My son, Ponnu, was aware that his dad had some sort of connection with stories. Every night, at bedtime, he would pester me for a story. I was quite excited in the beginning – who wouldn’t be when a child begs for stories in this day and age? A good story is like an arrow from the Pandava prince Arjunan’s quiver: a single arrow that becomes ten when released from the bow, and hundreds of thousands when striking the target.
But my enthusiasm did not last, and I was soon faced with a crisis. How many stories do we know that we can narrate to children in a way that captures their interest? Fifteen? Twenty? Thirty, at the most. We could keep them interested for a few days with stories from Ramayanam and Mahabharatam, but all those power struggles, pageantry and piety are for grown-ups really, not children. Besides, they have so little relevance in today’s life. The great and the good in those stories are so backward compared to today’s children. The most significant piece of knowledge that Vidurar, the venerated scholar before the days of Google and Encyclopaedia Britannica, the steam engine and the polio vaccine, held was that the earth was flat and was supported on the shoulders of seven elephants. Even a five-year-old knows so much more than that these days!
Then there are stories from the Panchatantram, Arabian stories, and the Kathasaritsagaram, stories we have all read several times over. So it surprises me that I can only remember eight or ten stories from these, which means that the rest had not really touched my heart. I could read them again and tell them to my child, but there is no guarantee that he would find them interesting. These days, he falls asleep angry at me,disappointed with the stories I try to make up on the spot, and I am saddened as I watch his interest in stories slowly wane and be replaced by computer games and cartoons that fill one’s head with a void…
Instead of going back to bed, I decided to begin my morning walk a little early.
At the junction, the road split into three. If I turned left, I could continue my walk along the deserted rubber plantation owned by the church. The road to the right would take me to the fish market, which would by now be crowded and noisy with fisher folk and traders haggling over prices, throwing around obscenities and endearments in equal measure. Going straight, the road would take me to the temple where I would be able to see fair-skinned beauties fresh from their early morning baths.
Until six months ago, I used to go on these walks with a friend of mine. One day, he had asked: ‘Why do you think young women bathe, make themselves pretty, and go to the temple?’
‘To worship,’ I had answered.
‘No. Look again, carefully. Why wear their best clothes and get decked up if it’s only to worship? They’re subconsciously giving the signal that they are available for mating.’
‘Don’t talk nonsense,’ I had laughed.
‘If that’s not the case, why do they avoid going to the temple for four or five days each month? They’re letting everyone know that they are unavailable at that time. Especially the priests. As you know, they’ve traditionally been the experts in these things.’
Having failed to hoodwink his own body with exercise, my friend had died of a heart attack, and I have been alone on my walks ever since.
Further down the road, a bridge across a canal led to another village. On days when I felt energetic, I would stand on the bridge, breathe in the cold air, and walk on further. This morning, I walked until I came to a small cluster of shops. A movement on the veranda of the bicycle repair shop attracted my attention. He was there – the man with the big moustache. He had a towel tied around his head as usual, and was smoking a beedi. I have run into him often on this route, and sometimes exchanged a friendly ‘ah’ in acknowledgement.
Today, however, as though he had been waiting for me, he got off the veranda, and walked up to me. Perhaps the old man – Moustache – had confused me with someone else. He looked carefully at my face as though looking for signs of deceit. Like old folks who search for hints of familiarity in the faces of unfamiliar children, he looked into my eyes trying to place my ancestors. And for the first time, I got a chance to note his remarkable features up close. His skin was wrinkled and saggy, but the muscles on his shoulders were still well-defined. The sturdy moustache covered most of his cheeks, and there was not a single strand of grey in it. The moustache gave him the appearance of a proud rooster. Still, his advancing age was evident in the way his stomach caved inwards, and in the slight dissonance in his steps.
What if, I wondered, his moustache was a magical thing like the noses in Basheer’s or Gogol’s stories? What if one day, confounding its owner, it grew perpetually to become one of the wonders of the world? What if it grew like a forest reclaiming land, spreading anxiety among its modern inhabitants? What if little children played with it, using it like a swing?
In the afternoon, I attended a book launch. The book was by a journalist who took his writing seriously, and I was scheduled to make a felicitation speech. A group of us aspiring writers, not yet lucky enough to have our names printed in any respectable magazines, got together in a lodge room in town once a month, where some of us would read out our stories and poems. Since there was no real hope of any of our work being published, everyone took even the most stinging criticism without complaint. Our group included a college girl and a seventy-year-old retired teacher, both equally nursing the hope that they could improve their writing and eventually have it published.
The person whose book was being launched today was the most accomplished writer in our group. He had not published anything until now, but had cultivated good relationships with several editors, and we hung on to his every word as he told stories about them. I was happy to have received a place on the dais at this event as I had always felt that he thought of me as the most promising in the group.
I had been anxious about my speech, but at the event I felt that I covered some interesting things in the twenty minutes I spoke. The opportunity to speak at a book launch is a licence to say whatever one wants, and I spoke about a few things I had been mulling over in the last couple of days.
Why do we read stories and novels, I asked the audience. In order to enjoy a good story, I said, answering my own question. There was nothing else beyond that. Why did we read Poombatta or Ambiliyammavan as children, or listen to our grandmothers’ stories? Just for the enjoyment of a good story. Children’s stories usually ended with a moral, but that was only to deceive parents into thinking that stories were edifying.
It is the same yearning that leads one to Panchatantram or to a novel by Pottekkad – the yearning for a good story. The idea that reading provides us with a compass for politics, philosophy, spirituality, or insight into life and all that was pure nonsense. But we don’t admit this. Instead, we read Joyce’s Ulysses with the help of guidebooks, and pretend to belong to some exclusive group who have understood the book, devour Benyamin’s Adujeevitham in one sitting only so that we can pick it apart. As far as I was concerned, I told my audience, the best stories in the world are those in One Thousand and One Nights, or stories like that of the hare and the tortoise, or the crocodile who plotted to eat the sweet heart of the monkey, and that nothing else piqued my curiosity as much as these stories.
I had assumed that no one would pay much attention to my speech, but it had serious repercussions. The person who spoke next was a self-assured young man, a college student dressed in a pair of tight jeans and an expensive shirt, whose entire body language exuded vitality. I had seen a few of his poems on social media, and they were quite good. He began annihilating my viewpoint by quoting a section from Vailoppilli’s Kudiyozhikkal, which talked about fools who sat on the black horses of imagination, unaware of what was happening around them in the real world. His energetic gestures and deep, masculine voice easily captivated the audience. Such was his oratory, that I found myself wanting to agree with him. I looked pathetically at myself. Writers were under attack, even being killed, and yet there were those who waxed eloquent about the literary merits of the hare and the tortoise story, he said sarcastically, at which the audience looked at me, and guffawed.
It was particularly hurtful to see two pretty young women sitting in the front row covering their mouths and shaking with laughter. So cruel! I wouldn’t be surprised if, consumed by their joy, they would offer themselves up to him. By the time he argued that people like me were responsible for the fascist mindset that had spread across India, everyone was looking at me with suspicion, and like a little boy being punished by the teacher and made to stand on the bench, I sat there with a foolish smile on my face until the programme ended.
Nobody paid any attention to me after the event. When I shook hands with the writer later, he gave me a smile that made his thoughts crystal clear.
Unable to stand my embarrassment, I went into a bar with a friend, Joseph, and got drunk.
‘To hell with that young upstart! He’s wrong and I am right,’ I said, after taking out my frustration on the poor waiter who was a little slow in bringing a plate of lemon pickle to accompany our drinks. ‘Speechifying is not my medium. Writing is. Even Borges has said that writing is not a faithful copy of life, and that if a Bengal tiger in a story has three legs and speaks Sanskrit, so be it.’
‘I’ve told you before,’ Joseph said. ‘Either stay away from these events and sit at home, and people will think you are an intellectual. Or stop saying crazy things at these events. You’re damaging your own reputation.’
(This extract has been taken with permission from the publisher)