The sight of the woman in her lime colored sari hunched by the side of the terra-cotta temple starkly reminds me about the dangers of the single story. She has a beautiful face and her vibrant attire contrasts scenically with the ochre sanctuary, but her depleted gaze and outstretched arms are a reminder that in India, deep poverty and indescribable beauty are inescapably plaited. It is a tale constantly told, as if this were a country filled only with the exotic and the poor. Here at the temples of Bishnupur, a small town in West Bengal, I am most aware of the stereotypes forged by the single story and the incomplete picture it portrays for outsiders. It is difficult to tell any tale about India without touching on both but, as novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns us, to do so would be a great disservice to both listeners and storytellers.
As a traveler, I am all too aware of the ubiquity of the lone tale wherever I go, of the way people perceive certain locales, and of the limiting nature of guides. Not even our digital searches produce random results, thus perpetuating a pattern of partial and fragmented knowledge. I have been mulling over the singularity of my own stories and how, despite my attempts, they engage others in one-sided conversations with a place and its people.
“As a storyteller, I am guilty of perpetuating the myth of the single story.”
Lack of time and resources are my excuse in showing a small sliver of any of the destinations I explore. I believe destinations are personalities as complex as we are, yet I do not form full friendships with each of them nor make the effort to introduce them in all their impenetrable glory. Instead, I love finding a solitary tale at each of my destinations and kneading it repeatedly until the crust rises above all the noise of my surroundings.
In India, however, I have trouble focusing on any single subject for long: it is as if the country is determined to foster my attention deficit. For instance what is the narrative I tell here?
“There are so many scenarios I see among the saffron carved temple walls and drooping banana trees.”
This nation has more than its share of economic and technologic wealth which I could concentrate upon. I could dwell on the tragedy of a broken system which makes it conventional for me to bribe ticket officers to get inside heritage landmarks. I could discuss the heartbreak of watching farmers plant, harvest, and thresh their grain and yet go hungry. Each story has its own lure and its own peril, yet I don’t know how to weave them together to paint a more truthful portrait of India. Despite the innumerable material at hand, my plot lines refuse to shape themselves into neat packages ready for consumption. Instead they spill over like one of the crowded trains I took to get here: words jut out of doors and stand on rooftops eager to escape their confines.
I agonize over the dangers of the single story in Bishnupur, but is the danger of the single story worse than no story at all? What happens if I don’t find a narrative here—does my experience become less valuable? Discussing solutions to the hazards of the biased narrative, Adichie suggests we pay attention to how we start our stories. So I am starting this one with the tragic woman in green. I smile at her and crouch beside her, my back heated by the warmth of the sun-drenched temple wall.
“I am torn between wanting to help this woman and not knowing the best way to do so.”
Our language barrier means that I cannot understand her tale: her predicament will forever remain silent to me. I hold her hand, share some water and bread I have with her, but when I leave the Hindu sanctuary I know she will abide there, alone, unloved, and uncared.
I wander the outskirts of the terra-cotta shrines my mind preoccupied by the dejected outcast. I meet a few worshippers making their way into the pavilion and ask their opinion, but they themselves are here seeking succor and do not have any answers for me. To them she is a reality so often seen it fails to catch their attention. I, on the other hand, feel inadequate at sharing her narrative; my locution has no power to instigate change within these ornate brick towers. The hut shaped fanes retain resplendent carvings which tell profound tales of legendary royals and their courts, of devoted lovers and forgotten battles. These walls continue to mutely recount allegories about virtue, morality, and justice. However, like the cowering untouchable, the myths are too inextricably woven into the ethos of this landscape and no longer provoke contemplation from passerby.
I find the impoverished pariah beneath the flimsy shade of a banana tree, her veil covering her face, her head lowered onto her knees. I offer her a curry vegetable boxed lunch I bought from a street vendor. The muggy day has dampened my own appetite, but I sit next to her in companionable silence. Jesse, having finished photographing the area, joins us. I tell him about my day, my misgivings about not having any story to tell or being able to relate the right one, and my unhappiness over being unable to help the homeless woman. He has no resolutions either, but reminds me of a quote by American poet Maya Angelou he cherishes, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The lady speaks to me in her native tongue which I do not comprehend. I tell her I am sorry to leave her and that I will try to contact someone who can ameliorate her situation, but she does not understand either. As Jesse and I leave we touch her feet and bow, a traditional Hindu salutation, to show her our respect.
“It is a gesture that breaks through the barrier of foreign verbiage and she staggers back, nonplussed at our behavior.”
Her eyes fill with tears and she clutches our hands in her calloused ones, burbling out unintelligible words. Perplexed, we are not sure if we have given offense or joy. This Gordian knotted culture is recurrently baffling us, its people impossible to gauge.
As we depart the temple grounds, I realize that I have never been able to fathom this subcontinent because I have not read or heard all of its stories. Millenia of saga formed this civilization, transforming into religious duties, societal laws, and unalterable truths. Narratives have drawn from them, added to them, and reshaped them over generations, yet the originals hold hard and fast, handed down through ancestors. They continue to survive in villages, in farmhouses, and even in skyscraper cities. Though crumbling, they cling from the sides of ancient ruins and disintegrating frescoes. As I struggle to determine how to tell an impartial tale, I am indebted to the thousands of stories that remain because they are all important. Stories express every aspect of our lives in different forms, they are meant for us all. To defeat the trap of the skewed narrative, I must be more thoughtful about the manner in which I ply my craft, but I must also seek out as many chronicles as I can, bringing them out of hiding. In the end, every story matters, mine and yours.
The latrite and brick shrines in Bishnupur were built in the 17th century by Malla rulers who were worshipers of the Hindu deity Vishnu. These temples have exquisitely carved facades portraying various scenes from three classical Hindu epics: the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas.