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Liminal State

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A people caught between war and peace

Peace Has Come | Parismita Singh | Westland | Rs 499 | Pages 280

This collection of short stories is set in a time when the state and some militants have called a ceasefire, and violence between various ethnic groups has for the most part ended. An uneasy peace has dawned, in which Assam’s people try and get on with their lives. This liminal state of affairs is fragile, as the stories tell us. To quote from the book’s jacket, ‘When violence has seeped into the very soil and water of a place, the peace that follows is poisoned too.’

Dealing with fraught settings, these stories serve well as the proverbial ‘agents of memory and conscience’, through portraits of lives caught in socio-political fragmentation. A journalist makes a journey to uncover the truth behind the accident that befell a labourer, and comes face to face with the matter-of-factness and everyday-ness of evil. A girl overcomes her isolation caused by her marriage with a militant, only to be betrayed by her lover. A snatch of casual conversation leads to a killing. A woman receives an unexpected gift of everyday kindness from a man from a community in conflict with hers. A weaver watches as the threads of her family life unravel.

Livelihoods and lives themselves are at stake as violence is never far away. The situations dealt with here make for strong plots, because the characters have a lot to lose. This gives the stories a menacing tone, the poignant rhythm of a rural landscape pierced through with the sound of bullets and clouds of smoke. Moreover, the complexity of the society under consideration is brought out vividly, with the conflicts across community lines being effectively mapped. Peace Has Come is, without a doubt, strong storytelling born of deep feeling and keen observation.

The writer, who is also a graphic novelist, has included a few black-and-white sketches of rural scenes and motifs, which produce a quiet, evocative mood. The cover, too, is well-designed.

As for the writing, it demands effort on the part of the reader. Some stories have abrupt shifts in tense. For instance, in a story called ‘Sultana Walks Home’, the second paragraph is in past tense, the third in present tense, then the fourth in past tense again. The experimentation seems to strive towards an English that is colloquial, while also using breaks in syntax and breaches of grammatical/writerly conventions to signify ruptures in the social fabric or transitions in the individual psyche. The style is more noticeable as style in the first half of the collection; there were several places where I had to re-read sentences, which, of course, breached the spell of the stories. I found myself settling better into the narratives in the second half.

All in all, this book provides a complex, empathetic portrait of a heterogeneous, conflict-ridden society without lapsing into sentimentality or succumbing to simplistic formulation of plot.