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.


JOSH said...

Thanks for reminding my childhood days where my nani used to tell stories every day which she enacts with modulation for different characters.

Only later did i realise the story was the same but she changed the dynamics of the characters.

With with all the components of a story in a news channel it has become a movie channel in itself :)

Fr Jerry said...

Memories! They stand out and remain. You are lucky to have gone back to your childhood. Coming to the media, it is an organized story telling empire. We should listen (see) and question at the same time.

ciya said...

just wanted to tell you that there was so much written and talked about the mumbai attacks in the media.. it is a pleasent relief to read something on the way the media potrayed the proceedings. a different angle.great insight.

Fr Jerry said...

Ciya, there have been some voices who have pointed out on the soap opera coverage of the media during the Mumbai attacks. (Thank God). NDTV was trying to salvage some pride by saying that they acted responsibly. (A guilt offering I would say) The fact is that market oriented news channels will go along with the fancies of the rich and forget the poor in this land. It is sad that even the church (which includes us) is largely one big soap opera.

kunnampally said...

Yes Rev. Jerry, my little daughter (3.5yrs)loves to hear stories from me, all the time my stories had the same thread but with some twist and turns, adding colours and flavours to it. Now that she started to demand different stories, I realise that I can’t trick her anymore.
The thread of the stories we hear from media is same all the time and each of them have self interested threads and with that they play the trick. Unless we become intelligent enough to comprehend the thread behind the stories,media will continue to fool us…

Fr Jerry said...

Kunnampally: Point well taken. It just shows that there is a lot of complexity in story telling and it is just not a simple thing. We definitely have to therefore equip ourselves to understand the stories we are being told at various levels.