The Hindu

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

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Hear, hear Why did the king die?

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