In these truths we believe

It was somewhere in Nungambakkam. I don’t remember exactly what the story was; I was trying to talk to some people and then walked to the main road to catch an auto, and met a friend. Hellos and how do yous happened, and then they asked, what was I doing. And I told them, talking to people about a story. And then he asked what the story was, and I said, something to do with the city and prices of certain things. Their response was — why are you running around, can’t you make some quotes up? I burst out laughing; the idea was preposterous. Who would do something like that, I asked them. They smiled, and didn’t answer.

To me, that was one of the most charming parts of journalism — you could go up to strangers and talk to them, and they would answer. Cloth merchants told me the arcana of sale pricing; a car driving school owner about the machinations of licensing in the city; someone from the police told me about boredom during night shifts. There is a reason why they call them stories — these are all stories of people, a cocoon woven with threads so fine with detail that you sink into it, and for a moment you too are wrapped up in it.

I have wondered about truth — how do you know to whether to believe someone? When more complex stories are woven together, that’s when things get more complicated. A cloth shop merchant, with nothing but a sluggish fan for company on a hot Chennai afternoon, may find sharing details about his profession diverting, and may even offer you the plastic stool they use to reach the upper shelves to sit on to listen. On the other hand, what happens when there are stories about those with something to gain or lose? And what of the lines we draw between fiction and non-fiction? It is strange how this question came to me through two completely different channels in a span of two days.

Couple of days ago, I was reading Teju Cole’s ‘Known and Strange Things’. How do I describe Teju Cole’s writing to you? Suppose you came across a large empty land. And a passerby told you, there was once a magnificent structure here, something that needed, rather demanded such a vast scape. Just as you feel a sense of awe over what was and what was lost, they tell you, here, you now build something here. Teju Cole’s writing is like that. There’s a sense of magnificence, greatness. These vast ideas of human life, art, memory, loss, evil are what he offers you, and as you struggle to accept that gift, he understands that struggle, and leaves you with a promise — you can understand, and also try to be different — you can build it all yourself, however which way you want. What I am trying to tell you is that Teju Cole lets you think without irony.

And when I say irony, I mean it in a very specific way; the way it was described in the contemporary philosophy blog of the New York Times:

“Take, for example, an ad that calls itself an ad, makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it. It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself. The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism. The same goes for ironic living. Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise. To live ironically is to hide in public. It is flagrantly indirect, a form of subterfuge, which means etymologically to “secretly flee” (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.”

In some ways, to acknowledge the truth of one’s own life, one’s desires, and one’s biases is a frightening thing, and so irony is seen as the cure. Mock yourself, before someone else does, and that way you are safe. It is a precarious form of existence. For to believe in something, even if it is the truth, is to commit, and that is scary. In a way, I see irony as trying to blur the line between true stories and those that aren’t true. The ironic is to mock at the truth, in an attempt to make it less true, less fearful.

Now that is a difference Cole laughs at — to say some stories are true and some aren’t. Writers are acutely conscious of how memory can be self-serving. When I told you initially about my friend, I didn’t want to tell you that the friend admitted to doing that, without really saying it in so many words. I didn’t want you to wonder why I am still friends with that person. I didn’t want to let you in deeper into my intimate mesh of morals and mores. Or perhaps, I am saying this now to make my point.

Cole’s interviewer (one piece is an interview with Cole) says in Bosnian, there are no words that are the equivalent of fiction and non-fiction. When you see a painting or a photograph, there’s a frame. When you read an article, there’s editing. When you tell your friend about the commute that morning, you may not mention the phone call from your parents.

It is all a story, and the truth is about how much you believe in it. Was there someone called Rose, a boxer in Chennai, whose feet tapped on the ring like a dancer? I am sure there was someone like that; can you really make that many details up about a person? Perhaps, Rose is a bricolage, of facts, interviews, the storytellers’ favourite sportsperson, and serendipity. I don’t know, and at some level, it doesn’t matter, for I was fully drawn into that world. And it was fascinating to hear Jeny Dolly Antony, Assistant Director of Sarpatta Parambarai, speak about the research they did for the movie, her journey from being someone who made documentaries into movies, and yes, her thoughts echo Cole’s about these lines dividing fiction and non-fiction. And watch this fabulous, thoughtful interview not just for what she says about the effort it took to build a world you can believe is true, also for her own story, a feisty journey: