The storyteller’s swadharma
AFTER three decades of being engrossed in the craft details of storytelling there is a substantial array of discoveries, dilemmas and unsolved questions clamouring for attention. At the centre of this apparent jumble is a core question: What is the swadharma of a storyteller in the larger quest for change today?
An assortment of dilemmas and sub-questions spin off from this central point. How to be a storyteller without getting embroiled in argumentation? How important is it to sift insight from ideology? What is the most empathic way to link seemingly disparate realities? An invitation to write for the Seminar Annual is, for me, an opportunity to step back, be still a while, and ponder upon those thoughts and dilemmas which otherwise tend to remain in the background.
Of course, the journey to these questions is itself a story. I started out as a newspaper reporter and then became a feature writer mapping a wide variety of activism. Over the last ten years, I have concentrated on telling the stories of those who are grappling with how to make the market mechanism more good than bad and ugly. It is in this context that my dilemmas as a storyteller have become more acute. But first, the background.
There are countless reasons for storytelling. From the bonding of a spontaneously crafted bedtime tale, complete with animals and fairies, for the child cuddled at your shoulder, to the entertainment of anecdotes exchanged over a dinner table. Or the everyday dissemination of information over TV, internet or in newspapers through stories about people – stuck in traffic jams, submerged by floods, lathi-charged by police.
As a newspaper reporter, I initially enjoyed the thrill of just going out there and getting a ‘story’, any story. But that thrill rapidly faded. It was still important to record what is, but to do so from an angle and with a light that illuminates what can be. For the most part this involved making visible those people, ideas and actions that seem at first extraordinary but which actually expand our imagination in ways that empower the ‘ordinary’ in all of us.
By the mid-1980s, I sensed the limitations of recording raw misery and despair. It is absolutely vital for reporters to bear witness to and tirelessly report injustices and the grief they cause. But I noticed that often this appeared an insufficient basis for people, both the directly affected and those at a distance, to engage with solving the problem. Reportage of darkness is a necessary but insufficient condition in the process of change, of seeking to build social energy in favour of justice and equity.
So I found myself spending more and more time reporting on a wide variety of individuals and groups who were busy with crafting solutions or intensely engaged in the search for answers. Some of these stories came together in a book titled Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi.1 This book brought together stories about contemporary activists who don’t claim to be ‘Gandhian’ but find that as they journey in search of creative solutions for many contemporary problems they stumble upon Gandhiji’s insights and come to share his perspectives.
At the release function of the book in Mumbai, the veteran Gandhian worker Devendra Gupta, founder of the Centre of Science for Villages, told a story that offered an invigorating view of social transformation and also informed my onward journey as a storyteller. There is, Devendrabhai said, a perennial dynamic between people who are ‘evolvers’ and those who are ‘adapters’. This makes the process of social transformation somewhat similar to making dahi, curd.
The process has five requirements. One, you need curd itself as a starter, to act as the agent of transformation. You cannot use cream or condensed milk. So there is no substitute for those determined ‘evolvers’ who dare to defy current notions of what is possible. Two, the milk and the starter must be suitably proportionate. Just one or two isolated evolvers in an entire society of millions will not do. Three, the milk must be at just the right temperature or it will not set into curd. Similarly, the social climate, the general level of awareness, must be made ripe for the ideas and actions of the evolvers to prove effective. Four, having added the starter, it won’t do to just leave it at that. The milk must be stirred, agitated. So also in the social realm, awareness without action and agitation will not transform. Finally, and most importantly, you have to leave the mixture of milk and curd starter undisturbed to let it set. So also the long drawn process of social transformation demands patience, perseverance and waiting power.
At just about the same time, I independently felt the need to seek out ‘evolvers’ in a much wider sphere. Several observations and inspirations nudged me in this direction. For example, the insider’s critique by Wall Street wizard George Soros. In a series of articles and a book titled The Crisis of Global Capitalism, Soros took on ‘market fundamentalism’ while remaining seated at the centre table of the global capital markets.2
At that point there was a clear fork in the road. Some colleagues and friends were puzzled, even a little disturbed, by my willingness to overlook what they perceived as Soros’ hypocrisy. They warned me against seeing signs of hope in the work of someone who remains a part of the oppressive order. However, my fascination persisted and I’ve been on a ‘walkabout’ ever since, eagerly seeking and meeting both active and potential ‘evolvers’ in the most unlikely places.
The journey took me from the study of J.C. Kumarappa and Gandhian economics to the portals of conventional economics, only to encounter unrest and rebellion brewing within. This caused me to stumble upon the Post-Autistic Economics Network, a virtual gathering space for those working for greater pluralism in economic thinking. This network, whose web page speaks of a commitment to ‘sanity, humanity, science’, is in many ways a powerful counter to the neo-liberal orthodoxy.3
As the journey branched out further, I found myself in the company of computer visionaries who led the free software and open source movement which has expanded creative freedoms and challenged conventional business models. It has done this by demonstrating that cooperation is, in many situations, a far more powerful mechanism than the command and control approach on which much of conventional business operates.
In each domain that I entered, the story kept developing faster than I could follow. In 1999, when I set out, the term ‘Triple Bottom Line’ was newly coined and familiar only to a small circle of people working at the interface of global finance and sustainable development. Today, the term appears on the annual reports and statements of most major global corporations. The expansion of the socially responsible investing sector, now estimated to globally manage almost $3 trillion, is a consequence of the Triple Bottom Line approach.4 Stories about travels in these realms have come together in a book titled Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For a Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear.5 Both the journey itself and its written account have been energized by the insights which Devendrabhai expressed through the dahi analogy, plus other fundamental influences.
Take a person from wherever he is at present, Swami Vivekananda said, and see how he may go forward. At about the same time, from a different vantage point, Gandhiji showed that your opponent is not necessarily an enemy.
Exploring diverse realities with these lenses has been as acutely frightening as it has been enriching. Fear arises from finding that in a surplus of situations enemies seem aplenty. Enrichment is a consequence of staying the course and finding that the scenery changes, often in dramatic ways. But fear remains a steady companion – how will I know if the lens has misted over with delusions. This tussle is a constant in the process of writing stories. But it takes on a still larger life in oral storytelling.
Since Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom was published, I have found myself telling stories excerpted from the book in a wide variety of gatherings and in one-on-one meetings with readers who are either happily excited or troubled by the narrative. Now here’s the rub. It’s easier and, I confess, a bit more fun to engage with the happily excited. But it is the troubled who may hold the key to further exploration and discovery. This is when I’m confronted by a dilemma. Is my role as storyteller akin to that of a messenger? In that case I can tell the story and leave it at that. What stops me from doing that?
For example, the narrative about socially responsible investing evokes two equally troubled responses. In a recent meeting with a group of activists and academics, some of the participants vehemently rejected the possibility that either the workings of capital, or the neo-liberal mindset, can be a altered or countered from within. A few days later, a smaller meeting with business people in Kolkata brought forth a divided response. One set of people defended the dynamism and progress facilitated by the rise of global capital and rejected the need for change. Some others lambasted the operation of capital markets, but felt hopeless about the possibility of anything changing.
Now here is where I get caught in a contradiction. As a pure storyteller I find myself averse to argumentation. It seems valid to say: Here’s what’s happening in the nooks and crevices of our times. I’m not saying that they will necessarily bring about profound, overarching change, but they are worth looking at closely. And yet, I’m also keen to see the further development of these trends and ideas. To that extent it seems essential to fully understand the opposition, challenge and discomfort expressed from diverse vantage points. The challenge lies in doing this without falling into the role of an ideologue by default.
Patience seems to hold the key to keeping the onward journey creative and constructive. This requires the unwavering discipline of remembering that most of us can only see or grasp what we are prepared for. Irish philosopher John O’Donohue has rearticulated a wisdom that is integral to some of India’s philosophical traditions – namely, that we never see a thing completely. ‘In sure anticipation,’ writes O’Donohue, ‘our eyes have always already altered what awaits our gaze. The search for truth is difficult and uncomfortable. Because the mystery is too much for us, we opt to settle for the surface of things. Comfort becomes more important than true presence. This is precisely why we need to hear the discerning voice.’6
It follows that cultivation of a discerning eye, and a discerning ear, is the prime swadharma of the storyteller. That means constantly asking: in what ways is my gaze limited, hemmed in, by what I am predisposed to value and appreciate. This in turn demands a ceaseless state of alert to detect the difference between fruitful exchange and futile argumentation. A fruitful exchange, however discomforting (even enraging) it might be at that moment, could provide clues to perceive hidden details or ways in which I have narrowed my own gaze. Futile argumentation has set in when one or both people in the conversation feel they are listening to a recorded message – that is, an entrenched position is being reiterated without any scope for new learning.
It is at this point that the ability to sift insight from ideology becomes crucial. The first step on this slippery terrain is to acknowledge the importance of ideology – as a set of aims and ideas, as a comprehensive vision which gives rise to insights. But I have also encountered a wide variety of ways in which ideology confines and restricts perception. Let us look at two examples from opposite extremes.
Advocates and promoters of the big dams on the Narmada were either unable or unwilling to respond to large volumes of data and analysis which showed that the original design for damming the Narmada was not viable, even in conventional economic terms. They were confined not only by the self-interest of those who would benefit directly from the projects, but by an ideological frame in which the Narmada projects, in their original form, represented progress.
Some activists who have opposed globalization and liberalization for over two decades are similarly unwilling to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of these phenomenon. Since their task, their mission, is to struggle for the most dispossessed, they have chosen to overlook the spaces and opportunities that these phenomenon have opened up – not only for a variety of population segments but for new negotiations between different levels of power.
As an observer and participant, I am subject to the same dangers. Thus the constant need to run, what I now think of as, a ‘prejudice check’ or ‘blinker check’. In its absence, it is easy to miss an insight simply because of being confined by one’s own ideological frame.
It is important to do this because we live in a time when the opportunities for positive change may be as diverse as the escalating horrors of human suffering and living systems in chaotic retreat. Yes, ‘just’ bearing witness remains a vital and indispensable role. There is no substitute for a Himanshu Kumar of Vanvasi Chetna Ashram coming to Mumbai from Dantewada, Bastar, to tell a hall full of South Mumbai elite about the suffering being inflicted on tribals by the Indian state.7
And there is an equally vital role for a Nandini Sundar, arguing at the same gathering, that it can be done differently. Private companies and government need not kill and destroy in order to access minerals or other resources. But the onward journey to actually illuminating if and how this might be possible seems to demand empathic linking of seemingly disparate realities, approaches and mindsets.
Is this at all possible? That is not for me, as storyteller, to decide or know. It is sufficient to perceive the need and keep at it – often following a lead or even imagining a potential that can seem utterly counter-intuitive from a conventionally objective point of view. It follows that the swadharma of such storytelling is bottomless patience, incessant self-examination or prejudice checks, and deep listening. Yes, the odds are often not favourable. Falling short of the yardstick is a more familiar experience than fully living by it. Yet, the endeavour is energized and inspired by fellow travellers along the way.
‘Inclusive justice requires learning to slay giants
without slaying or flaying people;
to alter mindsets without affronting the dignity
of those who differ on the fundamental flaws
in our economic system.’
– Peter Challen, British monetary reform activist8
1. Rajni Bakshi, Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi, Penguin India, 1998.
2. http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Global_Economy/Crisis_Capitalism_ Soros.html
3. Website for Post-Autistic Economics Network and their journal www.paecon.net/
4. John Elkington, Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business, Capstone, UK, 1999.
5. Rajni Bakshi, Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For a Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear, Penguin India, 2009.
6. John O’Donohue, Divine Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, Bantam Books,UK, 2004.
7. From a meeting jointly hosted by Bombay Chamber of Commerce, Citizens for Peace, Gateway House and Tata Institute of Social Sciences on 12 November 2009. See brief report and video clip on www.citizens forpeace.in
8. For more information on Peter Challen’s work: http://www.ccmj.org/ and http://www. monies.cc/forum/backgrnd/peter_ challen.htm