Stories are not about life, stories are life, and that’s why we cling to them, and we want to hear more and ever more
Since last Saturday Ram Navmi is being celebrated all over the island, with devotees thronging to their local temples to pray and listen to the story of Bhagavan Shri Ram and his wife Sita Mata. This is in the form of the chanting of selected verses – dohas and chaupais – from the Ramcharitmanas by Ramayana Mandalis, followed by a discourse from a pandit (religious scholar) or other learned person on the specific aspects of the portions sung, accompanied by the appropriate musical instruments, stories about events and incidents which make up the whole story of the Prince of Ayodhya.
To use a cliché, his story is as old as the hills, and India is unique as a country where, experts concur, not one but two ancient epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – are so rooted and so living in the psyche of its people as nowhere else is the case. Every village, every corner in India reverberates with stories from these two epics practically all the time, for they are cited and recounted over and over again in different contexts and situations involving all age groups.
All of us love a beautiful story, and we surely have fond memories of bedtime stories as we lay in the arms or by the side of mum or dad, who often fell asleep before us! Poor things, they must have been tired after their day’s work and home chores, cooking, ironing, cleaning up for us and themselves – only to start afresh the next morning. And as parents, we remember too how we had to invent and spin, after we had run through the usual range of known ones, for don’t we remember, too, the infinite curiosity and querying of our progenies – après, après… And encore, encore…
There are stories and stories, and they are never-ending. We are dead as humans the day there are no more stories to tell. Stories are not about life, stories are life, and that’s why we cling to them, and we want to hear more and ever more.
Scientists are figuring out at the level of the genome what makes us human, sharing as we do nearly 99% of our genes with cousin chimpanzee. However, as one scientist who is researching the issue wrote, chimpanzees do not make soufflés. Several characteristics have been proposed that distinguish us from animals, but perhaps the most striking one is imagination.
Dr Devdutt Pattanaik, a medical doctor who has specialised in mythology, in his book The 7 Secrets of Shiva writes that ‘only humans can conceptualise the idea of infinity. Only humans can communicate such an abstract idea using various forms such as words and symbols. This is because humans are blessed with imagination (italics added). It is the one thing that separates us humans from animals.’
Further on, he adds that ‘imagination makes us realise that we are distinct from nature. In other words, imagination makes us self-aware… also makes us feel unique because no two humans can imagine the same thing… makes us wonder who we are… propels us to improve… to grow.’
We will no doubt confirm the correctness of these views from our own experience. Again, children reveal to us this profound truth about unique imaginings – because, clever as they are, they will go from mum to dad and to grandma/grandpa to hear different versions or new variants of the same stories! So there we are then, only too human!
Genealogy and archaeology, paleontology are all about the human story, in a structured and professional way. Nearer home, though, the same phenomenon is expressed in more prosaically. Thus, my maid once told me how she had found the one ‘surviving’ picture of her father who had passed away at a young age, when she was about eighteen years old.
She showed the black-and-white photograph to her teenage daughter who had of course never met the grandpa – and for days on end the child kept asking her questions about him: what did he really look like, what was he as a person, what did he like to eat and drink, what clothes did he like to wear, what work did he do and where.
And to this day, even though she is married and has a child of her own, whenever she gets a chance alone with her mother, she wants to hear even more about the dear grandfather that she has never known – because, she tells her mother, some day I would love to tell my son about him.
Like this, there are innumerable – billions and billions more – of stories, for each of the seven-plus billion human beings has more than one narrative. The great-great grandson of the father of the theory of evolution Charles Darwin was given a wooden chest containing the personal belongings of the great naturalist – and went on to discover in the collections of letters and other writings how the theory of evolution, er…evolved in the imagination of his illustrious ancestor. He was so moved that he wrote a book about it, which I got at a throwaway price in Los Angeles a few years ago and devoured within a few days, and a highly successful movie was made out of it too.
I mused upon these thoughts when I had the joy of hosting a delightful young couple and their two adorable little ones recently. Related to me on the Indian side of my family, they were from the US. The wonderful thing is that we were meeting for the first time, and naturally they wanted to know about their late Auntie and her parents, and about our own story – in as much detail as possible.
But even more captivating was listening to their story, of a Punjabi computer engineer and start-up entrepreneur and a second-generation Gujarati paediatrician who both lived then in New York, and met online. And of how he proposed to her as they were coming down in a hot air balloon over the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania – where he had invited her to sojourn, since he spent most of his adolescent and teenage years there, where his parents were working.
We still have not finished our stories, having left some for next time, a few months away…
So blessed are we, to be born human, and to have imagination. If only we could all use it to imagine things lovely and beautiful, how infinitely rich and happy would all our lives and the world be!
* Published in print edition on 27 March 2015
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