Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Stories We Tell

I am a seeker after stories. Sometimes we posit a very simplistic binary between reality and story. A whole lot of theories talk about how our stories about our realities are all that we have and can hold on to; that the thing called reality itself cannot be apprehended outside of language. I don't really believe in that. But I do believe that our stories are very potent. Narratives shape us in bizarre ways. Even to locate a source of a dysfunctionality in my life within a story that I have been narrating about my life, is very empowering. In the first place, it makes me aware of how I have been narrating a story all the time believing that my words are perfectly transparent and show nothing but the truth of the life-situation that the story is about. I forget that my story is a story, a perspective, an interpretation that I have chosen to claim as my own. 

When I get present to the story-ness of my story, not only do I become aware of my role as an interpreter of my own life, I also realize that I respond to life a lot through the story (or a web of stories) I have made up. The brain, I feel, loves these stories and the images they conjure. I feel empowered by the possibility that I could re-fashion my own stories that help me live better, more positively, more magically, more life-affirmingly, more joyously. That does not mean I concoct lies. It means I sit quietly and see what other lenses there are through which I could see my life and the situations that I draw to myself. I am not sure of this yet, but something tells me that at some point I would graduate to abandoning stories altogether, that I would meet life in an unmediated way and become one with it. For now, stories appear to have a provisional utility.

For instance, if you have read my previous blogpost, you would know that I now have a story that connects me to my maternal grandmother! I had always yearned for something that would make me feel my connection to her very concretely. Silly as it may sound, an old eversilver ladle that I stir my sambar with is what accomplishes that for me. 

This desire to feel a sense of connection on the maternal side has always been there. As a young brahmin boy, after the sacred thread ceremony, I was always very uncomfortable with the Abhivadanam, a practice wherein a brahmin male prostrates in front of an older, brahmin male and announces to him, in Sanskrit, his patri-lineage starting with the Rishi who is supposed to the origin of that line. I wondered why I could not reject that and claim my lineage to be that on my mother's side, and that too only the women -- my mother, my maternal grandmother, my maternal great grand mother etc. However, I did not get anywhere with this, because my mother did not have much to say about her mother. For she had lost her mother when she was only eight years old. She did not remember much. So all I could hold on to were snippets of memories and some photographs my mother has shown me.

Knowing that my grandmother used this ladle, which also happens to be my favourite one in the kitchen ,makes me very happy. It gives me a sense of connection to this person whom I have never met, but who is, nevertheless, a part of me. This story is very important to me. It almost rewires me differently.

One of the reasons I find the act of storytelling very engaging is that the way we talk about ourselves, narrate our stories is not only indicative how we perceive our place in the world, it also points to how much agency and power we will claim in the course of living that life.

What I infer from this about myself is that self-narratives fascinate me. As a peer in the LGBT community, whom a lot of people talk to, consult, confide in, and as a trained peer counsellor, I listen to *stories* all the time. On the surface, it might look like people are sharing with me their life situations, but the truth is that they are sharing with me their *stories* about their life situations. It is never the situation or circumstance itself. It is always an interpretation. Often, I have noticed that with a significant shift in someone's *story* about herself and her life, something major happens. They start responding to life from a place very different from the one they had hitherto occupied. Stories are very powerful.

Thinking about this further takes me to another place. I believe that what we tell ourselves about ourselves has a crucial role to play in what we tell others about us, which, in turn, has got a lot to do with how we live, what choices we make,  how much agency and power we think we have, etc. So, at some point in my life, I started paying a lot of attention to the stories I was telling myself about myself. Prior to that, I used to think I was a very positive person brimming with nothing but love and respect for myself. But when I started paying close attention to my self-talk, I was shocked to see how unkind and uncompassionate I could be to myself. I realized I had an incessant commentary of self-criticism going on inside me. Just getting present to that has made a lot of difference.

Sometimes I have seen that others have better and more positive stories about me than I do myself! I can be a cynic and say I know better. But do I know better? Not necessarily. As long as I am here in this world, I can't do my work in isolation. I don't think I can get my self-knowledge on my own. It is in the intricate web of relationalities, in the ways I show up in relationships, for people, in the way I live with people, work with people can I know myself.  It is also in the ways I fail to do all of these that I can know myself. That is, if I am smart enough not to judge myself too harshly! Oh, that's another story! :)


RaMa said...

Hi, liked your story a lot. You are so right about 'interpretations' about life incidents. Any single moment can be viewed from several different perspectives, but we being filled with bias and judgemental attitude, dont get the reality. Its so difficult to be non-judgemental, about oneself as well as others.
Thanks for this nice piece.

Jaye Martin said...

Thank you for sharing this.
It’s great to be reminded that I have the freedom to choose my perspective, my interpretation, and the story I tell to shift my experience of reality.

Sree said...

beautiful thoughts there! I couldnt have read it at a better time! thanks aniruddh

Paddu said...

Beautifully written as always !

Moniczka said...

Thank you for posting this! Storytelling is a wonderful thing, no doubt about that! There are few things more interesting or more pleasurable than to watch someone tell a good story. And one story always leads to another. You know how it is – you listen to someone tell a story and it reminds you of another one. One story leads to another, and together they make a "web" of many connected stories. That's why I love projects like Web of Stories (, where you can preserve but also share your memories. I think we all should be able to share our stories!