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Storytelling East vs West, A Cathartic Process or Escapism?

Sometime in 2015/6

I recently went to a reading by famous Indian play write, Girish Karnad who started his performance by saying something that in all my years, I didn’t know about India;  ‘In the west it is the audience who goes through the cathartic process of a story; whether it is a play or a novel the process of journeying though it transports them via their personal interpretation into other lives and dreams. In the east, it is believed that it is the story teller who goes through the catharsis.’

He went on to say that there are three things that it was believed must be given away in India or else your health would suffer. Now I haven’t been able to verify this in spite of my best efforts or discover where the belief came from but, I like the sentiment and so I will proceed.

The first thing that must be given away is food, one must always feed a stranger and indeed, in my twenty odd years in India, I have been humbled from the biggest of cities to the most remote villages by the warmth and generosity of strangers who have fed and watered me. In this country, ‘Guest is God’ and just last week, when I stopped to ask someone directions, the gentleman went far out of his way to locate the address and ensure I got there safely, yet when I thanked him, his response was, ‘No thanks are necessary, it is my duty, you are a guest in my country.’  It is this mind-set that is just one of the extraordinary things about India’s people.

The second thing that one must give away was a daughter, in marriage, I hasten to add, not just randomly when you are a bit fed up with them. This must be hard for a parent? Yes, knowing they are going on to their own hopefully happy lives is what a parent wishes for their daughter but none the less, it can’t be easy to let something go that you have cherished and nurtured for so long.  I could go into the issues with India, women, the dowry system here, but I don’t think this is the place for it and it is a far bigger topic than a few lines here could do justice to.  Going further back, historically women in India were revered and the birth of a girl was widely believed to mark the arrival of Lakshmi – the Goddess of wealth and riches, Hindu’s worship the cow (female) and the country at large, calls the main artery of its life blood Mother Ganga.  There will always be exceptions to the rule, but to give a daughter’s hand in marriage, no matter how joyful, must be a bittersweet time for her parents.

Therefore, I find it intriguing that the third thing traditionally that one had to give away was a story. Could the giving away or telling of a story really be considered to have the same value as giving away a daughter?  Undoubtedly India is one of the world’s great lands of storytelling. Traditionally, before the time of the printed word and greater literacy, there were story tellers who would roam from village to village and recite epics from memory which could go on for days. These epics would be passed down from generation to generation as families roamed together to share the poetry and entertain by the magnificence of the spoken word. Yet these were professionals not laymen.

I have spent a long time both traveling to and living in India. She can be an incredibly cruel mistress yet she can facilitate in ways unimaginable. One has to learn to give in to India, to let her guide you in ways that aren’t always easy and then let her encapsulate you in a web woven by her magic. You can never bully her or force her and an invaluable lesson is to learn to listen to the messages she is throwing at you, as many a long timer living there will tell you, ‘India always wins.’ But if you allow yourself to be guided by her, listen to her, watch out for her signs, be accepting of the lessons she is trying to teach you, she will inevitably ensure that you end up exactly where you should have been all along, but were unable to see it for yourself.

Why do I mention this? Have I simply gone off at a tangent? Maybe, but bear with me.

I battled with India for years. She showed me the signs, her displeasure but I chose to ignore them, so what did India do to me, when after two years I still wasn’t listening? She threw three tropical diseases my way, in the space of one month. Safe to say she had had enough of this stubborn woman who just wasn’t taking the hint. I then developed M.E and it took me 4 years to recover and as I began to regain my health I found myself with time on my hands.  Throughout my illness, I had taken to writing, writing down my thoughts, what was happening to me, many of it I deemed to be incoherent ramblings but there were moments of clarity when I was able to find the humour in my situation and on the oddities of life back in Yorkshire. I had started a blog and sharing this with friends.  Although I had started to recover, I was unable to work and so what else was there to do but take friend’s advice, a friend who had put up with all my incoherent ramblings that I’d been scribbling frantically down as I was trying to make sense of a debilitating and prolonged illness. That advice was, ‘Philippa, you should write, that is where your forte lies,’  and so I put digit to keyboard and began to pen my first novel.

Eighteen months later, first draft complete, good health restored and India must have deemed the time was right. My recently widowed father concurred. When nothing was going right for me back in the UK, he looked at me and simply said ‘Go home.’

All of a sudden and inexplicably, the wheels started to turn, and things just started to fall into place. India it seemed had finally accepted me and was doing what she does best, collaborating, introducing, dancing, singing and weaving her magic. Introductions, meeting random people who turn out to be not so random after all, a casual invitation to a book launch leading to possibilities unimaginable just three months before.  The lesson that India taught me, that I had indeed been heading in the wrong direction.

She had shown me the way, pointed me down the right path and helped me to find my voice.  Story telling was never my intention and it started almost imperceptibly but not only had I written a book but in returning to India and in the travel that I do, I seem to have found a voice, become a story teller, a documenter of this magical country; this frustrating, baffling, inexplicable, paradoxical yet whole heartedly, wonderful country.

The western form of storytelling according to Girish Karnad is usually used to transport people into another world, to take them away from their own troubles and give them the opportunity to live vicariously through the characters portrayed.  However, through experience I discovered his eastern version, how the telling of a story could be cathartic, enable one to see more clearly and find one’s own path. To pen ones thoughts privately is to search the depths of the subconscious. I personally never know what I am going to write until my digits start flying over the keyboard. As my father so often points out, they work more quickly than my brain. But in addition to releasing the madness trapped deep within the subconscious, it also allows one to formulate thoughts and ideas, capture them in a ‘concrete’ place before they are lost as mere thoughts, dispersing into the ether.   I have discovered that language is transformational, it can be so mundane (take a look at any legal document)  yet in the right hands it can be a magical phenomenon, it can transport and create, it can cause unimaginable hurt and inconceivable love. Words can dance and fizz, they can console, empathise, inspire and above all heal.

I started to share my stories with a larger audience through this blog and they seem to be appreciated. I was asked to write for the TOI and MINT and there is then just one step further to go, that of achieving fame and fortune (Ha, a humble living would do!) through the storytelling captured within the pages of my book.  I know it won’t be easy, I am discovering just what a long, slow, painful process becoming a published author is, but then I have never seemed to be able to choose the easy route.

However I do hope, that in the sharing of my story about the magical country that is India, her forests, their wildlife and tribes and array of wonderful characters, that people will also have a glimpse into this extraordinary country.  I, like India, will always share a meal, I don’t have a daughter to give away, though I think dad would happily take offers for the one he still has but yes, I do agree, that the third gift one must give in India is that of a story, her story, for she has many stories that few actually get to see.

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08/01/2020

I have just found the above rambling prose which I wrote 3 possibly 4 years ago. Once again I have been forced to leave India. On reading this, I wonder if once again, I was on the wrong track, if I was ignoring where I am meant to be and what it is I am meant to be doing. I have certainly drifted away from writing again, in favour of attempting to set up another business, writing for me has always seemed to take second stage, or even third in a world where one has to make a living. I was asked to write for the TOI and Mint and yet never quite found the time. And yet, its what I enjoy, I love sitting down and seeing what spouts forth from my flying digits. Like I said, I never actually know until the words appear infront of me on the screen what they will be.  Perhaps it’s time to make a more focussed effort on this.

But also now I want to share my story of India for another reason. She has changed in recent years, she has become unrecogniseable in many ways and this negative news and publicity will undoubtedly overshaddow the magic that she is also capable of weaving, the special people she houses, the characters she nurtures and the wildlife she struggles to preserve.  Perhaps I never previously got around to sorting out being published as now is a more poignant time.  I hope that many people will still manage to find her magic and if the pages of my book can help, well then, in some small way, I will have achieved at least something.

For more information about my book which will, God Willing (and not forgetting the willingness of all India’s 300,000 Gods) be published later this year check out www.girlindia.co.uk. If you’d like to read the first few chapters, they can be found here: https://memsahibinindia.com/2019/10/26/the-book-chapter-01/

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