One of the best-known names in the history of storytelling is Ibn Batuta, the Moroccan scholar who toured the medieval world over a period of three decades. His travels covered most of the modern-day Middle East, and even great parts of Africa and East Asia. His journals are still referred to by scholars and learners seeking to better understand the medieval era. What he saw, ate, discussed and communicated is what he made note of, making it one of the better logs of history.
Jane Austen, the revered British author known for her blatant and opinioned characters, framed her stories on the things she observed during the British Regency period. ‘Comedies of manners’ was a common theme—the odd nut in the world of refined gentlemen and prim ladies. Her own personal experiences found their way into her books—she was an amateur pianist, and most of her heroines dabbled in music in some form. Emphasis was placed on female education—Austen herself never had the opportunity to attend university, much like other women of that time. She was, however, an avid reader, a habit which trickled into her protagonists too.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is set in the post-Independence, post-Partition India, and takes the simple tale of finding a suitable suitor for the distinctive female character, and weaves it into an intricate tale set in the tumultuous political period in the history of India. The 1,349 page novel took six years to complete, and accounts from those involved with Seth during that time tell us of the frantic, manic energy that took over him until the book was finally published. Here’s a particularly interesting extract from a 1999 article from The Guardian:
The first section of A Suitable Boy, beginning with the wedding of the older sister of Lata, whose search for a husband is the heart of the book, was written quite quickly. But then Seth found himself blocked and, realising he did not know enough about India in the 1950s, concentrated on research for a year. He buried himself in piles of old newspapers, records of legislative debates, gazetteers and memoirs, spent weeks in a village in rural Uttar Pradesh and with leather workers in Agra, and talked to “musicians, judges, owners of parrots”.
Today’s young, modern writers, however, have the ostentatious power of the Internet. One no longer needs to so much so step out of their bedroom, and can yet successfully write a love story based in the Swiss Alps. As a writer myself, I’ve often referenced to locales, restaurants, and situations I’ve never been to nor experienced, but can accurately make sense of, simply because Google carries enough knowledge. Thank god for Zomato, Google Reviews and TripAdvisor, with their detailed descriptions of restaurants and hotel rooms, allowing me to write short stories based in Parisian cafes and food trucks at Bondi Beach. My character is taking an impromptu trip to the Himalayas? No problem! The Sherpa-agency I found about online will find its way to the character, and give him a precise tour of Kanchenjunga. My other character wants to open a boutique in Manhattan? No problem! I can have exact views of Fifth Avenue, find all details on Storefront, and have a fictional space ready in no time. Easy peasy.
However, in our drive to write those perfect stories about the perfect characters, we’ve lost the very essence of storytelling. The myriad documentation of what we feel and what we experience is what makes a good story. Sure, my readers (a bunch that I believe exist somewhere) would love to read about that swanky deli joint in Greenwich Village, but how would the Internet help me, the writer, understand the beauty of that place? Wouldn’t I be much better at narrating the story of how I savoured the warmth of the hot hazelnut coffee I had while sitting on a rickety café situated on the edge of the Jogibara Road in McLeod Ganj? The scent of roasted coffee and freshly baked pies still lingers in my mind, and I’m pretty sure my words will sound much sincerer when I describe the crispy crackle of toasted coconut resting atop my nutty cookies, than the mysterious Hot Pot at Causeway Bay, as described by Open Rice.
Instagram poets are another fad that have ‘seized the day’, reciting tales of intense emotion in a few words. As a hypocritical Instagram poet myself (who gave up once the charm wore off very quickly; or was it just a case of sour grapes?), I understand the ease of writing short posts, which when tagged with relevant hashtags, makes it oh-so-easy to reach out to the mass. Blogs work in a similar fashion, but ultimately require some more work, and very few actually go on to become successful writers commercially. Potatoes will potate, and one out of a crowd of 100 will scream ‘Rupi Kaur! Christopher Poindexter! Tyler Knott!’
That’s alright I guess. I’m largely a traditionalist, extremely fond of evening tea and Marie biscuits, and I prefer my writings the traditional way. While I do follow some of the aforementioned writers, I don’t take any of them very seriously. Don’t take me wrong—they write great, and I probably lack the skills that they emote, but I’ll stick to my Jhumpa Lahiri and Rohinton Mistry.