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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 43, Dated 27 Oct 2012

    Letters from the fringe

    A debut collection from Janice Pariat and short stories by Indian-American writer Tania James are studies in sorrow, loneliness, yearning and identity, says Shougat Dasgupta

    Notes on life Janice Pariat

    Photo: Ronny Sen

    Notes on life Tania James


    Portrait of the Artist as a Young Madrasi
    The War Against Dissent

    The Prisoner of Pottermania

    Tania James
    Random House
    192 pp; Rs 399

    Boats on Land
    Janice Pariat
    Random House
    296 pp; Rs 399

    SALMAN RUSHDIE, writing in Joseph Anton about the epiphany that freed him to invent the language for Midnight’s Children, invokes India’s oral storytelling traditions: “The storyteller stirred stories into one another, digressed frequently from the main narrative, told jokes, sang songs, connected his political story to the ancient tales, made personal asides, and generally misbehaved… Might it be that this pyrotechnic way of telling might in fact be more engrossing… that the oral story, the most ancient of narrative forms, had survived because of its adoption of complexity and playfulness and its rejection of start-to-finish linearity?”

    For Janice Pariat, a very different writer, quiet and restrained where Rushdie is, in his own words, vulgar and loud, the word “[o]nce printed… is feeble and carries little power.” “It wrestles with ink and typography and margins,” she writes in ‘A Waterfall of Horses’ the opening story of her carefully wrought, sometimes striking debut short story collection Boats On Land, “struggling to be what it was originally. Spoken. Unwritten, unrecorded. Old, they say, as the first fire. Free to roam the mountains, circle the heath, and fall as rain.” All societies tell stories, rely on stories, on origin myths to explain, to make some sense of the world around us and how we came to be here and what it is we have done and hope to do now that we are here. Or perhaps we need stories as respite from the world, not so much to explain it as to remake it, to safely shriek in delight or terror. The key word is ‘safe’: confronting the wilderness of the imagination, in your room, within the covers of a book, is a damn sight safer than going outside.

    Storytelling — the fussy, didactic opening to ‘A Waterfall of Horses’ (it serves as a manifesto, a guiding principle for a book of short stories each of which is at once discrete and part of a mosaic) ensures the reader is left in no doubt — is Pariat’s abiding concern as, perhaps, is the more passive act of listening, of living vicariously through stories. Terrible things happen on the fringes of Pariat’s stories, suicides, rape, children dying before their parents, ethnic violence, state oppression, even horses leaping to their deaths over the edge of a waterfall like the possessed pigs Christ drove into the sea. But the stories themselves, like the reader in his room, seem somehow insulated from the violence by Pariat’s glazed prose.

    The first two stories in Boats On Land, set respectively in the 19th century and just after the first world war, are atmospheric, Gothic curiosities. The supernatural plays a large part in both stories, as does doomed love and the death of young women (literal or metaphorical). The following sentences, from the second story ‘At Kut Madan’, could have been written by Bram Stoker or one of the Brontë sisters: “A lantern placed on the mantelpiece above a cavernous fireplace shed limpid light on a girl as pale as the snowy quilt wrapped around her. Even when he moved closer, she lay still, propped on a pillow, her wavy chestnut hair spread out in a wild, flaming tangle.”

    Many of Pariat’s characters feel what the narrator of the first story describes as the “call of the void… the pull you feel when you stand looking down from a great height. The urge to jump.” In ‘Dream of the Golden Mahseer’, Pariat writes of a character: “The next day, Mama Kyn was found seated on a rock perched precariously by the Wah Dieng Doh waterfall. He didn’t seem to notice us beckon to him, his arms drawn around his bent knees, his eyes staring into nothingness.” In ‘Embassy’, a woman who drowns herself “became a waterfall”. In the title story, a character’s life changes in the bath, the “next day, the world was washed anew”. Back home, asked about her holiday, the character reflects: “I went to a lake and drowned.” In ‘Laitlum’, brothers drown. In ‘The Discovery of Flight’, a man goes out in what is apparently a storm of Biblical proportions. At the end of the slight ‘Hong Kong’, a character reflects: “Puddles of water reflect lights that quiver with every passing step. I feel the weight of everyone’s history press down on me like relentless rain.” Inevitably, the cover illustration is of a young girl (a mermaid? A water sprite?) underwater; the cover is also an allusion to Nirvana’s Nevermind, significant in ‘Laitlum’.

    It’s a shame Tim Parks got there first or Pariat could have named her collection ‘Dreams of Rivers and Seas’ (more than one character compares the width of a river to the sea). Reading Pariat, I thought of Kate Chopin’s famous novel, The Awakening, in which the protagonist walks into the Gulf of Mexico, or of Virginia Woolf who walked into the River Ouse. The plunge into water, metaphorically, is an act of bravery, a willingness to let go.

    Perhaps we need stories as respite from the world, not so much to explain it as to remake it, to safely shriek in delight or terror

    ‘Escape Key’, a story in Tania James’ excellent Aerogrammes, begins, “All throughout childhood, my older brother refused to jump from the high dive, a phobia for which I gave him constant hell.” I don’t want to spoil the ending, so let me just say water is important. As with Pariat, this is James’ first collection of short stories, though she has written an acclaimed novel. James, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, shares with Pariat a fancy for the fantastic, the supernatural — a girl whose closest kinship is with a chimpanzee; a girl who marries a ghost. They also share an acute sensitivity to dissonance, to the discomforts and confusions of the young. The characters in the various stories in Aerogrammes must find ways to cope with loss: of country, spouse, lover, parent, sibling, of youth. They are floundering, clinging to comfort where they find it, in a brother’s reassuring touch, a child sponsored in a faraway country, the memory of a bond, a game of marbles with a granddaughter who looks like a lost spouse. For others, comfort is fleeting or false and they find themselves “stranded in the middle of a night so dark”.

    FOR ALL that her stories are unsettling, suffused with sorrow, James is not a bleak writer. Like the brilliant Lorrie Moore, James staves off sentimentality (at least much of the time) with wit. It’s another dissonance, a displacement. In the story ‘The Scriptological Review: A Last Letter from the Editor’, the sadness of losing a father, and trying obsessively to keep him alive, is delivered in the jaunty prose of the eponymous editor: “As long as my mom handles the funding, I don’t mind if she wants to while away her time with her boyfriend, Kirk Baümler. Kirk is reliable and handy, like a good garden tool… There may be much to admire about men like Kirk, but his handwriting tells another story.” The story shows James at her best, her most lyrical — “revealing the slight eyelash left by the lingering pen” — and her most cloying, the literary avatar of a Wes Anderson movie.

    Aerogrammes and Boats On Land are rewarding collections. What complaints I do have — a tendency to stray the wrong side of wistful (Pariat, indeed, strays dangerously close to Dawson’s Creek-style teen drama territory) — are more than offset by the stories’ many pleasures.

    Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 43, Dated 27 Oct 2012



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