‘Once printed, the word is feeble and carries little power. It wrestles with ink and typography and margins, struggling to be what it always was. Spoken. Unwritten, unrecorded. Old, they say, as the first fire. Free to roam the mountains, circle the hearth, and fall as rain.’
In her short story “A Waterfall of Horses”, Janice Pariat explores some seriously deep themes that can essentially be whittled down into a couple of questions: how much more accurate, and potent, are oral traditions as compared to the written word (since the oral tradition is far, far older); and how much of our reality cannot be conveyed at all through language?
Pariat is an Indian (to clarify that: East Indian) author from the state of Assam which is not very far from where her short story is set. This is a detail you might want to keep in mind, because throughout this piece is a light smattering of Khasi, the local language. And it’s untranslated. Which I both love and loathe.
The plot starts out unassumingly. We hear the story second-hand from an unnamed child narrator recounting an event from his childhood in the 1850s. Since this set back in in the glory days of the British empire, there are so-called bilati or white men in the tiny village of Pomreng – where the story is set – and their presence is a constant source of annoyance to the native villagers.
Comeuppance is in store, and the villagers convene to mete it out, in a rather…unconventional manner.
Mild spoilers ahead, if you’re wondering. I cannot resist.
These men know that their pitchforks and pans are no match against gunpowder and fire, so they turn to their backup, older weapon: magic. Specifically, black magic.
It is a widely understood fact in Indian culture that black magic brings bad juju, not just upon its victim (which is…kind of its purpose?), but to its user as well, and this story is not an exception. It handles the taboo subject brilliantly, and I do think Pariat does an amazing job in capturing Indian norms and sprinkling a little bit of magical realism in with them. She also subverts the tiresome, binary trope of Indian good British bad in this one, giving us some characters that are a believable shade of grey.
The use of language is admirable. Parijat is intentionally atmospheric, conjuring up scenes of pastoral village life in the hills of Northeastern India, then switching gears toward the conclusion of the story, describing desolation and emptiness.
What I found most fascinating were the themes that Parijat nudges us to consider, that of oral narratives and the gap between language and our reality – that chasm that no words can fill. It’s heartening enough to have an Indian author bringing home-grown literature to an international audience, but far rarer to see anyone go beyond mere identity to a more universal question, which is exactly what Janice Parijat does here with “A Waterfall of Horses”.
I highly recommend this one. I’ll be keeping an eye on this author.