A story was sitting in my bedroom, naked. It was a new story, even a sexy story, but a strange story and a lost story and I didn’t know what it was doing on my bed that evening. I could hear voices coming from it. They were mumbling, low, crowded voices, and I could see that it didn’t know what to do with them, either. It was laughing like a mad woman on my bed, with tattoos on its face and neck but magic was coming from its fingertips and music was coming from its toes.
I held its hands all night that night. I took it into my home and heart and made it my own, excited by it and confused by it, listening to it and believing in it. That was when that story became my story. That was when the stories began to find me. It was then that I first set out looking for stories in cities, when nights were young and stars still shone when darkness fell. Very slowly, I made stories my business. Abandoned and forgotten as they are, these stories, I find them a home by fireplaces in books, with a drink in a pub, on a postcard, in a smile; I find them their storytellers.
It was how I reached this city at night one night, with a story in my pocket and nobody to tell it. Little did I know what this story was to bring me. How could I know that some stories are powerful and mean, more myth than fable, told only in secret and only to those who needed to know? What would I have done if I knew? I came, anyway, young and stupid, daydreaming my nightmare.
When I arrived, the wind was but an old acquaintance. It carried a tune from times past – a gentle reminder of my own song, one that my heart once sang to me. If I could whistle, I would have done. I hummed my song instead, hoping that my feet will follow. Like nostalgia, the notes were made of warmth and gushing emotion that surely belonged to some time else, having the edge of something completed.
But new people in old cities, we always sing our songs carefully. We are afraid of the rhythm of the new city beating against our old one. We shuffle our feet, hold our bags close to our chest and step watchfully. In this city, my song had an awkward place.
Along corners of buildings, in shadows of crowded streets, as red lights turn to green, people hurry. A broken button, a stolen purse, a fallen slipper, forgotten books, the city gathers these like a magpie. It picks up distractions, expressions on faces just before laughter, lingering smells of the tired and the melancholic. Obviously, cities can tell quite the story.
The familiar know the inviting lights of marketplaces, the fading greys of oft used roads, the sound of snores on busy afternoons. And I, I am but the enraptured audience of a master story-teller. I watch hagglers of prices of cloth, their tricks and counter-tricks, like a game of chess between two best friends always playing the same first moves. Children crossing roads with habitual precision, fruit vendors on roads or people sitting on park benches, reading the newspaper. Nothing puts them off, not even the rain.
When everything is new, there is no guilt in loneliness. For amusement, I walk old streets with older stories, I sit by myself in coffee shops to read magazines, I scout bookstores whose every book the owners know, in cinemas I look at people’s faces instead.
As souvenirs, I collect evidences of stories. I wonder where couples come from in the trains, what worries line the child’s face, whether the man in the tight jeans has had sex yet. I take pictures in my mind of pink houses with no doors, of homes in slums with air conditioners, of the woman sitting with big bags in the bus stop, of old people riding rickshaws on crowded streets.
On such a day, I climbed on to a bus headed east and north. Nameless, faceless I, in a city full of blank faces and stolen stories, I sat by a window and counted the trees. The count was forty-two when a man with large ears and the most fascinating curly hair sat next to me. Stories come out of people’s hair, they say. The more tangled up your hair is, the more stories there are. Sitting next to him, I could feel the buzz in his hair. Those voices were calling to me again, and all I could do to stop myself from taking them was stare out the window, and count the trees.
When I tried to steal a glance at his hair again, he looked me squarely in my eye. “You are a thief, Story-Monger,” he said, snarling, “a thief, and now you will pay. Run. As fast as you can. As far as you can. Some stories are not yours to sell.”
Nothing is ever just a story. I learnt this too late. Youth is for making mistakes it is often said, but what you never hear is that growing old is for staying embarrassed. Your mistakes never really die with your youth. Along with bad knees and sweet cravings, age brings you regret. In my case, this is more than true.
So when the snarling man on the bus knew me and asked me to run, my first instinct was, indeed, to run. I got off at the next stop, took bus after bus after bus till I almost forgot how many buses I had changed and which direction I was headed. I knew I had reached the edge of the city when the smell changed to a sharper green, and the stories only grew louder.
Cities have rules. You feel them, but you never know they’re there. You have roads you don’t take at certain hours, tea stops you make if you’ve lived there all your life, cigarette shops you smile for, one ways without sign boards, standard orders everyone places, bus routes you avoid, theatres that show only one kind of film, places nobody ever talks about but everybody’s been. You draw lines all around yourself, lines that everybody sees and nobody crosses. Lines that make you and me what we are in cities: anonymous.
At edges of cities, rules become brittle. Your face becomes better defined; your name suddenly becomes heavy. Those lines that you made walls out of, break down. Often, and this is more so for me, stories start to feel different. An old story-teller I met once told me that stories are but facets. You only see what you’re meant to see; you believe what you want to believe. Conspiratorially, he leaned forward and told me, “Truth, at best, is fiction. Most of the time though, it’s just fantasy.” I pretended to laugh at him then, but I knew this only too well.
At the edge of this city, the story I was travelling with went quiet and sat still. I found a room in a new and upcoming hotel that readily bought my lies and was eager to please. A door-to-door salesman I was, for the night. The receptionist asked me my name, he asked if I had children, a spouse, a life like his. He asked me what I sold, and I said I sold lies; I wonder who was telling stories – not him, not me.
I hid there that night and I dared not dream. As calmly as I could, I asked the story to speak.
“In some ways,” the story said, “I am the story of stories. I am the Story. Stories, as you know us, don’t have lives of their own. You think we’re content by ourselves and within ourselves. For what it’s worth, this is a lie. Stories are everything. You are who we are. We are what you know, what you see, what you speak, what you understand.
“Each one of us is a story. Your memories are imagination, your lives are narratives. Pieces of fiction are strewn everywhere in your thoughts. A world that used to sit on the back of a turtle on the back of four elephants is now your world, a big rock that is suspended in space. This World is a story. I know her well. We are, in fact, sisters.
“She and I loved to travel together. We were heralded in the greatest of cities by the greatest of minds. Until one day, on a lonely road where not many of our kind often strayed, we were caught. We were written down in a book by someone who only understood what he saw of us then, never to change, never to travel except for where he went, and never, ever, to sing.
The stories know him as the Keeper of Stories, or simply, the Keeper. Your time would tell you that he is about two hundred years-old. To us, this means nothing. His story never changes. His story is never sung. He is the Keeper, and he keeps stories to himself. He finds us and he uses us, he passes us down in secret to those who never care.
So I ran away, and I found you. Story-Monger. Liar. Thief. You have many names. You have many stories. The Keeper is dangerous to your kind, Story-Monger.
With that, the Story went quiet again. The forms she took while singing her song dissipated, and she wasn’t she anymore. I was more afraid than anything, now that I knew what I was running from.
The Keeper of Stories. I had never heard of him before that, nor have I heard of him since.
By dawn, I left the hotel and headed back into the city. I’ve made some stupid decisions in my life, but none of them have ever been as stupid as this one. I’m a coward and thief, not the hero of any story. The way I saw it, this Keeper wanted the Story back, and I was going to give it to him if only to see how he took it.
All day I took buses that headed south and west, not once finding a curly haired man in a seat next to mine. All day I told people stories in buses, stories about stories, stories about stories about stories. Some people laughed, some people listened with only half an ear. Some people gave me some stories in return. The story I was travelling with grew warm next to me, and by the end of the day I wanted to sing.
If the Keeper wanted his story back, what better way to give it to him than this? If I have a story to sell, who better to sell it to than the city itself? So I found my way to the heart of the city, where the stories go at night. There I let my story stew, until all the dreams came out.
There’s a story you know about a little girl on a lonely road. You’ve heard it in some form or the other, I’m sure. The wolf came to eat her, they say. The bad man on the road will take her away, they say. The ghost will come to scare her, they say. The woodcutter came to save her, once. She went missing and never came back, once. She lived, grew old and died eventually, once. But you know this story. It is in you somewhere, like many millions of other stories.
There’s a story you know about a little boy on a lonely road. You’ve heard it in some form or the other, I’m sure. He can shoot an arrow like a king, they say. He can fight all the monsters and fulfill every prophecy, they say. He found shelter in a farm and fell in love with the owner’s daughter, once. He sold a cow for some beans and went back home, once. He lived, grew old and died eventually, once. But this story isn’t new to you, either. You know it before I told you, like millions of other stories.
Have you ever wondered where these stories come from? How do you know all of them? When you weave your stories in your dreams, what do you do with them? Are your dreams really your own dreams? What do you feel when you feel your dreams? Where do you go when you dream?
Are you sure you stay in bed?
I can tell you what I did that night,
for that’s how far this story will go.
I can tell you how I freed my Story,
but I can tell you no more.
I waited for you to dream that night,
and took your stories from you.
The Story and I sang to you
until we could sing no more.
I waited for you to dream that night,
and gave my stories to you.
The Story and I sang to you
until you could dream no more.
Sita Mamidipudi is a PhD student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, India, studying Political Science. She works on issues of gender and development in drought-prone regions of India. Her work has never been published before.