Like most writers I admire, I have an overactive imagination. I have been accused of transforming the slightest trills in a voice into a declaration of conflict, the brush of two moving hands into a declaration of love. And though I have become better at restraining this rich inner life, some images linger in my memory for months after they enter it.  

This year, on my fourteen-hour flight back to the United States after spring break, I was seated next to an elderly woman who did not speak a word of English. She was clad in a baggy white sweater and a tight bandana that could not conceal the strands of gray hair that fell in front of her ears. On her right was seated a younger woman. I presumed this to be her daughter. She spent the first much of the flight dutifully translating the flight attendant’s instructions from English to Punjabi. 

The elderly woman was visibly unhappy for most of the grueling journey. Defeated by the touchscreen her on-screen entertainment, she tried to sleep immediately after take-off. But her body was stuck at an unnatural angle between the reclining seat in front of her and the purse at her feet. She would wake up every half hour or so and contort her torso in vain, unable to find a sufficiently comfortable position. Each time, she would let out an exasperated cry, progressively more pained. Eventually, I moved up the armrests between the three of us. She lay down flat on two of the three seats. Her daughter compressed herself into the remainder of the middle seat and some of mine. She slept soundly with her arms clutching her face, shielding her eyes from the world outside her. 

As an international student, I‘ve sat next to countless strangers on flights to the US and seen many of them struggle to sleep in coach. And yet, the sight of this woman was particularly harrowing. Why was this woman flying from Delhi to New York? If she was visiting her family, why had they left her behind? Was the pain on her face purely physical? 

I spent days after I disembarked trying to decipher her story. What I deciphered instead was my impulse to storytell. For days after we met, I speculated about the trajectory of her life. As a Muslim woman from Punjab — a group disproportionately victimized by India’s partition — some of her family must have been displaced to the US. Maybe she was a widow — forced to pay for the middle seat on a budget aircraft without a spouse’s support. 

It seems obvious to state that my speculations about her life are not her story at all. At best, I did what I could with my limited impressions of our interaction and my intuitive sense of her face. More likely, I have just appropriated her for tragic value. I evacuated her real life of meaning and refilled it with invented suffering. I made her my Andromache. Perhaps she would hate to be pitied. My only consolation is that she will never read this. 

Though the woman on the plane may be an extreme case, I engage with the politics of storytelling every day, each time I tell stories that lie outside my lived experiences. These stories are invariably incomplete, lacking in detail, and my rich inner life stretches itself to complete them. My inner life draws on my memories of my grand-aunt’s face, of Bapsi Sidhwa’s account of Punjab during Partition and the self-impression I am trying to cultivate. I toggle between assertion and fact, impression and truth with ease, often unaware that I am converting the former into the latter with my choice inflections and the thrust of my sentences. I soften comedy and augment tragedy, painfully aware of my audience’s reaction to the story I am telling with each sentence I write. 

I rarely question my storytelling tactics because they are most often about people I love, about people who trust me. Most people I am close to have heard innumerable stories about my parents’ or grandparents’ lives, just as my parents know much about my friends. In these cases, admittedly, my stories involve far less speculation and much more faithful relay. Even if rarely apocryphal, these tales are invariably coloured by my relationships with their subjects — a fact that is obscured by the authority with which I narrate them. 

We engage in the same process when we offer our friends sound bytes — particularly inflammatory quotes by professors in seminar rooms or love interests at a bar, creating an array of colorful characters that we can draw in dull moments. And though this is not storytelling, we run the same risk of obscuring our biases with humor. Oliver Sacks — the author of “Man who mistook his wife for a hat” — was dubbed “The Man who mistook his patients for a literary career” by his most vocal critics. What would the same critics say about the strangers I meet and my op-eds? 

In a majority of cases, I am reassured by the nature of my relationships. People trust me to tell their stories faithfully and I strive to tell them authentically — or at least to highlight my own limitations. My friends will lampoon me for turning their musings about Yale into the headlines of my future pieces but I do my best to be faithful, and to forewarn them.  

My point is not to catastrophize this ubiquitous impulse. Each one of us reveals a little bit about ourselves in the way we tell stories. Nor do I intend to denigrate the act of storytelling. But as someone who revels in the expanses of my imagination, in the relaying of my experiences, it is instructive to reconsider the parts of myself I project onto others. 

In the case of the people I am close to, I can be a better storyteller by asking. By asking for more details, for more context, even for permission to share these stories. In the case of this woman, strangers we meet — on planes, in sweaty frat parties, through mutual friends — we do not have their privilege. When we relay these stories to friends the next day, we are often inventing more than retelling, turning people into punchlines or social commentary. Such is human nature. But perhaps acknowledging human nature is the first, and most necessary, step to cultivating the intellectual humility that defines any honest storyteller. 

 

PRADZ SAPRE is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College. His fortnightly column “Growing pains” encapsulates the difficulties of a metaphorical “growing up” within the course of a lifetime at Yale. He can be reached at pradz.sapre@yale.edu.

PRADZ SAPRE
Pradyumna Sapre is a junior in Benjamin Franklin college. His column, titled ‘Growing pains’, runs every other Monday.