There are stories all around us. Not all are interesting when one tells them, but when they are unfolding before you, they manage to hold your attention.
Last week, I was traveling back home, from a business trip when I witnessed a story. I boarded the flight and sat down in my aisle seat on the left half. A few minutes later, a couple with two very young kids arrived. The mother sat in the half of the row in front of me, with two kids on either side. The father took the aisle seat on the right.
Another couple of minutes later, boarded a girl who had the window seat in the same row, on the father’s side. The boarding was almost complete by now, and the attendants were getting ready for the safety drill. For a few mins, it looked like the middle seat next to the father was going to be unoccupied. Everyone put on the seat belts. Just then another (very good looking, incidentally) girl boarded, the last one to board, and took the middle seat. The father who had gotten up to give her access, quickly sat back into his seat, not looking at his wife, who was trying to get his attention.
Soon, the plane started taxiing to the runway, and the status quo was maintained for a while. But as soon as the plane took off, and the seat belt sign was off, though, the mother got up, and so did the father, as if on cue, and they exchanged seats. In a few minutes, she had gone off to sleep in her new seat.
There are of course multiple ways to interpret this simple sequence.
1. The simplest: the mother got jealous, and didn’t want the husband to sit next to a very attractive girl.
2. Mother was feeling sleepy, and the boys were not sleeping, so she decided to let the dad take up the duty of putting them to sleep.
3. The boys wanted their dad to be next to them.
4. The mother thought that the father, who was a heftily built man, was getting uncomfortable in the aisle seat, especially considering the person next to him was a girl.
5. The father, and not the mother, initiated the exchange because he thought his wife was getting uncomfortable with him sitting next to a (very) good looking girl.
6. The mother thought that the girl in the middle seat will be more comfortable with a woman being next to her, because, she herself would have been more comfortable that way, having listened to horror stories of girls being molested on planes, buses, trains.
7. The father, the mother knew, is a molester, and she’s really trying to save the girls from his prying hands (or trying to save her husband from the consequences).
I’m sure we could keep on coming up with multiple such reasons or their variations/combinations. But do we? Or do we (or rather, our minds) lazily pick up the Occam’s razor and select the simplest interpretation?
I think the storyteller’s role becomes crucial here because his/her job is to steer the reader/listener to a particular interpretation. Of course, there are lazy story tellers, who will pick up the simplest of sequences themselves (like yours truly here), in the hope that the readers will instantly pick up the “most obvious” interpretation, and thus believe the narration very much like real-life, aka, realistic. But is realism just the “most common” or “obvious” view of reality? Because if that’s what story-telling does (and here, I cannot but use examples of writers like Chetan Bhagat, and many “romance” writers who are popular currently in Indian writing scene) then art is basically majoritizing of narration, and hence just reinforcing the norm (not ethical, but statistical) as the only reality worth talking about.
This is where the interesting story tellers come in. Either as writers, or film-makers. Some of them give us enough extra slice of reality to subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly — something that propagandist story-tellers fall into, even though they’re going beyond the norm) nudge us to a different reading of reality (for instance, I’ve also tried to nudge you into a specific interpretation by adding “not looking at his wife”, when in reality, since I was in the next row, would have found it difficult to make that claim with certainty), forming a different interpretations of the actions of protagonists, for instance, by giving us enough glimpses into the minds of the characters, say, or painting the relationships between principal characters with a fine brush. While some, want to go beyond even that nudging and give you enough contradictory seeming clues to put the burden of interpretation on you entirely (David Lynch? Pynchon? Wallace?).
Then there is another category of story-tellers who provide you enough clues, but also some misleading clues, although, they want you to solve the puzzle. There is an answer they want you to have, but don’t want to let it be too obvious, lest the fun is lost. But these story-tellers, are also a little afraid that the listener/viewers/reader will entirely miss the point and come up with a different interpretation based on the clues that they pick up. Someone like Nolan, for instance, who ended up explaining his intended interpretation of Inception.
The thing is, there are so many stories and so many interpretations. And one way to look at our evolution as readers/watchers is to evaluate the complexity of the chess game that one is able to play, at the level. Then again, profound can be captured simply. So one can’t have a hegemony of complexity of narration.
PS: There was another colleague traveling on the same flight who was seated in my row, but in the other half. He was trying to tell me something when the couple boarded. I asked him today, after writing this, what was it that he was trying to tell me, and he narrated this:
“The guy (the father) was very frustrated with his child’s tantrum, and he picked him up and told him “if you don’t shut up, I’ll throw you out of the window”. Anyone wants to go back to the list for a different interpretation, with this tidbit? There is also very interesting takeaway, in all this: the narrators miss many stories as they concentrate on one. In a perfect symmetry: where the reader/listener ends up walking away with just one interpretation.
Picture Credit: Atul Sabnis of gaizabonts.
Incidentally, there is a small story of the book too: read on the photo page. Atul is a story teller in various mediums.