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Excerpt: Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories

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Oct 30, 2012 at 06:39pm IST

Boats on Land looks at India's northeast 'uniquely' and its people against a larger historical canvas - the early days of the British Raj, the World Wars, conversions to Christianity, and the missionaries.

The Boats on Land quietly captures our fragile, awkward place in the world.

ALSO SEE 'Boats on Land' a refreshing, thought-provoking read

Written by Janice Pariat, a writer from Shillong, currently, studying History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Excerpt: Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories

Boats on Land looks at India's northeast 'uniquely' and its people against a larger historical canvas.

Her work has featured in a wide number of national magazines and newspapers. Her first book Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories has been published by Random House in October 2012.

Here's an excerpt from the book:

Today, nobody had come to the doctor possessed by a ghost. Kem ksuid it was called. Caught by a spirit, forced to languish and waste away. No one had blamed their illness on thlen either, the evil eye, cast ruthlessly on unsuspecting souls. Often, he was more shaman than doctor, but today, it had been simple—a child’s hollow, persistent cough, a pregnant lady’s erratic bleeding, a spade wound on a farmer’s ankle, arthritis in an old woman’s fingers.

Doctor Wallang stepped out onto the veranda and lit a cigarette. The wooden bench outside his room was finally empty. In ten years of clinical service, no matter how late, he’d never turned away anyone who’d sat there. Sometimes his patients travelled for days from their villages deep in the folded valleys of Sohra; he knew for he’d visit occasionally to distribute medicine and clothing donated by the Welsh missionaries. He hadn’t been there recently though—with the outbreak of the second great war four years ago, these rations were hard to come by. Yet Father Bevan, the church elder, did his best, as he said, ‘for God and his people’.

Usually Doctor Wallang would head indoors to his study, but this evening, with the last of the fine autumn weather, he decided to stroll down the garden path towards the main road. He passed the vegetable patch tended by his wife, and, to his left, a stone wall overhung with ‘knupmawiang. He liked these large creeper orchids with their flat, ribbed leaves and pale yellow flowers that opened during the rains and blossomed all through winter. It was October now, and they would be the sole floral survivors of the next few cold, crippling months. He leaned on the gate and watched the evening settle around him—in the fading light, the lime-washed missionary building opposite glowed an iridescent silver, smoke drifted from a cluster of small stone houses on a nearby hill, and the smell of wood fire rose in the air. Across the valley, the faint drone of an airplane broke the primitive silence. It was carrying passengers and rations from the American base camp in Dhaka to Shillong. The war had placed even this part of the world on the map.

Further down the road, Flynn, the manager of a tea plantation over the next hill, was walking his dog, a large, scruffy-haired Bhutia from Sikkim.

‘Good evening, Sahib Flynn.’ ‘Nothing good about it, doctor.’ The Irishman’s gruffness stemmed not from impudence but

worry. Almost a decade ago, during his first Sohra monsoon, it had crept into his voice, a raspy insidious shadow, and outlined his rough, thickset features. It had deepened over the years, when every summer, his life savings were washed away by rain, eroding like mud into a river. It wasn’t as though the locals hadn’t warned him—‘It doesn’t stop for weeks, Sahib Flynn,’ they’d said, ‘and nothing grows. See, the topsoil is all gone, nothing grows.’ Tea bushes, they tried to tell him, no matter how resilient, probably wouldn’t survive either.

The doctor knew better than to ask how things were at the plantation, so he made small talk instead—the bishop’s impending visit to the village church, the fast approaching winter, the price of coal. Whilst they discussed rumbling rumours of plans to construct an industrial factory near Mawmluh village, the hound at Flynn’s feet looked up and growled.

‘What’s up, Sonny?’ Sahib Flynn placed a hand on the dog’s collar.

Apart from them, the road was empty, disappearing on either end into rising mist. The garden in front of the missionary building was also vacant; Father Bevan and the other priests were probably at evening prayer. Sonny growled again, and barked. The sound of hooves echoed in the distance.

‘Don’t know why,’ Flynn muttered, ‘but this dog hates horses.’

Soon, the rider was close enough to be recognized—it was Jonah, son of Mr and Mrs Smithson who lived in a bungalow at Kut Madan. Doctor Wallang expected him to stop at his gate—somebody had probably taken ill—but instead Jonah dismounted at the missionary building. He tied his horse to the gate, his walk marked by a limp, the remaining trace of a childhood illness.

Flynn still had his hand on Sonny’s collar. ‘Last rites?’

‘Maybe,’ said the doctor, and stubbed out his cigarette on the gate.

*

That evening Doctor Wallang’s family sat down to dinner in the kitchen as usual. In one corner, a fire spluttered, drying out ragged strips of fish and meat hung above the flames. At the table, the children wrestled for attention, while their mother dished out pork stew and steaming rice. Everyone fell quiet for grace. Their father could be strict about these things.

For a few moments, only his voice echoed in the room— ‘Bless us, O Lord, for these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Help us to be mindful of all our blessings, and the needs of those who have less.’

In chorus, the family murmured ‘Amen’.

Halfway through the meal, when chatter and gentle teasing had resumed, an urgent knocking sounded on the door. It was a helper from the Smithson household.

‘Please,’ he uttered, out of breath, ‘could the doctor come at once to Kut Madan?’

As Doctor Wallang washed his hands, his children fetched his bag and his wife brought him a shawl. ‘Who knows how late you’ll be there,’ she said. He rushed out of the house with a familiar tug in his stomach. No matter how long he’d been doing this, it always made him nervous—the sudden summon of illness or death. As they hurried down the road, he asked the helper what had happened. The torch in the doctor’s hand threw a feeble jaundiced light on rough mud and stone. Around them the wind blew over the barren hills like a restless spirit.

‘The memsahib, she has taken ill. The young one.’

It would have been difficult to imagine Mrs Smithson—a tall, thin woman with a steely tongue and constitution— being anything apart from ruthlessly fit. The ‘young one’, he presumed, was Miss Lucy, Mrs Smithson’s orphaned niece from England. She’d arrived earlier that year with the monsoon. The doctor had seen her a few times out riding alone, and occasionally with Jonah.

The bungalow at Kut Madan lay ensconced in a thick forest of pine, brooding in the darkness like a mournful ruin. To the back, the trees spilled over a sudden sharp cliff that gave the place its name—‘the end of land’. There were dim lantern lights flickering at several windows, the household was up and waiting. Jonah opened the door.

‘Thank you for coming, doctor.’ He was twenty-two, yet carried the formal, sombre manners of a much older man. As he was ushered in, the doctor noticed that Jonah’s limp had worsened—he’d advised him to ride less often; clearly the boy hadn’t listened.

In the living room, Mr Smithson’s expansive frame stood in front of the fire, while the lady of the house sat still and silent by the window.

‘We’re sorry to have disturbed your evening, doctor. I know you close the clinic at five.’ Mr Smithson’s usually genial manner was subdued, despite the trace of whisky on his breath.

‘It’s no trouble, Sahib Smith, how can I help?’ ‘It’s Lucy...’ he began, and faltered. ‘Yes?’ ‘Well...’

‘What is the matter with her?’ Mr Smithson glanced at his son.

‘That’s the problem, we’re not quite sure...’ answered Jonah. ‘She is—’

He was interrupted by his mother. ‘The girl has been complaining of headaches and dizzy spells.’

The doctor turned. ‘For how long now?’

‘About a week.’

The doctor didn’t ask why he hadn’t been summoned earlier; despite his profession, in a white household, it wasn’t his place to do so.

The family lapsed into silence. Jonah spoke first, ‘Perhaps you ought to see her.’

Mrs Smithson said she’d check on the girl and left the room. A burning log crackled and spat in the fireplace. Jonah and his father stood quiet as ghosts.

‘Sahib Smith, was there anything that happened today, that made you send for me?’

Mr Smithson moved to a side table and poured himself another drink.

‘Lucy’s been a little under the weather lately...I put it down to pining for something or other, you know young people these days. You see, there was a small matter concerning the stable lad—’

‘Father, it isn’t necessary to bring that up.’ Jonah’s tone was sharp, and his face, the doctor noticed, had reddened.

But the elder gentleman continued, unmindful. He was a little drunk.

‘Don’t know what they were up to...probably nothing more than long walks, really, but I noticed she seemed rather dispirited after...well, after her aunt had a word with her about him.’

Doctor Wallang knew who they were talking about; Kyntang had escorted his ailing father to the clinic about a month ago. He was a quiet, good-looking boy even if he did bring along with him a faint odour of horses.

Mr Smithson sat back heavily in his chair; he looked tired.

‘This afternoon she was...I suppose you could say, delirious...not herself at all. Kept talking about a golden...a golden, what was it? Anyway, it was most worrying and we thought, perhaps, it could be one of those things, what you people call...’ He struggled with the words.

‘Kem ksuid?’

Mr Smithson nodded. ‘My wife thought we should call Father Bevan...’

‘And he suggested we summon you,’ finished Jonah, ‘because he says you...have some experience in these matters.’ The awkwardness hung in the room like a blind, lost creature unable to escape until Mrs Smithson beckoned from the door. The lantern she held threw long, loping shadows on the walls of a narrow corridor leading to the bedroom.

‘How old is Miss Lucy?’ asked the doctor.

‘Nineteen. A most trying age, when a girl’s mind is full of fanciful things. We must not be indulgent, doctor.’ It sounded more an order than a plea.

‘And her parents?’

‘Both dead, bombed in the Blitz. It’s a miracle she escaped.’

Mrs Smithson stopped and pushed open a door. ‘I’ll be right outside, doctor.’

He paused. With cases like these, he was never sure whether he’d need to be shaman or doctor. Sometimes, there didn’t seem to be a difference.

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