Look at what’s going on,” says the young Grace in Laitlum, a short story which appears in the middle of Janice Pariat’s Boats on Land. “Is there time for folk tales when people are shooting each other across their own town roads?” Grace is unsatisfied when her boyfriend Chris replies, “Perhaps that’s when they need them most.” “Maybe once they taught people something about life, and how to live it but not any more,” she shoots back. “Now you figure things out for yourself, you can’t depend on anyone else to get you out of shit.”
Few conversations in the stories in Boats on Land are as explicit as this. Set in and around Shillong, spanning generations and centuries, Boats on Land addresses political conflict with the gentlest of touches, allowing war to shape the stories only as far as they shape the lives of the people in these stories, in the background of their chance encounters and sorrowful partings, unexpected friendships and quietly observed rites of passage. But the great commonwealth of folk stories and myths are also part of the air that characters—including the rock ‘n’ roll-loving teenagers in Laitlum—breathe. They mix themselves up with half-remembered memories and minute personal histories, and become, in this way, contemporary and private.