One of the most powerful stories I have heard is the story of Story.
One day, the sisters Truth and Story got into an argument about who was more beautiful. They argued mightily and loudly and late into the night and still couldn’t come to a conclusion. So they decided to test it. Each would walk into the village and see to whom the people paid more attention.
Arrogantly confident, Truth walked into the village first. Taking one look at her people started shutting their doors and windows. Still she walked on. Some people even screamed and ran.
Children started crying. She couldn’t understand what was going on. She knew she was losing the bet. So she decided to use the ultimate weapon. She went into the village square and took off her clothes and stood as naked as the day she was born. But what was this? People ran helter-skelter in abject terror. They even threw stones and curses at her. Within minutes the square was empty. Dejected, she went back. Then her sister Story lovingly covered her with a cloak. It was a magnificent cloak, soft and billowing and shimmering with all the colours in world.
Story then took Truth’s hand and walked again into the village. Soon, little by little all the people walked out to see who these beautiful women were. They had seen no one quite beautiful as them. The children laughed and clapped their hands in joy. Everyone invited them home…
This is the power of a story. The harshest of truths can be told through it. I got a glimpse of that power a few years ago. A cousin’s daughter was terrified of bats. She had been told that they would scratch her face and get into her hair and what not. So afraid was she that she would not go out to play in the evenings because her building society had many fig trees that played host to a cloud of bats – yes that is the collective noun for bats along with cauldron and colony!
Fears are unreasonable, you can’t ‘reason’ with them. You may try logic and science, make an impressive speech that with bats’ ultrasonic hearing and echolocation talents they are unlikely to ever bump into you. But I can guarantee that is not going to get the child to feel lovey-dovey about the furry flying foxes. So you tell a story.
This was time when the earth was young and the first human was yet to walk on two feet. There was no night or darkness to be afraid in. It was light all the time. Brother Sun didn’t get much rest in those long gone days. The animals lived in complete harmony and spoke to each other like we do these days. Bats were considered the wisest of all creatures and God’s most beloved. One day, God summoned a Bat and handed a box to him for safekeeping. “Be very careful”, he said. “I cannot trust anyone else but you with this mission. This box must not be open at any cost”. So the Bat took the box and flew earthward. It was a long journey and the Bat was tired. He landed on the nearest tree for a pit stop. This tree was home to many of his cousins and they were very curious about the box. When the Bat nodded off, one of his small cousins lifted the lid to sneak a peek and…darkness escaped. Yes. God had locked up darkness in the box. The world experienced its first Night. It was a scary time. The Bat woke up with a start and realised what had happened. He had failed in his mission. But he had to do something. So he started flying around trying to collect darkness to put it back in the box. Seeing him struggle, all the other bats pitched in. And this is what they do to this very day. Fly around at night trying to collect the darkness to put back into the box. Brother Sun, he was happy. He could rest now. God sighed and shook his head and set to work on making Sister Moon.
I told this story a few years ago to my children and their cousins including the bat-fearing child. I hear that she plays happily in the evenings these days.
So what did the story do? I don’t know, really! Except that maybe it enabled the little girl to look at bats with compassion and humour and lift the curtain of fear that was obscuring her vision.
For where logic and intellect fail to go, stories unhesitatingly, fearlessly tread. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie talks about how vulnerable we are in the face of a story. We listen. And when we listen, we give it the power to change us.
I was lucky to grow up in a family that had the tradition of telling stories. Appa told us stories till we left home – just to stop him from telling us stories. I carry the shards of those stories within me. Like an ancient civilization they lie buried, to surface every now and then providing timely wisdom. I remember Appa telling me the story of Rome, of the twin brothers Romulus and Remus who were brought up by a wolf; of the brave Horatius who stood alone in the face of a massive Etruscan army to save Rome. When we were studying the history of Rome, I told the Horatius story to my daughter, instead of getting her to read it. At the end of it when I looked at my difficult to impress daughter’s shining eyes, I knew the story had travelled from my
Appa’s soul to mine to my daughter’s. Perhaps she will tell it to her children. Or perhaps not. It will lay buried in her and rattle to be let out.
There is a story about a man who knew four stories, but would not tell them. So the stories plotted to kill him…and that is another story!