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Amrita Tripathi

Writer/ Journalist/ Time Traveller

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Blog posts March 2016

What We Learn From Stories

March 28, 2016

I hugely enjoyed writing this piece for The Hindu's weekend reading section. Let me know what you think! (The longer, unedited version also follows... Bah, not for us, word count limitations!)

BOOK SCAN

The stories that keep shaping us

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“There’s nothing grimmer than fairy tales for life lessons.” Picture shows a Harry Potter fan in Sydney.
Getty Images
“There’s nothing grimmer than fairy tales for life lessons.” Picture shows a Harry Potter fan in Sydney.
 

When everything is polemic, perspective is best restored by rereading old favourites

What is it we learn about the world through books, even magical tales and alternative realities? The benefits of reading the driest non-fiction are usually taken as a given, but what about stories and storybooks, as a generation of us grew up calling them?

How else do we learn our humanity? Can you be a sentient being without having the distilled wisdom of thousands of stories in your bloodstream? Does humanity have a chance without its writers and poets? Uncensored, that is.

Back to basics

My brother is part of the generation that really started reading with Harry Potter, so if pushed, I would casually imply I used to read Rowling in solidarity, as a shared interest. You know, very What is it kids are reading these days? Never mind that the pretence was totally shattered by the time The Prisoner of Azkaban came out.

Doing a news story on the Potter phenomenon back in the day, I spoke to a sociologist who told me about the importance of fairy tales in a community, as a means to talk to children about the darker side of life… such as the actuality of death. There’s nothing grimmer than fairy tales for that sort of life lesson. The Potter series also faces very tough realities head-on, including the death of our young hero’s parents. Rowling deals masterfully with bullying and racism, highlighting the courage required to stand up to both. Anyone who’s felt like a misfit, anyone who’s ever been picked on (even if not by the most evil of dark lords) could identify.

Of course, Rowling’s series is also a magnificent ode to love and friendship. But I increasingly wonder whether that is humanity’s biggest strength, or if will prove to be our biggest delusion. Can love conquer all? If you look around, it seems increasingly unlikely.

Speaking from a world of privilege, the English-speaking urban class is caught in a maelstrom of vitriol. Everything is polemic. The conversations, such as they are, all too easily degenerate into violence. We don’t want to listen to anyone who doesn’t mimic our exact points of view, and Twitter has become the echo chamber of echo chambers, convincing us that we — not them — are the majority.

Luckily hashtags aren’t the real world and presumably people will eventually find their sense of self, and push back against the goons who are taking matters into their own hands. All those self-appointed guardians of the pure and holy who are resorting to violence will eventually have to be dealt with, not just by organs of the state machinery, but also in the realm of ideas. That’s where the real battles are — Left versus Right, my nationalism versus your patriotism.

And just as people are being urged to go back and read our Constitution, I would say, go even further back. Remember that magical place of epics and myths? Stories your grandmother would tell you about defenceless animals outwitting bullying predators? Birds versus marauding tigers? The clever fox versus the greedy lion? Mythology? Comic books? I dare anyone to read the Amar Chitra Katha on Luv and Kush and not feel the terrible injustice of Sita’s fate as decreed by her husband.

Gender bias and social justice in a comic book, imagine? Of course, in this present day and age of extreme politicisation and jingoism, we might be asking for trouble by continuing that particular conversation. But until you talk about the very things that disturb you — whether it’s the death of a loved one or countless deaths due to starvation, the targeting of people presumed guilty until proven innocent or the politics of your hitherto closest friend — until we can talk about difficult issues, there’s no real point in pretending to have a conversation.

It’s possible, if we only remembered how, to think and discuss the most meaningful things, without taking ourselves too seriously.

Three life lessons from stories, then. Empathy, courage and imagination. All powerful tools, perhaps the most essential ones to navigate life — even in these perilous times, when so many of us have not an iota of interest in listening to divergent points of view. There couldn’t be a more critical time. Read so you can reach within, so you can remember what it is to listen to another point of view, not just blindly ‘like’ or ‘RT’ into the void.

...

Read more over at The Hindu 

The unedited version is below.

-------- WITH NO THOUGHT TO WORD COUNT LIMITS AND LIMITATIONS ---------

 

LIFE LESSONS: IN DEFENCE OF READING

What is it we learn about the world through books, even magical tales and alternate realities? The 

benefits of reading the driest non-fiction are usually taken as a given, but what about stories and 

story-books, as a generation of us grew up calling them? 

How else do we learn our humanity? Can you be a sentient being without having the distilled 

wisdom of thousands of stories in your bloodstream? Does humanity have a chance without its 

writers and poets? Uncensored, that is.

***

My younger brother is a member of the generation that really started reading with Harry Potter, so 

if pushed, I would probably casually imply I used to read Ms Rowling in solidarity, as a shared 

interest. You know, very What is it kids are reading these days? Never mind that that pretence was 

totally shattered by the time Prisoner of Azkaban came out, if not even earlier.

Doing a news story on the Potter phenomenon back in the day, I spoke to a sociologist, who told 

me about the importance of fairy tales in a community, as a means to talk to children about the 

darker side of life…like the actuality of death. There’s nothing grimmer than fairy tales for that sort 

of life lesson (if you’ll forgive the pun). The Potter series also faces very tough realities head-on, 

including the death of our young hero’s parents. Rowling deals masterfully with bullying and 

racism, highlighting the courage required to stand up to both. Anyone who’s felt like a misfit, 

anyone who’s ever been picked on (even if not by the most evil of dark lords) could identify.

Of course Rowling’s series is also a magnificent ode to love and friendship, which warms the 

cockles of one’s heart. But I increasingly wonder whether that is humanity’s biggest strength or will 

it prove to be our biggest delusion. Can love conquer all? If you look around, it seems increasingly 

unlikely. 

Speaking from a world of privilege, the English-speaking urban middle class is embroiled in a 

maelstrom of vitriol. Everything is polemic. The conversations, such as they are, are all too easily 

degenerating into violence. We don’t want to listen to anyone who doesn’t mimic our exact points 

of view, and Twitter has become the echo chamber of echo chambers, convincing us that we — 

not them — are the majority. 

Luckily hash tags aren’t the real world and presumably people will eventually find their sense of 

self, and push back against the goons who are taking matters into their own hands. Self-appointed 

guardians of the pure and holy who are resorting to violence will eventually have to be dealt with, 

not just by organs of the state machinery, but also in the realm of ideas. That’s where the real 

battles are — Left vs Right, my nationalism vs your patriotism. 

And just as people are being urged to go back and read our Constitution, to read what the founding 

leaders had to say, I would say go even further. Remember that magical place of epics and folk 

tales? Childhood stories your grandmother would tell you about defenceless animals outwitting 

bullying predators? Birds vs marauding tigers? The clever fox vs the greedy lion? Mythology? 

Comic books? I dare anyone to read the Amar Chitra Katha on Luv and Kush and not feel the 

terrible injustice of Sita’s fate as decreed by her husband. Gender bias and social justice, imagine? 

In a comic book! 

Of course, in this age of extreme politicisation and jingoism, we might be asking for trouble by 

continuing that particular conversation… but until you talk about the very things that disturb you — 

whether it’s the death of a loved one, or countless deaths due to starvation, whether it’s the 

targeting of people presumed guilty until proven innocent, or the politics of your hitherto closest 

friend — until we can talk about difficult issues, there’s no real point in pretending to have a 

conversation. 

And yet it is possible to think and discuss the most meaningful things, without taking ourselves too seriously. If only we remembered how.

 

*** 

Three life lessons from stories, then. Empathy, courage and imagination. All powerful tools, 

perhaps the most essential ones to navigate life. Even in these perilous times, when so many of us 

have not an iota of interest in listening to divergent points of view. 

There couldn’t be a more critical time. Read so you can reach within, so you can remember what it 

is to listen to another point of view, not just blindly ‘like’ or ‘RT’ into the void. 

When you’re done? Read some more. 

 

*** 

Be yourself but be open to new things. 

Madeleine L’Engle taught me so much with ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, perhaps without me even realising 

it as a child. What a revelation that these slightly weird siblings Charles Wallace and Meg, with 

their issues in and out of school, could redeem themselves and be heroes, despite not being 

remotely mainstream or cool. They face their own demons and some fairly hairy intergalactic 

beasties in acts of tremendous courage. (Mrs Who, Mrs Whatsit and Mrs Which were fascinating in 

and of themselves.) 

What about courage to say you’re wrong? And how about the lesson that we’re all flawed? Even if 

you were busy tackling Pride and Prejudice to satisfy your crush on Mr Darcy, while identifying with 

Elizabeth Bennett, what a blow to the system to have to examine your own prejudices and biases 

— wait, what, we all have them? And pride? Interesting concept!

I might never forgive Jo and Laurie for not getting together, but in Little Women, you learn 

something profound too, about sacrifice and relationships, and about going beyond the superficial. 

Do you remember Amy and her obsession with her nose? Sister, please! I’m pretty sure she’d be 

right at home in our selfie taking, constantly instagramming world. Jo’s character is probably the 

most fleshed out and the most inspiring, from a young girl’s point of view. Beauty and brains? 

Check. An adventurous spirit? Check, check. Slightly annoying that she used to keep getting 

rapped for her independent streak, but again, bring her to the 21st century and aspects still 

resonate.  

 

You may not know any druids — I fear they are in short supply — but who doesn’t love them? 

From Gandalf to Getafix, I was always quietly reassured that there were wise old souls in the 

landscape who could set things right. Not just wisdom-filled about the mysteries of the universe, 

either, they have a sense of humour and are more than willing to get their hands dirty, when 

required. Of course now, I realise there should have been way more women in these roles too… 

but it’s never too late to start. 

 

That’s the beauty of imagination. And yes, role models are important. If you can see it, you can be 

it. Stories define the outer limits of our imagination and show us that there need be no hard and 

fast boundaries. That we can be whoever we choose to be, the limits of our dreams are defined by 

our own imagination, even if our lives become mundane affairs. That’s a place of refuge like no 

other. 

 

And what about your everyman hero? From The Lord of the Rings, there’s an empowering 

emphasis on regular folk who were underestimated at every step of the way. Who really thought a 

little hobbit would even make it to and through Mordor, let alone end up destroying the evil ring? 

He might have lost that last battle, of course, without his arch-enemy Gollum, but in that too lies a 

lesson (vocalised by Gandalf to Frodo earlier on, to never be too eager to impart death or 

judgement). 

As an adult, Frodo’s best friend Sam strikes me as even more of a hero, though I used to find him 

a bit of a bore, earlier. But where would this quest be without that steadfast friendship? Without 

that fellowship?

 

For those of us fatalistic in our bones, there’s also the gift of knowing that even if you’re 

guaranteed an apocalyptic ending — like in my beloved Norse mythology — it doesn’t stop you 

from being yourself, expressing yourself, making mountains of mischief if that’s what keeps you 

going (here’s looking at you, Loki). Live your life to the max. The big picture might be grim — and 

isn’t that a fact, planeteers, we are heading into environmental doomsday mode — but you fight 

the good fight, speak your mind and keep on going. 

 

Even if you know the sky will eventually fall on your heads, like that one indomitable Gaulish 

village. There’s an admirable courage in that.

 

Amrita Tripathi is a freelance journalist who writes contemporary fiction. She is the author of ‘The 

Sibius Knot’ and ‘Broken News’.

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Catching up...

March 24, 2016

Happy Holi, all! Hope you had a fun, safe, colourful day...whether you played or no! What's not to love about a long weekend, eh?

Catching up on here, with a little house-keeping and such-like. Also here's part of an interview with a wonderful debut writer, Arjun Nath, a recovered addict, who takes us on quite a journey with 'White Magic'.

As always, let me know what you think... and if you do get a chance, highly recommend you read this book!

 

MEET THE WRITER

First person: Untold stories from the author of a brutally honest book on recovering from drugs

‘There’s always been this thing that will comfort you, which is the drug, which is not there anymore’.

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