The story or the storyteller, what is more important?

With permission from the author Devdutt Pattanaik, the story with extracts from the book. Published by Tulika Press, Chennai.

Illustrations from the book are by Nancy Raj.


After completing the Ramayan, the story of Ram, Valmiki was satisfied and proud until he met the sage Narad who was not impressed.

…”“It’s good” he conceded. “But…..”. “But? What do you mean but?” asked Valmiki. “Well actually…” said Narad, “I have read a better Ramayan”.”

Narad was referring to the Ramayan by Hanuman and this really angered Valmiki. How could anyone have written a better one than him?

Hanuman was a character in the Ramayan, the monkey god who helped Ram in defeating Ravan and rescued his wife Sita who was held hostage by Ravan.

Picture3Seeing how upset Valmiki was, Narad suggested he go and read Hanuman’s Ramayan for himself. After trudging over hills and through valleys for a month, he finally reached the banana orchard and lay down, exhausted. As he rested, his eyes fell on some script, tiny strokes on banana leaves, and he started to read.

He realised it was the Ramayan written by Hanuman.  Picture6

Restlessly, Valmiki read through the whole story, and soon broke down crying uncontrollably.

From the book: “Tears flowed down his cheeks. He could not stop. “Maybe I can help?” he heard a soft voice say.

“What is the matter, sir?” the monkey asked. “I am Hanuman, devotee of Ram. Did someone hurt you?”

“Why are you crying?” asked Hanuman.

“Oh, it is nothing” said Valmiki, suddenly embarrassed.

“I read your Ramayan scratched out on these banana leaves. It made me cry.” “Is it so terrible?” asked Hanuman, looking concerned.

“On the contrary, it is brilliant” said Valmiki. Hanuman smiled and bowed his head in humility. “Thank you”, he said.

“But there is another reason why I cry,” said Valmiki.

Hanuman looked at him curiously.

Taking a deep breath, Valmiki opened up his heart, “I realise that after reading your Ramayan, no one will read mine. Yours is so much better.”

Hanuman looked at Valmiki tenderly and gently touched his cheek to comfort him. Then, before Valmiki could say a word, he stretched out a hand and tore out the seven leaves on which he had etched out the Ramayan, crushed them into a ball, opened his mouth and swallowed it all in a single gulp. Picture9

“What have you done?” screamed Valmiki. “You destroyed your Ramayan. It is lost forever. Why did you do this?”

Hanuman did not reply. He merely smiled, looked at Valmiki with a soft smile.

“tell me, why did you destroy your Ramayan? Tell me!”

“You see, Valmiki”, said Hanuman finally, “you need your Ramayan more than I need mine. You wrote the story so that the world would remember you. I wrote the story so that I would remember Ram.”

“It is the story that is important and not the storyteller.”” ……..Devdutt Pattanaik


Ursula K. Le Guin, an author of novels and children’s books writes that “Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people”. The stories we hear as members of a society have been crafted through threads of speech shared by so many people, each of who have imbued the narrative with their own flavours, their own twists and turns. Every time a story is told, it is a new story, since the combination of context, person and time is always unique. In the introduction to his rich collection of stories from several Indian languages, ‘Folk Tales from India’[1], the scholar and poet A. K. Ramanujan writes that “With few exceptions, each of these tales, though chosen from a teller in one language and region, is also told with variations in other regions. Every tale here is only one telling, held down in writing for the nonce[2] till you or someone else reads it, brings it to life and changes it by retelling… consider me the latest teller and you the latest reader”.

 The place of stories in our lives is central, whether these are told or read out. We often hear about the importance of ‘reading’ to children. Whether the story is told or read out, the important thing is that children ‘hear’ them, and in the hearing, they create imaginary worlds of which they are the authors. Stories unite us with our collective past, shape our subjective realities and play an important role in the ways in which we will imagine our future. In our lives, we will sometimes be story-tellers, at other times listeners, creators or communicators. These different roles will carry the memories of the stories we have heard and read. In his recently released memoirs, ‘Lone Fox Dancing’ Ruskin Bond narrates how central stories were to his somewhat lonely childhood as he remembered it, and how Ayah and Osman (the caregiver and cook) laid the foundation of his own future story-telling in those early years of affectionate companionship and endless sessions of fantastic tales.

Stories have many uses. In ‘Uses of Enchantment[3]’ Bruno Bettelheim writes that stories assist in  growing up by helping us in overcoming preoccupations with the self, childhood dependencies, rivalries and assist in the development of self-expression and self-worth. Devdutt Pattanaik[4] highlights the importance of storytelling on account of their complexity. He argues that stories are psychological instruments that appear simple on the surface, and the multiple layers of meaning may not be available immediately, especially to children. The awakening to multiple meanings can sometimes take decades, and in this gradual unfolding of complexity, children are provided with alternative interpretations of events, relationships, the world around us and ourselves. Experiencing loss or fear or separation in a story provides us the access to emotions that we may not have experienced, thereby bringing us closer to experiences of others, and our own imagined futures. Stories assist in imagining alternative realities and help us to shift things around in our heads.

With all the different experiences that we can provide for our children today, the simple narration of stories seems to have faded somewhat in importance. Many times we look for ways in which to keep the child busy with constructive work where he or she will be ‘learning’ something productive. A humble storytelling session, a simple walk in the garden, a chat about earlier times (real stories about adults when they were children), activities like this can appear unglamorous when compared with newer ways of occupying children’s minds. And yet, if we remove them (stories) from children’s lives, we lose an important connection to the past, to people and to the world around us, to imaginary worlds and also to the future. Unfortunately, we are increasingly looking for instant impact of experiences, and losing focus on the connections and the long-lasting influence that such experiences can have on us. The bright, colourful, and loud world of the marketplace has altered our understanding of what children like to do; what is valuable for them. Story-telling does not cost us anything, and it is packed with nourishment for the mind. It is free, so few advertisers will endorse this product. Preserving stories is our responsibility.

 In a world infused with competitiveness and copyrights, with an obsession with self-promotion and popularity, Hanuman’s Ramayan emerges as an endearing tale that addresses a milder, more compassionate way of looking at the world, and our place in it. The story brings us closer to look at people who may be productive, but may not always be enthusiastic in talking about it; people who are shy and reticent with taking credit for what they have accomplished. One may argue that this will increase the chances exploitation and misuse by others, but we do believe that accepting a person’s temperament is likely to be the best way of building confidence. Hanuman was neither unknown, nor invisible, Indian mythology is replete with stories of his valour and loyalty. In this moment, he chose to focus on why he wrote the story and laid the matter to rest. By no means should the story be taken as a narrative that promotes silence and subjugation in all contexts. You can use the story to develop your own meanings. Ruskin Bond is perhaps another important example in this regard. Despite his reticence with public attention and his constant desire to lead a quiet, secluded life in the hills, when the stories were ripe, the audience grew. It was not because of him that his stories became popular, it was because of his stories that he became known, quite like a “fox that was pulled out of a burrow”!


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[2] Coined for one particular occasion





  1. In reality every time a story is re-told, it becomes a new one. Even the same person can not narrate the same story twice. The story has a life of it own, it lives and changes just like we all do.

    It is like having a constant companion, who express itself through the teller. So it is defiantly not the teller, but the story that is expressing itself.


  2. I believe storytelling is one of the best ways to bond with a child. When a story is being told, esp in family setting there is so much of warmth and a sort of attachment into it. From sitting in lap, or lying in closely with the teller. Like when i tell stories to my daughter, along with story i love the way she clings to me and then my playing with her hair, holding her little fingers or rubbing my hands on her back. And such calmness naturally draws her imagination deep into the story.


    1. Hi Deepa! Thanks for writing in. Story telling is indeed more than just a transfer of information. It is a ritual in itself. It serves sometimes different and sometimes similar purpose for the narrator and the listener. But definitely it is a meaningful act in helping each achieve a cordial state of being. As you rightly mention during story telling words along with gestures create a magical bond between the narrator and the listener. Keep the stories going. Cheers!


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