The Magic of Story-Telling

“Stop being a Jellyfish!” said the husband.
“I knew you were going to say that – you are such an open book yourself!” said I.

We both giggled like children at our own pathetic joke. T’was the time for hulking men with or without mustaches and serious women to quack like ducks, twirl like fairies, flex those non-existent abs, and find that little teeny bit of whimsy that adulthood so expertly hides away beneath the layers. Halloween was here.

 

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T’is the time people astound you with their imagination. Who doesn’t like having 3 spidermen knocking on your door all at once? Or to see the twin toddlers dressed as Nemo & Dory? The super-heroes and ninjas cowering behind their larger siblings in Vampire clothing, or the witches cackling hard?

There is something so uniquely beautiful about Halloween – the one festival where we can display our idiosyncrasies with grace, be accepted for whatever we are. You want to be a skeleton? That should be fine. Here is some candy for you. Really, buddy? You want to go out in the world in that costume? Well, if this appeals to you, then I suppose you deserve some candy anyway!

How many times in our lives do we get that kind of universal approval?

The husband and I were very proud of our last minute Halloween costumes: an open book & a jellyfish.

The little fairy lights I had taped into place made the jellyfish glow, and I received many compliments – I must say I glowed all evening with the praise, though I did credit the Internet with it.

When people asked me where I got the inspiration from, I replied truthfully that I have always wondered what it must be like to live under the sea, and they invariably laughed at my answer.

But it’s true. Every trip to the aquarium rekindles the magic of another world – right here with us. Reading Gerald Durrell’s essay about scuba diving is enthralling.

I have often wondered how we would have adapted if we had evolved under the ocean. Would we have figured out the laws and physics of the Universe to the extent we have, or would the medium have made little difference in understanding. The Octopus’s evolution to have more neurons than us is truly astounding.

Quanta Magazine: What shape is the universe? Closed or Flat?

It is why I like reading about the intelligence of dolphins and whales: the fact that they have epics the sounds bits of which are roughly the equivalent of our Iliad is amazing. Quote from Carl Sagan’s essay on Whale song:

If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

What must their epics say? For all our anthropological worldview, I wonder whether humans figure in them at all. That will be a fine thing to hear – a Dr Dolittle who finally translates a Whale Epic, only to find their world far richer than our own.

Keena_drawing
Art work by Daughter

I recently re-read the Voyages of Dr Dolittle by Hugh Lofting. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed visualizing myself sailing the seas with his motley group – either by skimming along like a porpoise, or better yet by getting a place inside the giant snail’s back as it sailed along smoothly churning the ocean as it went.

Swimming with Dolphins

We are all children of stories. We need epics and tales of fantasy. Our very own imaginations need an outlet, and Halloween gives us just that. I know my enthusiasm rubs off on the children as they go about planning their costumes. While I am out with a big smile on my face, a number of people give me an indulgent smile as if to say “Aren’t you a bit old for this?”

Mary Oliver gently reminds me to react with this nugget of wisdom:

“You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility for your life.” 

― Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

Privately, I am happy that our inner child never really leaves us.

Authors:

Classical Whale Symphony

Soft instrumental music was lilting in the background, and the sun’s watery rays were streaking in through the recently rain-washed window-panes. It was a beautiful week-end morning, and the kitchen was bursting with activity. The children were helping by putting away the dishes as noisily as possible. I was making a mess of things by changing the menu nimbly depending on what my refrigerator had. (Grocery shopping had taken a backseat the past few days and rations were thin on the ground)

The children were giggling about something when the teenage daughter said to hearty nods from her little brother. “By the way, what is this blasted toing-toing music you are listening to?”

“Melodious and uplifting for the soul, my dears. Classical Instrumental Music. Changes the way neurons interact.”

She shook her head, “Changes the way my nerves react!”and changed it to something that made my eardrums pick up the dishes and bang them viciously inside my head, while she chatted. Teenagers, I tell you!

“Whales like Classical Music.” , I said weakly.

“Well, I’m not a whale am I?” said she giving me a fish-like look- not the fishy look, the glassy gleam. I saw the piscean divergence in the gene and agreed. Though she could be, given her favorite doodles are themes under the sea

Art work by the Daughter:

Ever since I read in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos about Whale Songs, I have been enamored with the language of music, and the myths of the whales.

Quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan on the Humpback Whale songs:
These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

I was naturally was attracted to the book, The Symphony of Whales by Steve Shuch. It is based on a true story in a village near the Arctic circle. The onset of Winter had been swift, and a pod of whales found themselves iced in near Siberia. Unable to get out in time, the whole pod faced death in the iced-in waters.

symphony_of_whales

According to the book, a child, Glashka, who had always been blessed with the ability to hear Whale song heard them over the sound of the snowy storm. That night, they came to her in her dreams, and she knew they must be in trouble.

The next morning her father gathered the villagers and off they went to a sound over 30 miles away by dog sleigh looking for the pod of whales. It was true. The whales were in trouble. The pod had not anticipated the icing in of the waters so quickly, and were facing death. The villagers from all the neighboring villages started chipping at the ice to cut through the blocks of ice, so that the whales could surface and breathe.

“Look!”, said Glashka’s grandmother. “See how the whales are taking turns, how they give the younger ones extra time for air.”

The village elders had also radioed for help. A ship, an icebreaker, Moskva, was on its way to help.

The story, is based on a real incident that happened in the narrow Senyavina Straits of Siberia. Over 3000 beluga whales had been trapped by the rapidly freezing waters in 1984-1985. For seven weeks, the people of the Chukchi peninsula, and the crew of the Moskva risked their lives to save the whales.

The story does not end there. Once Moskva had cleared the way, the whales had to follow the ship out into the open seas, but they were reluctant to do so. The crew tried playing whale song to lure them. While they reacted to the music, they were not assured of human intent, and were still scared of the engine sound. They lurked in the waters.  Then they tried Classical Instrumental Music.

“The crew found some classical music. First, the sweet sounds of violin and violas, next the deeper notes of the cellos and, deepest of all, the string basses…and way up high, a solo violin…
Everyone fell silent as the music carried over the waters.”

That had done the trick. The ship’s engines started and the whales slowly followed the icebreaker out into the open ocean.

Would this heartwarming episode make it into Whale Song? That humans can be helpful too? I don’t know, but I do hope it makes it into our myths – maybe as one embracing a humane side to humans.

Dum inter homines sumus, colamus humanitatem – Seneca

As long as we are human, let us be humane

Read also:

Cosmic Nature of Living

Weaving The Sequins of Time

New York Times Archived Article on the Incident

The Epic of Whalayana

The mother has been reading The Ramayana. She is especially fond of the Sundarakandam. For a few months, any good is attributed to the Sundarakandam readings. Anything bad is soothed away with the assurance that her Sundarakandam chantings will make it better. It takes her several weeks to make it through a complete reading. The Ramayana is a long epic, and lilts rhythmically. Reading this epic soothes her, and every now and then with touching belief, she has a go at it.

I like the Ramayana too for its main storyline, and its myriad side stories. I do think Sita could have been a pluckier heroine, but then I remember that these tales were passed down from one generation to the next, each one, quite probably, embellishing the epics a little to make sure their ideal version of the woman is subtly inserted in there. (Another post for another day)

It is interesting to think of how our epics and ballads have helped shape human history. Artifacts and natural phenomena shaped our myths, and particularly gifted story-tellers were always a treasured people. We truly believed that story-telling was the single distinguishing feature of our species. After all, imagination is a task much higher on the cognitive scale than living & feeling. 

‘Did you know? We used to have a Professor who could chant every verse and explain it so beautifully? From memory! In those days, our professors used to remember Shakespeare, entire Sanskrit texts, and eloquently recite from memory. ‘ said the father, and waxed as eloquently about the good old days; his fervor growing as he spoke of the stellar nature of his professors, about how they learnt and memorized Shakespeare and the Sanskrit texts from their forefathers. 

I smiled at the pride in his voice when he thought of his long-dead professors. For millennia we thought we were the only ones capable of passing on this kind of generational wisdom and knowledge. But that is not the case. Take the enormously intelligent whales and dolphins for instance. Carl Sagan, the physicist, writes about these intelligent creatures often. In his essay on dolphin sounds, he writes of Elvar the Dolphin who knows up to 50 English sounds and can use them in context. 

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Quote from Cosmos by Carl Sagan:

Some whale sounds are called songs, but we are still ignorant of their true nature and meaning. They range over a broad band of frequencies, down to well below the lowest sound the human ear can detect. A typical whale song lasts for perhaps 15 minutes; the longest about an hour. Often it is repeated, identically beat for beat, measure for measure, note for note. 

Very often, the members of the group will sing the same song together. By some mutual consensus, some collaborative song-writing, the piece changes month by month, slowly and predictably. These vocalizations are complex. If the songs of the humpback whale are enunciated as a tonal language, the total information content, the number of bits of information in such songs, is some 10 to the power of 6 bits, about the same as the information content of the Iliad or the Odyssey.

I would love to hear and understand the generational wisdom that these large benevolent creatures have for living in the oceans. The ever changing oceans must be a rich source of material. Do they have heroes vs villains, good vs evil, or things much more complex and intriguing than simple story lines like that? 

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Quote:

They have no manipulative organs, they make no engineering constructs, but they are social creatures. They hunt, swim, fish, browse, frolic, mate, play, run from predators. There may be a great deal to talk about.

If human beings have a fault, it is assuming our anthropomorphic abilities are the pinnacle of what is possible. I must remember that until recently, we did not know whale songs existed. 

The sea is as near as we come to another world. – Ann Stevenson

Coming up next: The Inner Life of Animals

Of Whales, Monkeys and Bindis

I know what I am about to say can be taken the wrong way. But are we really better than whales or monkeys?

For a people that prides itself on its culture and spends hours touting its alleged superiority, Indians seem to have come in behind whales and monkeys when it comes to embracing more people into our culture. I can’t tell you the number of times the Indian cultural police have hit the headlines complaining about the influence of the Western culture on the modern youth. Yet, when the modern w. youth does adopt one of the Indian cultural practices, what did they do?

I am referring, of course, to a slightly dated story on Selena Gomez sporting a bindi. I spent a good portion of my life being pulled up by random aunts, uncles, not to mention my dear mother about not sporting a bindi.

This cartoon sums up the Bindi troubles of any South Indian Brahm lass (Got this from http://tambrahmrage.tumblr.com/ – I tried to find the link to this post, but couldn’t. Luckily I had sent it for laughs within my family a while ago)

 

pottu yenga

So, I expected the news that Selena Gomez was wearing one to strengthen their position. I mean, all they had to say was: “It is even fashionable, you still don’t want a bindi?”

I expected the Indian c.police to namaste-her, make an example of her and what not. What they proceeded to do, instead, was ask her to learn of the deep cultural ramifications of the bindi and enlightened folks like me about how it is not a fashion accessory.

http://www.usmagazine.com/celebrity-style/news/selena-gomez-wears-bindi-for-4th-time-despite-controversy-2013254

I can see your eyebrows shooting past the bindi mark now.

Bindi

Well, the news item I read had nothing to do with bindis. It has to do with how these species learnt cultural behaviors from one another and adapted to changing conditions. Bringing more to the fold was critical to adaptation.

http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/04/25/on-copyca-whales-conformist-monkeys-and-animal-cultures/

Clearly, we are lacking there. Also, it was just cool to link the cultural adaptations of monkeys, whales and humans.

That also correlates with this study where Indians ranked near the very bottom of the pile of folks surveyed, they would much rather live near themselves than welcome racial ethnicity. Even when they wear bindis.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/05/15/a-fascinating-map-of-the-worlds-most-and-least-racially-tolerant-countries/?hpid=z2

And so it goes ….