Metaposting

According to the Oxford dictionary, meta means ‘(of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.’ So a post about a post is a metapost. There, I coined the word right now. Metaposting, therefore, is the act of posting about a post. (Obviously, it’s different from a programming language called metapost.)

So you might ask, why am I metaposting. I need to get into the storyteller mode for this. (There’s a hint here.) Sometime last year I attended a storytelling workshop conducted by Emily Hennessy at the British Council and was so moved by it that I wrote this. Today I am thrilled to see that this post has now been featured on her website! Thank you so much Emily Hennessy!

Here’s what it looks like on the outside:

Featured in Emily's website

 

And this is what it looks like on the inside. Don’t take my word for it; go check out Emily’s website! Click or tap the image below.

Featured inside

 

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Read The Wor(l)d

This is a long overdue post. On April 23rd 2015 that is last year I was asked to speak as a reader (yayyy!) on World Book Day at the British Council. I wanted to post my speech soon after but I did not feel ready to share it. Today while hunting for something else, I came across the printout of this speech and I read it again. It felt powerful. I am so happy I could write something that more than a year on has the same feel that I aimed for. That gives me hope.

Each speaker had to speak for 4 to 5 minutes before the discussion on books and reading. This is what I wrote in preparation but I forgot most of it while actually holding the mic! (Yes, that happens) I had the printout of my speech in my hand but since it was a speech so I did not want to break eye contact with the audience to look at the paper. In spite of that whatever I wanted to convey was conveyed. I know this because by the end of my speech the two or three genial young-at-heart British ladies sitting in the first row were nodding their head vigorously. 🙂

Here we go:

When I was eight, I fell sick with three different childhood illnesses in one year – mumps, measles, and chicken pox. My parents’ way of helping me heal –apart from the obvious medical attention – was to give me books. Invariably they were fairy tales. They had wonderful water colour illustrations which I can even now picture in my mind’s eye. I grew up in the 80s, so my reading rite of passage took me through Tintin, Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys. I did not have the wonderful books that Tulika, Tara and Duckbill nowadays publish. (Something that I try to remedy at every opportunity.) I don’t need to tell you that these were all books that I could hold in my hand. Ebooks hadn’t been born back then.

I love reading so much that I studied English literature in college. I continued to read books build up my own collection as I started working and earning and therefore spending on books that I would like to read.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but sometime in the last five years, the way we read a book has changed. Thanks largely to the rise of ebooks and devices which can hold them.

Even say in 2005, if anyone had told me that I would read the poems of D.H Lawrence or War and Peace on my mobile phone, I’d have laughed. Mobile phones had a different function – talking to and keeping in touch with people. Books were heavy, solid, comforting objects meant for holding and reading. They still are and I still read them. It’s just the way we interact with them now – sometimes through another device – the tablet or the mobile phone.

To illustrate, let me recount an incident. Last month, I attended the relaunch of the British Council reading club. One of the ice-breaker questions I remember vividly was ‘Have you read War and Peace?’ I hadn’t. I did find one person who did. By the end of the meeting, I suddenly wanted to read War and Peace. So what do you think I did? Rush to a library? No. Rush to the classics section of the nearest bookshop? No. Order an edition of War and Peace from an online bookshop? No. I downloaded a free edition of War and Peace (the Maud translation, btw) on Kindle app on my mobile phone. I started but haven’t finished reading it but it’s comforting to know it’s there to be read anytime. Just like a leaving a bookmark in my physical book to continue later.

One of the changes as a reader that I had to confront has been the format. Earlier I had to worry about only two formats – the hardback and the paperback. But that was easy – it was always a paperback because of its affordability. Hardback only when there was no option. I remember the latter Harry Potter books were all hardbacks. Now I have to think about the device – a reading app or Kindle; the format – PDF, epub, mobi; and compatibility – will this app open that file?; and if compatibility is a problem, how to solve it?

I will not go into the many reading apps, softwares, formats, websites available which have their own library of books. Those are external details. The book or to be specific – what it’s made of – the story that makes us learn something about ourselves or the world around us – is still unchanged. The book is not dead. Those who love reading find it through libraries, sometimes through ebooks or digital books. We humans will always need a good story. As Philip Pullman said, ‘We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them’. And as long as we need a story, books will continue to exist. How they come to us – now that may be subject to change.

Travels in Iyer-land

I just finished reading this lovely article by Pico Iyer, another writer that I haven’t explored but is there in the back of my mind like Paul Theroux. A has been recommending his writing to me for ages and I have consistently ignored it. Ignored is a harsh word. I’d rather say hoarded it. I have no excuse – not those piles of unread books, not the stretched days I work, definitely not the sporadic blogging, or my Book Club – to blame for not reading Video Nights in Kathmandu or his other books.

Here’s an insight that makes me realise that I’ve always known it but never really thought too much about it. It takes a writer to put together a nuance like this.

What you don’t know, will never know, will always be more involving than what you can explain: it is the fundamental principle of love and of religion.

Why suddenly Pico Iyer you might ask? He has been around for ages. Well, it started at lunch. I came across this beautiful and wise conversation between Pico Iyer and the interviewer Peter Barakan on NHK World, the TV channel from Japan (It’s a free channel in India.) They were sitting on tatami mats and talking so eloquently about the stillness in the Japanese way of life which is what drew Iyer to Japan. If I remember right, he says, ‘the stillness between words’. That blew my mind away. I decided that must start reading Iyer’s work immediately. What better way to start than to post about it first?

Sigh! And now I get back to work.

Free School Street

Isn’t that a charming name? That’s the name of a street around the busy Park Street area in Calcutta. Of course as with all things, it’s been also given an Indian name: it’s now called the sonorous Mirza Ghalib Street.

Free School Street has quite a colourful history. William Makepeace Thackeray, the English novelist, who wrote the novel Vanity Fair (1848), was born here. It’s rather popular with backpackers and budget travellers. Next time, I plan to visit the second-hand bookstores and record shops on this street. There is always something to discover in Calcutta.

So I had gone there to Tung Fong with the family for lunch on the recent holiday. I hear it’s quite famous but that day it felt like it was our second choice because our original destination was 6 Ballygunge Place, the Bengali fine dining restaurant, but it was closed for renovation. The next on the list was Bar-B-Que, another institution, on Park Street. However, Bar-B-Que did not accept reservations and we didn’t want to make my aunt, who was not well, climb up the stairs and wait in line as well. So Tung Fong it was.

We were not disappointed: it was the regular Indian Chinese food supposed to be available everywhere in India but the taste, on my, was out of this world. Calcutta is THE food lover’s paradise.

Now, I started this post with no intention of writing about food. I wanted to tell you a bit about the new header image. After lunch, when we stepped out of the plush dimly lit interiors of Tung Fong, the world had been washed anew. The scene took my breath away: I had to take a pic. That’s what you can see as the header.

Here’s the Instagram version.

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Guts

The guts have been on my mind today. By that I mean this article which talks about the connection between gut bacteria and our physical and mental well-being.

I think gut bacteria is like the new holy grail of wellness. When germ theory was hot, everything was the responsibility of germs. Next, it was the genes. All problems humankind faced was related to the presence or absence of particular genes. To some extent it still is. Then came the brain: diseases, quirks, talents explained by how X/Y/Z part of the brain controls or doesn’t control A/B/C part of the body. This is yet to be completely understood when the gut bacteria age has started.

Now, I look forward to many gut bacteria theories. Let me preempt a few.

1. The gut bacteria theory of leadership. Because of the presence of a certain strain of gut bacteria, leaders are made. Literally, from the guts.

2. The gut bacteria theory of war. The presence of another strain of gut bacteria predisposes some people or groups towards violence. So some countries are more aggressive thanks to their gut bacteria. It’s not really their fault, you know. They didn’t know what was in their guts.

3. The gut bacteria theory of ageing. Youthful good looks can be attributed to the presence of yet another strain of gut bacteria. Throw away your oils, creams and lotions now!

4. The gut bacteria theory of love. Love is literally in the guts. People who claim to feel ‘love at first sight’ are actually only playing out the compatibility of their own gut bacteria.

5. The gut bacteria theory of marriage. Long-lasting marriages are possible due to the presence of compatible gut bacteria. Its corollary, failed marriages can be a sign of fundamental incompatibility of gut bacteria. And we already know gut bacteria transplants are a reality.  So basically one can medically ensure a good long-lasting marriage. (Oh, I spy a story here. Maybe, I should write it.)

Can you imagine the other possibilities? Not just theories, but ways in which these theories will be exploited by corporations and people to make more money, poorer people even more poorer and how things will soon spiral out of control. (There’s my distopian YA novel right here.)

I know I know, there is probably a grain of truth in all of this. I have the highest respect for people in the forefront of these breakthroughs. But you have to admit, it’s fun to theorise far away from the actual weight of these responsibilities.

PS: This post is in good humour. Please take it with a truckload of salt.

Storytelling with Emily Parrish*

The first week of February has been hectic in a good way after a long time. Story telling performances on two days and plays on the other two meant that I grabbed every excuse (oops, reason) to get away from work and land up (sometimes rather early) at the respective venues.

I like performance poetry (or spoken word) but performance storytelling is new to me. When the British Council sent me an email informing me about the ‘Art of Storytelling Workshop’, I ignored it. Much later when A asked me if I’d be interested, I went back and gave it a long second look. I had no idea what it entailed. Then I saw her performance on YouTube and I was hooked. Yep, I was interested. I don’t know if I will tell a story to anyone but it looked like fun.

On February 4th the storytelling festival was inaugurated. The British Council and the Storytelling Institute were partnering to bring the annual storytelling festival this time. Apparently they have been doing this for a while. This is the first time I was attending it. I just wanted to see Emily Parrish perform. After some perfunctory speeches, a welcome address and one very boring and long lecture about the India tradition of storytelling by someone who could make the best stories sound blah without much effort, finally we got to see Emily perform. She opened up a completely new world. What a world that was!

She told us three stories that night. The first one was about the old man and three sons. And how he puts them to the test by asking a question – what is sharp and sweet at the same time? The first two fail, the last one makes it.

The next one was about Shiva and Parvati, which is very brave of her. I mean an English person telling an Indian story to an Indian audience. She apologised for taking liberties with the story. An apology which I thought was unnecessary but it did assuage some of the silver-headed people in the audience. Telling a story is a bit like editing. One has to pick out the best bits of info and work on it. And she may have left out some details, which one member of the audience pointed out during the question and answer session. Hence, a completely unnecessary apology.

Finally, the last story was about Loki, the trickster god, from the Norse mythology. In this one he steals the goddess Freya’s apples which keep the gods and goddesses young and healthy. And in his eagerness to get out of a bind, he ends up tricking Freya to a villainous eagle. And how he gets her out of the bind forms the rest of the story.

As you can see fairly good representation of Norse and Indian mythology as well as folk tales. What enraptured me was not the content of the story though that did play a part, it was the way she told the story. For an hour that evening, as the sun set and artificial lights lit up the courtyard at the British Council, we – the storyteller and the audience – recreated one of the oldest settings for a story – a roaring fire and people sitting around it. We listened rapt in attention as Emily turned her body into an instrument to create the Himalayas, or the mountain where Freya was captured or the roadside where the brothers found the sweet and sharp things. It was the way she asked the audience to fill in some details in the story. It was the way with a flick of a wrist or a nod of a head, or a bend of her back she become Loki, Odin, an old man, a young man, Shiva or Parvati. She was not just a story teller, she was a chameleon and a shape shifter. She made the known world disappear and a new one appear in its place. How many people can claim to do that? I was in awe. And completely charmed by this young woman who was in effect a magician. I had signed up for the workshop the next day where she said she would teach us this magic.

The next day for three hours the 28 of us, sadly mostly teachers not including me, learnt in a small way how to create this magic. I say ‘sadly mostly teachers’ because they were there because they wanted to use storytelling to teach kids. While teaching is noble indeed, and teaching through storytelling fantastic in itself, (I don’t think my teachers ever felt that obliged to tell stories) I would prefer kids being told stories for the sake of being told stories. I suppose I live in an idealistic world inside my head. There is no such thing in real life. Teachers were here, schools were informed and certificates handed over. But leaving aside these practicalities, we had fun!

We listened to Emily create a story, we learnt to take apart a story and examine what she called the ‘bare bones’, we learnt how to use different points of view to bring the story alive, we learnt to use gestures and rhyme to cater to children, we learnt how to develop a 2 minute sequence of a story using sensory details and our body. We also learnt about using stock characters or archetypes in the story.  Of course, we were not going to master it in a few hours but we learnt a bit that afternoon that we will perhaps take back with us for a lifetime. I love the relaxation exercises that involved some imaginary chewing gum. (Have I intrigued you yet? I am not going to explain that. I will leave it up to your imagination. Let’s just say it was sufficiently imaginary and icky and very physical!) I loved the way I could act like I was picking my unsuspecting neighbour’s pocket when I was asked to play a thief. Everyone had a laugh at that! The poor guy had no idea why everyone was laughing.

I was a bit shy to begin with but as the session went on, I become more and more comfortable and lost any self-consciousness I had. By the end of the workshop, I was suggesting books that people could read. (For the curious, I suggested Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ as a way to understanding archetypes.) I met some filmmakers, teachers, professors and principals.

What I would be interested in carrying from this workshop are the techniques that I can apply to tell a modern and contemporary story. Emily had studied under Vayu Naidu, a storyteller herself. Emily used mythology and folk tales mostly. But I wondered if new stories could be created using these elements for a contemporary audience. I raised this question and she confessed that she didn’t like princesses who needed rescuing. I know what she meant. I prefer distressing damsels to damsels in distress too.

When I was telling my 2 minute sequence to my group, I could see how their reaction changed the story. After 4 hours of energy exchange, I felt strangely recharged, energised and raring to go. Telling stories is in a way an exchange of energy. I loved every minute of it. While I am not sure if I will practice it in the way that Emily does or the teachers will do, I know that this is yet another dimension to exploring the story. And I am always interested in that.

*Update: Emily Parrish is now Emily Hennessey.