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Life as Story

I learnt recently that in the film Life of Pi, the role of the writer was originally to be given to a Hollywood star. But later, the scenes were reshot without the star, so that his presence would not take away attention from the story. For it is a story about stories, about the key role imagination plays in ensuring our sanity.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

It is funny that Hollywood films are now expressing ideas rooted in Indic thought. By Indic thought I mean peculiar and particular ideas that sprang in the Indian subcontinent. And the heart of it is the value given to story over history, belief over truth, and perception over reality.

I first noticed it in the film Matrix, which refers to the ‘construct’ - a mental image of the world that we assume to be reality. This is referred to the Brahmanda, or the ‘egg of Brahma’ that Brahma creates. Brahma (pronounced by stressing the latter vowel) refers to man, the finite form of Brahman (pronounced without stressing either vowel), the infinite divine, mentioned in the Veda.

Brahma is presented as a character in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythologies. He is the ‘creator’ - but the Creator as referred to in the Bible of the Koran. This is not God, creator of objective reality. This is God, creator of subjective reality. The West is obsessed with external objective tangible reality. India has always valued the internal, subjective, intangible reality. This is the great divide between India and the rest of the world, one that Indians have long struggled to explain.

We can blame the British, or rationalists, or scientists, for it - their obsession with rationality and objectivity and truth. What they failed to realise is that everyone in the world believes his version of the truth to be correct. And with this comes intolerance - a desperate desire to prove the other is wrong.

We see this everywhere. For us, in India, Kasab is a villain who deserves to be martyred. But there are people in the world who have turned Kasab into a martyr, even a hero. In Tashkent, Uzbekistan, there once stood a statue of Marx. This has now been replaced by the statue of Timur, the lame. Marx, hero of the USSR, was no hero in USA. And Timur, hero of Central Asia, was no hero in Delhi, a city he ransacked, for its wealth and because he alleged that its Tughlaq kings were tolerant towards Hindus, something that Hindus fiercely refute.

We see the world through stories - our stories. Our stories become the truth. Words like ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are mythic, not historic, yet we find them in every family story (“your aunt was a horrible person, your uncle was a saint”) as well as in history books.

Pure reportage without judgment is boring. We yearn for emotions, feelings, and drama. And emotions and feelings depend on benchmarks and measuring scales, which are arbitrary. It is history textbooks that have made Chanakya a hero, while Nanda kings of Magadha, the villains. Was it really so? Who says so? On what basis? Is the basis objective? It never is.

And that is the point made by the film Life of Pi. How our notions of God, like our notions of the past, are a story, a narrative, a belief, that helps us cope with reality. Let us remember this the next time we get into an argument over what is the truth.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at devdutt@devdutt.com.┬áThe views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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