Imagined futures

The evening was spent with my 5-year old nephew. A model child who does not fuss about food, who puts his toys away when told to and who doesn’t ask for chocolates when accompanying his mom to the shop, he sometimes unnerves me with his perfect behaviour. Before the sun went down, we were in the garden playing something not unlike Calvinball. When it got too dark to be out, we went indoors, got ourselves some banana milkshake and settled on the couch.

His parents work. While they are dedicated to their children and do an admirable job of managing career and family, there is little time for some small luxuries like story-telling. Oh, of course my nephew has books. Tons of them. They read a few out to him each night, not once do they forget. And he in turn loves being read to. What he does not get though, is a simple story, without the aid and input of illustrations, one that forces him to rely entirely on his imagination for the pictures.

Storytelling takes time. Even if you know the story thoroughly and are familiar with each detail and nuance, the narrating of it all is a fine art. Some people are natural, some learn through a lifetime of telling and retelling. It is a demanding exercise, one that requires you to provide answers to endless questions, to adapt to the listener (Teacher says we must not cut trees. So the woodcutter is a bad man!) and to embellish.

Appa is a marvellous story-teller and so are many of my aunts. My childhood was filled with thousands of stories, from traditional sources like the Mahabharatha and not-so-traditional ones like Ananda Vikatan (a post on those delightful mama-mami kathais soon!). My nephew, however, is not as lucky. His parents do not have the energy at the end of a working day for the involvement of an original narration, it is easier to depend on (gorgeously illustrated) books and comics to create the magic.

This evening I decided to tell him a story, the time-tested way, seating him on my lap with some milkshake for nutrition and vadams for nibbles. He was a little puzzled that was no book to look into, but decided to give me a chance nevertheless. I wound through the trials and tribulations of Hansel and Gretel’s young lives and he listened carefully, almost never interrupting. When we reached the end, he jumped up and said he wanted to hear another. After dinner, I told him. Ever obedient, he nodded happily.

Having sent him off to his food, I turned to my computer and found an email from a friend with a link to this article in Slate. He had sent it along because he does some peripheral work for the OLPC project, and was concerned that studies like the one reported may derail what he sees as an important and necessary effort. Discovering that PCs may take away from homework and other activities is certainly disturbing, but I don’t see this as very different from the fears expressed about the effects of TV on an earlier generation.

What does bother me is that technology is increasingly substituting imagination (not a new concern, this) – my nephew finds it unusual not to have a book with pictures to accompany a story. Will his children find it strange to see books in which pictures don’t move? I worry that being constantly exposed to someone else’s vision of the world, we may never learn to create our own universes. I may be old-fashioned, but I cling to my mental pictures of the Enchanted Wood, of Narnia, even Hogwarts and fear that watching the movie versions will erase the “original” in my mind.

For all the doomsday predictions made about TV, the idiot-box generation has survived, with its imagination intact. In fact some of the most stunningly original, vivid and spectacular narratives of today that appear in the form of video games are the work of that cohort. Stories and novels continue to be written and read. More books are sold today than ever before. More prizes are given and more continue to be instituted. It is a victorious refutal of predictions that this generation would lose its way, its ability to imagine better worlds choked by the constant barrage of stimuli that fills modern lives.

Despite all the that, my original concern remains. Are we losing the ability to engage ourselves without need for external contrivances? As our worlds get ever more filled with devices of distraction, will we lose the ability to be good enough company for ourselves? Will my nephew, on a day without books, without electricity, without his football, still manage to have a good time?

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One response to “Imagined futures

  1. You know, this is a question I ask of myself and my three year old every weekend. But I do make it a point to tell stories without external aids whenever I can. But then when I ask her what story she wants the response is almost always ‘Mickey’ and sometimes as a result Mickey ends up eating dosas and the like which is still ok with me. But I still make sure that we try and create a small world of our own imagination. Of course the duration is short, but we still try. What I do not know is how long this will last.

    I love the idea of Mickey eating dosais! Does he like molaga podi too? But seriously, I keep wondering about this whenever I spend time with a kid (or two. Or three). From the little I am able to see, they seem to soak everything we say, and even the smallest encouragement to use their imaginations yields big results.

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