NAVIGATING THE WORLD THROUGH STORIES

Life is short, and the world is wide.” What better a way to explore the world but through stories and our imagination. It is our moral imperative to be dreamers, an obligation to imagine things that are different from the present. People have changed the world, crafted their future with their untamable verve. 

Every culture has stories to tell, and through stories, we find common ground with other people. Art bridges cultural divides and celebrates diversity. It’s interesting to see how people of different ethnicities brought their culture into ours and how this intermixing of cultures with the existing local culture resulted in an enriching mix. Preserving a static version of only our traditions would have made us stagnant. This influence is deeply rooted in our memory and imagination, inventing our life narrative and acting as a bridge to connect with others and the world at large. It’s difficult to pinpoint where Hindi ends, and Urdu begins; where gazal ends, and thumri begins. This intermixing of culture is the fountainhead of shared experiences, something that aids us to thrive and adapt. 

The art of Poetry has been another unifying factor. The healing power of poetry can be seen across the globe. If Kabir’s poems resonate with a secular person; Oppenheimer sought solace in Bhagwat Gita.

It’s interesting to see “that both poetry and democracy derive their power from their ability to create a unified whole out of disparate parts.

Every book has a whole world in it. The splendour of a good story is its ability to make us listen, entertain and inspire. Socrates once aptly summed up, “No one can teach. The most that can be done is that one person who is more knowledgeable than another can, by asking a series of questions, stimulate the other to think, and so cause him to learn for himself.” Literature is full of such knowledgeable examples which offer a richness of wisdom we can benefit from.

As children, we were introduced to various novels. But what makes those novels and their memories so glorious is that they took us to places. I remember travelling across Avonlea with Anne of Green Gables and covering most of the English countryside with Jane Austen and Bronte sisters. We imagined, laughed and sought adventure with those fictional characters. Adventure can be anywhere; it might be exploring Wonderland with Alice or flying on a broomstick with Harry Potter or even in an ordinary-looking wardrobe. As we grow, these “adventures” take different forms. They do not merely remain a plain “adventure” but “intellectual” enlightenment. With Victorian-era women to Jo March of Little Women, ladies have come a long way in asserting their rights. Self Made, a Netflix series on the incredible life of Madam C.J. Walker, the first African American self-made millionaire, is an excellent example of this. Literature has been a witness to how the depiction of women has made gigantic strides towards a more inclusive and egalitarian society. 

As that old adage goes, “The pen is mightier than the sword“, wielding this outwardly anodyne “pen” are writers who have given birth to fiery imagination. Their works provide such broad scope for creativeness. 

Will the world be George Orwell’s or Aldous Huxley’s or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s chilling account of dystopia. In Zamyatin’s We, the Single State is run strictly by “reason” as an explanation for the laws of the society. The book depicts a state that believes “free will” is the root of unhappiness. Orwell feared that the truth would be kept away from the people whereas Aldous Huxley felt time would come when the truth would be shrouded in irrelevance. Unlike George Orwell, Huxley believed torture was not necessary to control the minds of people but to teach them to embrace their enslavement by giving them just what they wanted. When you read the works of Ayn Rand and Arundhati Roy, you explore the two sides of the debate- Capitalism versus Communism. It is these lingering debates and predictions that have crafted the society we see it as. Until the publication of Communist Manifesto in 1848, much of the western world let individuals own private property and the profits earned from investments. Marx and Engels flagged the uneven distribution of wealth and predicted there would be a worldwide uprising owing to this unequal distribution. Since then, countries have fought which policy to adopt. The capitalist United States has a government-owned postal service and a Social Security system, whereas communist China lets its people keep some of the profits they make. For every social change that has taken place, it starts with a “philosophical argument”. Abolishment of slavery, enforcement of laws against cruelty, against wars, against child labour, feminist movement- they all began with arguments, with a change of perspective in order. Much of the current understanding of labour and its connection with capital was crafted by Karl Marx. Through his writings and beliefs, the vast gulf between people hailing from different ancestries or religions began to shrink. The THREE MAJOR EVILS, Martin Luther King Jr., saw and showed to the world- “the evil of racism, the evil of poverty, and the evil of war“. It is these “arguments” presented that foment a change against the status quo.  

Thought can be a powerful tool, wielded by both great thinkers, philosophers, revolutionaries and demagogues. If history has had Abraham Lincoln, there has also been Adolf Hitler. A few days ago, I stumbled upon “The Camp of the Saints” which was written back in 1973. The author, through his book, declared his allegiance to the White race and sent out the warning that European culture was in grave danger of being invaded by hoards of non-white people from the Third World Nations. Such writing spews filth, and the distressing part is that while there would be many who would disagree with what the author had to say, there would still be many, perhaps in the majority, whose views would chime with that of the author’s. Through Mein Kampf, Hitler justified his anti-semitic stance and rallied the Germans against Jews. Again, going by the historical precedents, hate is never a solution as Germany did lose on many great talents because of its hate-mongering politics. Albert Einstein was a Jew; Otto Loewi was a Jew; Max Bergmann was a Jew. 

Literature is intertwined with the historical and cultural context of its time, and by engaging with stories and their milieu, we learn. Our “pen of possibility” has carved and written the course of our world. We have come a long way, indeed. “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” As Abraham Lincoln suggested, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe tipped the country into civil war by exposing the horrors of slavery to the public. It was because of Jungle by Upton Sinclair that President Theodore Roosevelt conducted an investigation into Chicago’s meat-packing industry. One of the most marvellous anti-war novels, All Quiet on the Western Front discussed the futility of World War I from the eyes of a German soldier. Things Fall Apart was a novel on the plight of a tribal society because of the institutional fault lines. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists drove social reform. The Grapes of Wrath pointed to poverty and impoverishment of thousands of migrants travelling to California in a desperate search of work. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” To Kill a Mockingbird taught the world to look through other’s eyes.

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is a warning about an overreaching science that releases forces it cannot control. It examines the morality of scientific experiments and the scientist and how Victor Frankenstein ends up creating a monster which mirrors the monster within him. Not just that, the book tells us about compassion. As science advances, there are grave philosophical concerns that come into play. Movies like Ex Machina, AI Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report raise many philosophical and ethical questions as to how far we must take science. Scientists are venturing into the brain. Imagine a dystopian vision of the future where the mind is governed by a computer. As Bill Gates put it-“technology is amoral”. It is up to us to decide how to use it and where to draw the line.

Films, they too, make an impassioned and sustained effort to bring about social or political change. It is these politically charged questions brought to existence by these films that eventually make moral progress, stirring people’s emotions.

A person is a person, no matter how small” is the primary noble theme of “Horton Hears a Who!”, a book for children which was adapted into a 2008 computer-animated film. The book seeks to pursue the idea of equality. Horton sustains harassment to care for the Whos who represent the insignificant. Through this book, the author, who happened to have harboured anti-Japan sentiments before and during World War II, changed his views after the war and sought to send across the message that the Japanese should be treated equally especially in a bruising post-war era. The book’s central theme was the author’s feelings about his visit to Japan, where the “significance of individual” was an emerging new concept. What fiction does are challenging people’s stereotypes and empowering us to view the world from other people’s perspective. It is stories which make us a whole person. They teach us to be more than just “self-obsessed” individuals. 

Avatar, the film asks us to see everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the earth.“- James Cameron. Exploring the imaginary realms with Neytiri and Jay, many questions spring about imperialism, militarism, racism, corporate greed, property rights, patriotism, spirituality, religion and most importantly, the treatment of natives. One can draw parallels between the Na’ vi of Pandora and how colonisation invades the land of indigenous people and observes the natives as savages/primitives/uncivilised. This is what stories do; they bring out the much-unasked questions of the society and spark the human conscience. 

Recently Anne with an E, an adaptation of the book “Anne of Green Gables”, was serialised on Netflix. Anne is shown to have gone through so much, sustained too many injuries, and how she carves her way through all the setbacks in life with her positivity and faith in herself and of course, love and support of those who care deeply for her. Even though so much is said, it is those unsaid things that make all the difference. The show outlines the plight of LGBT, racism, bullying and the marginalisation of Red Indians residing in Canada, themes which are ever so significant in today’s times and we see how Anne, in her own little ways, takes a stand for those being wronged because she knows just how it feels.

It is these stories that drive you to pen down your thoughts on the indelible mark some books or films can leave behind. 

As humans, we travel from one milestone to another and starting over is the core of our existence. Do we learn our lessons from these stories as individuals, as nations, as mankind? This may be an unanswerable question, but one thing is sure that stories do connect us as human beings; uniting people through shared experiences. The fact that we all have stories brings us together and reminds us that connectedness to the world is not dependent on race or region. “Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.“-Vera Nazarian. If only we have an unbridled enthusiasm to explore different perspectives and be open to change for change can be a little inconvenient at times. 

By Anannya Mathur

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