Lessons Learned While Collecting Narratives By Kanchi Shah

Lessons Learned While Collecting Narratives
By Kanchi Shah

Human behavior, in all its shades has never failed to amaze me. I have always been fascinated by its layers. And perhaps that is the reason I love reading novels so much, because they unravel the layers of human behavior, something we all notice but never talk about in our everyday conversations. I loved how the novels give expression to our everyday abstractions - the edgy smile, the subtle head tilt, slight change in the tone, wild hair, wavering eyes, melting irises and everything unsaid.

So when we were discussing to do a Storytelling series in our team, I was excited to take it up - now it was my chance to give expression to complexities of our societal structure revealing themselves on an individual level. My three months younger self did not know that weaving narratives into stories is a difficult task! More on that later. The idea behind the Storytelling Series was to collect and share through various Varitra’s platforms the stories surrounding education that inspire change, courage and equity.

The first name that came to my mind was of Hajra. I came in contact with Hajra through her principal. I contacted the municipal corporation runned schools’ principal for an online competition. Her School Principal shared her number with me and Hajra eventually ranked First in the competition she participated in. I had never met her, only spoken to her over the phone a couple of times. She sounded like someone who is absolutely sure about herself. Everytime I would talk to her, her voice was always filled with cheer, confidence and conviction.

And so, I called her once again and told her about the project and asked her if she would be interested to be my subject. She warmly agreed. And thus began my journey of storytelling or as I like to say it, journey of story-weaving. From my initial conversations with her, I had known that she belongs to a minority community in Gujarat. Based on the fact that she goes to a municipal corporation school, my biased-self assumed that she would also be coming from a financially-disadvantaged background. I quickly framed her into a triple-marginalised subject. From my limited knowledge about her and these preconceived notions about public schools and a certain community, I started making more assumptions about her and her life and the chances she might or might not get. I smiled at the naivety of her determination, thinking I knew the reality of space that would be provided from her family and community to her. This turned out to be a big mistake as I realised that I was not collecting “her story”, I was merely collecting information from her which would fit the story I already drafted in my mind. When she told me she wants to become a District Collector, I simply assumed the odds and thought it was not an important enough input  to anchor a conversation on; or to ask her to tell me more about her inspiration to become a Collector. The individual will against the socio-cultural pressure simply slipped away from my mind.

This resulted into a very flat first draft story, with no curves or depths. I had a conversation with my co-founder regarding this draft I wrote and I realised how I never unraveled her layers, like my favourite authors do with their characters. I never noticed the subtleties of her own being and life that differentiates her from that stereotypical determined and cheerful character belonging from a minority community in my head. I kept this project aside for a while. When I revisited it after some time, I realised that while Hajra has talked a lot about her thoughts on girls getting a fair chance, she did not open up about the opportunities withheld from her due to her gender. I tried to reflect on my mistakes and I called her again in the hope to get a better glimpse of her life.

This time, I tried to not control the flow of the conversation and observe the waves, observe the subtle pauses, rise and fall in her voice. I tried to let the conversation take its own shape and flow. I tried to ride the waves and observe the subtle bubbles that appeared. I tried to anchor conversations from those bubbles. While I was not able to get what I wanted, I did get some insights that helped me blow more life and character into the story. I have learnt that humans are complex beings and unraveling layers is a delicate task (more difficult than authors make it look). It requires patience and trust building.  

After writing several drafts, I took a break from the Stories Series project. It has been a reflective exercise. Now when I look back to it, my top 3 lessons would be -

Emptying my Preconceived Notions

If we go to a subject with already coloured lense, we fail to see the patterns that they and their narrative has to offer.

Opt for Inquisitive Lenses

Perhaps the inquisitive lense is what sets story weavers apart from the general observers. The Inquisitive lense is perhaps the most important tool a story collector could carry.

The Need to Control:

If there is one thing that I must let go of, it is the need to control or know it beforehand. I must let loose and be present, when time comes I will know - in the moment- what to say or do. The shape that the narrative takes with the natural flow of the action will be better when I do not try to control everything (italics). If I keep faith and let the course of action take its time, perhaps, I will see new patterns and possibilities and help me unlearn so many things wired into my mind.

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