Outsourcing the storytelling grandmom

Modern Mythmaking 15 Comments

Published in First City, March 2011

What is the difference between one culture and another? Every culture looks at the world differently and so has different notions of righteousness and propriety and aesthetics (what in India is called Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram). These are transmitted very overtly through stories and less overtly through symbols and rituals. The onus of transmitting them has been with the grandmother. Or at least that is what we assume.

But things have changed in the 20th century. Suddenly the grandmother can be outsourced – to books and radio and cinema and television and Internet. A hundred years ago few had access to books and fewer still could read. But today, stories are everywhere – even in newspapers and advertisements, shaping our notions of Satyam, Shivam and Sundaram. So who transmits values to our children today? How? And more importantly, what are the values we want to transmit?

Today’s grandmother would have been born in post-independence India in all probability. She would be around 60 years old today. She would have been raised in a land that celebrated socialism, frugality and Gandhian simplicity. In her youth, as she raised her children, she would experienced the horrific Emergency, the shattering of post-independence dream, the hollow cries to remove poverty, the draconian License Raj that spawned smugglers of the Bollywood screen. She would have envied her cousins who had moved to England and America for a better life. Her children would have been told to study hard so that they can get good jobs either in the Government or as accountants, engineers and doctors, or better still, emigrate. And then the Liberalization would have come, suddenly wealth and Internet and mobile phones would appear everywhere. Her children don’t have to leave India to live a comfortable life. It is possible here in India and now she is the object of her cousins’ envy.

Today she sits at home, watches television soap operas, reads scam-drenched newspapers, pulp novels, and condescends (because now it is a choice not an obligation, just like the daughter-in-law’s career) to take care of the grandchildren or at least watch over the maid hired to take care of them, while her children are hard at work. She would now be part of her children’s double income, one kid family unlike the single income two-kid family she raised. What stories will she tell her grandchildren? What values will she instill in them?

Will she tell them simplicity and discipline is good, influenced by the socialism era? Or will she tell them wealth and indulgence is good, influenced by the liberalization era? Will her good-old-days be the stories of Balraj Sahani, the upright farmer of the 50s or of Amitabh Bachchan of the 70s, the angry young man, or the stories of Shah Rukh Khan of the 90s, who is rich and brash and romantic? Each story will present a different value system and none will prepare the child for the future that is as yet unknown. What if she chooses to outsource storytelling to television? What if ‘traditional’ Indian values end up what the 20th century Ekta Kapur serials were all about – gaudy rituals without meaning, masking dark human manipulations?

People often mistake values for prescriptions. “Honesty is the best policy” is not a value; it is a prescription. Everybody lies, sometime, depending on the context. Values are about figuring out why honesty is important and why sometimes we succumb to dishonesty. Values are not a set of rules or regulations, they are not a code of conduct, they are the reason why that rule or regulation or code of conduct exists. Often the grandmother cannot articulate it. It has been articulated for it by the story that the culture considers sacred. Thus narration of ‘sacred’ stories is critical for value transmission and not stories per se, a fact that is often forgotten.

Stories are of two types – one set of stories are limited by history and geography, while another set have no such limitations. Ancient Indian sages called the former Smriti, born of human memory and the former as Shruti, that which was heard (by meditating and reflective sages). The former contains values that are subject to the events and impressions of that period. The latter contains values that are believed to have come from a source that is non-human hence timeless and universal; these tend to be classified as religious.

A non-religious story may seem non-religious, but they are rooted in religious values. The notion of rebirth will be distinctly absent in cultures that believe in one life. That the Jatakas speak of the past life of the Buddha means that Buddhism values rebirth. That European Fairy Tales always speak of ‘happily ever after’ means that Europe was influenced by the notion of Heaven found in the Bible.

A grandmother has a choice. She can tell stories influenced by her own memories, by history taught in schools, by stories she has read in novels or seen in Bollywood or teleserials. Or she can tell stories that have always been told as part of culture. The mythological narratives – the story of Shiva and Ram and Krishna and Durga. Or narratives from the Bible or Koran or Jatakas.

Then comes the political problem. Are these not religious stories? Can culture be separated from religion? Can there be Indian values separate from Hindu or Sikh or Muslim values? Are there human values? The ugly truth is – there are no universal values.

Values are a human construction not a natural phenomenon. In nature, there are no values. What matters is survival at any cost. The idea of values is a product of human imagination. We imagine a world where might is not right, where even the meek have rights. From this imagination comes values hence culture. And because different people around the world have different imaginations, there are different values and hence different cultures.

When people seek storytelling grandmoms who will pass on values, what people are actually seeking is not ‘values’ but ‘identity’. We fear our children are looking at the world very differently. They are imagining life very differently. We fear they are drifting into another subjective reality constructed by the media and the Facebook and Twitter and Cartoon Network. We feel helpless before such massive forces. Amongst expat populations, displaced from native lands, this has led to the rise of radicalism and fanaticism. The fierce cries here are about identity. What we forget is identity is not natural, it is cultural, and cultures change over space and time. We want it to be fixed. But we fail because values change over time. What was okay then may not be okay today. Thus the storytelling grandmom has to keep reinventing herself, from generation to generation, and hope that the values she passes on to the grandchildren will sustain them through at least one more generation.

  • rajesh gawade

    great great great!!!!!
    Thank you very much sir for such great article.

  • Thanks Dev! Big applause! I just forgave my grandmom who is 90 now!!!! :) Superb piece and very very relevant…

    Pls make one correction tho in para 7 where u’ve mentioned former twice!

    Wonderful article!

  • Kishan

    But sir there must some universal values that remain relevant in any society at all times like respect for life, like giving importance to truth over falsehood, like shunning over-consumption,etc. There may be special situations when these may be momentarily suspended but that does not negate their universality.

    • Killing people is wrong, I’m sure you agree. But why is War right?

      Special situations are many and most of them are not momentary. The British Raj wasn’t momentary, neither was World War 2. Nothing is universal.

      • shanthi

        war is also meant to protect people in those days when there was no democracy, how can people exist without a nation? so rulers were meanto protect adn int he process someothers get killing,so one should understand any crime contains the intention to commit it, so wanting to kill others is wrong and war need not be if it is for the purpose of protecting people.
        as a hindu i understood an act of kindness, love as something that makes u grow as a human being, it is same thing for a christian and a muslim and so on, mostly all religions believe in love and compassion so values CAN also be universal, survival at any cost makes us animals nto humans, and this is much a natural thing. some values change with time not all

        • Devdutt

          Animals fight over territory. So do humans. When we do it as a group, it is war. Animals fight for resources. Humans fight for resources as well as for aggrandizement of ego with notions such as honor and pride and identity.

        • Shravani

          animals fight to survive. Humans, to outwit each other

        • Shanthi, isn’t it funny your name defies your views? But I am digressing. While you say that wars are okay as long as they protect people… tell me, will you be ready to sacrifice your family member for any war? Now don;t tell me that you will be ready to send your brother or son or husband or father to the Indian army. Talk to anyone who has left the forces. He will say that he did so because he could no more be a slave to someone else’s ego, by obeying commands. Even dogs, after a point, do not obey commands.
          If we justify anything at all, it makes sense to ask ourselves if we would like to be the collateral damage ourselves.

      • shanthi

        priyanka,as i have written ,even in a court of law, the intention for the crime or killing is ascertained, ,in a war situation ,the intention is not to kill another but to protect your own! tell me how do people exist without a nation? assuming some country attacks yours what happens?i did not say wars were ok only that sometimes they can be inevitable. people in the armed forces sacriface their life so that the rest of the country can live normally. even if individual members of armed forces blindly follow it is becoz of their sacriface that the rest of nation can live normally,i am not a war monger. i believe that that war should be avoided by talks or whatever method as far as possible but nevertheless there can be times even in todays world where it can act of killing is terribly wrong and can never be justified. i dont even believe in a death sentence given by courts, i was pointing out the only exception to the rule is only when a nations existence is threatened!we stil have not progressed to a world without boundaries and it is unlikely to happen in the near future so till then there is really no option but to have an armed force fo protect the country.people who fight to protect the countries cannot be called murderers if the only intention in the mind is to protect their country and people but when guided by other ideas like revenge or hate they will be responsible for war crimes!

  • Sunil

    Thanks, A great article. I even had goose bumps while reading.

  • Mahesh

    i sent this article to my mother who is grandmom to 5. she read this article 4 times and finds many things in common with her life. her first comment was what a true and realistic article.

  • Balsu

    Dear Pattanaik Sahab

    This is a real good read on “values” and the “perceptions” on it.

    Great work. Kudos

  • Sambit Patnaik

    It reminds me of grandfather’s stories narrated by him with clarity akin to visual effects in the summer vacation afternoons in the bygone good old school days…… And the analysis stands out so clear from reading this…. Outstanding

  • Govind

    Grand children always raise questions and story gets modified and adapted to changing values.

  • Sujata Patnaik

    stories – political, religious, cultural, outsourced or ‘inhouse’….have always been welcome!