Yesterday, I was asked to fill in as a judge for a storytelling competition the next day, at one of the city colleges. They needed two judges and one of them was unable to make it. My first reaction was, ‘wow, me a judge in a city college, I must have made it as a storyteller.’ Then the smile came back to my heart and there was the stillness of by true nature.

I called the professor who had invited me and told her, it was short notice and I wouldn’t be able to make it, but thanked her for the invitation. However, even after the phone call, I was not feeling whole, as I knew that I had lied to her about the real reason as to why I didn’t want to judge the event. I asked myself why I didn’t tell her the truth. I realized, that it was because simpler to make an excuse than truly explain to her why I felt storytelling is not a competitive art. I found that it would be harder perhaps to let her know my views about judging people for the things they like to do, or make her see how people often do things because they want to step up in their lives and for that they are willing to allow themselves to be judged. And most importantly I was not willing to reveal my true nature to her fearing she might not invite me again.

But, I am at a stage in my life, where I refuse to be inauthentic. I find, I sleep better each night, when I have been authentic and honest with myself and others. So I wrote her a mail.

I wrote to her, ‘I would make a terrible judge as my whole life’s work is about inclusion. I would be unable to judge the students as I wouldn’t know on what basis to judge them for the stories they tell, even though I know you would give me a sheet with certain attributes that you would like me to grade. And I would still fail at it as I would do a dishonest job by pretending to know who is better than the other, based on your parameters. That is why I turned down your invitation. Instead, I would I like to invite you and your students to come and tell stories at the story circle I host for the community every month, where we could all joyfully tell and listen to stories. I would also pretty much love to host a circle that is non-competitive, in your college, if there is keenness.’

I felt better and slept well. It no longer mattered what she thought, or felt or how she would respond or not respond. I had successfully owned my authentic self. That is what mattered now!

What is a story? What is storytelling? Who is a storyteller? What are the images that are evoked in us when we say, “tell me a story”!?

When I ask myself these questions, these are the images that come up for me:

An elder of the family, a woman or man. An older cousin or the cheerful uncle or aunt. A guest who has come from another city, country. A stranger in the train I shall never meet again. A stranger, who is becoming a friend at a party or gathering. A child who has come from playing with her friends. A man I am falling in love with. A woman who I am willing to share my secrets with. A young man who becomes my buddy for life. A mother putting her children to sleep with a kiss on their heads. A mother feeding her child as she tells her a story. The garrulous life of any party. A father winds down after a hard day’s work with the stories of the day!

Once upon a time when I was in college in Delhi, my stories were the events that transpired on my journeys while commuting by public buses. One evening on a day that had seen some rain, after a humid sultry month of July, in my third year of college, I was returning home after a math class, and my umbrella saved a woman.

It was 7 pm in the evening, but it was dark already, even though it was July in Delhi, as it had rained and the sky was still overcast. The bus I took back home, stopped at the bus stop near my home. As I was getting off the bus, a woman as young or a few years older than me was ahead of me and disembarking at the same stop as me. A man whose face I did not see also got off with us. The woman started walking at a very fast pace without looking back, right or left. She was in a terrible hurry. My spine was tingling, the hair on my back stood up. It was fear I smelled. It was panic and great unease that was being felt by my skin and heart. The man was ahead of me, and the woman was ahead of the man. She was trying to look back but not fully turning  her head, as if fearing finding out what was behind her.

I was following them intuitively sensing, she needed help. The man was close enough to her to be able to smell her scent, but not close enough to touch her. I sped up my pace to keep up with them. To me, it became clear, he was stalking her. A common happening in Delhi in those days! The lane was dark and was covered with large old trees. That made the evening darker than it already was. I saw that I had passed by the lane to my home. I was on a mission.

I suddenly got a whiff of the woman’s restlessness and panic. I guessed she was nearing her home or hostel. There was a working women’s hostel just round the corner. She did not want the man to find out where she lived. It was strange. I could almost read her mind, her fear, her heart beat, her guts. I held my umbrella firmly in my hand, and came closer to the man in front. He was strangely unaware of me walking all this while behind him. I tapped him firmly on the shoulder with my umbrella. He swerved, like a car the driver of which had just missed a turn, and crossed the lane and started walking back to the main road where the bus stop was. He did not look back or slow his pace.

I stopped, the woman stopped. She finally looked back. Her face was dark, fearful, but she saw me and my umbrella and I smiled at her, ‘he has gone.’ Relief flooded her face, her breathing was normalizing. She said, ‘thank you!’ I told her, ‘keep an umbrella always’ and I turned back towards my lane and walked home. I looked back to see her, she was walking home faster.

My stories came to me from being alive, from being aware of every breath, every fear, every caution, every joy, every drop of rain, every wail of a child, every gasp of fresh air and relief from pain, from the moan of a lover, from the kiss of the beloved, from the lecherous eyes and touch of the pervert, the betrayal of a friend, the sadness of my ancestors, the brutality of a brute, the affection of a soul mate, the defeat of the enemy, the victory of my kind. My stories come to me from the stirring of my guts when I experience the world and its creatures. My stories come from the stories of other human beings that have lived, are living, will live!

So please tell me Oh Judge! Whose story is better or worse, yours or mine or his or theirs! Come to me and tell a story in the circle of life, let me listen to you and you listen to me!

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