Personal histories evoke a sense of relatedness that the texts and inscriptions sitting in the archives cannot craft for us. The personal narrative comes with its enmeshed sensibilities, social backdrop and the zest to move forward while reminiscing about the high points in the past. And this very sense gets transcribed as one collects narratives from people who don’t know that their stories matter.
I decided to walk village to village in Konkan in the hope to scratch the surface of this personal storytelling.
The rituals, modus operandi, get imbibed as skin inked with a needle. Here, I do not mean exclusively religious rituals. Rituals of being, going about your day… And oral histories make a narrative of these rituals. Why do we something such and such…why on a particular day, at a specific place, with a designated paraphernalia… The material aspect of the story is secondary in such cases, but the rationale for performance is an exciting narrative setup. Like a rose, or a cabbage, I like to peel off one petal after another to gradually get to the shared corpus of stories.
Sometimes at it’s core, the storytelling spirals into the goodness of humanity, grace of the gods, wisdom of children or piety of self. And those humane values add dimension to all the layers of narration one reiterates as a part of daily life.
The “aha!” moment when all stray pieces of narration come together, a shape emerges, that I like to call “form of a community narrative”.
In my attempt to study memorial stones across the landscape in Western India, oral narratives have contributed immensely to the understanding of the cultural milieu. These memorials were initially placed to immortalise the memories of ancestors who have laid down their lives. The memorials are now worshipped as deities to alleviate diseases, as place markers for certain family land, and so on. The multifarious nature of these memorials comes to life through the oral storytelling extant in the villages these memorials are placed in. Maybe that is why I slowly moved away from studying archaeological remains to local extra-textual narratives!
Orality also offers something outside the confines of a codified text or a canon. It offers a broad range of interpretation and it’s adaptation in routine life. When we discussed the aspects of “folk tradition” (I am still uncomfortable with this usage, and hence resort to “local” tradition) at Deccan college in Pune, we were able to chart the expanse of local narratives as a source of studying local tradition.
The deification of local landscape intrigues me as it is a conglomerate of local narratives, performative traditions and a continuation or perpetuation of some textual or canonical word codified ages ago. The diachronic lens to approach the viccissitudes of narrative expose its various layers – tangible and intangible.
And in the end, the lingering thought crops up again – what would you be without the stories that make you? If the essence of belonging and being is a part of narrative that has been given to you (or thrust upon you, in certain cases), peering deep into personal stories and oral histories need not seem out of the way. That’s what we all do: tell stories and be told new lore.