Once upon a time this was a land with many a “once upon a time”. Most nights when the sun went down, bonfires would be lit, and everyone would gather around it. A blabber of voices of excitement and anticipation ensues as everyone settles down in their favourite place. A loud, booming voice of story teller crashes in all of a sudden and everyone stops speaking midway and start listening to him intently. From now on, till late night, his voice would rise and fall, whisper and scream, whimper and belt out full bellied laughter, carrying every listener in an emotional rollercoaster of a journey. Eyes would spend hours staring at the fire place, watching as inch by inch every part of firewood reach their moments of glory and get transformed into a celestial golden glow. In a way, fire represented the story teller’s voice, while the fire wood those of listener’s weary souls.
Contrast this with now. I write these lines on a 13 hour long flight from Hong Kong to Johannesburg that starts at night as well. Every seat has individual TV with its own channel. Everyone is busy watching a movie of his/ her own choice. I realize how completely movies have come to replace the traditional story tellers. A movie’s combination of technology and talents is so brilliant that it is overwhelmingly superior to the story teller whose only tool is his voice, his facial expression and two bare hands for gesticulations. No wonder every house has set a TV today to tell all the stories. With advent of mobile phones and PC tablets, more movies would get watched on them than on TV itself. It just allows every member of family more independence. Homes have started looking more and more like this flight with every family member watching their own thing, in their own way, in their own time. And in the process isolating us not just from others, but from ourselves as well.
Am unable to sleep or watch a movie, so I look at the faces of other passengers as they stare at their own screens intently with ear plugs on. In the row ahead of me, I have a teenage girl watching a soapie seemingly close to tears by the agony of the family drama she is watching. Her brother is digging his fingers into his arms rests, as he watches an action flick. Next to the brother is an African tourist guffawing loudly at the comedy gigs that he has chosen, oblivious of the dirty looks that he is getting from the siblings and other passengers trying to sleep. No one dares to say a word to him.
Watching this scene brings back my thoughts about the story teller. His stories would also be too long at times and people would start to fidget. Sometimes they thought his characters were too cynical or shallow or controversial. When this happens the story teller would be interrupted and a discussion will ensue. Other’s would join in and just when it appears that we have got completely side tracked, the story teller would interject again to bring the main story back on its course. Before the end of night, everyone would have participated. Everyone would have their moments to ignite their soul into a celestial glow, just like every piece of fire-wood in front of us. How the story ends is always a surprise even to a veteran story teller.
We live in Africa, and here African literature is mostly oral tradition than written words, which is more of a European concept. Great literatures in book form have all done invaluable job of maintaining the pristine glory, the original brilliance of words and plots. I will give one example, to drive home the point. Recall reading Sonnet 129 of Shakespeare in school?
“The expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action: and till action, lust
Is perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy’d no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted; and no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallow’d bait,
Shakespeare’s powerful words on lust, spoken with sudden torrent of violent words like “murderous, bloody, savage, extreme, rude, cruel etc”, shocks and sears this verse into our memories. I remember this verse after all these years and must have, unknown to me, changed the way I handled my own temper. That’s the brilliance of written words that it holds the power to transform you just as much as the story teller does. To quote Diane Setterfield “There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”
So far, so good. There is a reason why airlines have chosen TV screen instead of a Shakespeare book for their passengers. Books however great they may be, remain frozen in time and difficult to digest, hence celebrated works of Shakespeare and other greats remain confined to small academic circles. Some are made into movies. However, as we have seen earlier, TV’s themselves are no panacea either, since it only results in isolating people from each other and get them irritable.
Bored out of my wits by now, I began thinking something’s not right about this whole system. Airlines spend millions trying to make journey comfortable for passengers by attempting to make food taste less tasteless. Train air hostesses to hide their own irritations with plastic smiles and polite words attempting to make passengers feel at home, when they themselves don’t feel that way. It’s obviously not working ‘ cause since by the end of each flight, every plane resembles a pressure cooker, since every one inside, crew included, are dying to get out. Even airlines end up losing money.
May be it’s time to think out of box. Instead of spending on hiring airhostess, food and TV, why don’t airlines spend it on hiring a talented story teller – and let passengers get their own food and even share with each other if they wish to and make flying a whole new novel experience. Then, when tickets are purchased, instead of passengers getting to choose the kind of inflight food, they are only asked the kind of story teller that interests them, so they can be seated in suitable groups inside the plane. May be then the joys of travelling will begin from the moment you step inside the plane and not when you have stepped out. With passengers loving air travel for its experience, airlines financials may finally begin to soar as well. Even Shakespeare’s work may get a new lease of life. May be I am just getting carried away. And of course, it’s unlikely that any of my suggestions will be taken seriously by any of airlines, but then this is also not a discussion about managing airlines anyway.
It’s about making us wonder: are we doing the same thing with our lives as well? Are we creating a society with the same mentality of passengers being placed on a flight today? Is there too much of focus on efficiency and speed at the cost of depth? Are emoticons become the dominant way we express our emotions to each other? Are our laughter’s slowly being replaced by LOL?
May be it’s time to bring back the story teller and get him to explore the incredible storehouse of beautiful words that literature for us. Reviving literature can mean reviving life itself.
We hope you like the selection of short stories and poems that we have presented in this edition.
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