Telling Stories (Part 2: The Arrangements)

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.

collage (Photo credit: **tWo pInK pOSsuMs**)

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?

Collage Eye in the fire
Title: “Collage Eye in the fire”

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?

3d jigsaw puzzle (puzzleball)
3D Jigsaw Puzzle

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)

35 thoughts on “Telling Stories (Part 2: The Arrangements)”

  1. I read this post (parts 1 & 2) and immediately it came to me that I have also felt this and I had heard this sentiment before.
    There is an excellent blog – The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows – which has given a word to this very feeling. I think you would like it.

    n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.


  2. brittawrites said that the stories told are the ones meant to be told. That’s true. “Everyone has a story” – I heard that on an Oprah show a long time ago. I feel we can expand that to “Everyone and everything, every situation tells a story” and you know…I think all stories get to be told. But told in different ways, by different mediums and by different people to those that are meant to and are ready to listen to it. 🙂


  3. I think you can tell a story.

    I think you cannot tell a story without telling all stories, because each story is in relation to every other story. By telling one story, you are telling all stories. Just as by saying ‘red’, you are telling a story of all things that are red.

    Anyone reading this comment saw the word ‘red’ and thought something different, perhaps dozens of differences, in one word. In the same way, when you tell a story, you are thinking of one thing, and everyone else is thinking of another. And that is how you can tell a story.


  4. This is one of the writer’s eternal battles. I experience this a half dozen times on a daily basis. I see the story, I see how it could be perfect, if only . . . if only what? If only I didn’t have to work, to take the dog out, to finish the dozen *other* stories I have started, to earn a living . . . ultimately I came to the conclusion that the stories that get told are the ones that are meant to. Lovely piece.


  5. “singing at dusk” – indeed

    Crisp now the pale air / Enfolds leaves in ochre / Starling-full the sky

    Thank you visiting & buona lettura ever

    – Misera e stupenda città


  6. I know exactly what you mean. I am one of those people who reaches the top of the stairs and looks back, focusing on this person or that one, trying to look into the lives of some of the people running around below. Your analogy of the yarn is perfect! I made up the term “ribboning” a few years ago when describing this to someone. Each person I focus on is connected to me by a ribbon, because I am looking at them making decision and guesses about them, writing them a story in my head. From each of them are hundreds of ribbons, different colors, different textures. I don’t know where these ribbons lead, but I can imagine lovers, friends, enemies, bosses, children, lost loves even pets or projects they are pouring their souls into.
    But it is so hard to stay focused on a single person because there is so much life, so much color and movement.
    The way you told this story, the story of seeing it all, feeling it all was amazing. Your choice of words, your colorful, beautiful descriptions put me there with you, standing on that stair, walking down that street in Calcutta. You told a story just fine, but it was not the story of each of these people you see, it was the story of you seeing them. Now all of us who have read this have gotten to be you and live your story for a few minutes. Thank you.


    1. Thank *you* for such a wonderful comment. Your response has extended my experiences in a myriad different ways. You saw me seeing them and now I was able to see you seeing me seeing them. The ribbons have extended yet again. The biggest reward for a blogger writing down memories so to speak is when another person is able to value them and make those memories their own and bring in a different colour. Glad you liked it but am even more glad that I was able to see what you saw.


  7. It is an enormous planet, more tales than will ever be noted in books or stories. Ultimately I say to myself; what is the intrinsic value of this story idea over another? It comes down to making my corner a little brighter, less vague. Love figures prominently, shining a warming glow, so many nooks and crannies needing attention. I can’t erase the world’s ills, so I try to translate some essence of the beauty, of which there is plenty.

    Don’t allow your amazing gift to be trapped by the abundance of perceptions. What matters most to your heart? Let those desires thin out the multitude. The results will be a reader’s delight!


  8. The attention, noticing we are all a great story, and many stories. That feeling of being connected, of everything mattering. : ) It’s a love story when only one thing matters, yet nothing else matters less.


      1. God is in the details.
        when you choose one, and give me the details you will engage my heart. I’m eager.
        All woman are beautiful. All people are. Which one is all yours? Which one in particular? I like both of these together. Mostly the specific. One. Very engaging and romantic. In the middle of all that grand imminence wonder, what small thing is the biggest wonder the most wonderful to you and why?
        That is what I want from you. : ) Please.


  9. Yeah – with Jennifer on this one. How do you tell the story – like you just told the story. I felt like I was there on Sealdah flyover, I was in there, in the story. I wanted to hold your hand as we stared over. Lovely.
    On a different syncopation. You cannot tell a whole story – but never let that stop you writing. If I say ‘Rose’ – everyone who see’s ‘rose’ will picture a different flower. 10,000 people, 10,000 flowers but just 1 word.
    Likewise I can read a book now, then next year, and glean different things. Same book, different effect.
    All you need to do is write your view, what your eyes see, and readers will love your point of view and fill in the rest of their needs themselves.


    1. Thanks for reading ROS. Glad you could visualize Sealdah. Unfortunately, the story that I left out is that you’d probably be knocked over by a passing bus or people hanging out of a passing bus if you stared too long:)
      Absolutely–10,000 people would imagine the rose differently and there’s no absolute way of finding out how! And we’re not the same people from one moment to the next.


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