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Can an unbiased story be engaging?

…Or does telling a story from different points of views lower the emotional involvement of the audience for the characters?

 

It was bit of a shock.

Here was a friend of mine, who has known me for almost 3 years (and a lot about my past), claiming that that she didn’t feel very moved by my (4 years old) break-up story, when I told her. Don’t get me wrong – I am not trying to be dramatic here. It wasn’t that I thought that the story was very sensational and was expecting anyone who heard it to be in awe of it.

The shock for me was she claimed that it wasn’t very moving because I told her the story from two different perspectives.

“There was no villain or victim in your story. There was always some kind of rationalization behind all the actions and intentions. It was bit unbiased.”

“So wait. You mean to say, in all these years, what I have told you, you don’t feel sense of connection towards me or her? Not even towards any action? No sense of empathy or hatred?”

“Well not anything intensely. It’s almost like ‘yeah, so that happened’.”

“Wow. I guess I didn’t realize it that’s how I came across.”

 

After a pause, I said –

 “Seriously? Nothing interesting?”

“Oh yes! She was really an interesting character to know. I am just saying you didn’t make me hate her through your story”

“I wasn’t trying to make you hate her. It’s easy to victimize yourself by–“

“…making the other person sound like a monster. Yes I know. We have talked about it. I guess that’s how I saw it. Remember when I told you my break-up story, how I made him sound?”

“I questioned his humanity”

“Exactly”

“See! So that happened because I made him sound like a villain and myself like a victim. Of course now after a lot of time and thinking, I know there are no such things.”

 

Having prided myself as a storyteller, I saw this all as somewhat of a failure on my part. I always knew that I have a thing for perspectives. I like bringing out different ways of looking at the same thing.

I had a sudden urge to drag my friend and make her watch Rashomon, Vantage Point or 11:14basically ANY movie that featured a plot being told from different perspectives.

Heck! I felt so irritated about her ‘villain or victim’ comment, I felt I needed her to (finally) start watching Battlestar Galactica  or Game of Thrones to show her how hard it becomes to categorize morally ambiguous characters into the ‘good-bad’ slot.

But perhaps, this WAS my failing. Maybe I was quick into assuming my competency in communicating my story was at par with the way it was done in those movies or TV shows.

It may sound like I wanted more value to be given to the break-up story. But the truth of the matter is it got me thinking about stories itself –

It is a given that a good story needs to have characters that the audience roots for or are interested in. But can focusing on two (or more) conflicting opinions or motivations of characters equally spread the audience’s attachment for them? Does this affect their interest in the story?

In one of the interviews, the mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik was asked for his comments regarding the fact that sometimes mythological stories promote prejudice or bias.

 

He said:

Every story has a bias and a prejudice embedded into it. Without bias and prejudice you cannot have stories.

Animals are not supposed to talk yet we make them talk and humanize them in our fables. That is unnatural. We make non-vegetarian animals villains and we apply human values to animal kingdom. That is also unnatural.

At one time, Disney women were coquette damsels needing rescue; now they are boisterous and violent just like the ‘boys’. Is that gender equality?

If you try to be politically correct, you will never tell a story to your child. There is no nobility in humanity from the point of view of a plant or an animal.

 

Perhaps that settles it then. Trying to be unbiased is counter-productive to telling a story.

But irony here for me is that this statement came from a person who had revived my childhood interest in mythology and to a great extent into stories.

And interestingly, it was through his writings and videos that I had realized there are enough stories in mythologies that treat the characters fairly equally.

The independent journey of both Prince Hector of Troy and Achilles in Greek Mythology is portrayed right up to their final fight. As an audience (reader if referring to Homer’s epic Illiad, viewer if referring to the movie Troy), you feel equally invested in the characters and are keen to know what is going to happen, while dealing with the premonition that one of them is going to get the worst of the situation.

Both the great epics in the Indian Mythology focus on the backstories of most of the characters, regardless of how they are defined on the moral scale. While you root for the Pandavas (perhaps because of the fewer numbers, they seem like the underdogs), you cannot deny feeling bad for characters like Karna, Bhisma – who being on  the ‘other side’, meet their tragic ending due to their own predicament and principles.

What’s more is due to the (almost Newtonian) concept of Karma, all actions and events are rationalized and explained in terms of “consequences”.

So where does bias set in? Is it because in the end we have one (or some) character(s) who triumph over or outlive the other(s)? Does this help us know which ones to empathise with more – who we need to put on a pedestal and who we need to dehumanize?

These questions at the face of it can be considered almost age old in reference to narratives and literature. Scholars have discussed it and storytellers have expressed it through their work.

So while I cannot think of a definite answer, I do realize something –

It seemed an awful lot is to do with how one treats the characters. In my ‘break-up’ story (now I guess, even I am warming up to the fact that it wasn’t the best reference for how a story needs to be told), I was trying really hard bringing out all characters’ inner motivation without wanting to favour anyone particular. And in doing so, I did not pay attention as much as to how the story flow was coming across to my audience – my friend, in this particular case.

A story being told has to serve a purpose to the listener, who, regardless of storyteller’s intention, has the freedom to absorb some meaning out of it in their own way.

While penning down some of the above quotes of my friend in a notebook I use to compile lines I find memorable, I found one very apt by someone who has almost become a character in this article.

 

“The purpose of a story is not to be true to the characters, but to get the characters to provoke thoughts in the reader.”

– Devdutt Pattanaik

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Subjective ‘spiritual’ reality

Excerpts from Journal: 12th Feb 2012

Subjective reality seems the easy way out.

Emotionally I feel satisfied with life and world but intellectually, there is always something missing.

Is it my need…my human need to crave for a better understanding of universe so as to make sense of my place in it or is it something only a selected few see missing?

If everyone has their own truth is it to say that there is nothing independent of our perception? What about the time before us? Was the reality subjugated to the perception of dinosaurs?

There is a stench of anthropological bias in this way of thinking.

Ancient religion and cultures found a way to answer the ‘Why’ questions in their own subjective ways limited by socio-culture context they were in.

I remembered discussing with a friend about ‘spiritual reality’. Her argument was that there is a higher power and that praying (in any form) is the way to connect with it. She even used quantum mechanics ‘wave-particle duality’ principle  to back up her ‘everything-is-energy’ argument.

For the most part, I kept listening first and then questioning the logic of her argument. But it seemed that she got this perception that I was disagreeing with her.

But for me, it was not about disagreeing or not believing what she said. I think I was questioning myself.

Is this spiritual divine energy for real? Or is it our need to believe in it?

For what?

I read an article on web about ‘How our brains copes up with the idea of death’. There was this paragraph which went on the lines of –

“Being the only species which is consciously aware of its impending non-existence, humans have developed cultural system which portray the world as a meaningful, purposeful place in which death is not the final end. Besides the idea of an eternal soul, we talk of transcending death through social achievements like heroism, memorials and heirs. Decades of scientific research indicate that our mortality has a pervasive impact in our lives and that when we are reminded of our fragile and ephemeral nature, we quickly banish the thought by making our individual egos subservient to grander ideas like family, religion and nation. “

I hear a lot of people become ‘spiritually awakened’ and getting done with religion in some ways.

The more I thought about it the more I felt that even the concept of ‘spirituality’ was of human creation.

Having filled our physical and emotion needs, we as human embark on trying to explain or engage in the awe of the cosmos.

If this is true, this leads me to some bit of frustration. I wonder if every BLOODY thing we do is reduce our cognitive dissonance!

A conversation of a friend echoes in my ears still..

“So what if its human creation? If you believe it, it is real for you, right?”

“Yes but, then if it just about believing. It means reality is limited to our sensory perception, which can be wrong at times. Does it not make sense to acknowledge it, if not transcend it. Is there no difference between knowledge and opinion?”

“You have to believe in something, you can’t live like this. It will be mentally exhausting”

It’s funny how she concluded by that. It was almost as if I was trivializing the idea of having a set belief. I was not sure if that’s how I thought. But whatever said, this is how the it seemed.

People talk about having an insight, feeling enlightened which can not be expressed or rationalized.

I cannot deny that those moments have never happened to me, but it is scary to hear people say so because then there can be no further discussions.

That is not to say the point is to agree on same thing. But it would be difficult to look at the other’s perspective, engage in it (with or without accepting it)

As Sam Harris, philosopher and author, said –

“Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. What if someone says, “Well, that’s not how I choose to think about water.”? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. And if he doesn’t share those values, the conversation is over. If someone doesn’t value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide to prove they should value it? If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?”

Irony of Life

12:39 AM

Friend: I thought about what you said…me going through a pattern repeatedly. You were right.

Me: yeah… listen about that… I am sorry. I should have not said anything.. I hate that about myself at times..

Friend: What do you hate about yourself?

12:40 AM

Me: talking in anthropological or scientific way about emotions and the effect takes away the perceived human unique experience

sorry

at times, I forgot how you may take it..

12:41 AM

Friend: unique piece you are.

Me: yeah.. i hate that about myself at times too :P..

12:42 AM

its like then suddenly I feel naked.. as if the social facade I put on has slipped off..

until someone reminds me by their reaction…

like right now you did

😛

Friend: I am guilty.

Me: no you are not..

you are just human

12:43 AM

reacting like one..

which is normal

sometimes I should too..

12:44 AM

Friend: and you are not human? that’s what you mean?

Me: no..

I am as much human.. perhaps more in some way.. 😛

12:45 AM

but most of us are humans in a very socially-constructed way..

like there are things to be said and a way to say them…

for it to feel…right

12:46 AM

even if it may or may not be the truth

..but to me… being human is not JUST about adhering to socially constructed norms and reactions..

12:47 AM

talking about things in a very primal, rational way doesn’t mean that there is no poetry in it…

Friend: i know all this

Me: ..but it doesn’t come that naturally, right?

12:48 AM 😛

Of course, you know all this.. this is nothing new..

Friend: see, things that don’t come to you naturally, you don’t do that.

and things that don’t come to me naturally

I don’t do that

Me: yeah

Friend: its cool right

12:49 AM

Me: but unfortunately the way the world and we human being function…

12:50 AM

your way is more preferable to others than mine..

what seems natural to you, I mean…

12:51 AM

making me be careful about what i should express about what I think and feel by making it sound natural and genuine

even if it may not be it..

which to me is the fascinating thing…

12:52 AM

Friend: fascinating to me too.

12:53 AM

Me: 😉

but don’t get me wrong.. its not like I think I am too different and rest all are same…

the beauty of life is that each of us are different…

12:54 AM

and the mystery is that while we are, I yet feel more different than others in a specific social context

12:55 AM

the funny part is that while at one level people get astonished, shocked, mesmerized or freaked out with the fact that I feel that way…

at another level, they empathize or atleast try with some of it..

as if they feel that way too…

12:56 AM

making the sense of alienation a common collective, shared feeling

…which to me is IRONY OF LIFE

Fighting Faith

This is after a discussion with a friend…

Having faith means the ability to withstand questioning and doubt. Its not wrong to say one has faith. I have faith in the goodness of humanity. Time  and again I have been made to question that faith. Is it a need? Or some truthful insight that I am privileged to perceive?

Those are important questions and should not be ignored ones asked. However, admittance of faith is perhaps the first step. I guess faith is important. Now, I don’t mean faith only in the sense of the God argument. Look at from an extremely religious person point of view, telling them that chanting Hanuman Chalisa would  not really cure them of the fever is basically asking them to put it on faith. Worse, faith on Science. Yes, yes, one can ALWAYS show them what is the biological process behind fever which would imply the way of curing also in a scientific way. But practically speaking, he or she would have to take a lot of fact on the face value, even if there is a notion of presenting more scientific evidence for satisfying their infinite doubt regression, because to know more this way is asking for time and energy. So why ‘waste’ that on this new way of dealing with regular phenomenon? Is not faith easier?

Do not get me wrong. I am not trying to mock or ridicule faith (ok I may be a bit but that’s not the point). I am just questioning the scope of the term itself and what is it become associated with today. There was a time when atheists or doubts had to be careful or ashamed for not having enough ‘insight’. But today it’s the people with living with traditional customs and belief  in a modern rational world that suffer.

They almost admit to their belief and faith in an apologetic way. Not as simple as ‘I-am-sorry-I-believe’ more like ‘I-know-there-is-a-lot-of-hogwash-in-religion-but-I-can’t-help-sense-there-is-some-divine-power-that-I-feel-good-praying-to’. They do not seem to be too moved by the Science vs Religion debate or any philosophical discussion, because to them its not about talking and coming to some consensual agreement like ‘So that’s why there is probably no God’ (They would probably have an impassive expression at this point).