boats on Land by Janice Pariat

There are some books you read, just like that and books that you cherish and never go back to reading. However, Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land is a book that belongs to a different league. Once you are done reading the stories will continue to play in your head, unraveling just like a film.

A beautiful collection of 15 unique short stories, Pariat gives us tales from a land whose stories are much like ours yet forgotten or lost in transition – Northeast India. Through these short stories, she takes us into a world which is at once living in its past, present and dreaming of a better ‘future’.

The very first story, A Waterfall of Horses, sets the mood for an enchanting read. Taking one back to the 1850s, this is a story of the tussle between the ‘bilati people’ aka the British and the villagers in Pomreng. Pomreng as the narrator describes is a smudge on the map of the world and hardly visible to the outside world – a tiny spec of a Microcosm in the Macrocosm. Peppered with myths and old world ideologies, the lives of locals are suddenly disrupted by the ways of the outside world. Narrated through a small boy, the story tells how the villagers use magic to rid the village of the foreigners and in return have to flee as well because magic so strong, used for good or bad, does leave a trace.

Dream of the Golden Mahaseer is a story of two aging brothers and how the World Wars changed their lives forever. Fighting inner demons, one takes to drinking while the other dreams of the Golden Mahaseers. Here, Pariat introduces us to a variety of superstitions and beliefs followed by the locals – planting a broom outside one’s room so that water fairies or ‘puris’ as they are called, do not seduce one away.

Sky Graves is packed with land legends where shape-shifting is common or people taking the form of animals to safeguard their own is called for. The Keeper of Souls is another beautiful story that tells us many believe how spirits of our loved ones live in the forests to watch over their living kin and if the trees are felled these souls will have nowhere to go. The Discovery of flight is a melancholy tale of losing a loved one to the mysterious beings of the land.

To the outsider, the Northeast is made up of one sect. We are unaware of their struggles, their lives and their beliefs. To us, they are all north east Indians, period. But like us Indians, each of them too has a different sense of identity. Invisible political borders and ideologies have turned friends into foes and for Northeast India, it is no different.

19/87 brings out the differences between the ‘Khasis’ and the ‘dkhars’ – one is the so-called insider and the other, the outsider. Kite flying is used as a metaphor here to depict a sense of freedom and dominance. Earning his daily bread as a tailor, Suleiman who has lived for three decades here, is now being called as a dkhar. He is pronounced as an outsider while he has lived here longer than the ‘new’ insiders. His home is here and the very thought of leaving frightens him as he has never known what lies outside and has nowhere to go.

My favourite story of the lot is Pilgrimage. It talks about how life has drastically changed for people who have left their North Eastern home towns for a better future and when they do come back, it is either for a short holiday or treated as a retirement. While the protagonist in the story wants to trace back her good old days, she is firmly told that one should not be a pilgrim to the past. Aren’t we all ‘pilgrims’ to our past?

Has Shillong moved on with the world or has the world got onto Shillong?’ This is a feeling many of Pariat’s protagonists voice in the novel.

The Secret Corridor and Boats on Land talk of self-realization and acceptance. The first one takes us into the adolescent world of Natalie who is trying hard to fit in with the ‘cooler’ ones, forgoing notions of right and wrong. It gives us an insight into the mind of a young girl who is struggling to come to terms with her choice of sexual orientation, not chastising herself for it but is in search of expressions. 

The latter, Boats on Land, is beautifully narrated in first person. It is almost poetry as the lyrical quality of the depiction of the North East India country side is just brilliant. It makes you want to be there. Here again, the story takes us through two lives. One who has a normal childhood, blossoming into a lovely teenager with set ambitions, guided by her parents, the other is dwelling in sadness. This is story is at once full of facts as well philosophical in nature with initiations of superstitions, myths and old world land legends.

In short, Boats on Land is a refreshing read, offering us a wider horizon to explore. I would highly recommend it to everyone. 

Bookworm rating: 3.9/5 bookworms


  1. athe way you have spoken(well written to be precise!!) gonna pick this one up!!

  2. @Shooting Star

    We are happy to have enthusiastic book-lovers who contribute exciting reviews. Thank you for dropping by. If you wish to contribute, do let us know at

  3. @Deeps

    Thank you and we hope you had a wonderful festive season as well. :)