The banyan in the seed

Published: Nov 17, 2013, 08:12 IST | Paromita Vohra |

Sometimes there is a suggestive image on the touchscreen of our memory. We are never very sure whether we have actually seen a certain image in life, on screen, or simply heard someone tell us about it

Sometimes there is a suggestive image on the touchscreenof our memory. We are never very sure whether we have actually seen a certain image in life, on screen, or simply heard someone tell us about it.

This is how I carried the memory of Mani Kaul’s film Duvidha based on a short story by the Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha who passed away last week. In my mind there was a smudgy image of a woman, a tree and a ghost. Although I could not remember whether I had seen the film or simply read about it, the outlines of the story and its central feeling stayed strong within me, as if it were my own memory of a secret experience.

Illustration/Aamit Bandre

Vijaydan Detha’s stories drew from the folk traditions of Rajasthan and bustled with redoubtable characters — thieves, itinerant gurus, petulant queens, clever girls and rather human seeming lice, among others. There was cross-dressing and same-sex unions, love between women and ghosts, who were better lovers than their dweeby husbands, riddles, dilemmas, one-upmanship and playfulness galore. Every story is entertaining and gripping — a what will happen next feeling keeps you reading even as your eyelids fight sleep. And inside each mazedar yarn, is the awareness and colour of our social conditions, along with an insight about our inner conflicts, our metaphysical questions.

Lively and generous, the stories make the division of ‘serious’ and ‘entertaining’ seem ridiculous. In the playfulness and masti of a tiny riddle, lies the gravity of a sprawling dilemma. Vijaydan Detha returned to his village Borunda, as a young man, determined to write in his native tongue, Rajasthani. He wrote over 800 stories and died last week at 87 in that same village.

In 2011, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. Perhaps, if he had won, the obituaries in the English press would have been long and felt and full of the magic and wisdom of his stories. Instead they duly noted his achievements with a dryness that defies you to finish their deadly two paragraphs.

There is nothing surprising about this, for the very meaning of a story has been reduced to a linear join the dots of highlight events, in contrast to the rich traditions of storytelling available in our culture. We see it all around us — in the news, in the rather unpopulated character driven non-fiction beloved of the international market, in blockbuster writing and supposedly world-class films where a series of unambiguous conflicts fit neatly into three neat acts. Sure, we come to these stories. I guess the question is, do we find ourselves in the stories? And do we carry them back inside us?

The work of artistes like Vijaydan Detha recognises the power of a story to hold our attention through enjoyment – but also to hold the immensity of life in a simple frame. As he put it, when I was lucky enough to interview him some years ago: a story is like a tiny seed which contains the limitless lines of a banyan tree. Vijaydan Detha’s work has been tremendously popular among those who read Hindi, enjoyed by schoolkids and adults alike. In it, we find no conflict between entertainment and thought, masala and art.

It makes you suspect that those who have perpetrated this division, whether on the arty side or the commercial side, might be frauding us to cover up their own inability to tell a story! Stories yield the lasting riches of big ideas. We must answer the riddle of why our markets don’t offer these over the poverty of small, if temporarily shiny ones.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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