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  India   All India  02 Mar 2018  How to tell a story, and how not to: Writers, poets debate

How to tell a story, and how not to: Writers, poets debate

Published : Mar 2, 2018, 1:27 am IST
Updated : Mar 2, 2018, 1:27 am IST

Chaudhuri had used a strong four letter expletive to signify his disillusionment with storytelling.

(Representational image)
 (Representational image)

It was an assortment of writers, poets and academics who gathered at a symposium in Delhi  recently. Convened jointly by the University of East Anglia and the Ashoka University, it was a  symposium against storytelling. The theme of the symposium seemed strange as it was the writer  and novelist Amit Chaudhuri who had convened it. Chaudhuri currently a visiting faculty at the UEA gained his reputation as a writer by the story content in his books. Conscious of this, Chaudhuri in both his concept note and in his opening remarks, strove to explain. A decade ago, Chaudhuri had used a strong four letter expletive to signify his disillusionment with storytelling. He was profoundly unhappy that storytelling had been 'deified' a sacred cow that you  insulted at your own risk and worse, it empowered peoples and cultures. His dissatisfaction was  two-fold. First, in the ethos we lived in, the event was of primary significance and stories were later built to explain the event. The story was then fleshed out with characters etc to give it credibility. Second, Chaudhuri was profoundly unhappy that 'storytelling' had been built up as an essential part  of non-Western culture. But the history of non-Western cultures showed that artistic expression  found articulation outside of the narrative, for example, in gesture, dance or even music. Touche to  that. May all forms of artistic expression continue to thrive and flourish and let storytelling be one of them. But it's the exalted position of storytelling that worries Chaudhuri and he wants to knock it off  the pedestal. To prove this point as it were, the participants at the symposium too were carefully chosen. A number of poets from India and abroad, a theatre personality working among the Santhals in West Bengal  for the last nine years, literary critics and a film analyst. They probably had a common aversion to  storytelling. Tiffany Atkinson from the UEA confessed to her own embarrassment at not being able to tell a  a story. She took refuge in reciting poetry where the lyrics would hide her mortification. But poets too could be misunderstood. Atkinson cited an anecdote from Ben Lerner where he relates the  incident of a poet visiting a dentist. The dentist not particularly given to appreciating poetry,  wondered how such a small aperture as the poet's mouth could issue forth verses that commanded  such appreciation among its readers. Atkinson went on to distinguish between embarrassment and  shame and concluded that shame lent itself to narrative better. This was a cue for Udaya Kumar of JNU to state a contrarian view that the intensity of a subjective  experience like a searing shame may not lend itself to a narrative form. He spoke with reference to Dalit literature where the raw emotions of a lived experience could not perhaps be adequately  expressed in story form. Saikat Majumdar of Ashoka University gave the example of the stunning visual quality of the film 'Pather Panchali' where in the hands of a master like Ray, the original  story is subsumed in the visual. Of course this needed the genius of Ray but surely, Ray had been  inspired by the original story to create the visual. Majumdar also spoke about the primacy of social sciences in the vision statement of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and felt that literary texts were  better analysed or consumed in the social sciences than in the literature or English department which emerged almost as an afterthought in JNU. Giving the example of a social scientist like Sudipta  Kaviraj researching on Bankim Chatterjee and Tagore while teaching socialist theory, Majumdar  felt that the emphasis on social sciences in JNU could be traced back to the Nehruvian concept of nation-building. This was rather a long stretch. Kaviraj came to Bankim and Tagore later in his academic life. His primary interest always was Theory and while he published work on Bankim, he never formally  taught either Bankim or Tagore in JNU. Moreover, the development of the social sciences faculties in JNU in the early 1970s was a conscious strategy at inception as the older Delhi University had a very strong English and literature faculty.  

It was left to Jon Cook also of the UEA to sum up and put the primacy of storytelling back on the  agenda by stating that 'stories are important because we are creatures with time on our hands'. It's  perhaps this concept of time that's central to the art of storytelling. Yesteryear, we seemed to have all the time in the world both to narrate and to listen. But that time seems to be at a premium now.  Even the act of reading seems to have been sacrificed at the altar of time. Time itself seems to be  remorseless and sometimes even ruthless sweeping everything in its wake. If you valued reading or  even listening to a story, you consciously made time for it or lost it forever. The 'piece de resistance' of the symposium was a long poem read out by Geoffrey O'Brien as a  tribute to his friend the famous poet John Ashbery who passed away last September. Geoffrey, who had been the editor-in-chief of the Library of America and described as a 'man of letters' had  composed the long poem for the moment and had not published. The poem read over thirty minutes was not an eulogy but comprised sub-sets of stories. It began  with an anecdote of an American soldier returning home after a the second world war in a troopship. He pulled out a paperback from his haversack, possibly a crime thriller. Reading the first page, the  soldier tears out the first page and gives it to the next soldier to read and so on. This way, the entire  book is read by hundreds of soldiers on board with a few nudging the other to finish quickly so that he too could read what happened next. It was a crime thriller after all! Not only was this O'Brien's great tribute to Ashbery but was also an ode to reading. The only  parallel was Jim Corbett's  'Jungle Stories' printed by letter press one page at a time, a hundred  impressions. In this way, a hundred copies were made and read avidly by many more of his friends. Corbett retained one copy for his publisher. This was recast and edited to be published as 'The Man- Eaters of Kumaon' in 1944 and is continuously in print ever since.

The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books

Tags: amit chaudhuri, storytelling, writers