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



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.

Of Insects Among Other Things

Note: This piece was written for a column sometime early last year, which did not take off. I cannot let it languish somewhere. So here it is.

There is something vaguely disquieting about Kuzhali Manickavel’s fiction. I read her collection of short stories Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings about two years later than it was published.

Her stage is the small town; her protagonists are small town residents, specially the small town resident of Tamil Nadu. She explores their complex inner lives.

The last time I read about such complex inner lives of small town residents, it was in Palash Krishna Mehrotra’s Eunuch Park.

Manickavel’s writing has the immediacy of a journalist with the depth of a poet all the while paring away the inessentials. What you get are the fillets of inner life neatly arranged in short short stories that explore the not-so-neat inner spaces laced with lime-sharp wit. She reminds me of a line in a Leonard Cohen song. (“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”) She fractures a story to let the light in.

She also delights in the sporadic and the unexpected. In Ezekiel Soloman’s Shoe, a shoe appears in the same place in the middle of the road even after several attempts have been made it to dispose it of. It’s the shoe of a village idiot who literally vanished one day. Till the shoe is adopted, it continues to defy its accepted place in things.

Ghosts and spirits live with the humans in a state of uneasy coexistence in Manickavel’s stories. If present, ghosts are as unpredictable as their living counterparts. In Paavai, a widow dreams that her dead husband appears to her as an ectoplasmic entity. He has one posthumous wish is that his wife retrieve the watch that was buried along with him. Though why would ectoplasmic entities bother with watches is another of the inexplicable and unanswered questions that haunt you after the story is over. But this is the universe where ordinary and extra ordinary events jostle for attention like within a surrealist painting.

Underlying each story is a kind of deadpan deconstructionist humour. The sort that is dark and funny only because it’s as outrageous as it’s true. In Welcome to Barium, a doctor called J.J. Shanker “wears his black silk shirt to work because he wants everyone to know that he is a Dancing Machine.” (17) There are exploding women and men with thin hips and uber enthusiastic Americans who don’t let food poisoning, stolen water bottles, uncooperative computers, bad lattes, and dead colleagues get in the way of working in India.

Entwined in to the stories are sudden and unexpected jabs of lyricism. Like in Little Bones a woman woos her lover with rainwater ice cubes. Such a romantic gesture is refused rather gruffly and “he gets up leaving behind a space that hums like angry bees.” (34) She feels fish bones of rejection settle into her skin.

In between stories, sometimes you can find a diagram of an insect, a school textbook diagram, with numbered figures and neatly labelled parts. Look closely and you can see a visual map of Manickavel’s eccentric fictional universe.

Reading Manickavel is like stepping off at the alternate universe stop en route to your own. She tells stories of characters otherwise ignored in a funny, true, alarmingly accurate manner. She is definitely not a one-time read.

Notes on Books: Leela: A Patchwork Life by Leela Naidu with Jerry Pinto

Last week, I borrowed this book from my dad to read; I was not disappointed. I have many unread books lined up but I wanted something that took me to another era. Leela Naidu is famous for her beauty and her astonishingly lean Hindi film career. I remember her from Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha. Her talent for the piano in the film continues to be a scene that haunts me.

Reading this book gives you an idea about how Leela Naidu is not just a ‘yesteryear actor’ or ‘beauty queen’ as the newspapers proclaimed when she passed away last year but that she is a completely individual person, witty and charming to the core whom we would love to have as a friend. Someone who would sparkle in any situation in life. The peek into her life however is not chronological. It’s almost as if she is inviting us into her life but on her terms. This is no biography. It’s a string of anecdotes that speckled her life from that of a scientist’s daughter in Europe to her film career in India followed by her television production career in Hong Kong and then back to India. All the careers she dabbled in her life seem more like accidents, but they are happy accidents. Some of the anecdotes she narrates can be quite scathing to a few people but that seems consistent with the kind of person she was, fearless. Some of the best minds make their guest appearance in this book thanks to her supernova wide circle of friends and acquaintances including the who’s who of art, science and culture in the second half of the 20th century—Madame Curie, Salvador Dali, Jean Renoir, Eugene Ionesco, Monsieur Cartier, J.R.D. Tata, J.Krishnamurti, Raj Kapoor, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shyam Benegal, Ismail Merchant, Satyajit Ray, Mother Teresa, Dom Moraes, Arundhati Roy, et al.        

Read the book to know about Leela, the person. If you want to read a biography, use the Internet.

Reading soup

I’m in the process of consuming Mridula Koshy’s short fiction debut, If It Is Sweet and Agha Shahid Ali’s collected poems, The Veiled Suite. I wouldn’t ordinarily link a book of short stories with a collection of poems but I can’t help but think of these two diametrically opposite creations purely in terms of their talent. I am aware that I am covering a literary trajectory that spans a spectrum in terms of experience, tone, perspective, emotion, temperament and impact. Koshy’s debut is an edgy bouquet of multiple perspectives in confident tones describing in pitch perfect detail the inner lives of otherwise peripheral characters. Shahid’s poetry is an experienced lyrical voice which sings in measured tones of internal territories of love, grief and loss. It’s a fantastic treat to be able to discover their intricately created worlds side by side.

Notes on Books: Some Rain Must Fall by Michel Faber

 The name as seen on the cover of this short story collection by Michel Faber is vertically placed. Apart from the fact that it echoes the rain of the title, it is, I think, an obtuse reference to the vertigo-inducing variety of stories that populate the book. It seems to be a conspiracy by the cover designer and the author, some sort of dramatic irony intended to be decoded by the reader. Inhabiting this book are fifteen individual worlds not just on earth but some seemingly different planets as well. Faber mixes up genres with alarming insanity but it works. There is sci-fi story next to the post-modern story, a librarian’s nightmare but a short story reader’s delight. I don’t know what to expect each time I finish a story. I do have some favourites, “Some Rain Must Fall”, “The Crust of Hell”, “Pidgin American” and “The Tunnel of Love”. The others are quietly magnificent. But these few stories push the boundaries of the short story as I had known before. The one common factor that binds all the stories seems to be this sense of waiting, very Godot-ish in its execution. Most of the characters seem to be waiting for something while missing the startling beauty of their present extraordinary lives. And whatever happens seems to be outside the framework of the short story. Read this collection for the sheer joy of experiencing the unexpected.

PS: S, muchas gracias por este libro magnifico!