December 25, 2015

[Experiences] On Tales and Trails

Often, travellers to a city know much more about it than the people who live there. And often, a city where one lives and works becomes just a place one wants to escape from. Should familiarity breed only contempt? Can it not evoke a sense of appreciation, a curiosity to know the unknown amidst the well known? Driven by this reflection, decided to take a tour with Storytrails. Storytrails is a Chennai-based company that conducts walking tours in different parts of the city on different themes, creating an experience, wherein they stitch the sights of the present with the stories from the past.

The trail I chose to walk on was the Bazaar trail, through a bustling market area in George Town. The walk started at a church facing the Madras High Court where the storyteller for the day, Lakshmi, opened the session by sketching a story of the British East India Company’s foray into Madras. Stories of George Town and Black Town came alive with her words, and looking again, I could see a street full of traders from all over the country lining their wares, for here was a ready buyer in the East India Company with a factory that made ‘nothing’!

From there, we took a short walk to a quiet church, the Armenian church, linking the faraway landlocked country of Armenia in West Asia to Chennai’s pre-British past. A marker for Chennai being a cradle of trade for the world! Then, she regaled me with the stories of British Traders like Parry, Binny and Arbuthnot and their exploits in work and personal life. With the past running in the background, we then walked, nay bumped, into today! Narrow streets piled with vegetables, spices and assorted things; A truck trying to venture into a road that we would think twice to walk into; Every couple of minutes, someone saying ‘Nagarunga(Step aside)’ and wanting your space; Hangover drenched faces of sellers, loudly bargaining with customers and sounds of Chennai’s unique dialect ringing in the air!

Walking with Lakshmi, I learnt unknown facets of everyday things in a local household: Of how an unattractive ridge gourd becomes a beautifying, biodegradable loofah; how the banyan leaf is an offshoot of the caste system; Of English women carrying snuff in bejeweled boxes supposedly to clear their sinuses; Of chilies and lemons wading away the bringer of doom, Allakshmi and many more such intricacies, in a sensory albeit sneeze-filled experience.

Before it was time to say bye, I wanted to know the story behind my storyteller’s storytelling. She told me how this path emerged with her training in Montessori education and its emphasis on storytelling. When she heard of this venture, she wanted to reinvent her passion of storytelling and joined this team. Showing how committed she is,  she talks about doing tours on all seven days of the week and only trying not to do more than one on a Sunday! When I asked her if it wasn’t boring to tell the same story, she said ‘Surprisingly no. I’ve even stopped analyzing why.’ She says she tries to vary the fare and tell a funny line with a different intonation or in a different order. She talked about how much she learns from the people she meets, mentioning the one time she received an instant crash course on the fine art of slowing down!  All this made me reflect that a story is not just about people or incidents in the past or imaginary present but has as much to say about the person telling it and the person listening to it. So, here’s a job for someone with a penchant to meet and greet the world with stories of one’s city!

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