It starts in one high voice, before the birds, before the light, holding out its notes like a beggar’s hands. Across the river on the mud flats, a lone figure appears, draped in a scarf, walking towards only she knows where. It’s my first morning in Varanasi, holy city of the dead. Slowly, as the birds awaken and the last bats disappear, more voices thread through the song to become many, a joyous, tangelo-flavoured chorus of devotion.
Hawks glissade through the constant haze of smoke in the brightening morning, diving for fish in the river. I’m here on a university scholarship to research a story that has lazily circled my mind for five years, a research mission that also involves attending a storytelling workshop in Bangalore, to follow an older curiosity: can performative storytelling translate into writing? Can writing perform and touch the heart of a reader in a similar way? I’m after the unquantifiable, which only India can deliver.
This trip follows on from an interview I conducted with storyteller-cum-novelist Vayu Naidu at Byron Writers Festival 2017. Here was a storyteller taking performance into writing, something I’d long wondered about but wasn’t sure how to do. I had also attended her workshop, Rasa: The Science and Soul of Storytelling, which introduced basic techniques of arousing rasa and its application to storytelling. Rasa is a difficult concept to describe succinctly, but basically it is two separate yet indivisible parts of an Indian aesthetic tradition, described as ‘taste’ or ‘juice’. One part is the durable emotional states traditionally evoked by a performer, of which there are considered to be eight or nine (the erotic, the comic, the pathetic, the furious, the heroic, the terrible, the odious, the marvellous and the quiescent), and the other is the emotional or even spiritual transformation an audience member experiences as a result of that emotional state.
This process is described as a churning of the heart that melts the heart, and is supposedly only possible in performance traditions and not applicable to literature, but Vayu Naidu disagrees. She wrote both her novels, The Sari of Surya Vilas and Sita’s Ascent, with rasa as the organising principal for the plot and character development. She looks for incidents that awaken or work towards a certain rasa and asks of the writing, what is the significant emotion of the character or scene or story? This idea had also occurred to me while preparing my scholarship application, and I’m keen to learn more about the oral art to bring it back into my writing.
Vayu Naidu says stories open up a space that ‘touches on what it is like to be human’, and that rasa is ‘the stepping stone that allows you to see what the story is telling you’. The emotional states can be worked towards by a writer as a performer would, only using different tools.
‘The visual imagination is linked to the aural reception,’ she says, ‘and writing comes from orality, originally.’ Language began in tongues and is the shared medium between storyteller and writer, audiences and readers. ‘Rasa can be universal, it can transcend culture.’
She cites Chekhov as one example of it working in another tradition, in another language, and in literature. Our conversation and her workshop prompted me to enrol in the Kathalaya Story Institute’s storytelling course in Bangalore.
But before I get to Bangalore, I’ve got two weeks to immerse myself in Varanasi, the oldest continuously occupied city in India, and to take an overland train journey to Delhi. I’m madly taking photos of objects; broken clay pots, a straw broom propped in a corner, the centuries-old technique of the washing lines propped up on bamboo poles, the washing twisted into the rope sans pegs. I take snapshots from a distance of people bathing in the river, the multitudinous wooden boats, crumbling Moghul architecture that the British Raj didn’t quite destroy. My brain is busy cataloguing street scenes; human exchanges, the furious contrast between the immaculately, colourfully dressed people and the squalid filth of raw sewage pouring into the small creek that feeds directly into the river, the barnyard of animals on the corner chewing through piles of plastic bags for the food waste inside and the spotless hovels that line the small slum that snakes along the river, my daily route into the main part of the city.
My scarf is never far from my nose but I refuse to avoid this place or rickshaw through it; eye contact and shared smiles are a daily pleasure, and by the time I leave, the children are shyly asking for their photo to be taken, a tuk tuk driver has taken a shine to me after a shared walk in a walled holy garden, and old men have taken to walking down the street with me, asking questions. I’ve probably drunk the Ganges at the chai wallah’s hut, sipping boiled tea from a terracotta cup, the water pump just metres away. I’m reminded how Vayu Naidu said that we each have all the rasas inside us, that the rasa of disgust can transform into the rasa of compassion. This holiest of cities has invaded my senses, occupied my body, turned and churned my heart. I thought I would be taking copious notes, but at the end of each day my mind is so full I have no room for writing.
I meet a teenage boy on the street who takes me home to his mother. She offers me puja, and we all watch crappy Indian television, sipping chai from plastic cups on the bed in their one-roomed house. I meet a man at a guesthouse who takes me to an out-of-the way temple, its design inclusive of Muslim, Christian and Hindu beliefs, a fertility shrine where the Shiva Lingam has grown several inches since he was a boy. He also tells me about a local Sadhu who eats the flesh of the dead. At the river, I stand near a burning body, my heart heaving with how beautiful it is, how loving a ritual this is. Further along, a dog gnaws a charred human knee. The smoke of burning bodies drapes over the city, and gods disguised as cows meander through traffic that flows around them like honey.
By the time I get to Delhi, I’m filled to the brim. I’ve scribbled scenes of villages from the train along the way, realising the story I’m after is there, where I can’t get to. I’m locked into a city schedule. Delhi completely overwhelms me. Phenomenal pollution and an accidental massage in a brothel scuttle me into my hotel room for forty-eight hours. Newspapers report cow vigilantes, millions of kidnapped children and riots about demonetisation. But somewhere in those blank two days a story is seeded. It’s not the one I came for. The story I thought I was looking for feels like an empty husk, lifeless.
In Bangalore, people drink cappuccinos and carry laptops. Men wear business suits and women casual jeans and smart tops. People stop for a coconut on the street corner where a thousand husks rot in a pile on which a monkey scampers. At the workshop we write stories and tell them, laughing and despairing at our ability and marvelling at Geeta Ramanujam, master storyteller, who captures our hearts and minds from the first word.
‘A good storyteller,’ she tells us, ‘must be a good listener.’ Naidu also urged the importance of listening, both to the story within and to the story of others. And then Geeta says, ‘Giving up hope is part of the process of finding the story. The process of chaos is good. Keep churning. Churning is necessary.’ We’re in the territory of rasa now.
She leads us through the types of listening, the role of the teller to help the listener see the story. Isn’t this what a writer does? We create a world from words that a reader ‘hears’, a story that enters the heart and churns it. And isn’t this what India herself has done to me? I’ve come here thinking to fill in the details to my story like a paint-by-numbers, but stories can’t be controlled like that. In searching for one story, I’ve been swept up in the experience of another. India is telling me its own story, and I can only listen. I am a well, and the whole world has fallen in.
Katinka Smit travelled to India on a New Colombo Scholarship awarded by Southern Cross University, for three weeks in November 2017.
(*This article first appeared in northerly, March 2018, under the title ‘A Passage To India For The Secrets Of Storytelling’.)