“Papa, then what happened? What did the fairies say to Rajkumar? How did he swim in the river of pearls?” and my dad would add yet another twist to his enchanting tale of Rajkumar and the Wishing Ring until I fell asleep! Years later, my children would listen mesmerized as I spun yarns of Milaa, a boy-orphan from the past ages, and his accomplice, Milee the squirrel.
Why do we tell stories?
Tales of rags to riches, victory of good over evil, romance, adventure, comedy, tragedy and rebirth fascinate us as children and stay with us well beyond childhood. And they continue to captivate us as adults even when we know that they are unreal and unrealistic. How else can one explain the abject despair all over the world when the avenger heroes die in the movie Infinity War? And the impatient anticipation for the sequel?
Undoubtedly, no other species on earth can spin stories or tell them or understand them or learn from them like us! And why not? We have been doing so for a hundred thousand years!
When our hunter-gatherer forefathers first began linking sounds into sentences, the stability within the tribe increased dramatically. They could now talk to one other and share information and experiences; they could discuss dangers and threats and ward them off successfully; they could work in groups and cooperate effectively… Amazingly, they could now talk about things they had never seen, touched or smelled, and also people who did not exist at all!
They would let loose their imagination around fires in the evenings and create fabulous tales of winged horses, man-eating birds, many-headed serpents, forest sprites, belligerent giants, ferocious demons, weapons of thunder and lightning and all things conceivable! And this is how stories, legends and myths were created…
As humans spread over mountains, deserts and seas, they carried these stories with them; events were added, new characters introduced, and adventures invented as stories were told and retold down generations making them an integral part of every culture in the world.
So what is it about stories, anyway? Why are we so hooked to them?
Storytelling is what makes us human. Stories invoke imagery and engage our curiosity; they move our hearts and minds and allow our imagination to run wild with them.
For the young child, fairy tales simplify the world around him; they mould his values, beliefs and ethics early on in life and teach him how to relate with people, animals and things in the environment. And surprisingly, adults too use stories to make sense of their world… a world where billions of people pursue life within the limits of widely accepted norms. These stories guide us to live together, work together, and cooperate with each other…
Indeed, our unique ability to spin stories has made humans the most dominant, most powerful race on earth. Come to think of it, what are human rights? Religion? Money? Trade? Laws? Justice? Social norms? The Constitution? The company you work for? The United Nations? Capitalism? Democracy? Legends. These are all legends invented by us. They exist only in our imagination. And yet, because all of us believe in and accept them, we have been able to build cohesive and cooperative communities all across the globe.
Without these ‘stories,’ societies would quickly descend into chaos. No other species or for that matter, no other human species before Homo sapiens, has been able to achieve this ever!
We imagine, re-imagine, and then, re-re-imagine!
Our genius also allows us to re-imagine our own stories. And we can, and have, altered them from time to time… Faced with challenges – social, economic, political or environmental – mankind has collectively modified the narrative from time to time to create alternative imagined orders. Survival of the human race is undoubtedly attributed to the genius of our imagination and re-imagination!
In present times, in corona times, we humans are on the verge of changing the story yet again. The contagious epidemic spreading unabated and uncontrolled across the globe has altered our lives in the moment; uncertainty regarding its future course is likely to change, once again, our life forever…
And we, the indefatigable humans, are ready to meet the challenge head-on. No matter what comes our way in this incredible journey called Life, we will rewrite our story, we will refashion the future.
We have to: Just… IMAGINE!