I tell stories. Whenever I can. Wherever I can. But, there is something one must know. I’m not a storyteller. Not a writer either. In fact, the first story I ever listened to was by John Cotrocois during Confabulation last year in May – an hour before I told my first story. I was petrified as I took centre stage with inhibitions, awkwardness, nervousness, in a panic.
When I moved to Canada, I was too intimidated by so many white people around me that I would fumble even at my comfortable best. I guess this was something I carried from India, the sense of the white supremacy of West that is still so deeply ingrained in people from my country fueled by their colonial past. Why I feel that way? Because, till day, someone’s ability to speak the language of pre-independence rulers is the yardstick that will measure the amount of respect one will receive from people, how credible their statement would be, and would prove to be a testimony of how learned and knowledgeable they are. One yardstick for everything one can know about you – how well do you speak English. And I was horrible at it. I was certain, I was being judged and silently ridiculed every second.
But, I always liked reading literature. As the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas famously remarked, literature is a “sullen art”. Bound between the covers of a book, the writer’s craft is made up of black marks that lie silently on the page. I wondered, reading a book is extremely weird. You stare at marked slices of a tree for hours on end, hallucinating vividly. Yet according to Henry David Thoreau, literature also can empower you to “live deep and suck the marrow out of life.” Robin Williams, in the guise of English teacher John Keating, declared in the movie ‘Dead Poets Society’ that he read literature because he was “a member of the human race and the race is filled with passion!” Medicine, Engineering, Law, Management –these are necessary to sustain life –but poetry, romance, love, beauty! These are what we stay alive for.
The books I read, the author interviews I came across, and writers I met, all pointed towards becoming a more discerning professional, a more engaged citizen, a more thoughtful human being: someone –in short –who is more alive. A work of literature –whether a short story, a poem, or a play or maybe an article –is not just a form of entertainment or an amusement. Reading is not the same as consuming; reading is more radically transformative. Great literature, according to Rainer Maria Rilke, makes you aware that “you must change your life.”
All inspired while I was reading, I started writing. However bad, it didn’t matter, until someone read and told me on my face – It’s a piece of crap. Very early into writing, I figured out, it doesn’t demand a great sense of expertise or research about a topic; it is just a matter of employing a few tricks. Writing means applying craft and artifice, and, like a conjurer’s lightning-speed manoeuvres, it can be learned. A well-known writer was asked his opinion about a topic. He responded by saying he could not possibly answer the question until he saw what he has written about it. Writing clarifies not only what is important about a text, illuminating what really matters to its construction, a language, or meaning, but also what is important to readers themselves.
It’s difficult to find the perfect analogy to writing, but you can compare it to another kind of artistry, an elaborate meal prepared with precision by your grandmother. Every element of the meal will entice, and there will be an array of flavours, textures, and colours, all meant to beguile and satisfy. You can witness her at work in the kitchen and learn from the practised approach. You can take a note of the ingredients she works with –extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, fresh oregano, finely minced garlic or ginger or onion. You may suspect her seemingly effortless approach took years to acquire, and you’d be right. But luckily, her recipe can be followed and her techniques emulated.
While, I thought of what I read as my ingredients, not as formulas, I knew cooking was a physical activity and requires fore-thought and analysis. But so did writing to much extent. When you cook a dish such as Lasagna, you use a whole list of ingredients, but if you don’t add the correct ones at the correct time and allow them to simmer until the flavours have melded, the dish will fail. Or, if you omit a crucial ingredient like onion, it won’t taste authentic. It’s just a matter of time to master this art and once you do it, for your technique will become, as it is for the concert pianist, second nature. So, I chose the easier path – writing of my life. But, there was no one to read.
Living in Montreal, it was lonely. I never had any friends other than my roommates and a few acquaintances from McGill University; barely anyone from UQAM where I worked. I would spend most of my evenings either running or sitting on top of Mont-Royal gazing the skyline and moving traffic, or by clock tower at Old Port, where I would watch the river for hours on end. The disaster that evolved at the workplace, the loneliness, homesickness and lack of support around me, perhaps, lead me to a stage where I was too scared to talk to anyone. I then thought of trying stand-up comedy, so that people would talk to me. Somewhere deep within, I was crying for human touch and a heartful conversation with laughter.
One evening, I reached out to The Comedy Nest to sign up for their open mics. The response from them was warm and I was waitlisted for next week. I had no gig ready had they said yes, anyways, so I kept looking for more options in the anglophone community within the city. To no luck, next search was storytelling. Confabulation was one among the first two search results and they had their show within the next two weeks. Stand-up comedy is more of storytelling, so I thought this could be my alternative. And I was already writing pieces from my life for the past many years. I wondered how tough would telling that from stage be? Also, I thought, I could buy that time to work on my gig. But, never in my life, I had listened to someone tell a story. I never even imagined this was something that could be done from a stage. So, I searched more and found a video on Youtube highlighting some of the early Confabulation performances. That was my only knowledge of storytelling. After hours of self-doubt, self-deprecation and no expectation of a response, I sent my story pitch to the producers in a hope, this could change my life.
The support and spotlight I got during and post-event, because no one ever gave me one, and the new platform to reach out to people who were ready to listen to what I had to say, I continued telling stories – in a balanced mix of me as a performer and me as myself. It gave me a voice to reach out, ears that were listening and satisfaction that I was not alone, in this whole world, wide. As they say, it’s okay to have a bumpy ride as long as it climaxes well, I went on when I arrived in St. John’s – only this time denying to live a lonely life.