We are civilisationally designed to like stories. That is the reason they become part of our collective consciousness.
A storytelling instinct, itself a hangover of religion, imposes a meaning, whether true or far from true. It is said Columbus the discoverer of America, when he lost his way, maintained a new log, apart from the proper log to assuage the anxiety of his sailors. Stories of Ramayan and Mahabharat have such a strong hold on our psyche that we consider them as “Itihaas”, much to the detriment of a nation’s historical perspective.
What are stories after all? They are artefacts created by mind where noise gets eliminated, contradictions muted and a roundness imparted cutting off the brittle edges.
Finally, we become sucker for the stories and slave to the narratives and even anecdotes. All of them have common features of roundness and bereft of contradictions which may threaten the willing suspension of disbelief.
Even we would like to postpone our justifiable trust in data and evidence. Even if data connect the dots and a small story can pop out of that, they are not as compelling and comforting as the narratives.
That makes the fabulist world so attractive. Be they grandma’s story, folk tales or stories conflated into history, we welcome them.
Successful men often in politics spin the exuberance of yarn and capture the narrative. While listening and believing in a story we lose our abilities to question and to look for evidence to the contrary.
Aggressive leaders the world over are spinning stories with aplomb and exploiting it to the hilt. Wall on the border of Mexico and sabre-rattling by Trump are examples of these flights of fancies cut off from reality. After all, imaginary monsters are only there to be killed.
Narratives help leaders to distance people’s mind from reality. This story can be beefed up by bombardment in the social media to capture the mind of the people.
Once the mind is hooked, more evidence will be required to prove an inconvenient point. Between data and the story, the story has triumphed despite being away from reality.
Look at the Covid management. The story was the lockdown. People believed the lockdown to be the mantra for solving the problem so much that they started loving it and many didn’t want it to go. It was a different matter that people who suffered had another story to tell.
In reality, a shorter lockdown was only required to bootstrap medical preparedness in an emerging pandemic in a broken health system.
It can never be a solution to Covid-19 where the requirements are “identify, isolate and treat”.While containment in some areas, in miniscule units, are justified as part of isolation measure, lockdown has come to mean ham-handed bludgeoning of questionable efficacy.
When science required identification and isolation, some states like Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Telangana and Tamil Nadu have brought lockdown today for the second time around even if their remedial properties are clearly not established.
But lockdown had a story within the story. People were cut off and there was no exchange among them to understand the futility of it and continuing gaps in the management despite lockdown. We moved from lockdown to the story of Chinese incursions.
Covid was pushed to the corner despite increase in the number of cases and the fatality numbers.
It was no longer a Spinx to be killed by wise answers and association, as in Oedipus Rex of Sophocles.
“We” versus “they” narrative was a lot more appealing giving rise to jingoism. Compared to that “we” versus “Covid” was effete at best.
Stories often come packed with protagonists representing the good in an allegory. In this elegantly symmetrical binary, end game belongs to the good.
As a denouement it may not be true, but we are comforted already.
We want monsters to be cut, sphinxes to burn themselves and evil to die, what if we are looking for them in the wrong corner. We are such slaves of the stories in the end.
Former Secretary to Government of India