And thereby hangs a tale

As the nar­ra­tive is con­flated with the story, and the story with all art, is there any space left for the non-event?


One of the most fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries in dan­gles the prom­ise of a bar joke. The or­a­tor De­mades, hav­ing failed to gain the at­ten­tion of a noisy and dis­tracted Athe­nian au­di­ence, of­fers a story, to which the au­di­ence is im­me­di­ately all ears.

“The god­dess Deme­ter, a swallow, and an eel,” the story goes, “were walk­ing to­gether down the road. When they reached a river, the swallow flew up in the air and the eel jumped into the water.” And then De­mades falls silent. Im­pa­tiently, the au­di­ence cries, “And what about the god­dess?”

De­mades’ re­ply comes like whiplash: “She’s angry at you for pre­fer­ring Ae­sop’s fa­bles to pol­i­tics.”

Are sto­ries more com­pelling than pol­i­tics? Con­tem­po­rary In­di­ans might dif­fer here from the an­cient Greeks. Not least be­cause so much pol­i­tics around us is like spun yarn in shine and jazz.

Ae­sop’s Fa­bles Po­etry in the pro­saic

But what ex­actly is the prom­ise with which the story lures its au­di­ence? What is the twist that wrenches sus­pense from their guts, leav­ing them hang­ing breath­lessly?

Many writ­ers, I think, re­mem­ber the child­hood recipe of story-mak­ing: “Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen. One day the queen died. And then the king died too.” “That is a story,” we were told. But how about this? “Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen. One day the queen died. And then the king died of grief.”

“Now that,” our teach­ers ex­claimed ex­cit­edly, “is a story.” How­so­ever tiny. Events make up a story only when they are part of a causal link, lead­ing up, ideally, to a mo­ment that stages a cli­max and a clo­sure.

This is the ob­vi­ous ques­tion that looks into our face from the old art-life de­bate: Is nar­ra­tive im­pos­si­ble with­out an event? That is, can we nar­rate only when some­thing has And what, in­deed, is an event? Is an event a nec­es­sary de­par­ture from ev­ery­day life — in­deed, is it the very op­po­site of the or­di­nary ev­ery­day? Is it only a de­vi­a­tion from the repet­i­tive tem­po­ral­ity of the ev­ery­day that be­comes marked as an event? Is nar­ra­tion pos­si­ble when noth­ing out-of-the-or­di­nary has hap­pened? Is the lack of this hap­pen­ing nar­rat­able, or does it defy the very fun­da­men­tal con­di­tion of nar­ra­tive?

The ar­rival of lit­er­ary moder­nity with the En­light­en­ment in 18th cen­tury Europe gave birth to the English novel. One of the unique gifts of the novel was that it showed the or­di­nary ev­ery­day as worth nar­rat­ing, just the way or­di­nary peo­ple were now to be cel­e­brated as pro­tag­o­nists in lit­er­a­ture, un­like the royal and the high­born in an­cient Greek or Shake­spearean tragedy.

hap­pened? not

Sud­denly the daili­ness of daily life be­came the stuff of nar­ra­tion. A new word be­came cru­cial to fic­tion: “verisimil­i­tude” — life-like­ness. While pre­vi­ous nar­ra­tives were val­ued for their de­par­ture from the or­di­nary ev­ery­day into the realm of the fan­tas­tic, the mod­ern novel be­gan to be val­ued inas­much as it showed it­self as rooted in the very con­di­tions of ev­ery­day life.

The fan­tas­tic and the ex­tra­or­di­nary did not van­ish but moved into the realm of the pop­u­lar, while the con­scious artis­tic imag­i­na­tion be­came com­mit­ted to the de­motic and the quo­tid­ian. In the early 19th cen­tury, Wal­ter Scott’s nov­els about war and ro­man­tic ad­ven­tures were run­away best­sellers.

But it is his con­tem­po­rary, Jane Austen, with her gos­sipy sto­ries about ladies’ draw­ing rooms and tea par­ties, who is con­sid­ered a clas­sic to­day and the then-best­selling Scott has been con­signed to a dis­tant sec­ond al­ley of the lit­er­ary canon.

Ital­ian critic Franco Moretti reads Austen’s as con­tain­ing only three turn­ing points. El­iz­a­beth and Darcy meet in Chap­ter 3; she is dis­gusted by him. The action is set by this. 31 chap­ters later, Darcy pro­poses to El­iz­a­beth. 27 chap­ters later, El­iz­a­beth ac­cepts him. These three “events” shape the tra­jec­tory of the plot.

In be­tween, they meet, talk, have tea, go for walks, the sort of thing that adds tex­ture and den­sity to the novel, but does not af­fect the story. Moretti calls them “fillers.” Next to three turn­ing points, he counts 110 fillers in the novel. The mod­ern genre of the novel, it ap­pears, draws more of its sub­stance from

Pride and Prej­u­dice

fillers than from turn­ing points.

And then Moretti no­tices some­thing cu­ri­ous. As the 19th cen­tury moves on, fillers are on the rise. The back­ground, he says, slowly starts to be­come the fore­ground. From sim­ply giv­ing shape and tex­ture to nov­els, drinking tea and doing laun­dry be­came the very of the story, thereby vi­o­lat­ing the as­sump­tion that the nar­rat­able event is nec­es­sar­ily a de­par­ture from the rou­tinised ev­ery­day.

The tri­umph of the non-event, one might say, cli­maxes with mod­ernism, the pe­riod when a whole story comes to be made up of star­ing at a mark on the wall and a door-stop­per of a novel out­lines a sin­gle day where two men wan­der around the streets of Dublin.

If the po­etic is un­der­stood to be an im­mer­sion in the ex­pe­ri­ence of a mo­ment and the nar­ra­tive is imag­ined as a tem­po­rally ac­ti­vated ac­count of causally linked events, mod­ern lit­er­a­ture comes to de­mol­ish the bi­nary op­po­si­tion be­tween the two.

New ori­en­tal­ism sub­ject

But this is the story of the West, right? The com­mon claim about In­dia is that it is, and re­mains for­ever, a sto­ry­telling cul­ture. It is the land of epics, oral­ity, folk­lore, myths em­bed­ded in com­mu­nal mem­ory — from the an­cient sages to the pro­lix In­dian politi­cian in the mod­ern par­lia­ments and elec­tion cam­paigns. The In­dian De­mades, ac­cord­ing to this imag­i­na­tion, would plunge into a story right away, not bother with ab­stract the­o­ries of the state. No con­flict be­tween the states­man and the sto­ry­teller in In­dia, none at all!

Sure, sto­ries have al­ways played a key role in the In­dian imag­i­na­tion — if the lat­ter can be imag­ined with any kind of unity. But to con­struct the play­ful, pro­lix, fan­tas­tic sto­ry­telling cul­ture of In­dia as an al­ter­na­tive to mod­ern Western ra­tio­nal­ity and its lit­er­ary val­ues — now, that too, is a new kind of ori­en­tal­ism, isn’t it? What else but a new ver­sion of the tax­on­omy that clas­si­fies the West as ra­tio­nal and sci­en­tific and the non-West as ir­ra­tional and colour­ful?

As with the Scott ex­am­ple above, sto­ry­telling has al­ways thrived in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion. Now, as the academy starts to reel un­der the sus­pi­cion of the moder­nity project, the cri­tique of mod­ernist lit­er­ary cul­ture comes full cir­cle, join­ing the univer­sity and the mar­ket­place to­gether.

Amit Chaud­huri’s Lit­er­ary Ac­tivism se­ries de­clares it­self as an at­tempt to re­claim the value of the lit­er­ary in a post­glob­al­i­sa­tion age, which, Chaud­huri says, has been aban­doned by both the mar­ket and the academy for pe­cu­liar rea­sons of their own.

The mar­ket, led by red-car­pet events such as the Booker Prize, has en­tered into an un­abashed cel­e­bra­tion of, well, the mar­ket logic in lit­er­a­ture — essentiall­y the novel as the only glob­ally mar­ketable lit­er­ary com­mod­ity. But this cel­e­bra­tion has taken the trou­ble to dis­guise it­self in the cel­e­bra­tory lan­guage of lit­er­ary value, draw­ing in tropes of the ge­nius, the mas­ter­piece, the clas­sic, the whole nine yards.

The academy, on the other hand, has aban­doned the vo­cab­u­lary of lit­er­ary value al­to­gether and has donned the man­tle of the so­ci­o­log­i­cal, cat­a­logu­ing and as­sess­ing books based on top­i­cal is­sues they probe, and en­tirely re­plac­ing aes­thetic value with po­lit­i­cal va­lence.

‘Against Sto­ry­telling,’ the sub­ject of the fourth an­nual sym­po­sium held re­cently at Delhi’s In­dia In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre, is a polem­i­cal re­turn to the value of the lit­er­ary for two in­ter­con­nected, if counter-in­tu­itive, rea­sons. The first is the fact that we now live in a mo­ment that fetishises the event, not only in the news me­dia but also as the very con­di­tion of lit­er­ary nar­rata­bil­ity.

Key ques­tion

The poet Arvind Krishna Mehro­tra de­clared at the sym­po­sium that he didn’t see the point in read­ing re­cy­cled news head­lines in the forms of nov­els when there are so many more fas­ci­nat­ing prob­lems such as why one’s key doesn’t fit in the lock of one’s door at the end of a long day.

But is that a voice of dis­sent heard often to­day? Doesn’t the con­scious­ness of the age iden­tify the event — usu­ally the spec­tac­u­lar and dis­rup­tive one — as the very con­di­tion of a nar­ra­tive? And isn’t the nar­ra­tive con­flated with the story, and the story with all art? Is the sen­sory, densely at­mo­spheric non-event at all the sub­ject of aes­thetic en­gage­ment to­day, as it was with the lit­er­ary mod­ernists, as with the epiphanic mo­ments in Satya­jit Ray’s films or even the fic­tion of Chaud­huri him­self ?

The sec­ond polem­i­cal stake for Chaud­huri is the pre­dictable con­fla­tion of non-Western cul­tures with sto­ry­telling, as al­ready out­lined above. “Sto­ry­telling,” he writes, “with its kitschy magic and as­so­ci­a­tions of post-colo­nial em­pow­er­ment, is seen to em­anate from the im­memo­rial funds of oral­ity in the non-Western world.”

The new ori­en­tal­ism mas­quer­ades, irony of ironies, as the po­lit­i­cal con­science of post-colo­nial stud­ies.

The newsy na­ture of much lit­er­a­ture to­day, as pointed out by Mehro­tra, and of the book in­dus­try on the whole, stems from anx­i­eties about “ur­gency”. So­cio-po­lit­i­cally ur­gency not only in terms of news­bytes but also in terms of the po­lit­i­cal moral­ity that dom­i­nates aca­demic de­part­ments of lit­er­a­ture to­day has come to fully dis­place the aes­thetic with the so­ci­o­log­i­cal.

‘Against Sto­ry­telling’ can­not nat­u­rally be just a cri­tique. It be­comes also a per­verse cel­e­bra­tion of sto­ry­telling, if only of its in­escapable cen­tral­ity. The sym­po­sium buzzed with tales of guilt, lan­guor, for­get­ful­ness, and with the beastly, gur­gling sound of po­etry.

The poet and critic Tiffany Atkin­son spoke of the “lyric em­bar­rass­ment” of not be­ing able to tell a story; not be­ing able to do so in the event-driven way an oral sto­ry­teller or even the nov­el­ist to­day is ex­pected to be, is the blush­ing em­bar­rass­ment of the lyric poet.

It lies deep in­side the core of the larger em­bar­rass­ment that comes with the “So what do you do for a liv­ing” ques­tion in the den­tist’s of­fice. Em­bar­rass­ment is dif­fer­ent from shame as, un­like the lat­ter, em­bar­rass­ment be­longs to both: the poet for be­ing a poet, and her ques­tioner for not un­der­stand­ing po­etry or its sig­nif­i­cance in the world.

Such em­bar­rass­ment does not only be­long to the lyri­cist but is lyri­cal it­self. It is the ex­pe­ri­ence of an in­tense, de­light­fully toxic emo­tion that is also a pointed, if per­haps fleet­ing en­gage­ment with life. Such en­gage­ments, too, make up the sub­ject of art, even though the present, with its fetish of the story, might have for­got­ten about their power.

It is, in the end, im­pos­si­ble to dis­man­tle sto­ry­telling as a mag­netic force that has held our imag­i­na­tion in thrall over cen­turies. Nor is it de­sir­able that we do so. The im­por­tant ques­tion to ask rather is: are there other el­e­ments that claim artis­tic at­ten­tion? And have we left them on the way­side in our fate­ful march of glob­al­i­sa­tion, which might be one of the most pow­er­ful sto­ries that runs our lives to­day?

Sud­denly the daili­ness of daily life be­came the stuff of nar­ra­tion. A new word be­came cru­cial to fic­tion: “verisimil­i­tude” — life-like­ness

The com­mon claim about In­dia is that it is, and re­mains for­ever, a sto­ry­telling cul­ture. No con­flict be­tween the states­man and the sto­ry­teller in In­dia!

The writer’s most re­cent novel is The Fire­bird, which ap­peared in the U.S. last

Play House. @_saikat­ma­jum­dar

Hear, hear Why did the king die?

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