[Column] The stories we tell

Columnist Vishal Onkhar revived an old hobby of his: storytelling. That made him realise stories were everywhere around us in daily life, if only we chose to listen.

“I grew from a bright and hopeful MSc student to a tired and somewhat jaded PhD candidate in the final stretch of his endeavour.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

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A ragged old man hunches over a fading fire, staring deep into the dying embers. His eyes are clouded and resemble frosted glass, cold and devoid of sight. A shock of matted silver hair and a scraggly white beard mask much of his wizened face, and when he opens his mouth to speak, a few jagged brown teeth are discernible, like a set of rusted daggers. The gathering night casts a blanket over the flock of huddled villagers as the venerable old storyteller, in a husky yet hypnotic voice, reprises his bewitching tale.

He tells of distant lands and quests for arcane knowledge, learned scholars locked away in their towers of stone, naïve explorers performing clandestine rituals, and diligent scribes compiling cryptic scrolls, as the townsfolk hang on his every word, spellbound. And in such moments, he ceases to be a withered vagabond, but instead becomes a giant among men, a colossus who has witnessed a thousand lifetimes, and whose shadow from the smouldering flames looms larger-than-life above the congregation.  In such moments, he goes from being an invisible beggar, shunned at every doorstep, to the focal point of wisdom and respect, the village elder. 

Recently, I revived an old hobby of mine, storytelling. It might as well be called theatre acting, really, for it is more akin to that. Besides, the latter is what I have some formal training in, as a teenager in the Drama Club of my school. I still fondly recall one end-of-the-year performance as a Russian general. In preparation, I had sprinkled chalk powder in my hair to achieve the salt-and-pepper look, donned my father’s prized tweed suit (which was dreadfully oversized and heavy for my skinny frame), and assumed the mien and accent of a Russian character in a video game I was playing. After the show, some classmates had remarked, “If a career in science doesn’t pan out, you should consider Broadway”.

Stories surround us and bind us at all times

Over a decade later, I never made it to Broadway, but I did make it to Mezrab in Amsterdam. A cosy venue nestled in a harbour alongside the serene waters of the IJ, Mezrab is the beating heart of storytelling in the Netherlands, drawing raconteurs and international audiences by the hundreds. And I have the honour of performing there on some nights, acting out legends from far and wide, or otherwise, choice pieces of world literature.

But the more I dwell on this, the more I realise we all narrate stories every day, whether we choose to do it on stage or not, and whether we even have friendly ears that hear them. For, what is a PhD after all, if not a woven tapestry depicting tales of a solitary journey, stumbles in the dark, failure, perseverance, timely guidance, occasional teamwork, and ultimately, seeing the light? Is this not also the story of any enduring career or lasting relationship? You might even call it a metaphor for religion or life itself. Such stories surround us and bind us at all times, both within ourselves and with those around us. We have but to listen.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD on self-driving cars at TU Delft. He is an avid museum goer and chess player, but also harbours a soft spot in his heart for dancing and petting cats. He doesn’t drink coffee, but good books, music, and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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