Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Humans are story tellers: The power of the narrative and the Mumbai attack.
‘Tell me a story mummy’, she said as she was being tucked in to sleep. And then her mummy did just that. Every night it didn’t matter whether the story changed a lot. Mummy just had to be sure that there was a twist here and a turn there. As children we loved to hear stories from our parents. Mostly our sweet mom’s would take the burden upon themselves to entertain us. It is a fact that we like and love stories, that everything of essence which is of value to us, is in the form of a story. Our scriptures, our history, our talks are all story telling.
The November, 2008 Mumbai attack has brought everything into the open for a reluctant but precise post mortem. The media joined the elaborate exercise only to realise that it could not escape from being the object of scrutiny. The allegations against the media are that it made the attack into a soap opera, it sensationalised this particular event while ignoring others, the emotion of the people was commoditized and it put the army and commando’s at risk.
I won’t go into all this but would rather like to talk of what humans like to do and want to hear. My journalism teacher Fr. Michael Traber would keep reminding his class that ‘humans are story tellers.’ Keeping the initial objection to this aside, we realised that it was indeed true. As preachers and teachers it helps a lot to tell people stories as they want to hear them and relate with them.
The coverage of the Mumbai attack by the media was also a case of story telling to entertain and make us think as well. The story teller has mainly two things on mind. One to make sure we listen. Two to give a message. For this, tried and tested narrative formula’s are used. The Mumbai attack coverage followed a simple formula. One, the attack itself, the hostages and the pain, tension and sorrow related with it. Two, the wait for justice through a saviour/s. Three, the coming of the saviour/s (in the form of the black clothed NSG commando’s). Four, tilting the balance again in favour of good as over against evil. Five, debating the lessons uncovered from the narrative. (This could take any form).
It is then true that after we criticize the media we should also look at ourselves. There is a saying in Malayalam which is translated as ‘What the patient desired and what the doctor prescribed is milk.’ So, we have to debate the collective responsibility we share in the running of our country rather than blaming one group after the other and then forgetting all about it again. It is also a time for studying the stories and narratives we propagate and whether they serve the purposes that we need or whether it is time to think about counter narratives and stories.