Where have all the stories gone?
"But there's a story behind everything. How a picture got on a wall. How a scar got on your face. Sometimes the stories are simple, and sometimes they are hard and heartbreaking. But behind all your stories is always your mother's story, because hers is where yours begin." - Mitch Albom, For One More Day
These days I seem to find stories in everything. Is it a strange malady, I wonder? I hear them in casual conversations, see them enacted in meeting rooms, sniff them out at social gatherings, savour them while observing people at restaurants and feel them stirring in every domestic quarrel. In short, I eat, drink, breathe and dream stories.
Come to think of it, I’ve always loved stories. My mother tells me that when I was a child, the only way in which I could be fed was by interspersing mouthfuls of boring lumps of gooey rice and lentils with interesting lines from my favourite story. "What happened after that?" I would pipe up with impatient curiosity, my mouth full (a character trait I have not been able to change to this day). This often resulted in my poor mother and other innocent bystanders being showered with the aforesaid gooey mash emanating from my mouth making a royal "meth". It was invariably the same story too – the one about the baby chick who so wanted to be like his friend the baby duckling that he insisted on following him into the pond to swim – with disastrous consequences, of course. Listening to this story at every meal, did not, however, deter me from developing the herd mentality and following everyone else when I grew up, true to the quintessential human spirit.
Then there were these picture stories my sister would tell me when my mother wanted me out of her way. Drawn with colour pencils on the ruled pages of a school notebook, it was always the same picture because it comprised the only things my sister had learnt to draw. Brown hills with a blue stream flowing from it, an unnaturally yellow sun with spiky rays, blue clouds, V-shaped blackbirds in flight, a dark green tree with red apples, a cottage with two windows, a door and a chimney and grass growing around it. The characters were always the same too, as far as I can recall – a golden-haired girl with a sack of money and a cat made up of two circles, a pair of triangular ears and a long curvy tale. I’m sure this story had a profound meaning too - hopefully it'll dawn upon me before I die.
I remember studying history with my mother – all those awe-inspiring tales about the rise and fall of empires - of great battles, valour and heroism, court machinations, intrigues and deception. Oh how I loved history as the kings and queens, warriors and ministers jumped out of the dog-eared pages of my text book made alive by the gentle undulations of my mother’s voice! Geography, on the other hand, was always challenging – unless it was taught through stories, like the illustrated ones about the Eskimos and the Masai, the train journey across Canada, and the tales of Marco Polo.
I was brought up on tales from Indian mythology and the epics – the Ramayana and Mahabharata (brothers to the Iliad and the Odyssey). I would sit spellbound at my mother’s knee listening to stories of gods and goddesses, heroes and demons, while she clicked away at her knitting needles. Little pearls of wisdom these tales are - invaluable gems strewn on the rocky road of life which lie concealed in its crevices till such time as experience uncovers their brilliance lighting up the way.
There was a particular story which my mother would often repeat – the story of Karna, a great, virtually invincible warrior in the Mahabharata. A tragic hero who, like Achilles in the Iliad, eventually meets his end through an element of foul play and deception. His charioteer Shalya was instigated by the captain of the enemy army to demoralise Karna by constantly denigrating him and comparing him with his opponents. This weakened Karna, leading to his death when his morale hit its nadir. We all have the charioteer Shalya within us and without – voices which keep telling us we're not good enough. We are made to believe that we are lesser than those elusive, perfect "others" – the ones we must emulate because we have to keep up with the proverbial "Joneses". And we and our dreams are defeated.
As I go through life, I realise that all of us are living out our own stories. But what strikes me is that while each of our stories is unique, they're strangely universal too. There are really not too many variations in plot. The only things that change are the characters and locale, the sequence of events and the number and complexity of subplots, I guess. We have the rags to riches story and the riches to rags story. The good guy versus the bad guy story. The boy meets girl and lives happily ever after story – or at least appear to. Some are tragedies, some comedies and most tragicomedies. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis, as my father would often say.
What’s common to all our stories I think, are the key movements defined by Aristotle – "anagnorisis" or discovery followed by "peripeteia", meaning turning point or reversal, which leads to the denouement or resolution. Sometimes the discovery is internal, sometimes external, but always sudden. The reversals are inevitably out of our control. The denouement is generally a harvest of what we've sowed unwittingly but don’t see it – what some call Karma. Comic or tragic – we have to accept it.
I hear the opening line of a story everywhere these days. I chuckle and see familiar patterns unfold when I hear commonplace statements like "back in my days it used to be like this…" or "Mum, you know what happened at school today?" Also in "Bert and I got engaged today…". Followed by - "Honey what’s for dinner tonight...what? Don't tell me we’re doing takeaway again?" And of course the project kickoff meeting where the project manager says, "we have to deliver this project in six months…but we have to find the requirements first…” Ah – the infinite possibilities! I love my malady.
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