Monday, 15 August 2011

A story about stories

A scientist reprimanded me once for asking for a story. “I do scientific research and am not in the business of telling stories,” he said, before ending the phone conversation.

Perhaps the use of the word “story” irritated him. A journalist uses the word so often that it becomes a creature in itself in newsrooms. Life is a story, and so is death, accident, tsunami, fashion show and the infidelities of a celebrity.

A scene from the movie In the Valley of Elah
However, I am sure journalism borrowed and used the word only because the concept of storytelling has been with humanity ever since civilization and culture started. I can imagine the editors of the newspapers of early days asking their reporters “do you have a story to tell our readers today?” But much before newspapers started there are records of cavemen telling stories about the wild animals they saw. Cave etchings testify to these storytelling sessions around the fire.

Growing up in a boarding school, we often reenacted the cave situation. Starting a fire inside the dorms would have got us expelled, so we exchanged stories while warming our hands over an electric stove to ward off the cold of the nights in the Nilgiris. There were new, fresh stories when we returned from holidays. Seven weeks of separation from friends was enough to generate creativity. Some amongst us told tall ones; the others were wannabes. Like the cavemen, we also recorded our succinct messages on the walls for posterity. A cryptic “PGP was here” scratched on the wall marked the tiger’s territory in our teenage social forest.

From time immemorial stories served the same purpose as our sessions around the electric stove. They brought people together. When domesticated agriculture started, communities sat together during that part of the day when they could not do any farm work and told stories.

In most societies storytelling evolved into an art. In Kerala, the Chakyar koothu tradition has evolved into a sophisticated performing art form. Not much unlike the present-day standup comedians, the Chakyars narrate mythological stories, interspersed with modern-day parallels.

Much of country music does the same. A guitar is not a difficult instrument to carry. It can give both rhythm and tone to music. The narrative, however, is not mythological. In a country of mixed histories that would not have been possible. The country songs instead dip into stories of yore, and talk about miners and railroad engineers.

Epics in all cultures tell the stories of the struggle of good against evil. They instill good values in societies.

It is because of the timelessness of stories in the epics that references are continuously made to them even in the present day. The movie In the Valley of Elah tells the simple story of a father wanting to find how his son died. The story of post-traumatic disorders suffered by young American soldiers returning from Iraq is weaved with the David-Goliath story of the Old Testament through a story-telling session between an old man and a young boy. The old man’s struggle for truth against a stonewalling army establishment is compared to David standing his ground and fighting Goliath.

It is said that the forced migration of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of wrath has parallels to the migration of Israelites from Egypt in the Book of Exodus. If Steinbeck linked to the past in this book, the story of Kino when he finds the magnificent stone in The pearl continues to find parallels to the plight of many poor countries when they find oil or minerals on their land.

Ernest Hemingway told simple love stories blended into the background of historical events. In A farewell to arms, Lieutenant Frederic Henry made love to Catherine Barkley, got her pregnant, crossed national borders as she was approaching labor and lost her in childbirth while the First World War raged in the background. In For whom the bell tolls Robert Jordan participates in the Spanish Civil War.

Memorable stories keep coming back to us. Even without being Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, we face the “to be or not to be” question almost every day of our lives. Have we not faced the situation like the salt tax inspector in Premchand’s Namak ka daroga where our principles are initially assaulted and then see us through difficult situations?

There are some story tellers who have the ability of explaining complex scientific theories through simple stories. Stephen Jay Gould, the Harvard paleontologist, spoke about the theory of punctuated equilibrium of evolution through comparisons with the price and size of Hershey chocolate bars.

In the mid-1980s, when my father bought our first television set, life was simple. We had one channel – Doordarshan. We watched unending saga of Buniyad and Hum log, the activism of Rajani, and the class conflicts of Nukkad.

Twenty-five years later, we have more than a hundred channels. But even today, while surfing channels mindlessly, at times I come across one frame in a movie which holds my attention. The director succeeds to hold me with the story in that frame. I stay on to watch the whole movie.

“To state is to kill, to suggest create” is an old adage in literature. Good story tellers suggest. They persuade us to experience the situation through our senses.

Hemingway compares this with the dignified movement of an iceberg. In Death in the afternoon he writes: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

Stories are the foundations on which human civilizations and cultures are built. They link the past with the present. They blur the boundaries of truth and fiction, like the itihasa-puranas of India. They put gods and men shoulder to shoulder in the same frame, and create a class of demi-gods such as Achilles and Hanuman.

Many a time in restaurants, I have seen someone telling a story to a group at a table. The table would have been far and the language spoken unintelligible to me. But seeing the body language of the raconteur and his audience, I have become a party to the story.

For young adults, the ability to tell a story well is a sure way to attract members of the opposite sex. In my days I tried. I never got a response. Today, I read my university-going son’s stories on his social media networks. And considering the number of responses he gets, I know he has succeeded in an area in which I failed. Unfortunately some genes skip a generation before expressing their traits.

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