Not all my favourite storytellers are writers

Growing up in Shillong, within the Khasi community meant it was difficult not to be around storytellers.

 |  4-minute read |   11-12-2014
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Often, if not always, I’m asked as a writer, who my literary influences are. Which authors shaped my written world. Which books stayed with me. Which ones I’ve reread time and time again. These aren’t the easiest of questions — how to pick from so many? And usually my replies tend to read as lists of book titles and author names. Is this truly illuminating? I always come away with a certain disquiet, and guilt. Not only that I’ve inadvertently left writers out, but that I haven’t explained how my "literary" influences spill far beyond a bookshelf. I’d like to append these queries with another: who told you stories when you were a child? After all, everyone remembers their first storytellers, the sound of their voice, a word’s inflection, the stories we’d pester to be retold time and time again.

Growing up in Shillong within the Khasi community meant it was difficult not to be around storytellers. Having been a largely oral community until the mid-1800s, when Christian missionaries arrived and required an alphabet to translate the Bible, meant that Khasi history was expressed through spoken myths, folktales, and song. Even now, we cradle a deep and abiding faith in the word, shared around the hearth like kernels of beetlenut. My Khasi nanny, who helped bring up my elder sister and I, had a ready store of tales, plucking them out at bath time, bed time, and every other time when she found herself stuck with two restless children on endless rainy afternoons. My favourite was a ghost story involving her and me and a strange woman in a black jaiñsem. "When you were less than a year old", she’d begin, "you fell ill with a fever. But everyone was away in Cherrapunjee, to attend your great-grandfather’s funeral. You were on the bed, and I was dozing on the chair... I don’t know if it was a dream, but this woman stood at the door and asked for you... Give the baby to me, give her to me, she said..."

"And then?" This was my favourite part.

"Then I saw your great-grandfather, he crossed the room... he was a doctor, you know... and when I woke up and picked you up, your fever was gone."

My maternal grandfather was also often the recipient of my persistent pleas to be entertained. He was a large, gentle man, and I’d sit on his lap on load-shedding evenings, room lit by candlelight, while he’d invent stories about a certain Mr and Mrs Rat, a most adventurous rodent couple. Else, he’d tell me stories of his school days at Goethals in Kurseong, how the bears would come scrape the doors at the infirmary at night, or how his classmate, an amateur ornithologist, who slipped his hand into what he thought was a bird’s nest, was bitten by a snake and died. We preferred the antics of a fellow resident somnambulist, who’d walk like a dancer along the ledge outside their dormitory window.

Across town, I’d go visit my paternal grandparents for weekend sleepovers. We’d play cards (they always graciously allowed me to win), carom, backyard cricket, and later, settle down for a ghost story session. My grandfather had once seen a ghost dancing, when he’d gone hunting in the wilds of the Khasi Hills — atop a hillock, singing in a language he couldn't understand. The forests there, he said, untouched by man, brimmed with spirits. Now, when I listen to my father tell stories at gatherings, ones I’ve heard before but which get better with every retelling, I ask him why he doesn't write them down. "As a record, so they don't get lost." And he says he should, perhaps one day, but I know he never will. For these storytellers, the fun lies in the telling, in the shaping of the story anew each time it rises before an audience. Without their listener, there are no stories.

This is why I’m uncomfortable with questions that ask me to name and pinpoint a specifically "written" literary heritage. All writers, I think, begin as listeners. And any list of authors I compile would be incomplete without the names of those who never set a story to paper in their life.


Janice Pariat Janice Pariat @janicepariat

Author of "Boats on Land", which was awarded the Sahitya Academy's Young Writer Award and the Crossword Award for Fiction in 2013. Her debut novel “Seahorse" was published in December 2014.

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