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Storytelling gets us past tough situations

Shalini Verma
Filed on May 3, 2021 | Last updated on May 3, 2021 at 12.35 am

This was in the late 70s, when we lived in a dusty mining town called Dhanbad in Eastern India.


When I was seven, my father would come home from work and read to me from the pages of King Solomon’s Mines. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but he painstakingly translated every sentence in Hindi. The book had no pictures. So, in his distinctive animated style, he brought Kukuanaland to life, even mimicking Captain Good with his chattering dentures. He took me to a book shop to buy my first book — a beautiful picture book of bedtime stories. By then reading in English got easier. I read the fairy tales so many times that I knew them by heart. Stories had to be mastered before they were retold.

This was in the late 70s, when we lived in a dusty mining town called Dhanbad in Eastern India. The town always lived on edge with its own rugged tales of the coal mafia. There were stories about a certain someone who had threatened a certain someone. An odd thief from the nearby prison would drop in, and break into our daily chatter. But I was more fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island that my father read aloud. I conjured up my private exotic world of sea pirates and roamed the high seas with them. These nightly undertakings grew into my lifelong passion. I did not become a sea pirate, but travel and migration became a big part of my working life.

Decades later, I spotted Stevenson’s name on a bronze plaque on the Sydney Harbour walkway to honor his visits when he sailed around the South Pacific. In Samoa, where he died, he was called Tusitala, the teller of tales. It was a full circle for me as the Scottish storyteller’s rich tapestry of characters, places they traveled and choices they made molded my childhood. On a business trip to Bangkok, I found a beautiful unabridged copy of Treasure Island, which my son devoured when he was about the same age when I read it.

Back in grade 3, I started my new adventure in a boarding school, where Jim’s adventures on Treasure Island came in handy. When it was pouring outside or when we had what we called a free class, the girls would plonk themselves down to listen to the story with great interest. I consciously slowed the pace and turned it into an episodic tale, almost dragging it like TV-soaps. This ensured that I had company even as a new girl and it took my mind off home that I missed very much in those initial weeks. Matters got exciting as a spirited faction plotted to have a listening session on the sidelines so that they got a head start on the ensuing episode. Ultimately the treasure was found, and Jim and the seamen headed back to England. I had to take refuge in the books borrowed from the school library.

In the holidays, when I reunited with my cousins, I would spin elaborate yarns about make belief ghosts that inhabited my boarding school. There were none, but it didn’t matter. No one fact-checked my ghastly claims about women in white saris, who had no business roaming the campus in the dark.

Storytelling is one of the oldest artforms that carries our cultural DNA. Ancient Indian text like the Vedas, Ramayan were part of India’s oral tradition, as were the epic poems Iliad and Odyssey in ancient Greece. The Alf Laylah wa-Laylah, that I read as the Arabian Nights, were stories that were narrated by young Scheherazade to King Shahryar.

Storytellers freely borrowed from others, while each generation added a little contemporary colour to them. All of us have unwittingly listened to stories from our mothers and grandmothers, stories that were routinely recycled during mealtime. The narrative invariably began with a clueless king and a scheming queen, while characters were bumped off on a whim, possibly setting the stage for TV soaps. The plot thickened and arbitrarily ended with our last morsel. But there was always a moral undertone.

Stories got us through tough times such as now, teaching us about life’s layered realities. The legendary Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib roamed the streets of Delhi collecting ‘afsanas’ in a tumultuous time when the Mughal Sultanate was losing to the British. There was no shortage of folklores in villages around the world. In Scotland, an entire village would sit around a visiting bard to listen to his stories about superheroes. Indian villages still have designated storytellers or kathavachaks who’s haunting, yet comforting voices hang about the misty winter nights as listeners huddle around a bonfire.

Storytelling has evolved over time from oral traditions, to books, theatre, movies, and blogs. Yet stories that touch our soul have lived through each art form. So, we haven’t completely lost the plot. Storytelling is a big part of marketing and product design. Every ad, implicitly or explicitly, tells us a story. During long and arduous presentations, stories come to our rescue, especially when we try to hold the attention of an online audience. The narrative style can differ, from monomyths that take you through a journey like a heroic folktale or nested loops that have stories within stories around a central message.

My team and I were recently working on an AI prototype. Each of us wrote the customer story with every little detail. As our stories unfolded, we discovered a major problem that needed to be solved before we could move forward. This lucidity would never have been possible without a story.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies





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