The very first and the very last page of my hardbound copy of Peace Has Come hold me back after I’m done reading. Coloured ochre, they feature sparse and simple drawings of people doing almost nothing. On the front, we see three women sitting, one figure standing, and a bicycle parked under a tree. At the back, more figures sit under a tree. Another woman cooks, looking up as if to observe the sky.

The following things would not promptly come to mind if one gazed upon these drawings: men with rifles, police checkpoints, khukris, camps of displaced people, riots, poetry. Or perhaps, looking at that indolent peace, that nothingness, they promptly would. Perhaps Parismita Singh knows this.

Artwork by Parismita Singh
Artwork by Parismita Singh

History and violence

Peace Has Come is a collection of stories, and the lives in it remind me of a phrase I read in a review of The Namesake: displaced and dour. There is something unhistorical – and therefore unbearable – about Singh’s tableau of affected individuals. This is the revolution, this is violence, this is history, but this is also a man in love with a woman, a Bodo youngster who’s missing out on maths coaching to fight the Santhals, a young woman distracted by a peacock’s shrieking. These are also individuals who want to do little more than go about their day, who sometimes have no option but to do just that, even as people are killed around them.

For the most part, Peace Has Come as a work of literature appealed to me, and this is because its writer is direct. But because Singh’s subject is such a painful one, she cannot be brash about painting a picture, or too minimalistic. She takes her time to incorporate parts of the beautiful natural panorama of North East India. She completes her scenes with plenty of dialogue, and like any good dialogue, it leaves the reader feeling incomplete and wanting more.

Singh is also careful not to be melodramatic about the needlessness of the deaths and the unwarranted noise. She strives for authenticity, to present in English a situation that may or may not have anything to do with the language. In a story titled “Looking for Mongru”, a woman called Sangita advises her comrade, “If you want to be Assamese when it suits you, you should have learnt to make your pa and ka sounds...” On the other hand, in a different story, the absence of TS Eliot in schoolbooks becomes representative of political laziness.

Pauses and voids

Singh’s stories are not remarkable for their content in terms of plot and progression. Rather, they show us the pauses and voids that are herded by these larger progressions, these greater plots – of governments, rebels, and conflicts. In the first story, “A Time Made of Glass”, we meet lovers Rwmaii and Sylvia through their classmate, and observe through his eyes the excitement of being in love and being able to express it in writing, of being able to name it what it is.

In “Looking for Mongru”, an inexplicable occurrence of a gun alternating as a flute sets in motion a journey for three friends who are seeking the man who plays this gun-flute. Amidst all the violence and ruckus, Singh also takes time to give us snippets of the things that really matter: “She felt such an overwhelming tenderness for this sleeping boy that she could almost love him (...) She did plan on eventually settling for love, but not now, not as yet.” And then: “But where she came from, keeping away from love for as long as possible was making time for the world.”

Artwork by Parismita Singh
Artwork by Parismita Singh

Time is another important force Singh tries to deal with. Sometimes, her characters cannot believe that it’s been ten, twelve, fifteen years since the 1996 Bodoland conflict took place, in which over 250,000 people were displaced. In one story, an uncle nonchalantly concedes to his niece, “It was all such a long time ago, I don’t think there’s any harm in telling you the story.” The blurb on the front flap tells us that “these years of imminent peace, the rivers, forests, villages, and the many cultures of a small place – Rabha, Bodo, Santhal, Nepali, Koch-Rajbongshi, Muslim – come blazingly alive.”

The imminence of that peace is of course a sinister one, the way the silence in a forest is a disturbing one. It disheartens even as it lends hope. And through the pages, through all the curfews and jeeps and guns and young men that lead up to and mark the ceasefire period in the late 1990s, the reader is compelled to read the individual as a thing both affected and unaffected, touched and untouched, by violence.

For me, this is best exemplified by a scene in “Looking for Mongru”, in which two rival groups stand, simply stand, aiming their guns at each other for the longest time, and then eventually go home. Peace Has Come, I believe, is crucial to read today, as more and more people realise how violent peace can be, to realise the sheer impossibility of these three titular words.

Peace Has Come, Parismita Singh, Context.