In conversation with Ameen Haque, founder of StoryWallahs, about the art of story-telling, the ideology of Storywallahs, and the importance of sharing stories.
K9- When we Googled Ameen Haque the first word that popped up was “story”, if given a choice is there any word you rather wish to be associated with?
AH- No, I would not change anything, the story is my first love and it will remain my first love forever. However, if you were to say that the first word on Google was storyteller, I would want to change that from storyteller to story listener. The truth is, more than telling stories if there’s anything that I love, it is listening to stories. That’s why even in the workshop that I did yesterday and the day before, you would’ve seen that more than telling stories I was more interested in listening to the stories of children and how they dealt with the pandemic, I was more interested in listening to the stories of teachers and how they dealt with the pandemic, I was more interested in listening to the stories of parents and how they dealt with the pandemic. Story is the perfect word, but if there was any other word such as storyteller, I would want to change it to story listener. Similarly, if you get a word called story expert I would want to change that to story student. I am not a story expert. There is a lot about storytelling that I don’t know about.
K9- Everybody knows the charming, confident, and attention-capturing storyteller that is Ameen Haque, but what about the Ameen Haque off stage? Is he any different?
AH- Oh, of course, he is very different. Off the stage, I am not the talkative, confident person that I am now. I am actually shyer, more reserved, more silent. I am happy with a book, and a cup of tea. I like to spend time in nature, especially beaches, they give me a lot of joy. Walking in nature with trees, climbing up hills, and bird songs give me a lot of joy. Lastly, music is a large part of my life. So, listening to music, playing my harmonica, my daughter plays the piano, my other daughter plays the guitar, my wife sings, my mother-in-law is a sangeet prasaran. So, music, books, reading, and silence in nature, that’s what define me when I am not on the stage.
K9- Storytelling and business seem like two entirely different crafts so what was it in both of them that helped you in lifting the fog that veiled the bridge that was there between the two?
AH- You’re right. At first glance, storytelling and business look like chalk and cheese, what is the connection between the two? But I am sure you will agree that no matter which business you are in, once you are in business, storytelling is also your business and good stories happen to those who can tell them. But how does one tell a good story? A business leader needs to inspire, needs to engage, needs to influence employees and customers. But how do they do that? You will see that good business leaders are good storytellers. Think about it, Steve Jobs who was the CEO of Apple was a great storyteller, Indra Nooyi who was the CEO of PepsiCo was a fantastic storyteller, Satya Nadella who heads Microsoft is a good storyteller, Richard Branson who set up Virgin is a great storyteller, Ratan Tata is a fantastic storyteller, Narayana Murthy who set up Infosys is a fantastic storyteller, so good business leaders are good storytellers too. Now let’s look at leaders outside of business, think of spiritual leaders, Swami Vivekananda was a spiritual leader, he was a fantastic storyteller, he could explain Hinduism which is a very abstract idea, any religion is an abstract idea, they could explain the essence of that so beautifully when he went to the western world. He was a good storyteller. So, you see whichever field you are in, whether it’s business or spirituality or politics, a leader needs to be a good storyteller. And what we do is we help leaders become better storytellers by teaching them the art.
K9- Who would you quote as your inspiration behind your love for stories?
AH- There are quite a few. First of all, there have been a lot of authors who have been inspirational and played a big role in my formative journey. Let me share some of them, Uncle Pai who was the founder/editor of “Amar Chitra Katha”, then a host of authors like Enid Blyton. I read a lot of “Famous Five” and “Secret Seven” when I was a kid, then I read “Hardy Boys” and “Nancy Drew”. I read R.K. Narayan’s “The Guide”. There was an author by the name of Louis L’Amour who wrote Western novels. I read a lot. So, all of these authors were an inspiration, they helped me learn storytelling. My second inspiration is my mother, my role model. She encouraged me to take part in theatre, she encouraged me to read poetry, she encouraged me to read literature, and she got me a lot of books.
K9- Which particular element in a story do you think is the most integral element that makes it a great story that leaves a lasting impression on people?
AH- The central conflict of the story is the magnet, it is the heart of the story. And what I mean by the central conflict is the character’s dilemma, for example, if you look at “Lion King” the central conflict is will Simba, the baby lion, ever achieve his full potential? Will he realize who he really is? Because who he really is, is he was born to be a king. But will he realize it? The moment he realizes it, he will be able to defeat the enemy, but first, the inner realization is important: who am I? When he does that, the story is solved so that’s the central dilemma. In Moana, the central dilemma is, will this girl be able to overcome her own fears? The moment she does that, the story is solved. The central dilemmas or the ethical dilemmas are the most important parts of a story. Another example that comes to my mind is “The Lord of the Rings”, it has such a powerful central dilemma that, if all the power of the world is given to you, will you be able to renounce it, give it away, and walk away from it? It’s such a powerful central dilemma that’s what makes the story interesting for me. What’s the conflict? What’s the problem that the story is trying to solve? That’s what draws people in.
K9- Would you have still continued to believe in the power of stories had ‘Storywallahs’ not become the success that it is today?
Oh yeah, of course! Our success has nothing to do with the power of stories. Stories have always been powerful, they will remain powerful irrespective of whether ‘Storywallahs’ is there or not. We are just small players in this ocean called stories. Ramayana, the big story, it was always there and it will always be there. Bible, Mahabharata, we are just a drop in the Maha Sagara called Katha Sarit Sagara, the ocean of stories, we are just a drop in that ocean. Yes, I would always believe in the power of narrative, irrespective of ‘Storywallahs’ being successful or not successful. Stories will be successful, we will come and go.
K9- Any tips that you would like to share with our readers who wish to hone their storytelling skills?
AH- Yeah. Story listening and observation. Storytelling is less about telling and more about listening. It’s the better listeners and observers who make better storytellers. We have confused storytelling with oratory, with public speaking, well that’s how we consume it. We have confused storytelling with writing, but good writing comes from a deeper place called good observation and good listening, and that is the heart of storytelling.
K9- ‘Storywallahs’ heavily emphasizes the importance of stories, and how it has the potential to inspire people. Is there a particular incident in your life that made you realize the power of stories?
AH- There are so many of them. I remember we were doing some work with autistic kids. Autistic kids physically may develop their bodies to the body of a sixteen-year-old, but the mind is that of a six-year-old. The innocence is that of a six-year-old. They trust easily. But that makes them vulnerable as well. We used stories to create awareness about good touch and bad touch. And I remember that incident when a girl walked away from a risky situation thanks to the power of the story that stayed with her. It’s the biggest reward for the work that we do. That’s what stories are capable of, of touching hearts, of breaking barriers. Stories do the work of breaking the ice, sometimes walls of ice are formed between people as well, so a story does the work of breaking the ice between people. Once I hear your story and once you hear my story we are deeply connected. And today there are a lot of divisions in the world, but our stories will reveal to you that we have common aspirations, we have common problems, we are so similar to each other. My belief in stories remains unshaken because of so many incidents where we have seen stories build bridges and break barriers.
K9- Ruskin Bond once said in his short story “We can never survive without stories” How strongly do you agree with this statement, and how much does it align with the spirit of ‘Storywallahs’?
AH- I completely, completely agree with what he said, very very strongly. Stories are the oxygen that we breathe. At one level we need oxygen to survive, our body needs oxygen to survive, our soul also needs a type of oxygen, stories are oxygen for the soul. Without that oxygen, we will have no hope. Stories give us hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Stories are the GPS for life. They give us the way to navigate life, otherwise, we would be completely lost. If your father says, “Get out of my house”. What should you do? Should you fight with your father? Ramayana tells us what we should do. It’s a story that tells me I should respect my father. He must be having some compulsions to say this. I should understand how difficult it would be for my father to say that. He must be putting a stone on his heart and telling this. Stories are our moral compass, they are the GPS device for life, they tell us what to do when in doubt.
K9- How can stories impact society in a positive way? How can they bring changes to society?
AH- Stories give us hope. During the pandemic, a lot of people had tough times. We were telling stories of hope. There was so much bad news; we just focused on stories of good news. It gave us hope to cope with the pandemic. It made us more optimistic to overcome this situation. In any situation, stories offer a healing effect. Take a story of somebody who has gone through a bad time, whenever bad times come upon me I feel like, I am the only one who’s going through this. When I listen to the stories of another person it reassures me that it’s not only happening to me, it has happened or is happening to others as well. When the power goes out in our house, what’s the first thing we do? We go out to check whether the power went out for just our house or for others as well. And it surprisingly reassures us that it didn’t happen just with me but with everyone.