Where do stories come from?
When I was a student at Goldsmiths, I attended these guest speaker seminars in Russell Square on Friday nights. These lectures weren’t part of Goldsmith’s curriculum, but my tutor suggested we attend them for ideas on topics for our thesis. I went almost every Friday, not because I was a particularly diligent, but because I had no social life. My parents often rolled their eyes when we discussed the course of study I had opted for: Comparative Literature. “Marcus, I tell you, you’re letting a good brain go to waste. Send you all the way to London to read story books!” my mother would complain. According to my father, I should have studied economics. Books on politics, business or science, “those are real books for smart people,” my father would say. Shakespeare, Steinbeck and Seth, according to him, were for idiots who had too much free time on their hands and who would never take life seriously or make a decent buck. But I love books and my plan was to get my degree then become Singapore’s own Stephen King. But this writing business was proving to be more arduous than I had expected. The harder I tried to produce, the more I started to think that my father might have be right about literature after all. I was considering aborting my fiction writing aspirations and maybe switching to a degree in marketing. I certainly had good enough grammar and punctuation to slap together a press release.
I entered the auditorium, which was only a third full and took a seat four rows from the front. Most of the people around me looked like students too, they were all dressed up and looked like they were there to kill time before hitting the clubs. The guest speaker tonight was the head of the Creative Writing Department for some obscure university in Middlesex.
A burly Indian man with a turban, thick glasses and a green and purple Barney T-shirt sat comfortably slouched in a swivel chair on the stage at the bottom of the sloping auditorium. On the white board behind him were the words: The Heart of Narrative in thick red upper case. He stood up and introduced himself as Professor Amanvir Singh.
“Hello future teller of tales. Welcome to the heart of narrative. Today, I want to address the topic of finding good material for fiction. I meet many students in Middlesex University who tell me they cannot find anything to write about. I tell them that stories are all around them and that as long as they are alive, there is something to tell.
I’ve been living in Britain for more than forty years, and this place is full of stories. But I’ve found that many of my students are so inward looking that their works read like personal diaries. Or, they venture so far into the fantastical that their characters become like cartoons, human-like but not human. So many aspiring storytellers today write like they are writing for the movies or television. They have forgotten how to tell a simple tale, so they resort to some gimmick to get your attention. But really, who can blame them, because isn’t that what we writers all want? Just a little attention?”
I saw a few people nodding. The professor gesticulated a lot; he had an odd habit of adjusting his turban, and a nervous mouth that would twitch between sentences under a wiry white beard. It made him look a little crazy and I found his animated-ness a little distracting. So I closed my eyes and listened.
“We writers live so much in our own heads that it’s easy for those in our line of work to lose touch with the people around us.” He said. “We’re obsessed with our own peculiar perverted version of reality. In our eagerness to impress, we try too hard. We sometimes create worlds that nobody can understand. Uninhabitable landscapes born of our own grandiosity; amusing only to us and no one else. The need to be so very special always gets in the way of the telling, doesn’t it? When we get a little reprieve from our desire to always be unique, then the need for some kind of reward for our labours, winning a contest or getting published for instance, pulls us away from the humble task of painting with words. Well my young writer friends, let me tell you the trick to finding a story. It requires you to step outside yourself, to be so absorbed attempting to understand another that you almost forget who you think you are.
I found myself agreeing with everything the professor said. He was spot-on about the need to be so very special. How often had I been stuck on an essay, not because I did not have the facts, but simply because I wanted to sound good and original? Waylaid by my need to impress my tutors with more humour and wisdom than I could muster, I often ended up staring at a blank page for hours.
With a glimmer in his eye, the professor stood akimbo, wet his lips and looked at his small audience with a face full of intent. Looking at his supreme confidence, it occurred to me how similar we who write are to actors, or musicians in a rock band. Always hungry and so full of self.
“Don’t worry too much about being a good writer. Just write. Just tell the stories. We don’t need to live large lives to tell worthy tales; we just need to look hard and listen well. Be curious and uninhibited. Infer, expound and imagine. Be interested in those around you. Writers with talent don’t need big words, or a life packed with romance and adventure, though that helps sometimes! Talented writers are just more mindful of the little things around them. Using that rare gift of empathy, they can tap into the theatre of humanity.
Some people think that fiction is drivel. Contrary! Nothing reveals the human condition with more veracity than skillful storytelling. Of course, nothing is literal in literature, and there is more than one way to tell the truth!
When I was a boy in India, I used to walk pass a temple on the way to the market. On the steps of this temple I saw an old woman. Her face looked like melted wax. On the right side, she had no ear and an empty socket where an eye should have been. Her jaw and lips on this side looked like they had sunk into the middle of her face, and her mouth was twisted into a perpetual lipless gasp with yellowish teeth and purplish gums exposed. Her right arm ended at the elbow in a smooth pinkish stump.
If anyone dared to come near enough to her, this old woman would follow them and say, ‘Good day kind sir. No, no, I don’t want your money. The temple feeds me. But can you sit with me for a while? I want to tell you about my life.’
One day, she approached me and asked me to listen to her tale. At first I was frightened by her appearance and thought I should walk away as quickly as I could. She was even more frightful to look at up close. But I was also curious to learn how she ended up looking this way. So I stopped to listen. This was what she told me.
‘Before I was born, when I was just a seed in my mother’s womb, my father thought he saw my mother under an oleander tree with another man. This made him mad with rage. He made some poison from the leaves and bark of the oleander tree and mixed it into the nettle tea that he made for herself every morning. But my mother was strong and the poison did not kill her. It went from her blood into mine, melting my growing bones and flesh. When I slid out between my mother’s legs, she took one look at me and screamed. My father insisted that I was not his child, that I was the offspring of the man he saw under the oleander tree, and we were cursed. So my father and his family chased us out of their home and away from our village. My mother and I moved from village to village, taking whatever charity we could find. Whenever we arrived at a new village, mother would go straight to the temple to pray, asking Krishna to heal me. But the villagers did not want me inside the temple, as they thought my ugliness would offend Krishna and he would withhold his blessings from the village. They threw stones at me and chased me out. So my mother would go into the temples while I sat outside waiting for her.
It was in this very temple that my mother died, so I have decided to stay here to be close to her. Thankfully, people have changed, and the new priests at the temple are very kind to me now. They give me three meals a day and a mat in the temple courtyard to sleep on. Sometimes I look at the men who work carrying heavy rocks all day in the hot sun, or the women going back and forth with huge clay pots filled with water on their heads. I feel such pity for them. I am so lucky that I do not have to toil under the sun all day with such heavy loads. I just sit outside the temple and watch the world go by. I have food and shelter. To entertain myself, I think up stories. I can read your fortune too. Spinning stories and fortune telling, it’s not that different really. Would you like me to read your future?’
Two years later, I came by the temple again and the old lady was still there on the steps. I walked up to her. “Hello madam,” I said. “Do you remember me? Can I sit with you for a while?” The old woman contorted her mouth into what could very well be a smile and patted the step that she sat on, inviting me to join her. I sat a little closer to her this time. This was what she told me.
‘I lived in a village with my husband and five children. We are dalits, untouchables, and in this village, everyone was of a higher caste than us. I knew nobody liked us there and I told my husband we should leave. But my husband was stubborn and insisted that as long as we stayed put, the other villagers would eventually have accept us because we are good people. But this did not happen. Instead their hatred grew and spread like cobra venom. Their fear and anger swelled, and each week and each month their harsh words and dirty looks become darker and more poisonous, until it became a heavy storm cloud that had no choice but to break. When the family living next to us lost three goats in a week, the villagers called us witches.
One night, twelve men came into our home. They were Kshatriyas, the warrior caste. They had knives and axes and I saw my children being cut into half. They threw my youngest son against the wall, breaking his neck. One by one, they murdered all my children. They tore off my clothes and ravaged me. Then they hacked my arm off. When my husband came to pull them away, they sunk an axe into his skull. Then they made a fire; they grabbed me by the hair and tried to burn me alive. They pushed my face, this side, into the flames for what felt like forever, but I got away and I ran as fast and as far as I could.
I spent years moving from village to village and town to town, but eleven years ago, I returned to the place where my family was murdered. This is the temple that everyone who is from this village comes to get their final blessings before they die. The twelve men should be old enough for death by now, and I expect to see them soon. They will have to come here when it is their time, and when I see them, I will remind them of where they are going, to a dessert where they will walk for eternity, alone, fevered, thirsty, in pain with sores that never heal and ceaseless visions of demons chasing them and eating their organs. The priests have told me that I need not worry myself with retribution, because Krishna already knows everything about the wicked and they will not escape their karma. But I’m afraid Krishna might forget, so I sit here everyday to make sure they get what they deserve.’
Everyone was listening intently now. Eyes were lifted from mobile devices. The young audience had perked up and was giving their full attention to the professor.
“When I was twenty, I left India and moved here to live with my uncle and attend university. After completing my PhD, I went back to India for a holiday and to visit my parents. I decided to go to the temple to see if my friend was there. Indeed she was. It had been five years since we last met. I walked up to her and asked her if she remembered me.
‘I can tell you yes and make you happy. But the truth is, no. I don’t remember you. I see so many people everyday and they all look the same, not so special looking like me,’ she chuckled. ‘But what does the truth matter? You are here and you have ears. So good sir, sit with me for a while. I will tell you about my life.
Thirty-three years ago, I worked at a ticketing booth at a train station in Karnataka. I was supremely beautiful and was engaged to a Punjabi lawyer living in New Delhi. My mother had sent her matchmaker friend in New Delhi my photograph. The man I was to marry was from a rich family and he had picked me out of all the girls in the matchmaker’s photo album. It was a week before I would leave for the city. That week, everyday, I walked to the station with a big smile because I was so excited to meet my prince in this strange new place. I was lucky, my husband-to-be was not too ugly and he was not too old either. And he was wealthy, so I would not have to work anymore. And maybe I would even have my own maid.
The night before I was to leave, I noticed three figures running along the train tracks. I got out of the booth, walked a little further and saw that they were three young boys who seemed to be playing. “Get off the tracks!” I shouted, but the three shadows seemed stuck at one spot. I was getting annoyed at these naughty children, who should really be in bed by now. I had to be on the early morning train the next day, and wanted to get my beauty rest. I heard three voices yelling for help. I walked slowly towards them. Two of the boys were grabbing at the arms of one boy, who was on the ground. I thought they were bullying him.
I stepped down the platform and onto the track to get a better look. As I walked closer, I noticed that the boy on the ground, the smallest of the three, had his foot trapped in between the tracks. It was bleeding. His friends must have been trying to yank it out.
Toot toot. The train was coming and I had to decide quickly what to do next. The two boys jumped up onto the platform and ran out of the station to get help. The tooting was getting louder and the light from the train was getting brighter. The locomotive was a few feet away and I still had time to get off the track. But its headlight shone upon the small figure on the ground, so I could now clearly see the shape and face of the boy. He was crying for help but his voice was muffled by the noise of the approaching juggernaut. Like a magnet, the boy’s eyes locked into mine. Perhaps that should never have happened.
Suddenly my limbs froze. In a split second, I saw his father and his mother who waited anxiously for him at their home. I saw the boy in a schoolroom, raising his hand because he always had the right answers to the teacher’s questions. He was a very clever boy and would become a surgeon and save lives. I saw a grateful beggar that this kind boy gave his lunch to earlier in the day. I wanted to run, leave him and save myself. But like magic, all these things were revealed to me through his terrified eyes as they pleaded with me not to go. To help him. It was as if I were under a spell. I could not move. The last things I remember from that night was the boy scrambling up the platform and pulling my hand, then the light from the train, pure white light. When I woke up I was no longer beautiful.’
Professor Amanvir Singh leaned back in his chair. The audience was completely enthralled, as was I.
The professor fingered his turban as if he were wiping imaginary sweat off his brow. A mischievous grin formed on his twitching mouth. “Did you like that story? Now future teller of tales, I tell you honestly, I have never met such a woman in my life! But on my way here from Middlesex, I saw a limping drunkard with no shoes, an eye patch and a bloody nose shouting to the air: ‘Listen to me you fools! For God’s sake… someone listen to me…please!’ On my journey to London, I started thinking about what possible turn of events could have brought this man to his sorry state, and that’s when the old lady showed up.”
After the lecture, I invited the professor for a drink and asked him to help me with my thesis. We became good friends. I graduated from university with honours. I have since published three novels and am now partner at a publishing firm in Singapore. Last week, I attended Professor Amanvir’s funeral. He had died peacefully in his sleep. He was sixty-eight years old. He taught at Middlesex University till his death. He had one short story published in the Sussex Journal, but he never wrote a book or received much in the way of literary fame and fortune. There were many people at his wake, and it was good to see that the man had so many friends. But I didn’t know anyone, so I moved to the bar to get myself a drink. As I waited there for the bartender to make me a gin and tonic, a gentle looking man with a cane and an eye-patch approached and asked the bartender for an apple juice. He smiled at me, said hello and walked away. I thought perhaps I knew him.
Copyright® Michele Koh Morollo 2010