Continued from: Telling Stories:(Part 1: The Confusions)
The little blind lane on which my parents’ flat is located in Calcutta is very narrow but by no means sleepy. As you pass by the other flats you notice a mixture of old and new buildings. The new buildings rise up perpendicularly–straight from the road–while some of the older buildings have benches made of cement in small verandahs adjacent to the street beyond which the actual rooms start.
As I walk by my eyes glance over the verandahs, the curtains slightly ajar or the doors half open. A woman sweeps her balcony behind the metal “grill” of the railing. A green curtain is half closed behind which I see an elderly man sitting on a wooden bed in front of the TV, his head hidden from my view by the wooden shutter. A section of an old painting shows itself on the wall through a half open door. Voices float out of the homes in various different sharps and flats. I hear pots and pans clanging in the background as the domestics talk loudly to the women of the house as they clean the vessels. A voice floats out. Someone practising singing at dusk with the singing master. [Still has a rather long way to go, I think, that voice, as I pass.] A dog with four newly born puppies lies curled up on a cement bench on a verandah waiting for the domestic help to come out with a bowl of rice.
All bits and pieces of complete stories waiting to be told.
So many stories, so many parallel lives only half seen and half heard. Many ways to fill in the gaps. Many opportunities to spin that yarn.
But which stories? Which people? Which gaps? How do I fill the gaps?
Their stories. My gaps.
Should I tell their stories?
The parallel nature of many lives existing simultaneously is never more apparent to me than on my evening strolls here in Jersey City. This is why I love big cities. And big buildings.
When I take a walk along the river Hudson here in New Jersey I see a huge hotel on a pier that juts out into the river facing the Manhattan skyline across the water. It’s a ten-storied structure(rather short by Jersey City standards in this area where buildings are mostly upwards of fifty stories). But this is an unusual building in that it’s very long, covering almost the entire length of the 850 ft. pier.
It is a feast for the storyteller’s eye, spreading a million windows in ten stories all along the pier from whichever side you look at it (feels like a million but random Googling tells me it has only 350 rooms). At night, the building looks like a row of bright diamonds stacked on a wooden shelf in all their illuminated splendour, like a set of neatly stacked glowing dots on a black screen against the dark water.
Each lighted dot is a life. It says room occupied. And then again, each dot is a collection of lives. Could be a family–a father and a son who have come to visit New York City. Or a well-to-do couple on their honeymoon from India. Or an elderly gentleman staying here for a few days to get medical treatment.
Each life is a collection of lives spread out in front of me to be read– of memories of people remembered, of places visited, of relationships formed and of ambitions for the future. The son wondering why mom didn’t come along this time on the trip, the wife having mixed feelings about the big event already, the old man taking stock of the way he spent his life having come face to face with mortality.
Each life in its own neat cubbyhole.
A light flashing and changing colour at irregular intervals from a window tells me the TV is on in that room. A concentrated golden glow from another corner indicates the table lamp is on. Someone is reading. When there are lots of lights on in lots of rooms I know it’s a conference today. Or a wedding. Or perhaps a gathering for a funeral.
Each life in its place, neatly arranged in a matrix on the pier, yet defying arrangement because it’s connected to lives somewhere else in ways far more complex than my little mind can grasp from my own little spot.
How do you arrange these stories on a page?
I see parallel lives, continuities, discontinuities between disparate events. But none of them care to be controlled by my hubris that I can control their stories as I tell them. Or care to be put down on my page.
I cannot make a story that will make all those stories exist together. Like they do in life.
I can only see. Does that make me just a voyeur?
I’m on top of Sealdah flyover in Calcutta, bending down from the side railings because traffic is at a standstill. I’m looking down from high up here at the flow of people spread out below me getting in and out of Sealdah station, where 2.5 million people commute daily.
A sea of people. It’s the same story as the World Trade Center, only more populous, more dense, in many ways more complex with divergent and convergent streams, little eddies and asides.
The same sea of heads. The same rush. Only some heads are not visible from this height because of baskets of fruit or mysterious market goods covered in cloth. It’s a more complex mix, with some shoulders covered in formal shirts, some shoulders bare, the streams of people widening and narrowing as they meet obstructions in the form of permanent makeshift tarpaulin covered stores selling anything from books to meals cooked on the spot to plastic toys, bangles and buckets. Eddies form where people are attracted by some of these items or pretend to leave and come back bargaining back and forth with the shopkeepers. Some form ques outside photocopying stores or waiting their turn at a computer store for a terminal.
Street vendors, banana sellers, office goers, shop boys, pretty girls selling make-up, loiterers, unemployed youth, pickpockets, religious sadhu-like men. All together.
Again, which stories do I tell? And how do I tell one story separating it from all the others? None of these stories are separate. Neither the fruit seller nor the sadhu at Sealdah nor the construction worker or the child bobbing up and down in the crowd at the World Trade Center are separate from one another.
All are here. Existing at this very moment, in those two places, and in my memory.
I remain tongue tied.
And this is why I cannot tell a story.
[Photo credits: Picture 1: **tWo pInK pOSsuMs**, Picture 2 & 3: Wikipedia. All pictures via Zemanta]
Previous post: Telling Stories: (Part 1: The Confusions)