Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

October 12, 2013

First published October 11, 2013

 in Mid-day

Of Aubergine and Okra

Published on 13th October, 2013, in Mid-Day.

I recently saw a touching film about food, love and dabba-wallas. But there was a strange vegetable mentioned there by the protagonist who is a Bandra resident — aubergine. Most Bandra people I know (not the expats) call this vegetable ‘brinjal’. So why aubergine?

A few weeks ago I saw a very emotional advertisement of a airline career that had a boy visiting his mother (in Kandivali?) who is preparing his favourite dish. She referred to it as okra. Okra! What’s that? I saw what she was cooking and realized it was good old bhindi, popularly known as ladyfinger. So why okra?

When you think about it you realize you are not the storyteller’s audience. Your presence is incidental. It is meant for someone who understands aubergine and okra — a Western audience or maybe an international film jury?

For whom is a story told? Language used by a storyteller reveals who is the audience. Multiplex films use language very differently from single screen films. I remember an Oscar award winning film where the young Indian protagonist in crisis repeatedly screams out to ‘Vishnu’. But in common parlance, the boy would say, ‘Narayana’, a more popular form of addressing God in the south where the character hails from. The film was meant for an international audience who would anyway not know the difference between Vishnu and Narayana. And even the urban Indian audiences who would watch the undubbed version would not know the difference. So does this matter?

One can argue that the storyteller was not told by his research team the word preferred by the audience: brinjal/aubergine, ladyfinger/okra, Narayana/Vishnu. One can argue that the character actually used the word and I am being presumptuous. One can say that such hair-splitting differences do not really matter. But it does reveal how sensitive is the storyteller to the audience, and how true is he/she about the story itself.

I have seen a film by an Indian getting rave reviews in America where a Bengali woman is shown with jasmine flowers in her hair. She was clearly a created to appeal to the Western market, which is clueless that practice of wearing flowers in that fashion is more South Indian than Bengali. The same filmmaker showed wedding in monsoon, thus capitalizing on the Western fascination for all things exotically Indian.

A great European filmmaker had made a film about the Buddha in which during a funeral scene we hear the chant, ‘Ram-Ram’. The film claimed to be historically accurate when it came to sets. Yet any historian would tell you that the chant could not have existed 2500 years ago. Watching this, I began to doubt the authenticity of the filmmaker’s earlier film on the last emperor of China. Were the costumes there as close to reality as it claimed to be? Were the sets and body language realistic or just Orientalist fantasy?

In ancient Indian storytelling tradition, one is gently made vigilant about the gap between the words of the storyteller (sauti), the story (katha) and the audience (shaunak). Would the character in the story actually say what the storyteller claims he did? Would the audience understand what is exactly being told by the character in the story? Is the story being changed to make it more accessible? All these points impact the story that eventually gets transmitted.

Not surprisingly, the root of the word story — katha — is complex. It comes from ‘ka’ which is the root sound of interrogation (what/kya, who/kaun, when/kab, where/kahan) and ‘tha’ which means ‘establishment’. That’s what stories do: they establish reality. But is the reality established true? Must it be true? Whose truth? That needs to be interrogated.

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