Chinua Achebe

My Mother and the Power of Storytelling: Balancing What Is and What Could Be in Ghost in the Tamarind

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Like many an Indian child, I first heard the story of Vikram and the vetal (vampire is a most unsatisfactory translation) from my mother. The story is referenced in the opening pages of my novel Ghost in the Tamarind when Ramu, one of the two main characters, playacts at being Vikram sent to bring back the undead vetal for the Brahmin’s ritual. The consequences of this playacting, as the reader soon discovers, are horrific.

The Vikram story is just one of the many I learned from my mother, who is the purveyor of stories in my family. So many of the stories she has told me over the years have made their way into my novel that when the moment came it seemed quite obvious to me what the dedication should read:

For Amma, K. S. Champakam,

first and best teller of stories

The most important of my mother’s stories to make it into Ghost in the Tamarind concerns my great-grandmother Gomati. It is my mother who has passed on the family lore regarding Gomati to me in the guise of stories. This lore is the inspiration for the character Gomati Paati in the novel, though I have little doubt that the real Gomati would not recognize herself in Gomati Paati. Certainly, Gomati is not exactly Ramu’s grandmother Gomati Paati—she couldn’t be because no son or grandson of hers was anything like Ramu. However, like the Gomati Paati of the novel, my great-grandmother Gomati too became a widow when young, preserved what she had inherited from her husband for her children against great odds, and went on to die of old age. These are things I know because of the stories my mother has told me.

In writing Gomati Paati, it might first appear that I was doing what Creative Writing classes routinely exhort—drawing on what I knew. But Write what you know is a useful dictum for writers only if it’s accompanied by another—write what you wish you knew. Description of what is accompanied by imagination of what could be—that’s the balance to strive for. It’s a balance to be found in any good storytelling. Thinking back, I find it in my mother’s stories too. In my mother’s stories of what is and what was there was always an element of what could have been: If only Gomati had been born in another age or in other circumstances, who knows what she would have done?

Real life inspires but in becoming fiction transcends itself. When I started my novel all those years ago I intended Gomati Paati to be an important but secondary character confined to the early pages of the novel. But Gomati Paati refused to be so confined. She refused to die off early. Every turn in the novel found a new need for her, until she became a character who survives almost till the very end. It is possible to recognize in this willful behavior on the part of Gomati Paati—yes, she seemed to achieve a certain autonomy of her own in the process of her invention—the potential of a story that begins in imitation to leave imitation behind.

In Chinua Achebe’s great novel Things Fall Apart, Nwoye learns the power of storytelling from the women in his family just as I did from my mother. I am tempted to think there’s a lesson here—a lesson about women and the power of stories that walk the line between what is and what could be. Doesn’t it make sense that those who experience the constraints of society most severely are the ones who would be most dissatisfied with pure description of how things are and thus rely on their imagination to invent what could be? Isn’t this what that most exemplary of storytellers Scheherazade does in the Arabian Nights?

I won’t defend this notion about the special relationship between women and storytelling right now. It is not really defensible in the rather glib way I’ve made it. But I will say that one of the people from whom I have learned the power that stories have to test that line between what is and what could be is surely my mother.

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The Story of Ashoka, the King Who Gave Up Conquest (or Embracing Possibility in an Age of Hopelessness)

Paris / 11.13.2015
Beirut / 11.12.2015
Gaza / July 2014
Abu Ghraib / 2003
Gujarat / February 2002
New York /9.11.2001
Sri Lanka / July 1983
[Fill in place and date of your choice]

We tell stories—we are what our stories make of us.

We have a right to the oil under distant desert sands because we are a modern and industrious people—that is a story.

Terrorism is necessary to fight the empire—another story.

We have the right to kill those who abuse our religion—a story.

No place for idealism in governing. Ruling and exercising power requires making hard and unsentimental choices—the most insidious of stories, a story meant to make us helpless, disorient us morally. A story that has given us drone strikes and torture and extraordinary rendition.

I remember other stories.

As the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe often said, the special work of the storyteller is to keep the stories we care about from disappearing. So here is a story I want to keep from disappearing.

Once upon a time there was a king who gave up conquest, committed himself to nonviolence, and embraced wholeheartedly the welfare of his subjects. That king’s name was Ashoka and he ruled from 268 to 232 BCE in that part of the world we now call India.

Early in his life, Ashoka was a bloodthirsty conqueror. In 260 BCE, this warrior king fought a ferocious battle to subdue stubborn Kalinga. Ashoka won. Kalinga was subdued. But the morning after his victory, as Ashoka picked his way through the rotting and crow-pecked bodies littering the battlefield, the great king was brought low by grief. Shocked at the devastation wrought by his violent quest to expand his empire, Ashoka resolved to give up conquest and to devote himself to rule through ahimsa, or nonviolence. He resolved to choose compassion and the welfare of his people over the vainglorious expansion of his empire. This new resolve of the king you can still find etched as edicts on rocks scattered across what was once his vast empire.

Ashoka ruled for nearly forty years. His name means “one without grief.”

This is a story about the happy union of the ideal and the possible. This is the story I choose to remember today.