Thursday, February 23, 2012

Story Water: The Cultural Wellsprings of Storytelling

From Hunger Mountain's Magic and Mystery of Identity Issue:

Tapoor! Toopoor! Rain drops fall
The rivers swell with tides
Lord Shiva’s getting wed
to three pretty brides

One bride eats all day
One likes to cook
One bride has headed home
without a backward look

from The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales by Sayantani DasGupta and Shamita Das DasGupta

Gather ‘round, children, and I will tell you a story.

It is a familiar scene. The storyteller is a village elder, or a grandmother, or a wandering minstrel. The passel of eager-eyed children, and perhaps some adults, sit close. It is the still evening, under the fluttering mosquito-net; or perhaps mid-day, in the shade of an old acacia tree; or a darkening and cold afternoon, by the light of a roaring fire.

The stories too are familiar: princely quests, cautionary tales of greedy merchants, creation myths of how humans came to be, or explanatory stories of why the tortoise has such a hard a shell. They tell of djinn and rakshas, orphans and angels, cunning foxes, and wise spiders.

Yet, while they share these commonalities, each such “stream of stories” (to borrow a phrase from Salman Rushdie) is sprung from a culturally specific source, and each teaches us something particular about that community, culture, and history. The sweet waters from Bengali, Hebrew, Finnish, Mandarin, or Igbo stories might all quench a listener’s thirst, but in fact, they each taste a little different.

Take, for instance, a story my father told me when I was young to help me understand the death of a family member. Although, like many such tales from many different cultures, this story helps explain death, it is based on the Hindu Upanishads and is consistent with a religious tradition of reincarnation. This story could not belong to a culture that believes in heaven and hell, or the permanent connection of one unique body to one unique soul. While it holds truths for any reader, it also teaches us specifically about the beliefs of a particular region of the world and a particular people from that region.

The story itself went like this: You must imagine life’s energy as a mighty river, my father said to me. Those flowing waters represent all the souls of all the creatures in all the universes. Our bodies, he explained, are mere vessels holding that precious soul-water for a limited amount of time. Like clay vessels, our bodies are impermanent. When we die, it is simply a process of pouring our vessel’s liquid back into the eternal streams of life. Thereafter, our individual, personal life force may be indistinguishable from the rest of the rushing river, but it never disappears. It simply returns to its original source.

I like to imagine storytelling as a somewhat similar process—of dipping one’s drinking gourd into the eternal stream of stories. The storyteller gives the tale shape and form, but the essential life force comes from somewhere else entirely.

To read the rest of this essay, please visit Hunger Mountain

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