Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Art Of Storytelling

I’m participating in the International Author’s Day blog hop. Debdatta Sahay, a clever gentleman whom I’ve never met, is responsible for this brilliant idea of dedicating a day for celebrating authors (find him here). Considering we have international days for kidneys and hearts, this was really long overdue I’d say.

Now then, I had to write something special for this, yes? So I figured I’ll give you some gyaan. No, no...I can’t tell you how to win friends – I don’t have many. The few I have prefer to keep in touch online. The ones who live nearby invite me for tea whenever they need a good laugh. I can’t tell you how to make money either – I don’t have any. I can’t tell you how to impress the opposite sex. Nope...you shouldn’t be taking that advice from someone who writes daft poetry and discusses boson theories. For the rest of the things that affect your life, I’m sure there is an app floating around somewhere...or at least a tickling video on Buzzfeed.  But, there is one thing I can tell you. Behold! I reveal the secretive training I received in storytelling. It was quite intensive.  In fact, I did detail this out in my resume when I applied for a certain highbrow university - my application was rejected with much frostiness. There! You’ve been warned.

The storyteller training commenced much before I could distinguish between the fountain pen and ball pen. Wait...what am I saying...it goes way back. Some would even term it ‘hoary past’. Yes, the first training took place in the days when I used the chalk more as a snack than as a writing instrument. This was even before my regular imprisonment in a school began. I was in some kind of a ‘pre-school’...in an era when the term ‘pre-school’ was not yet in vogue. There was a community centre known as ‘Samskruti Kendra’ near my place. It was where all the snot billowing kids of the locality became ‘isskool’-ready. We learnt our alphabets, numbers and stories of crows throwing pebbles in water jugs.

Like everyone of my generation, we began language learning the old way – the teacher would write the alphabet on our slates, and we had to trace it till it got imprinted on our brains. There were only two teachers – one elderly lady, and another younger one who came on and off. The elderly lady was simply known as ‘Kannadakada Madam’ or the bespectacled teacher. I don’t know if the Samskurti Kendra trust paid her a salary or if she did this as a hobby. But the Kendra was her life. She called all of us ‘putta’ or darlings...but was equally swift with some shaming punishment when her patience was tested.

I had one of those ‘abacus’ slates – cutting edge technology as far as I was concerned – learning math and language on one device. One day, I suppose I got tired of tracing ‘O’ and ‘Ou’ of the Kannada alphabet. My piece of chalk had become a stump. I chewed it up promptly. No chalk, no more writing. Kannadakada Madam made me rinse my mouth and widened her eyes till I could trace every red nerve curling around her pupils magnified by the specs. She wagged her finger and said don’t ever eat chalk. EVER. I trembled. Okay...so I figured that ingesting chalk is frowned upon.

Amma promptly told the doctor in Nagaratna’s clinic and soon, I had to drink all kinds of concoctions to replenish calcium and iron and whatnot. Even so, chalk-chewing continued. I cooked up several versions of Mystery of The Disappearing Chalk. Much to my dismay, the adults always cracked the mystery. It had something to do with my tongue blisters and a white residue all around my mouth. Ergo – my first lesson in story-telling: cover all bases.

I was also, for some reason, very curious about Kannadakada Madam. She was a petite and thin woman; all her strength was concentrated in her larynx. Her spectacles were the no-nonsense ‘soda glass’ ones with sturdy black frames. She hardly wore any jewelry: perhaps two glass bangles on the right hand and a watch with frayed strap on the left. Her long hair was always oiled and braided in a single plait. Every Thursday, she probably visited the Raghavendra Swamy mutt next door: she’d have a bud of a sampige flower inserted in her plait, and whenever she bent down to check our slates, akshate would drop all around us from her head. She had just the two or three sarees, and just the two or three basic colour blouses - black, white or some other neutral colour. She always smelt of home cooking – pepper rasam, gooseberry pickles and dosas.

The younger teacher was more fastidious in terms of fashion. Her sarees were from Garden, neatly pinned unlike Kannadakada Madam’s hasty wrap. Her blouses always matched the saree and were impeccably stitched (many mums took details of the tailor from her). Her hair was always styled in a kind of loose plait that allowed for pinning of a lush rose just below the ear. She wore glass bangles matching her sarees and ‘drops’ oscillated from her ears – sometimes they were huge ‘Uma gold’ rings, or sometimes, long, long jhumkis. She also wore a thin, glittering chain that swung just below her breasts; depending on the saree, a matching pendant adorned the chain. She was supposedly following the fashion trend initiated by a Kannada actress Padma Priya – her block heels proved it beyond doubts. Even today, if I get a whiff of Vicco Turmeric, I remember this young lady.

Despite her lack of glamour, it was Kannadakada Madam who held my fascination. I somehow assumed she lived in the school itself, although Amma said she had a house nearby. It was only when I was older I realised Madam was single – possibly unmarried.

The last I met her was probably twenty years ago. I had just graduated, and Amma and I were loitering around Malleswaram when we happened to pass through Samskruti Kendra. There she was – just the way I remembered her. Sitting at a wrought iron table, frowning at a register. She was frailer for sure – but the strength of her voice had not diminished. She still called me ‘putta’ and marvelled that I’d ‘grown up so fast’ and ‘was I still eating chalks’. When she came to know I’d graduated, her happiness was pure, unabated. She gave me a sampige flower, akshate and kallusakre prasada from the mutt. ‘Be well-known for good deeds and change the world. If you can’t do anything, do vidya daana,’ she blessed.

Why did I feel like crying that day? I don’t know. There are some people who touch your soul effortlessly. She was like a boulder in the midst of a river – the river can change course, rage around in a torrential flood, or evaporate in a searing summer. But the rock stands impervious to everything. Did she have anyone at home? Did she look after aged parents? Did brothers and sisters visit her? Did she own at least one silk saree that she wore for weddings? I did not know anything about her life; not even her name. Sometimes that’s good...this not knowing...it retains a magic of human complexities.

Well – that taught me the second important lesson of storytelling. No matter what genre, characterisation is king. It drives situations, scenes and POV.

Anyway by the time I graduated to the fountain pen, my story-telling abilities had reached a peak, thanks to homework being persistently sacrificed at the TV altar. I thought I was a smooth operator. Imagine my surprise when my bluff was called easily.  I never factored in the possibility of my teachers meeting up with my parents. That was my third lesson in story-telling – character conflicts, red herrings, the villains and the obstacles, and above all, the importance of tying up all ends.

I duly applied my newly acquired skills in story-telling during History lessons. I believe this can be considered as an official start to my writing career. Somewhat on the lines of Rider Haggard’s ‘She’, I managed to dramatise the Mughal invasions of the Indian subcontinent to a thrilling extent.  I believe the staff room was plagued with delirious laughter for days together. But, I did not score well since I got the names of the invaders and the invaded all wrong, not to mention the atrocious dates. If I had it my way, I'd have Buddha preaching peace to those Ghazni and Gori psychopaths. I learnt my fourth important lesson in story-telling: the devil is indeed in the details.

In high school, an abysmal performance in Trigonometry (I could never remember the relationship between the sine, cosine and tangent) earned me detention. As a punishment, I had to write an essay on my ‘failure’.  I believe I enjoyed the punishment rather thoroughly. I learnt my fifth important lesson in story-telling – motivation for character actions. What drives a character? 

But perhaps the most important lesson of all – a good writer is not necessarily a good storyteller. Magic happens only when the two interweave, like a pattern in a loom. For that, you need to keep your soul accessible. You never know who will quietly imprint a lesson and fade away.  

Happy storytelling!

© Sumana Khan 2014


  1. "you need to keep your soul accessible" ... that blew me away ....

  2. Thank You for joining in the celebrations for #IAD!

  3. Sumana--are you the same person I met while working for CNA Insurance in Nashville, TN? My old Gmail account was compromised, so I lost my entire address book--please respond if this is the same person! Thanks.

  4. Wow!! The story of Kannadakada Madam is indeed very touching! Love your pointers!! :D

  5. Oh Gaaawwd! I used to munch on chalk and baLapa (the coloured lined soft ones) as well. Kids with calcium deficiency take this way out I am told :) "Snot billowing" indeed, moogalli bulpu :) Oh yes, I remember Uma gold and shree gold (Who the hell are they anyway!) "Uma gold" earrings always gave me trouble when water used to fall on them while they were still in my ears. And oh yes,wait! I remember "drops" too -pearl drops or plain gold drops :) Padmapriya! Good Lord!! PattaNakke banda patniyarau :) Loved reading this too, Sumana. I guess the teachers who taught us during our early years always genuinely feel happy that we have managed to carve a future for ourselves despite having shown no such capabilities as children :)

    1. hahaha Padmapriya...I remember 'Operation Diamond Raaacket' with Annouru :) I think she also acted in Thayige thakka maga :)

      Yes I think most of the teachers figured we'd be okay.

      Hey wishing you a very Happy Varamahalakshmi Vrata :)