Once upon a time...

The power of storytelling

Once upon a time...

 The wood burns with a hiss and growl. Sparks leap and splinter the darkness. People huddle closer towards the fire; the leader pokes the blaze with a twig. Behind and all around the night presses on with an almost sinister intensity. Animal sounds. A lone star in the sky. The fire is both heat and light; and comfort.
A word escapes a mouth: Talk! What is there to talk about?” The leader asks. Our lives are what it is!” The dreamer of the group looks up. He prods the fire and says in a quiet voice, “Perhaps there are other imagined realities...”
“Like what?” The leader is testy. The dreamer clears his throat. All those times he fell behind imagining a creeper to be a snake, pausing to examine flecks of shimmer on a clump of rock, all those times he felt as if he didn’t belong subsumed into what became an opening: Once upon a time...


Ever so often, I ponder on the origins of storytelling. Where did it begin and how? I create settings in my head as I give the birth of storytelling a context. There is only one certainty. That along with sound came the story. Perhaps the first stories were recounted in the solitude of thought. But when the lone human became part of a group, the stories in the head found a voice, an expression. Especially when nature tends to dwarf the human into feeling inconsequential. Nights can be frightening. Shadows have a way of turning: hills into trolls on a rampage and cause trees to hiss as if they were beasts with a thousand tongues.

Storytelling came of such a night, I imagine. Stories of magical beasts, heroes and valour. Stories of courage and man’s ability to conquer fear.

Under a giant tree elsewhere, it is a summer evening. The crops have been harvested. There is an ache in the bones from all the work done; but it is not an ache riddled with weariness. The mind still leaps and gambols. Someone in the group laughs aloud suddenly. “What is it?” Someone else asks.

“I was thinking of how it would be if all our oxen could talk. What would they say?”
Everyone looks at each other. A smile escapes. “What would they say?” They ask of the man who threw up the thought. He begins after a pause, “Long long ago...” 

More kinds of stories fashioned themselves of change. As lives became more secure and less hazardous, stories of valour that worked as a talisman could now expand to absorb the comic element. As in the little tailor’s tale with his embroidered belt — Seven in One Blow. The seven creatures annihilated being flies. Yet the tailor too goes onto be a hero.

In many ways, that is the key to what storytelling is all about. To tell us about ourselves. So while it may inspire and offer succor, stories can also draw boundaries and hem excess with cautionary insights. Stories can make us laugh and weep; stories can pause our breath and send shivers down our spine. Stories can make us think. Most importantly, stories make us feel less alone.

Once stories had a purpose. Stories outlined statecraft to errant princes as in the Panchatantra. Stories imparted spiritual wisdom as when Jesus spoke to his flock or Buddha to his disciples. Stories inspired men to seek to be greater men as in the epic tale of the Illiad. And stories were what mothers used as an aid to feed the reluctant child and fathers sought to pass on family history... With every story and each narration, the content of the story added a dimension to the lives of the teller and listener. Life lessons or mother wisdom, governance or motivation, the story was what turned things around. Our stories gave us this — an unassailable right to be someone else for a brief while.

And yet in recent times, there seems to be a strange apathy to the story and its telling. What was once an almost basic need — to tell and hear a story — is being reduced to both despairing and degrading levels. The storytelling hour once a week as opposed to the always available grandparent ready to spin a yarn. The bedtime story to compensate for prolonged bouts of absence by the busy parent all day while the child watches animated versions of the epics or the doings of a mouse, cat and several ducks.

I do not seek to apportion blame or cast that first stone. For it is an apathy that has seeped into my life as it has in most lives. The truth is stories do not have the power to enchant as they once did.

As a child, an uncle of mine used a great ploy. When I clamoured for a story, he would start one with a great dramatic flourish. Of a prince who went to his stables, saddled a white stallion and rode into the forest. My uncle would click his tongue to suggest hooves and I could almost see the horse and the rider. And then he would pause, stare at me and say, “It was a very big forest and the prince has a long way to go. By the time he gets to the end of the forest, I’ll be back...”

Such was his ability to convince that I would go about my day as he went about his, certain that when the prince reached the end of the forest, my uncle too would pick up the threads of the tale.

Is it that I was merely an utterly gullible child? Or, was it his power to weave magic that could have me so captivated? Again and again... I presume it was a combination of both. And therein lies the inherent problems to why storytelling is not what it used to be.

A loss of innocence, for one. When people are talking of real estate on the moon, what child will believe of that mythical rabbit who lives on the moon and gobbles up children who don’t eat their dinner?

A lack of time, for another. When our lives are so slatted with all the demands on it, where do we find the time to wait for a story to run its course? It has to be slotted first and then the gratification has to be instant.

Naturally then stories that will have us ponder will take a back seat. Be it a novel or  cinema, we measure out time in easy to handle portions and expect the story and the experience of it to be contained within.

What chance for the story to survive? For ‘once upon a time’ or ‘long long ago’ to be the signal to put down all that we do, lean back and allow ourselves to be drawn into a reality that is both ours and the imagined.

(Anita Nair’s  new novel will be published in January 2010.)

Weaving magic

*Meanwhile the smell of the jam rose to the ceiling, where many flies were sitting, and enticed them down, so that soon a great swarm of them had pitched on the bread. “Holloa! Who asked you?” exclaimed the Tailor, driving away the uninvited visitors; but the flies, not understanding his words, would not be driven off, and came back in greater numbers than before. This put the little man in a great passion, and, snatching up in his anger a bag of cloth, he brought it down with a merciless swoop upon them. When he raised it again he counted as many as seven lying dead before him with outstretched legs. “What a fellow you are!” said he to himself, astonished at his own bravery. “The whole town must hear of this.” In great haste he cut himself out a band, hemmed it, and then put on it in large letters, “Seven at one blow!”

Excerpted from The Little Tailor, Grimm’s Fairy Tales.   

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