“Any story you can come up with has already been written in the Mahabharata.” By popular consensus, this is often heralded as the truth in India. The Mahabharata, with its intricacies in plot, characterisation, details, off-shoot narratives and adaptations, could easily be considered as the mother of fiction.
Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots argues that any given story is bound to fall within one of his seven major plot structures. If we were to consider this true and assume that the Mahabharata encompasses all major plotlines, then every single work written in the world today would simply be an adaptation or a rewriting of an existing story.
Why then do we bother writing, re-writing, adapting and recirculating existing stories? Are we simply enabling the production of another economy, where stories, like currency, exchange hands only to be drawn on or crumpled in one’s pocket before being handed to its next owner?
The currency of fiction
What happens to the currency we use on an everyday basis? The notes either exchange hands till they are torn/worn, at which point they are replaced by crisp, new ones that everyone loves to get their hands on; or, they become old enough to be worth preserving for their collectable value. I see something similar happening in the economy of stories – the basic plot is the monetary value, and the currency or the stories are the means to access this value.
New notes are the rebirth of these existing stories, in the form of adaptations or re-imaginations. The stories that gain age, wisdom and stand out in some sense, then become classics, or collectables. Any subsequent note with significant resemblance or reproduction of thought of these classics are the ones that are the most desirable, i.e., the ones with the most exchange-value.
So, be it Sherlock Holmes’s sister Enola Holmes, Maria Dahvana Headley’s feminist translation of the classic Beowulf, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Forest of Enchantments – the tale of Sita from the Ramayana (the Sitayan) – Kamila Shamsie’s novel adaptation of Greek tragedy Antigone placed in present-day Britain and Pakistan, Home Fire, or even a spin-off of Hindi soap Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai to the new Yeh Rishtey Hain Pyaar Ke with the stories of the children, and grandchildren (or was it great grandchildren?…I lose count) of the previous leads, recent times keep seeing the return of our beloved characters.
Why? Why reimagine Juliet in 2020, as opposed to creating a new Desdemona or Laila or Heer? What about these particular characters makes us want to bring them to life again, albeit in a new socio-political scenario, or a reimagined world?
‘Desi tadka with a fusion twist’ / ‘Chai tea latte’
What’s common to these? I see the need for familiarity wrestle the desire to explore – the “certainty” component of your personality in a heated debate with the “uncertainty” percentage. Both these notions do just what an Enola Holmes does – they bring you something you know that you like and that you trust is good, while adding some spice to it.
The need to watch it, buy it, or consume it, is motivated by the same need to check your phone when a notification pops up with “Your friend ShortAttentionSpan has updated her profile”. You know the existing story is good, and you believe that if something new has been added to it, it ought to be good too.
Stories are thought to have been born as a form of relief or a doorway to a world beyond. Be it by way of murals on cave walls that showed horses racing through the clouds to greener grass, or by way of grandmother’s tales to her grandchild of a crow placing rocks into a thin-necked vase in order to able to drink the water inside. All of these stories, while allowing for this momentary escape from reality, most definitely contain a component of the “real” encompassed within themselves. The horses could be human beings rushing towards something and ignoring the metaphorical clouds around them; the crow could be Sharma Ji’s beta (the ideal neighbour’s son, a prodigy who every Indian child is asked to be more like) who manages to work smart and reap the best results.
What all of these stories do is play with the distance between you and the world you are reading / watching / accessing. By making it appear sufficiently afar, the stories allow for a commentary on the real world, enabling you to experience it vicariously without winning the assured eye-roll a moral lecture would otherwise merit.
Old story, new twist
During theatre club meetings, we used to play a game called “You!” Three characters would take their place in the centre, surrounded by a circle consisting of the other participants, or spectators in this case. They would proceed to enact a scene – a short one, only a few minutes long. After the first performance, they would enact it a second time. The spectators were then free to clap their hands, which point the actors would freeze within the circle, point to one character, and yell, “you!” They would then take the place of said character and proceed with the scene in their stead, with one crucial change.
The aim of the game was to first understand how a single action contributes to the larger plot. The second aim was to help people understand what a good move, and a bad move, was – if the change elicited a story worse than the original, it was a bad move. And third, the real-life connotation – to be able to understand when and how your actions impact other people, and how you can think before doing something.
This game, while our little self-creation, is one that had been played on a much larger scale, a long time before us. Forum Theatre, a creation of Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal, is motivated by similar goals, with the only difference being that the scene performed would be one of oppression, or societal harm, that could be averted through the tiniest of actions – one single action, that could contribute to, or help stop oppression.
In a similar manner, the economy of stories, in its distancing and temporary suspension of reality, allows you to re-think the actions of a character, while also giving you the chance to step in with the whole “why didn’t Rose simply move over and give Jack some space on the plank?” criticism. Stories provide us with an alternate space where we can think about the actions of characters, their motivations and aspirations, without directly realising that while so doing, we are also questioning and tugging at the loose ends of similar questions that arise around us on a daily basis. Stories thereby become powerful tools for critique, for questioning, for dialogue, and thus, for civic action.
In the economy of stories, as we recycle tales with a few crucial changes, we “adapt” them to suit our present conditions. We play with the “distance” of the story from its audience, awarding the latter either the discomfort of reading about something too close to home, or the pleasure of an imaginary universe with a hidden resemblance to reality. We bring them to the right distance from our story in order to be able to comment on reality in the manner of our choosing – all of this while preserving the familiarity of existing characters, the broad plot design, and the ambit of criticism that the root story fell under, in case of direct adaptations.
This replaying of the same scene, or recycling of currency, with a few crucial changes, shows the reader the light of the world of Forum Theatre, or “You!” The potential to affect some real-world outcome; some civic change. The paranoia of ruling bodies about seditious fiction, crowd-exciting theatre, anti-establishment fictional narratives, suddenly makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
Imagine a large puzzle, with each piece being a currency note – the economy of stories produces a larger picture. The notes are connected by strings. That, if you step back sufficiently to look at, makes a compelling image. It is up to you to be able to decipher this image, make changes, provide new decisive shapes to the notes, in order to elicit a different picture.
The economy of stories has immense power. Be it with a single currency note, the larger narrative, or the need for relief from reality, stories rule our world, as they should. The economy of stories is here to stay, and you are a part of it, either as a spectator or a motivated spect-actor. All you need to do is choose. And choose wisely, as Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.
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