Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land, which won the Crossword Book Award for Fiction and the Young Writers’ Award from the Sahitya Akademi in 2013. She writes cultural features for a wide number of magazines and edits Pyrta, an online library journal. Her novel Seahorse is forthcoming in November 2014 with Random House, India. This nomad at heart lives between the UK and India.
NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories.’ How did you get the idea for the book? Why did you decide to go for a short story collection given the lack of a ready readership for the genre?
Boats on Land is my modest homage to the act of storytelling. Its orality and theatricality. Storytelling as performance and transformation. As archive and reservoir of history. As gossip and rumour and scandal. And as the fictions of our everyday lives. I’ve carried these stories around for years—faithfully filched from fireside evenings and familial gatherings, from folktales I heard as a child. The English writing from Meghalaya tends to fall within ‘realism’ (Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in my Head, Dhruba Hazarika’s A Bow String Winter) and folkloric (Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih’s Around the Hearth: Khasi Folk Tales), and I wanted to fill the space between. One that interweaves the magial and the mundane, the quixotic and the mysterious. Where many ‘realities’ coexist quite comfortably. The stories contain nuggests of truth, or ‘fact’ fleshed out, reimagined, contextualised within the area’s turbulent political past.
I think the problem with statements such as “lack of a ready readership” is that saying them makes it seem true. Perhaps the reason more people don’t read short stories is because not many collections are published because publishers think people don’t read short stories. Such a pointless vicious cycle.
The author doesn’t decide which genre ‘to go for’. The story does. How can this story best be told? That’s the important question. That, in fact, is the only question.
NAW- In your short stories, you bring out the beauty of the North East. There is a dearth of translated works from this part of the country in spite of the rich cultural history that it has. Many Indians don’t even know the names of all seven states. Why is it that the North East has faced such discrimination as it were?
My short stories are set in Shillong, Cherrapunjee, and pockets of Assam—a small part of India’s ‘Northeast’ (a geographical clumping, like South India or North India, that makes little sense). The reason why there are relatively few translated works in Khasi (the language of the Khasi community in Meghalaya), is because it’s been a largely oral culture until the late 1800s. The alphabet ‘arrived’ with Welsh missionaries, who travelled across the world to spread the word of God, and found they had no script with which to translate the Bible. Our ‘literature’ and ‘texts’ were song, folktales, poems—oral, unwritten, unarchived, and quite impossible to ‘translate’. I hesitate to speak of behalf of the ‘Northeast’ region—if there has been less attention in the past on the writing that has come from there it’s because it remains in the country’s preiphery, just as many other areas within India’s vastness, far from the cultural centres of Delhi, Bombay, etc. Yet the ‘accusation’ stands both ways. If there are misconceptions about the ‘Northeast’ in ‘mainland India’, it is also true vice versa. We are all guilty of ignorance and indifference.
Seahorse is utterly different from Boats on Land, which for me, is exciting and terrifying. It’s a novel that retells a lesser known Greek myth—the story of Poseidon and his young male lover Pelops—and is set between North Delhi in the 1990s, during India’s swift liberalisation, and contemporary London. My character is a student of English Literature, who falls in love with an older academic, an art historian. What began as a story about ‘apprenticeship’, grew into an exploration of queerness, and the intricate interplay between time, memory, art. If that isn’t thrilling enough, there’s also a mythical tree, mysterious letters, a search for winged horses, and of course, as any good Greek myth should include, a race.
NAW- You also compose poetry, right? Between prose and poetry, which is your first love and why?
Neither. If I must choose a first love, it’s writing. Poetry and prose, I’d like to think, are inextricable in my work. I’m not referring to form—I lack the skill and discipline to write little else apart from free verse—but to what George Szirtes calls ‘the sense of the poetic.’ Where words are touched by ambiguity, by a certain playfulness, a way of nudging the reader into seeing the familiar in unfamiliar ways.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
Read. I don’t usually pick up books while I’m working on my own manuscript (I find it difficult to inhabit more than one fictional world). So in-between edits is when I ‘catch up’ on whatever’s languishing on my shelf.
Travel, as much as I can (afford).
Since I live between the UK and India, what I do also depends on where I happen to be. In the UK, my husband and I live on the coast, so we walk. A lot. Visit our favourite pub. A lot. Listen to vast amounts of music (current obsession: indie band French for Rabbits), watch movies, Montalbano, theatre (love London’s Almeida), and generally linger for hours at art shows.
Back ‘home’, it’s mostly family time. Catching up with friends. And tucking into all the street/home food I’ve missed.
NAW- Name your five favourite books.
There’s a long moment, when confronted with questions like this, that my mind is wiped blank. And then begins a clamour. A jumble of titles. Today, I pick Ghosh’s Shadow Lines, Stoppard’s Arcadia, Yates’ Revolutionary Road, Woolf’s Orlando, Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. Tomorrow, my answers would most definitely be different.
NAW- Which authors have influenced your writing?
The short, succint answer would be the ones I love—Jeet Thayil, Phillip Pullman, Sylvia Plath, Temsula Ao, Philip Larkin, Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson. Perhaps, also the ones I dislike. (Aren’t we shaped by both?) Also those who aren’t ‘authors’ at all, but oral storytellers. My grandfathers, my father, uncles and aunts, strangers and friends, the Khasi community I grew up in, for whom ‘the word’ is magical, powerful and transformative. The art I’ve seen, the music I’ve chanced upon. Road signs. Street graffitti. Eavesdropped conversations. Train journeys.