When I was a young girl, I found it difficult to wrap my head around short stories. Stories which show a slice of life – the ones which have an open ending, where too much gets built up but too little gets solved. I couldn’t comprehend what happens next. May be life’s experiences were inadequate to make any sense of it on my own. But as years passed and I got married, became a mother, switched jobs and got a career, these open ended stories became fascinating. I could read, draw on my beliefs and conclude in any way that felt right at that moment. I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies once as a girl of 14 and now as a woman of 30 and they appear as entirely different stories to me. I distinctly recall thinking at 14 – why did the death of an unborn child lead to dissolution of a marriage? Why is the heroine of the story so upset that her husband and she don’t talk at dinner anymore? And so on. Seemingly simple stories, but I couldn’t understand the complexity of relationships and hence stayed away from that genre of stories. I preferred novels where you (mostly) know what happens in the end.
But now suddenly it feels as if the world has opened up. I have become hooked on to Sadat Hassan Manto, Ismat Chugtai, Gulzar saab. What beautiful people they portray. When I read those stories, it feels as if I walk into a party, talk to a dozen people. Intimate conversations about whatever is happening in their life right now, silently record it in my subconscious and then walk away with that knowledge. And then never see each other again. But that fragment of their life is lodged in me forever now, to draw on from them. For inspiration and for comfort.
At the Goa Project in February, there was one session on storytelling. The conductor of the session Deeptha asked us to turn towards the person sitting next to us and tell each other a story for the next 5 minutes. How we came here in Goa, what is happening in our life as of now etc. I was meeting the girl sitting next to me for the first time but I don’t know if it was the anonymity of the situation or the human need to be heard, but I found myself telling her how it has been a difficult one year since the birth of my child. How it was the first time I had left him overnight and how I missed my boy terribly, but I was so glad for the two day break, I was going nuts. And in turn she told me that they are thinking of having a kid, but it feels like an enormous price to pay for freedom. Her husband wants a child and she is not so sure, and its complicated. The two of us sitting there reached a kind of meditative understanding of each other, we were like two sides of the same coin. I touched her hand assuringly to say that I know how she feels. And then that was it. Our five minutes were up.
Of course, there is Facebook now and we are friends there, but somewhere it feels that the sacredness of our stories is best preserved untouched. As if I read a page of her diary and she read mine. I don’t need to know what happens in her life later on, I don’t have more to offer but those 5 minutes were ours to share.
Last night we went to hear Naseeruddin Shah dramatically narrate Ismat Chugtai’s poignant stories. Stories of women set in the 1950s. One that haunted me in my dreams was titled Chui-Mui (Touch-me-Not). The narrators’ bhabhijaan is unable to deliver a child even after conceiving three times, and on a train journey they witness a peasant woman give birth in the train compartment unassisted and goes about to do her work and clean the mess as if it was routine for her. I have gone through childbirth and it literally feels as if a truck hit you. My mom took care of my and my newborn for 40 days after that and this peasant woman did not even have another pair of hands to cut the umbilical cord. I shuddered but thanked god for the support I had. Stories are meant to do that. Touch a raw nerve and soothe at the same time. To heal that which we didn’t think needs healing.
So next time if you meet me and I skip talking about the weather and the flood-drought situation and ask you something more personal, I promise I will share my own story too. Because as Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
May you have many stories to tell and many hearts to hold them.