Culture and Society

Tell It Like You Mean It

My mother’s mother used to tell her a story and as is the nature of such stories my mother tells it to me. She often forgets that she has told it to me before and sometimes she remembers halfway through the telling and very rarely does she finish the telling of the tale.

A brahmin once prayed for an answer from the gods above. He was poor and his lot in life was of the troubled kind. He had a dream the same night and the night after and the night after and so the dream came to him till he could dream no more. The dream was always the same. A disembodied voice would ask him to “Go to the king’s palace and dig under the mango tree in the royal gardens to find a buried treasure.”

The king was, as kings often are in such stories, cruel and unjust and the brahmin knew that he could not appeal to the king’s sense of humanity. One day, when he could take no more of the dream, he decided to walk to the palace. He found the tree. But there was a gardener in the royal gardens. He returned distraught only to return the next day and find the gardener hard at work. After a few days of lurking and agitation, the brahmin entered the gardens and was immediately stopped by the gardener.

The brahmin, in the manner of one who has been found in a compromising position but has never ever committed a crime, began explaining.
“I had a dream. It said, dig under the mango tree and find treasure.” The gardener mocked him.

“Poor people like are such gullible idiots. Dreams that will make you rich!” said the guard. “Even I had a dream just like it. My dream said dig under the tree behind the house of the brahmin who comes here looking for treasure and you will find treasure. Go away and do some real work.”

The brahmin thanked him and hurried back home. He dug under the tree behind his house and found the treasure.

1. That story has a moral and I don’t really care what it is. It is a story. A simple sequence of words that doesn’t sound entirely silly. I am honestly fed up of our varied and largely fanciful narratives and ‘literary’ concoctions. I guess that is horrible spirit for someone who ‘writes’ but that is how it is. The story above is the kind of story I yearn for. And yet I mutilated it. My mother never described it that way. She never used metaphors and other big words. Those were my inventions. I inserted things into the story for some fiendish purpose that does nothing really to the story itself. My additions do not subvert or divert the course of the story. There is no alchemical change to the very nature of the story. The brahmin will find the treasure even if throw in another simile.

2. Whatever happened to the ‘character’? The stock figure, a conventional cardboard cutout that carries all stories on its slim shoulders. With no pretensions of personality and no symptoms of development, the stories of yore would be peopled with the soldier, the princess, the witch, the horse. They are gone now. They have been replaced by flowing prose, literary devices, fragmentation and general cleverness. I do like cleverness. Heck, I am a habitual proponent of cleverness on several social networks and most of my online personas are built on the stable foundations of cleverness and wit. But, I do hope to find that elusive tale told anonymously and filled with the stock characters. Maybe something like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Or The Arabian Nights. 

3. Where do stories come from? The sources, I know of, are both oral and literary. I doubt my maternal grandmother went walking and some strange old woman seized her and told her this tale but most of the olden tales spread word by word. Now, this particular story might seem to some like Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist and thus the source might be literary. It’s impossible to say how exactly a story arises and we really aren’t concerned with that at this very point. We are concerned with versions however.

4. It is said that the tales grew and changed as time went by becoming more elaborate, sometimes more delicate, religious contexts were acquired. (Are we talking about people here?) Some tales would survive this experience while some others would be absorbed into some other tales. As they went on surviving and merging and mixing with people and the cultural gene pool, the tales changed and names changed and settings changed but their base nature resisted change. (Still not talking about people) They just became complex.

5. All forms of literary and educational tendency has found these tales and glommed onto them by different apparatuses. This is where things get tricky. Books and their kind have influenced you and I and I am sure I am writing this under some such influence that I am not conscious of and you are reading under some such influence that you are not conscious of. (benefit of doubt)

6. Now we come to the real issue at hand. I am interested not only in the tale but also in the taleness of the story. How does it work? What makes it run, not only on several reams of paper but also through a largely dark and dirty public consciousness, freely? Why do we have to reboot/retcon/reinvent them? And why do these crutch words usually end up meaning ‘set in modern times’/’personal interpretation’/’creative variation’.

Why can’t there be a version ‘as is’?

(Recent movie versions of comic books suck not just because they are horrible as movies but also because they have lost sight of what they were as stories)

There is no psychology in a tale. The characters are characters and very little is expected of them in terms of ‘life’. Good is good and bad is bad and that is not how the world works. But hey this is a tale and why can’t we just leave it at that? Stuff happens in tales and it just happens. There is no ominous event. Nothing is concealed. There is no tricking of the audience business here. There is none of the frailty of the human condition, the gossameriness of memory, the ghosts of long dead doubts and desire almost never interferes. The characters are almost always passive.

They have no identity. The woodcutter, the big bad wolf, Goldilocks and such do not really need names. Names bring meanings and annotations when all you need is a descriptor and a differentiator. They are 1-2 dimensional; flat. They get the job done. For all purposes, they could be one guy putting on different masks as and when needed. But then nothing is that simple.

Realism cannot cope with this multiplicity. That whole kingdom is segregated and not many wander there.

Speed is important and all the good tales have it. They are perfect examples of what you do need and what you don’t.

‘Once upon a time’ and the man shoots his gun and all the runners are off.

They start off at point A and within paragraphs are at F and then K and then S and finally Z.

This is possible only when you have no baggage. None of the sort you get in modern fiction. Modern fiction and I do love it, has names, things, back stories, time and space, material constructs and spiritual dimensions. Here again we glimpse the nature of the tale. It continues with or without ever considering these characters. Every word is a part of the story and no more. When your only instinct is to ask ‘and then what happened?’ you don’t really care about nature.

Individuality is of no consequence to the fragmented and adulterated tale. It does not run on uniqueness and originality.

Thisisnotatext. Well, it is but it would only actually mean something with the spaces inserted at all the right places.

The tale is a different beast. And the nature of the beast dictates that it be affected by many things such as the original teller, the weather on the day of the telling, a physical inconvenience, or it could fall into the hands of an illiterate.

A comedian will perhaps tell a funny tale better than the mistress of mystery who can tell a tale of horror like no other. Their personal quirks and inventions will then become a part of the structure of the tale. Till the time someone forgets a bit or adds upon it.

Thus, the tale becomes and unbecomes. 

People are fantastic and they usually sprinkle their versions of tales with their personal demons, dark residue, or brilliant sunshine. The story can stomach it. It however carries a stylistic fleur-de-lis from that moment onwards.

(Imagine for a moment, a Star Wars movie directed by Richard Linklater or Dan Harmon. Or Kathryn Bigelow, Lucas forbid. It would be a Star Wars movie and yet it would also be a Linklater/Harmon/Bigelow movie. I don’t like you JJ Abrams.)

What is it that this ‘rantthing’ is trying to get at?

Telling a story is a delight. I do not like it when a teller sets out with the express intention of fooling the listener. Why can’t a story be just a story?

When you have the substance of a tale, you just need to tell it with style (not overpower it).

A bit like jazz. The performance matters a lot.

In the end, even if we do our best to tell it like it used to be, we may find it inadequate. The best tales are told by kids, after all. Maybe it is impossible to tell it like it is.

In the meantime, let us just try and live happily ever after.

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