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All Stories Matter, Its Time To Tell Ours

Many stories matter. Stories can malign, but stories can also empower. Stories can break images, but can also repair broken dignities. When we reject the single story, we gain a world. The world gains a view of our world.

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Poet Maya Angelou said “The universe is not made of atoms but stories”. She knew that nations are narrative and our minds have maps that are imperfect and incomplete, but powerful. Stories are universal but storytellers can hardly step out of themselves and colonialism has deep wounds. The long-standing belief that to be modern means to be western created a huge impact on Indian literature. My childhood had a lot of Enid Blyton  – the wishing chair, the faraway tree, Noddy, Secret Seven and Famous five, advancing to American mystery series – Nancy Drew and Hardy boys, soon jumping back ‘across the pond’ to Mallory Towers and St.Clares. In a back and forth flip between English and American authors, life was filled with stories that shaped my understanding of fun, beauty, even food; I craved scones with tea, pudding, ginger beer, coke, and hamburgers. I dreamt of snow and midnight feasts in robes. Along the way existed Akbar, Birbal, the Panchatantra and the Jataka tales. These simplistic stories with obvious moral values didn't speak of my universe, and neither was much fun. In school, we read the poetry of William Blake, Wordsworth and novels by Dickens, Twain and other western authors. Many are wonderful stories, but they’re not ours. 

Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, warns of ‘The danger of a single story’, saying we are all guilty of our knowledge of a people as a single story; show a people as one thing, only one thing over and over again and that's what they become. At 27, at Harvard business school when a classmate asked me how my English was so good, the single story of India that many Americans understood was apparent. But because of the cultural power of America, I knew many stories for my classmates from all the movies I had watched, books I had read and music I had heard. 

Stories exist in language, but live in imagination. They come alive when read or heard. A story lives between the teller and the hearer, between the writer and the reader. Stories are self-revealing. Every story carries within it a past, a future, and possibilities of its tellers, its writers, its singers. Ben Okri storyteller and Booker Prize-winning author say the life of a nation, its health, its spiritual strength can be deduced from the stories it tells, the stories it suppresses, the stories it sanctions. Stories are powerful. They can tell the story of one person, and make it the definitive story of that person, or an event, or place or time. The cultural power of India is finally beginning to emerge in children's literature. 

Indian ‘foundational stories’ and ‘historical tales’ are our significant childhood memory.  Heard, if not read. Where do these stories come from? What do they mean today? Is mythology history? The lines blur. Are these our ‘fairy tales’? How do they shape our consciousness? Mythology as per Pharmaceutical executive turned Children's writer, Devdutt Patanaik "tells a people how they should see the world…different people have their own mythology, reframing old ones or creating new ones” and  “no society can exist without myth as it creates notions of right and wrong, good and bad, heaven and hell, rights and duties”. Samhita Arni started writing a mythology for children when she was a teenager herself. Sanjay Patel, artist animator at Pixar, created a world-class Picture storybook of the Ramayan to meet the gap that his childhood stories had. To be modern we don’t have to be western, and that does start with our foundational stories. 

Indian Independence is an important period of history not covered by children's literature until recently. Indian-American writers Supriya Kelkar and Veera Hiranandani’s recent books are set in this period. One on the non-violence movement even as Dalits fought for emancipation, and the other a migration story from Pakistan to India during the Partition. Rachna Bisht Rawat’s books cover stories of grit and adventure from the Indian Army. Devika Rangachari’s wonderful historical fiction set in 9th Century Kashmir recreates the life and motivations of an impressive but ruthless Queen who ruled the valley for 50 years. These are stories that didn't exist from the Indian perspective, with books like  E. M. Forster  Passage to India is the only narrative on British India. A single story, replaced! Reminds me of when Booker prize-winning author, Chinua Achebe quoted the old African proverb ‘until the lions have their own historian, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. 

The lives rural and urban, rich and poor, young and old Indians live today are covered with irresistible storytelling; in picture books by Ritu Vaishnav on stereotypes and Rinchin on the struggle of poor landowners with coal mines, in young adult fiction covering terrorism, depression, drugs, teenage conflict and bullying by Paro Anand and Shabnam Minwalla, and in delightful younger reader novels on daily moments and growing up by Rasil Ahuja, Shals Mahajan and Lalita Iyer. Animal stories with Reindeers and Ducks of the western folklore are replaced by Cows and Crows by Mahashweta Devi and Ranjit Lal, while Deepak Dalal and Nayanika Mahtani write stories set in places we care about, from Ranthambore to the Sahyadris, to the majestic Zanskar range in Ladakh. 

Many stories matter. Stories can malign, but stories can also empower. Stories can break images, but can also repair broken dignities. When we reject the single story, we gain a world. The world gains a view of our world.

The Neev Book Award for distinguished children's literature aims to recognize outstanding writing that leads to a fuller understanding of India, Indian lives, and Indian stories. The 2nd edition of Neev Literature Festival (http://neevliteraturefestival.org/ ) is happening in Bangalore on 28th and 29th September 2018.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


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