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As the Indian summer raged at its worst in Calcutta and the monsoons were somewhere down South still and tantalisingly close but not yet there, I received a more than welcome invitation that was to take me to Bombay to participate in a discussion on the scope of fiction. As I stepped out of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport and climbed into the waiting taxi, the driver told me that I was in luck. The rains came pouring down soon enough and shortly afterwards, I met my hosts Jyothi and Rajat in their flat. I was here to be part of Syntalk, a weekly talk show based on themes and notions of all kinds where speakers with very disparate perspectives to offer on a topic are brought together to participate in an unrehearsed discussion. What you say (then and there) is what you get. To give you an idea as to the diversity of the topics, the one prior to ours was on poison and the next week, we were told would be the episode on water. Just water. Well, water fascinates me (as readers of an earlier post on Fallout 3 might remember) and I must listen to that episode soon. All the episodes are available for free as podcasts on Soundcloud; the aim that the couple have is ambitious - they wish to record as many aspects of human thought as they can, for the future. 

Ask me to speak on the scope of fiction and I can go on for weeks on end. Fortunately, the other speakers were the eminent authority on narrative theory, Professor Rukmini Bhaya Nair and Anjum Rajabali, Bollywood scriptwriter of Rajneeti and Satyagraha fame and they had their unique takes on fiction. I have worked under Professor Nair at IIT Delhi and there is much that I agree with in her book, Narrative Gravity. She started the conversation with Daniel Dennett’s comment that human beings build stories as birds build nests and then raised the question of narrative versus fiction as well as how the individual related to narratives. Anjum is the first film scriptwriter whom I have met and it was indeed very interesting to hear him speak about how he constructs his stories and to compare in my head the storyboards for games with the scripts that he writes for films. 

The SynTalk organisers have already summarised our discussion so I shall content myself with a copy-paste from their web space. The talk itself is on SoundCloud and is a free podcast.  Do have a listen. I am sure you will have as much fun as I had in being a part of it. As the reader, are you also not the writer … and the player? Well, here’s what the three of us had to say:

And here's a fun summary from the hosts:

SynTalk thinks about narratives & stories, while constantly wondering whether it is the stories that ‘make us up’ and give us our self-hood. We delve into the worlds of literature, film making, video games, philosophy, cognitive sciences, and linguistics to explore why & how we tell & understand stories. The concepts are derived off / from Aristotle, Coleridge, Diderot, Georges Polti, Hitchcock, Labov, E M Forster, Lumière brothers, de Beauvoir, Augusto Boal, Chomsky, Salim-Javed, David Lodge, & Dennett, among others. How identity, time, memory, & emotions are knotted together by fiction. Is story telling like a flight simulator, with most of the rewards but none of the risk? How narratives however, are not synonymous with fiction and, cover both fact & fiction. Do we remember narratively, & create causal links (with mnemonic durability) between the past, present and the possible futures? The difference of a story from a (film) script, & the importance of the dramatic centre? Is narrative experience a (playful) exploration of the space of possibilities – i.e., is all fiction a game? How incompleteness is also a valid possibility in narratives. Why are morals so critical in any satisfying story? How important is it to have a sense of the ending, & how can one return the narrative time to the present? And, in the face of the crisis of our death, is our life more like episodic TV serials, rather than a Greek tragedy? Is lying or cheating a related ability to telling stories? Are stories (video games) more about tying (dying) and untying (undying)? Are there cultures without stories? How there are real physiological reactions and a willing suspension of disbelief on seeing (say) a film in a dark theatre. How can a screenwriter be moved to tears by her own story? Why can’t there be stories without characters or emotions? Are there only a finite number of plots or narratives? What do you see when you look into the mirror in a first-person shooter game? Is there a serial killer inside you? The links between ‘queen died’, 36, spect-actor, chaos, Gilgamesh, Spiderman, Flower, Lagaan, Alzheimer’s, Max Payne, jumping over the chair, alienation, Psycho Mantis, & cheat codes. How are we able to create stories, but are not able to count the number of words in our head? Is social reality the most fictionalized, & is monologue always secondary to collaborative dialogue in story telling? Why aren’t video games laugh-out-aloud funny, & does it have anything to do with the fact that you can’t tickle yourself? Is the future of fiction likely to involve a range of affects & small scale emotions? Can the story strike back at the player (or the reader)? The SynTalkrs are: Dr. Souvik Mukherjee (game studies, literature, Presidency University, Kolkata), Prof. Rukmini Bhaya Nair (linguistics, narrative theory, IIT Delhi, New Delhi), & Anjum Rajabali (screenwriting, Mumbai).

So what do you think? In case you are interested, here's SynTalk's channel: I'm about to listen to the latest episode on 'The Meanings of Information'.

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