Being cooked in India over the lockdown

The Scottish Storytelling Forum (SSF) is a membership organisation, dedicated to keeping the art of live oral storytelling alive and growing in Scotland – a diverse network of storytellers and individuals supporting Scotland’s vibrant storytelling community.  It’s facilitated by Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland (TRACS) and based at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

The SSF blog series hopes to introduce you to the many different strands within the storytelling scene in Scotland and beyond.

This month we have a blog post from multilingual storyteller, Gauri Raje, who is based in Argyll. Gauri runs the Silent Sounds organisation and works with a diverse range of groups in both the U.K. and India. Read about Gauri’s experience of being in India during the lockdown earlier this year.

‘For a long time now, I have lived in two worlds, roaming them seemingly at will. The world of my childhood and youth, and the world of my middle age years – India and the UK. Much of my relation with stories before the lockdown prioritised the idea that narratives that grew from an outward movement – realisations arrived at from research, interactions with the world outside. A dialogue with the voices within was not as strong.

‘The pandemic and the lockdown that followed ended the notion of traveling at will, and of validation from the world outside. Escape routes were blocked and I was locked down in my mother’s house in India for five months.

‘Locked down in a third floor flat in a country I have not lived for longer than 2 months at a time is not the adventure it sounds. It is a journey into discombobulation, falling apart and looking at your reflection in a mirror seeing a reflection that one may not want to see. A journey into the underworld when you are expecting to land smoothly ‘home’. You call yourself fluent in the local languages, yet are out of your depth with the language of the land and its times. A real lesson in getting cooked all over again.

‘Cooking works with available materials. I could be in India, but that does not mean much when one is stuck in a third floor flat with no access to common places to walk or where social distancing and quarantine within the home space is the norm.

‘How can one be in a place without being in a place? As a storyteller, I follow voice and body. When land and people absent themselves, going to the place of the body and breath connects me to the place of the land. In the 5 months of quarantine, this meant working with yoga, breath and music. India is rich in this work. Memory, accessed in different ways. Memories of the body accessed through emotions in the now; images of one’s biographical past accessed through breath work and myth accessed through the breath of the land and seasons, the calls of the birds and the scents of the land. Music, through daily practice and speaking of the local languages. All pathways of reconnection.

‘Apart from the pathways to reconnection, one begins to arrive at the crossroads of failing. The crossroad where one’s body no longer accepts the rhythms of the land or has forgotten those very particular rhythms. Where anxiety, fear and discomfort bubble over in situations and times that at one time were very familiar. Intellectually, one understands. But, the body is at a loss – illness and discomfort become the new familiar territory. And that meeting of the lost body and weaving into re-familiarisation requires slow time, repetition and vivid failings.

‘The meeting of body with the land creates place for story and myth. For the first time, in a sustained way, I began to work with one new myth and one that I had been working on for a year. Working on myths became a way of remembering my body into place. Of honouring my forgetting and bringing to articulation the desire to move into a place of remembering. The first myth I worked with was one of dissolution – the story of Kali, the Indian goddess. Not of female power but the power of the feminine. A story of getting it wrong; or rather, of extreme responses over a number of births. A story of multiple births, of witnessing and of becoming part of a community to move out of the underworld. A story I had been working with for a number of years, but for the first time told in public. It was right that it should be told at midnight in India (for an audience in England). Kali awakens at midnight. The telling in public at midnight demanded an immersion that I had not envisaged. It was an immersion, not only in India, but in being able to span two lands that are my ‘now’, the two lands I began to learn to connect through the telling of the myth – a tale of the feminine, a tale of Kali (the mistress of time).

‘This was a story I had traveled with since my childhood of living in my mother’s region, celebrating festivals to Shakti, watching friends celebrate Kali festivals, speak phrases that invoked the feminine goddesses. Later, as a storyteller, I lived with her story for nearly a decade, learning to carry it before a desire to tell it. In fact, the prospect of telling any Shakti myth terrified me – they were too great for the fumbling bumbling mess of a migrant that was me. Learning to move my intention towards telling Kali was setting an intention to learn to walk with paralysed limbs. Infinite research, reading texts that the educated scholar in me turned its nose up at, speaking with everyone within my family, at temples and religious sites, listening to anything that associated with her, even impressions and fleeting fragments for years. It never seemed enough. Until the lockdown. There was a request to tell her story. I bought time for a month and there followed a month of trembling, disregarding, learning to imbibe the stories while failing to acclimatise to the weather and circumstances of the lockdown. Making sense of the darkness could not be more literal.

‘This telling led to a collaborative myth-telling between two goddesses across cultures – to exploring what endures across cultures and where mythic collaborations allowed for spaces of articulations to find voice and hope for finding space to live and grow. A new process and a beginning.

‘I have often heard the phrase among storytellers I respect about ‘learning and earning the heft to carry a story…the sacrifice and libation that must be given’. The lockdown gave me a glimpse of that passage. Working with a story that is not my own biographical story will never be the same again.’ 


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