The Greatest Stories Ever Told
|Creation and the fall. The tempter and the holy man. The saintly hero and the heroic child. Miracles. Parables. These are the common threads that run through the world’s great faiths, weaving a tapestry of belief that is at once immense and dazzling, innocent and wise.The stories recounted in this book echo and mirror each other, changing mysteriously, yet mysteriously staying the same. Noah rides out the flood in his Ark; Yima survives the snowstorm in his Vara. David vanquishes Goliath with a slingshot; Prahlad defeats evil with his goodness. Two princes forsake their families and their kingdoms—Prince Siddhartha becomes the Buddha, Prince Vardhamana Mahavira. The Prophet Muhammad receives revelation, alone on the top of a hill. Guru Nanak receives his as he walks, by himself, into a river.Be it the five unending loaves or the one limitless morsel of rice, these stories are as much about our capacity for wonder as they are about the oneness of faith.|
|‘… wonderful stories… no better way to acquaint a young person to the most impressive examples of powerful storytelling’ —Parenting‘…
an intelligent re-telling of [these] age old stories’ —The Hindu
“AS IF FOR THE FIRST TIME” On how received mythologies can become the stuff of vivid contemporary writing Sampurna Chattarji
What I’d like to present today is not so much a paper as a set of ruminations, speculations and aggravations on, about and around the possibilities of myth in contemporary writing.
I’d like to start by sharing three quotations that I came across while planning this talk. The first two are attributed to Joseph Campbell:
“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths” and
“Someone else’s religion is mythology.”
The third one, from an introduction to the Puranas says: “India, extraordinarily rich in myth, has no special word for it. Closest perhaps is purana – ‘a story of the old days’ but the word encompasses a great deal more than what we nowadays understand by ‘myth’.”
Which brought me to the question – what is it that we “nowadays understand by myth”? A set of stories that our grandmothers used to tell us, and that our children now read in dime-a-dozen retellings with garish illustrations? A worldview? Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’? An alternative reality that touches ours only tangentially, if at all? What could mythology mean to a generation impatient and often resistant to the notion of received wisdoms, and shared narratives? How facile or how profound could these narratives become? What kind of burden would that put on a writer today, attempting to ‘contemporize’ the ancient, to tell the old stories anew?
Fortunately, these were not the questions I asked myself when I sat down to write the book that Penguin had commissioned three years ago. If I had, the book might never have got written! But now, with the help of hindsight and a few niggling questions, I’d like to use my experience of writing The Greatest Stories Ever Told to touch upon what is essentially about interpretation.
Perhaps the greatest stumbling block to the writer’s freedom of interpretation when dealing with mythology is the question of morality. I was asked to do a book which would “tell children that all religions are essentially the same”. Nothing cripples a writer more, at least this writer more, than a diktat to be didactic. Anything educational, as we all remember with great clarity, must surely be mind-numbingly dull. Not only to the recipient, in this case the ‘mythical’ child eager for such instruction, but also to the supposed ‘giver’ of such instruction. My first impulse was to run away, screaming. But upon contemplation and after being told that I could do “exactly as I pleased”, I decided to find a way to subvert the brief, as it were. A buzz at the back of my head told me that I was looking for parallels, the same stories told differently in different faiths, but that was easier said than found. Off-hand, the story of the flood was one I knew existed both in Christian and Hindu mythology. But it was only when I stumbled across the lesser-known Zoroastrian story of Yima and the deadly winter, that I felt the incredible rush of knowing that this was it. This book would not be about the oneness of faiths, so much as about the wonder of hearing a story, as if for the first time.
And it was in that phrase – “as if for the first time”, that I found the key. All the elements of enchantment and make-belief were in those words – “as if” – were in those words – “the first time”. One of the influences on me as a writer, and not just when I write for children, has been that of the fairytale. Every time I read Angela Carter’s dark, sensuous, grimly comic versions of Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast, I can feel the tug of themes that transcend time. Why was that tug missing when it came to telling stories from different religions, what made the word ‘mythology’ breathe the air of gravitas, inspire the rote, the dully reverential? Very often when friends asked me what I was working on and I would try to explain, they would arrive at their own conclusions about what kind of book it must be – oh folktales, they would say after hearing me out. No, I would say, the mythologies of the world’s great faiths, and even as I said it, I could see their eyes clouding over. What was it about ‘mythology’ and ‘faith’ that switched off any desire to know more? Why had I used the word ‘faith’ rather than ‘religion’? How important were the distinctions between fairytale, folktale, mythology? Why was mythology friendlier in the guise of talking animals rather than in a confrontation with revelation and death?
If only I’d known that handy quote then – “mythology is someone else’s religion”! As it was, I neither asked nor answered these difficult questions. I just wrote. I had found twelve themes and for each theme two stories, in one case three, from different belief-systems. So while the End of the World featured Noah’s Ark, Manu’s Boat and Yima’s Vara, the Revelation of God’s Word featured Muhammad and Guru Nanak. The Trial of Faith was endured by Zarathusthra as well as by Daniel. The Heroic Child was Prahlad and David. The Last Temptation was not just Christ’s but also Buddha’s. Prince Siddhartha was mirrored by Prince Vardhamana. So far so good. But being fairly representational was not enough. The “as if for the first time” would not be found in the parallels, but in the way those parallels manifested themselves.
I had to write all twenty-five stories before realising I had written them the wrong way. I had taken them as received texts and I had rewritten them – I had not transformed them into material that would seem vivid and real and now. And so with only a month to go before my submission deadline, I sat and rewrote all twenty-five stories, knowing with a certainty that seemed inexplicable just what was wrong and just how I could fix it. That may sound needlessly mystical, a fanciful mythologizing of the writer’s role. But in that one month, I wrote as if possessed, not by my own voice, but by the voices of the characters in these stories.
You see, what had held me back was my inability to treat Christ and Buddha, Muhammad and Guru Nanak as ‘characters’. Not prophets, not saviours, not saints, but characters in a fiction of my own making. I was trying to absent myself as the creator in these creation myths, in these seminal stories of persecution and faith, in these founding myths that shaped entire religions. I wanted my texts to feel as if they were equally ‘received’, inscribed in stone. And so what I got from that first round was stone – dull, graven, lifeless. The facts were there, the animating force of fiction was not. It was as if the weight of these grand themes, these awe-inspiring beginnings had crushed me, had robbed me of the freedom I feel when using mythology in my own fiction, my own poetry. I was burdened by that dread word – ‘responsibility’. I was shackled by that crippling thought – ‘morality’. I only see that now. Then, all I saw was a deadline looming before me, and the flying fingers on my keyboard. The stories wrote themselves, and the secret lay in three little words – point of view. It seems childishly simple now, but in January 2004 those three little words were my moment of revelation. Who is telling each story? What kind of person? What does she look like and sound like? What does she wear? All the mechanisms I would use for my own fiction were suddenly kicking in, intuitively, instinctively. I had forgotten these stories were not mine, because suddenly they were. And so I found myself writing the story of Muhammad through the point of view of the women in his life – his natural mother Amina, his foster mother Halima and his wife Khadija. What would Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, have been to these three women? I found out by writing the story. The story of Christ’s temptation I told from the point of view of the devil. Only by adopting the tone of voice of the tempter could I communicate the extent of the failure of evil, the crushing defeat at the top of the temple:
We reached the top. He breathed the air deeply, and then he realized he was not alone.
‘Your trust in your god is touching!’ I sneered. ‘You reject food for his sake, you reject great wealth and importance for his sake, now why don’t we see if he will do something for your sake?’
The temple of Jerusalem was a mighty temple, at least in the eyes of men. It towered into the sky and up on the pinnacle where we stood, a strong breeze blew, tugging at Jesus’ robes. One wrong step and it would be a long fall to the ground below. I laughed at the thought and began nudging Jesus closer and closer to the edge, talking all the while in my subtle and provocative way.
‘You see the drop don’t you?’ I said. ‘A mortal man will not survive it. But one such as yourself, who claims to be the son of god – why, for you, it should not be deadly! Hasn’t your father said that he will send his angels to lift you up and carry you away so that you do not hurt yourself against the stones? Well then, why are you afraid? Why do you hesitate? Throw yourself off this tower and prove to me that your god loves you as much as you love him!’
We teetered dangerously at the edge. I saw him look down. He looked pale and proud. Perhaps at last he would dare to take up my challenge. I had accused his god of not loving him enough. He would not be able to take it. That too from me. I smiled. Perhaps that was what made him change his mind. He stepped back and looked at me, with something horrifyingly like pity in his eyes.
‘You forget, Satan,’ he said. ‘You forget that He has also said that no one shall put Him to the test! Not even me. No taunt of yours will make me betray His trust. The proof of His love is in my heart, and that is why it hurts you, for you have no heart, just darkness and a terrible pain.’
I wanted to push him off the tower when he said that. I wanted to watch him die, painfully. I wanted to tear out the dusty hair that the wind tossed about his face and shred his robes to pieces with my nails. I wanted to ruin him. But I could not. Instead, I stood there a long time, watching him. I stood there till he took a deep breath and began the long climb down.
[The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Sampurna Chattarji, pages 135-137, Penguin/Puffin, 2004]
Never had I been closer to understanding that story than when I put myself in Satan’s shoes. Here was the power of fiction, which I had been keeping separate from the sanctum sanctorum of religious mythology. These divisions were of my own making. Retelling the Jataka Tales or the Panchatantra was easier. Talking animals automatically made the divisions between worlds less real. But religious mythology, the sacred cows, the holy writ – now that was another story.
As it turned out, it was another story. Twenty-five ‘other’ stories. Strangely, in spite of not being a practicing Hindu, I still found the Hindu mythologies harder to re-invent than the others. David and Goliath was a story I knew from when I was little, just as I knew the story of Hiranyakashipu. But I found it much simpler to inhabit young David’s skin than young Prahlad’s. It was easier to be a child hero slugging a giant with a slingshot, but how much harder was it to be a child watching his father die before his eyes, killed for the good of the earth by none other than Vishnu in his Narasimha avatar, tearing apart the person who, however demonic, was his father. A few extracts from that story:
People say my father was an evil man. I wouldn’t go that far. In fact, he wasn’t a man at all. He was a demon. Actually, that’s not true either. He was the king of the demons. And by the time I come into the story, even that description wouldn’t be strictly accurate. You see, by then, he had become the king of all three worlds. Men feared him. Gods didn’t dare get in his way. And as for the poor demons, they simply quaked each time my father even looked in their direction. Now do you begin to see why everyone hated him so? He was too powerful, too big, too strong. As for me, I didn’t hate him. He was my father after all, even if he did try to kill me. You see, I was luckier than he was. He had no friends. Slaves, yes. But friends, no. Whereas I…
But wait. I’m telling this all wrong. Let me start at the beginning.
There was no escaping it. Hiranyakashipu, King of the Daityas, my father, was now officially King of All Three Worlds. He sent out an official proclamation.
FROM THIS DAY ON, I, HIRANYAKASHIPU, AM SOLE AND SOVEREIGN MASTER OF ALL THREE WORLDS. GODS, MEN AND DEMONS SHALL BOW DOWN BEFORE ME. IN TEMPLES, SHRINES AND HOMES, NO ONE SHALL BE WORSHIPPED BUT ME. ALL SACRIFICES AND OFFERINGS SHALL BE MADE TO ME AND ME ALONE. LET NO ONE FORGET THIS. ANYONE WHO BREAKS THIS LAW SHALL MEET THE SEVEREST PUNISHMENT. DEATH.
I admit, it was strong stuff. Not the kind of thing that makes you an instant favourite. But who was to tell my father that? He sat, glittering coldly in his splendid crystal palace, unapproachable, served by Gandharvas and Siddhas and entertained by divinely beautiful apsaras who normally danced only for the gods. Hiranyakashipu’s name spelt terror. No one dared go against him.
The funny thing was, the last thing I wanted to do was go against him. I didn’t want to fight. I didn’t know how. Besides, how could I? I was a frail boy, no muscles to speak of, absolutely hopeless. I was probably a great disappointment to my father. How he must have wished I was big and brawny like him! How he must have wanted me to excel at wrestling and archery and sword-fights! But I was no good at any of those. And still I went into battle. Or rather, my father went into battle with me.
I couldn’t stop my tears. My father was dead and I had caused it, by provoking him to such a murderous rage that he didn’t care if he killed me or died himself. This was not what I had wanted. I had hoped that by not lifting a finger I could win the battle peacefully but that was not to be. The cries of the court and the praises of the gods did little to make me feel better. They might call me a hero, but what good was a hero who killed his own father? I howled like a baby, and no one could understand why.
[The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Sampurna Chattarji, pages 262, 265, 266, 274, Penguin/Puffin, 2004]
My attempts at fictionalizing the mythological had another interesting side-effect. I started realising that I was less impervious to my own cultural heritage than I had thought myself to be. Just as I was proclaiming ‘sameness’ so too was I discovering ‘differences’. Just as I was relishing my ‘distance’ so too was I finding myself immersed. The simpler the telling became, the more the inherent complexities made themselves apparent. Was this the mythic tug, exerting its influence on me at last? Was this the same spell that ensured these stories passed on from generation to generation, orally, until written down, inaccessible except to scholars and pundits until translated, remote until re-told?
I went back to some other writers who have fascinated me with their treatments of myth. Among them is Eduardo Galeano, born in Uruguay in 1940, whose trilogy Memory of Fire I am reading. The first book in the trilogy is called, appropriately, Genesis. In the Preface he says, “I am not a historian. I am a writer who would like to contribute to the rescue of the kidnapped memory of all America, but above all of Latin America, that despised and beloved land: I would like to talk to her, share her secrets, ask her of what difficult clays she was born, from what acts of love and violation she comes.” The book, he says, is dedicated to “Grandmother Esther. She knew it before she died.”
In Genesis history is inclusive of mythology, memory is myth, and “kidnapped memory” is what he would like to ransom with his own stories. To his grandmother, teller of tales, he attributes prescience, a foretelling of all that his book contains. Is it fiction, is it fact? As Galeano says, “Memory of Fire is not an anthology, clearly not; but I don’t know if it is a novel or essay or epic poem or testament or chronicle or…Deciding robs me of no sleep. I do not believe in the frontiers that, according to literature’s customs officers, separate the forms.”
Sometimes, as I had discovered when writing The Greatest Stories those customs officers are inside one’s head. The imagination of the writer, that last – or seemingly-so – last bastion of freedom is besieged by sentries of one’s one fear, one’s own timidity. The fear of being inaccurate, irreverent, irreligious. And never more so than when dealing with what is inherited, the unasked-for legacy of our individual and communal mythologies. As if a devotion to the letter of the inherited myth were more important than to its spirit. And while I feel other art forms in India such as theatre and dance are able to interpret and re-interpret classical mythology in contemporary ways without reducing them to mere gestures, I find Indian fiction in English still constrained in some inarticulate way. So while on one hand we have sexed-up versions of the Ramayana for ‘adult audiences’, on the other hand we have piously platitudinous versions of the same for our young audiences. What binds the two together is the belief that contemporizing the tone of an epic is enough to consider it contemporary, as if making it “easier-to-read” might somehow make the epic, the arcane, easier to relate to. As if changing its clothes will make the same dull person suddenly more attractive. It doesn’t. Kids don’t leap at the idea of reading Ramayana Redux the way they would at the idea of reading the last installment of Harry Potter. What is not connecting anymore is the story – the age-old story with all the elements of magic hidden under layers of moralizing and face-paint, suddenly bereft of its original powerful charm. Language can help us rediscover that potency, but not through an array of verbal calisthenics. The stories never changed, what changed was what we expected of them. We forgot they were entertainment, forgot they were life-boats, visions, jokes, wishful thinking, prayers, fears, superstitions, make-belief, joy. We expected them to be all that we could not be – lofty, moral, good. Mythology could take the burden of all that was high-minded and ideal, while we got on with our all-too messy lives. We forgot that mythology was messy – unsparing in its detail of blood and killing, unflinching in its tales of adultery and despair, eloquent in its belief of miracles, rich in its potential for revelation. Myths aren’t so much about understanding gods as about understanding what it means to be human.
As fiction writers and poets, what more could we hope to do? The novelist Jeanette Winterson is one of a set of writers retelling myths for a series published by Canongate. The line-up of writers includes Chinua Achebe, AS Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Karen Armstrong. In her introduction Winterson writes: “When I was asked to choose a myth to write about, I realised I had chosen already…Choice of subject, like choice of lover, is an intimate decision. Decision, the moment of saying yes, is prompted by something deeper; recognition. I recognise you: I know you again, from a dream or another life, or perhaps even from a chance sighting in a café, years ago…The story of Atlas holding up the world was in my mind before the telephone call ended. If the call had not come, perhaps I would never have written the story, but when the call did come, that story was waiting to be written. Re-written.” Her refrain, as she re-writes the myth of Atlas, is – “I want to tell the story again.” Add to that my refrain “as if for the first time” – and the alchemy clicks in.
I want to tell the story again, as if for the first time.
Winterson’s Atlas is grave, silent, sensitive. And he is all these things through his counterpoint, the foul-mouthed, thick-brained Hercules who can hardly bear the weight of the world for the short time he holds it while Atlas fetches the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides. By sketching out Hercules in such vividly-imagined coarseness as opposed to Atlas, the quiet, long-suffering Atlas whose solitary act of holding up the world pales in comparison to Hercules’ twelve Herculean labours, Winterson reinvests the term ‘heroic’ with what it must have meant once. That’s one thing retellings don’t do too often – reinvest tired words with freshness. What doesn’t work so well in the Atlas retelling, which is titled Weight, is the parallel story of a young girl who metaphorically takes upon herself the weight of the world. Perhaps Winterson felt she needed a contemporary character to draw readers closer into the story. What she didn’t realise is that – through her own powers of storytelling – Hercules and Atlas are contemporary enough. It is they who stay in the mind long after one has irritably forgotten the girl. If myths are timeless, as book blurbs so often remind us, why is it that writers feel the need to make temporal links in the most obvious and superfluous ways? Perhaps it is the old customs officer, the sentry at the gate, the fear of trusting the stories, the fear of trusting one’s own craft.
The tool of language that we use to refashion myths can be as dull or as sharp as we want it to be. The whetstone is there for us to sharpen our language on, that great big whetstone we call mythology. But what shall we sharpen our minds on, what will prevent our imaginations from becoming blunted by fact, by obligation, by a need to be bound by convention or chronology or neutrality. The best stories are the ones that are personally felt and personally narrated, however subtle or seductive the masks they hide behind. The power that we need to re-learn is the power to mutate, changing one mask for another, one body for another, one time for another. If myths are indeed public dreams, and dreams private myths, why do they seem so distant? Or is it dreaming that we are afraid of? Campbell, after spending 12 years completing his three-volume work The Masks of God, said the books provided clues, presented motifs, the same motifs in changing relationships, which in turn suggested ways “in which they might be put to use by reasonable men to reasonable ends – or by poets to poetic ends – or by madmen to nonsense and disaster.” I put mythology to poetic ends in my poetry, I hope to do more of that in my fiction. But for now, let me end with an extract from Galeano’s Genesis, from a section titled:
1524: Quetzaltenango: The Poet Will Tell Children the Story of This Battle
“The children, seated in a circle around the poet, will ask, ‘And all this you saw? You heard?’
‘You were there?’ the children will ask.
‘No. None of our people who were here survived.’
The poet will point to the moving clouds and the sway of the treetops.
‘See the lances?’ he will ask. ‘See the horses’ hooves? The rain of arrows? The smoke? Listen,’ he will say, and put his ear against the ground, filled with explosions.
And he will teach them to smell history in the wind, to touch it in stones polished by the river, and to recognise its taste by chewing certain herbs, without hurry, as one chews on sadness.”
[Genesis, Eduardo Galeano, page 77, W.W. Norton & Company, 1998]
This is a slightly modified version of a talk given by the author at the forum PEN@Prithvi, in Bombay on Oct 14, 2006.