Ask Someone for Their Story


 Me and Musabhai in Ajrakhpur

Storytelling is the latest trend. Bodies of people from corporate to social will want a storyteller on their side, someone to paint their work in words and moving images. Stories that can be picked up and flipped through, tweeted, shared, liked, and bookmarked. Stories are powerful, they connect people across oceans and borders, they make the intangible real. Telling stories gets traffic. In the past nine months I have been deployed to tell many stories – stories that have moved across the walls of exhibitions and websites. But, I have also been a story-listener. I have sat and listened to the stories of amazing people across Kachchh. Be a story-listener. Ask someone for their story, because it just might help you understand yourself a little bit better.  


Ask someone for their story. Listen to their words, listen to the lilt of their voices and the punctuation in their sentences. Those brief pauses and the quick crescendos and hurried, muffled words that are told like secrets. Pay attention to the times when they smile, or when their posture shifts. Watch them as they stand to pour another cup of steamy chai that wafts over the room in sugar smell. That room is a part of their story too, every piled piece of cloth, every smooth white chair, every lithograph taped to the wall. The space between you and them is hallowed space, a space for words to run and walk and stumble and roll. So, listen carefully and catch them all.


Their story won’t be found in pages or songs or poetry. You could google or bing to your hearts content and travel over cities and countries and never find the same one. Watch silver screens and small screens and listen to creaky tin radios or the bluetooth in your car and it won’t be there. A person’s story is their fingerprint – there is no match.


Two people might live identical lives and still their stories would be worlds apart.


Ask someone for their story. Ask them about the beginning, the middle and end. But, more importantly, ask them about the parts in between. Those funny only-happen-in-between kinds of moments that flitter by like nothing mattered but which mattered all along. Those in-between memories that happened over and over, maybe just by coincidence. We are taught that stories have a rigid, three part structure, but don’t be fooled. Their story might happen in circles, it might rise but never fall, it might loop back to the beginning over and over again.


Ask them questions. Ask them for facts but more importantly ask for opinions. Ask for beliefs, because beliefs are precious. Belief shapes the character of any story. Pay attention to the moments when their eyes furrow and they wonder aloud at the flux of the world, the moving changing impermanence of things close to them.


Their story begins at the ground level, it is soil and rocks and dust and twigs. This ground is their nature but it is ground which is nurtured. Mothers or fathers or friends carefully organized those rocks and those twigs and gave them order.


Walls were built on that ground. Some people were allowed inside those walls and perhaps some were barred away. Maybe religion entered those walls, or education, or another order-maker. Those walls could be constructed any number of ways. There is no manual for this building and no gravity. There is only the possibility of making, of of time passing in one direction or another.


New walls were built with the passage of time, welcoming new people to fill the labyrinth of life experience.People helped carve ideas into the psyche of this person. The walls were battered by rain and wind, by the hardships and troubles of time, maybe big or maybe small, and they remained standing. Sometimes, walls fall, but they can be built again, cushioned with padding and cemented over or patched with brick or stone or wood or tarp or thatch.


Ask someone for their story because that story is a gift. It is an antique and new all at the same time, it is the product of only one pair of eyes and countless handshakes, slaps on the back, and eyes met. In sharing this story they are trusting you with legacy, inviting you into their walls and (perhaps unknowingly) allowing you to shape the insides of those walls. Step inside those walls and your vision will be blurry. You will not understand that story in its truest form, because that is a comprehension that only person can have. But step inside regardless, because you have been invited to dream, to learn, and to carry a legacy on your back.


Ask someone for their story because that story will shape yours. Not because they will have all the answers or solutions. It will add walls and chambers and staircases to your own story. It will make you realize the shape of walls that have stood still for years, and let you open your doors, and help you to see the roof above your head.

Coco comes to the AIF Fellowship with a passion for art, visual culture, and artisan craft as means for creating sustainable livelihoods. Coco became interested in India after spending a summer volunteering at a K-12 school in Pali, Rajasthan at age 15. She went on to earn a BA in Asian Studies with High Honors from Colgate University. As an undergraduate, Coco completed field work in Northern India through NYSICCSI, collecting miracle stories from Shirdi and Sathya Sai Baba devotees. North India ignited her appreciation of artisan communities and fair trade movements in rural India. Coco further explored India's visual culture in her senior thesis on the role prints depicting Bharat Mata before 1947 played in the evolution of Indian national identity. A two time Upstate Institute Fellow, Coco brought her aptitude for field work and marketing experience to Upstate New York, where she completed community outreach projects for cultural preservation and art initiatives in the Adirondacks, Utica, and Madison County. As an undergraduate she was a student ambassador for Colgate's Multicultural Center and President of Masque & Triangle, Colgate's student theater. After graduating, Coco was a US Department of State Critical Language Scholar in Jaipur where she continued her study of Hindi at the American Institute for Indian Studies. Coco looks forward to working for Khamir this year, where she will learn more about artisans and art practices in Gujarat.

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