15 Oct, 2012 14:13 IST
'A Tale Can Be Told In Many Ways'
Janice Pariat talks weaving the everydayness of Shillong, its culture and characters in her collection of short stories
I grew up mostly in Shillong and pockets of Assam. My father worked as a manager in tea estates all over -- Margherita, Tezpur, Biswanath Chariali, Jorhat. It was quite idyllic really, my childhood was spent mostly outdoors playing in the sprawling gardens around the bungalows. The Assam countryside is quite isolated and lonely, and with no watchable television, working phones or internet I read a lot -- whatever I could lay my hands on in our dusty old club libraries. I studied for a while at Loreto Convent, Shillong, and then The Assam Valley School, after which I was at St Stephen's in Delhi, studying English Literature. I dabbled in a lot of things -- publishing mainly, until I realised I'd rather write my own text than edit others'. I joined Timeout Delhi magazine as an art writer for almost two years. Then quit, and upped and left for Shillong. I wanted to spend time at 'home', telling stories about the place and its people, to write, to become a story-teller. I have just finished my MA in History of Art from The School of Oriental & African Studies, London and will be shifting base there for the next few years.
You have written about the everydayness of east Indian states; the food, culture, music, etc. Was it a conscious decision to showcase this through your book? What is the kind of response you have received so far from within Shillong?
I'm not sure "showcase" is the right word -- I think it's more about creating a real, living, breathing, believable world in which these details add up to more than just ornament. They are part of the narrative, and are as important as the characters I have portrayed. Regarding the response from Shillong -- I'm waiting with bated breath. Copies would have just hit the bookstores, and people will soon get around to reading the stories soon. Although, my family and my writer and poet friends from there have been nothing less than unflinchingly supportive.
Why short stories and not a novel?
For the same reason that novels are not short stories. Content shapes form and some stories can be told as worlds seen in a quick, glancing light, while others require elaboration and embellishment. This is not to say that the sweep of a short story isn't as far reaching or as profound as a novel. A tale can be told in many ways; it's important to find which one suits it best. My short stories reflect the folkloric tradition, they can be narrated at a sitting, and dipped into delicately. Yet they also function together as a whole -- incorporating the passage of time over the century, and the changes a place goes through historically. I have enjoyed re-imagining spaces through different characters.
Tell us about the kind of research you did... How did you put the book together?
I listened. A good storyteller must be a careful listener. And the Khasis are fantastic storytellers -- whether it be folklore, gossip, rumour. These stories have grown out of smaller incidents that I have heard about through family, friends, strangers. They have been fleshed out, reimagined, sometimes even given a new context. I wrote the stories over almost two years -- they sometimes fell into my hands as perfectly polished shells or I had to batter them out like a blacksmith.
A bit about your writing habits... When and where do you write?
Late at night, early morning, all day. I'm a restless writer. I stare out windows, I pace the room, I murmur to myself. I wrote most of these stories in Shillong and others in London.
What makes a book a really good read or a bestseller?
What makes many readers turn the pages is usually a bestseller. What makes readers think while turning the page is usually a good read. I'm voracious with my reading, and promiscuously unfaithful. I find new favourite authors often and dismiss them as easily.
Boats On Land
Random House India
Price: Rs 399
What are you reading now? And e-books or paper format
I just finished Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth. And I am not fussy when it comes to ebooks or hard copies. A good story is gripping no matter what the format. Although I must admit I like holding books in my hands after I am done with them. I study them like I would a new, unfamiliar lover.
So, what’s next? Are you working on your next book?
Yes, a novella. Finely chiseled and sculpted as some of my favourites, I hope.
How did you find a publisher for your book?
The long, hard way. I sent the manuscript out to a number of publishers and waited, and hoped. The feedback trickled in -- one thought the stories had tremendous potential but more work at that moment, most of the others were enthusiastic. It is difficult, as a first-time author (without an agent), to know exactly what is a 'good deal' -- but I think you must trust your publisher to begin with. Random House has been infinitely supportive and have a vision of the book that corresponds to mine -- that these are stories set in the 'northeast' of India but they also have a widely universal appeal.
(Compiled By Sanjitha Rao Chaini)