Cross Texts: A Sordid Fairytale, Human Isolation, and History that Repeats

Stories and those who devote their lives to telling them fascinate me, sometimes to the point of obsession. And sometimes the stories I’m absorbing in multiple texts, formats, and genres seem to merge offering questions and themes that stay with me for weeks. When I find a compelling story, I almost can’t help myself from sharing. In this, I want to share about three texts that have stuck with me, but I also want to share the connections I was making across texts–history repeating itself in the present, the slippery nature of truth, human’s need for connection, and the incredible story of a dark and sordid fairy tale emerging in an Indian jungle. Although I will share pieces of these stories, I don’t offer spoilers. I want anyone who reads this reflection to seek out the stories and articles to experience them for themselves.

Have you noticed that a factual error appearing in a respected printed form tends to be copied by other researchers in the same field until, inevitably, it competes with the truth for credibility?

“The Jungle Prince, Chapter 2: The Hunting Lodge”

I recently dove into the New York Times’ The Daily podcast. Others had referenced it, sharing information they found compelling or shocking. It was enough to have me seek it out. For a few episodes, this podcast lived up to my expectations with smart analysis on strong topics. As Thanksgiving holiday arrived however, the podcast took a turn with a three-part series titled “The Jungle Prince” and I was not only impressed, but enthralled.

Chapter 1 of the podcast series opens with the lush sounds of a city situated in a jungle. The voice-over by NYT journalist Ellen Barry sets the scene–a partially-functioning office from which she, assigned to the entire country of India, attempts to cover the biggest stories of disasters, political upheavals, and economic transitions in the most populous democracy in the world and the seventh-largest nation (by landmass). Sufficiently drawing us in with this backdrop, she pivots to introduce a Old Delhi legend about a dispelled royal family who returned and demanded reparations for their losses at the hands of the Indian government.

In Chapter 1, we hear of a woman who appeared on the platform of the New Delhi railway station with her two adult children, declaring they were the descendants of the royal family of Oudh. She said they would not leave until what was theirs had been restored. So they settled in and waited–for nearly a decade.

In the story passed for years from tea sellers to rickshaw drivers to shopkeepers, they said that in a palace cut off from the city lived a prince, a princess, and a queen, said to the be last of a Shiite Muslim royal line. Some said they were supernatural beings. It was a stunning and tragic story. But was it real?

Description for “The Jungle Prince, Chapter 1: The Railway Station,”

Compelling, right? From the start we have a rich history, a hard-to-believe physical occupation, and a conflict between a declared royal family and a modern national government. The question of truth is at the center of this story. Is truth what individuals proclaim about their lived history? Is it what the government validates? Is is the strength of a story passed by word-of-mouth and living in legend that drives action? Is is only what the reporter can eventually verify with evidence?

Over the story arc covered in three chapters and over a number of years, we follow Barry’s investigation–first through more traditional methods of interviewing sources, but quickly through developing a personal friendship with the isolated Prince Cyrus, living in a crumbling stone castle in the forest of Delhi.

As Barry probes about his family, their history, and their single-minded fight to restore what had been lost, she finds obfuscation rather than clarity and avoidance rather than openness. Simultaneously, she seems to form a genuine bond and affection for Cyrus–helping him through not only her company (insinuated to be his only human interaction) but also by bringing him material necessities and fulfilling personal requests.

Theme: Isolation

With Barry, we begin to form a tragic, yet fascinating picture of this family of three who live like animals, yet claim a royal lineage and a noble cause. What Ellen Barry (and I) can’t seem to wrap our heads around is the choice to live in hardship and isolation when other choices exist. And this is where I make my first connection. Upon completion of the debut novel from Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing, I found myself wrestling with the theme of isolation fraught throughout the novel’s main character Kya. In parts, the isolation seems to be portrayed as a necessary coping strategy for trauma and a natural outgrowth of distrust for humans who only seem to leave or hurt Kya. At other times, Owens, through the character of Kya, delves into the ache of loneliness and the desperation caused by lack of contact with another human, the cost of isolation. But also, the novel seems to frame isolation broadly as a way to keep the protagonist Kya pure, innocent, and above the petty human cares and squabbles. The multi-faceted and paradoxical portrayal of isolation is intentional as Owens herself states in an interview:

I became determined to write a novel that would explore how isolation affects people, especially a woman, and also how all of those instinctual behaviors I was seeing around me would play into the story.

BookPage interview with Delia Owens, August 2018

Both Barry and Owens are fascinated with the impact of isolation on individuals, and through both a fictional character and a proclaimed disenchanted Muslim prince, these authors invite us on the exploration with them.

I highly recommend both texts as the storytelling is captivating and the conclusions sparse. Each story offers ambiguity alongside detailed description, the promise of the human spirit alongside unimaginable trauma.

Obfuscation and Truth

Say something often enough and it may well be believed eventually. Write it down, and copy it once or twice and it will be quoted for ever more as Gospel truth.

“The Jungle Prince, Chapter 2: The Hunting Lodge”

As Ellen Barry shares her story of finding the jungle prince and struggling to uncover the truth about his family, she finds herself sifting through the family’s documentation–one of the only things they kept in meticulous order. The story of displaced Indian royalty spread far and wide, international reporters sought exclusive interviews and looked for new angles to report. People from countries thousands of miles away were fascinated with a woman whose convictions were so strong she moved her family into a railway station for almost ten years.

Among the articles and reports and requests for more interviews, Barry finds a key to the truth–one that sends her on an unexpected trip to England where the family’s sole surviver is discovered. Initially unwilling to talk about his (in)famous family in India, he does eventually recount his childhood memories that led to his mother and siblings traveling to that fated railway station. And his recounting is layered with the history of one of the “largest forced migrations in human history” as the policy of Indian Partition was enacted.

The podcast dives into a historical overview. As the British honored their post WWII agreement to grant India its autonomy, it also divided the country into two nation-states: Pakistan, for majority Muslims, and India, for majority Hindus. This decision-making was done in 5 weeks and resulted in incredible violence between these religiously-divided groups.

The conflagration stands as one of the deadliest and most brutal civil conflicts of the 20th century. There are no good estimates for how many people died.

“The Jungle Prince, Chapter 3: A House in Yorkshire”

As the stories of national history intersect with the story of the mysterious Indian family, Ellen Barry, after years of relationship-building and seeking, finally discovers the truth of the legendary Jungle Prince, his staunch mother, and other-worldly sister.

This nature of hidden truth and believed story is echoed in Owen’s fictional novel Where the Crawdads Sing through storyline of a small-town murder and through the relationship her main character, Kya, has with the town she is both cut off from and inherently dependent on. So I’ve been ruminating on how truth informs the world events and personal dramas that surround me daily.

History Repeating

Weeks after I listened to the final chapter of “The Jungle Prince” series and at least a week before I started the audible version of Where the Crawdads Sing, I found myself reading an article in The New Yorker magazine that caused me to marvel at the significance of the violent history of colonialism in India along with the dangerous rise of nationalism both in India and around our globalized world. These -isms shape the stories of 24-hour new cycles and the alarming headlines broadcast across our personal screens, echoed in our shared discourse. Nationalism and bigotry are rooted in histories we have chosen to ignore. They depend on our innocent and willful ignorance. And I’m wondering about my infinitesimal role in both.

The Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India” long-form article follows the footsteps of an Indian journalist, Rana Ayyub, who has taken great personal risks to uncover and understand the truth about India’s current leader, Narendra Modi. Her story highlights the recent suspension of an article in India’s constitution that granted autonomy to to Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state.

The [recently suspended] provision, [was] written to help preserve the state’s religious and ethnic identity, largely prohibits members of India’s Hindu majority from settling there.

“The Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India” Dexter Filkins

The article unveils the consequences of Modi’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and action, including description of his past involvement inciting a riot of deadly violence against Indian Muslims and his current power to use state-sanctioned violence against the minority (numbering 200 million) Muslims in the state of Kashmir.

In reading this article on the current power dynamics in India, I am remembering what I learned in The Daily podcast. Where I thought I started by marveling at a morbid fairy tale story, I ended by learning about the history of violence in India between the factions of Muslims and Hindus. And now, I read of Rana Ayyub, a Muslim, a minority in her country, and a journalist who cares desperately to report the truth and share the stories of those silenced. She slips into rooms of power and then seeks to expose them. She marches into Kashmir despite great danger, and wants to share the stories of those hiding and fearful, those who the mainstream media chooses to ignore, catering to propaganda instead.

In addition to elevating the story of Rana Ayyub, the article outlines Modi’s rise to power. Journalist Dexeter Filkins quotes a trained psychologist who interviewed Modi extensively to study the rise of Hindu nationalists:

Nandy interviewed Modi for several hours, and came away shaken. His subject, Nandy told me, exhibited all the traits of an authoritarian personality: puritanical rigidity, a constricted emotional life, fear of his own passions, and an enormous ego that protected a gnawing insecurity. During the interview, Modi elaborated a fantastical theory of how India was the target of a global conspiracy, in which every Muslim in the country was likely complicit. “Modi was a fascist in every sense,” Nandy said. “I don’t mean this as a term of abuse. It’s a diagnostic category.”

“The Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India” Dexter Filkins

And here is where fiction, modern fairytale, and recursive history collide. Even as I am captivated by the power of story and storytellers, I’m horrified that these violent cycles of power, oppression, and discrimination continue to cycle. The blood and trauma of our past seeds the soil for the isolation and repression of our present. Our isolation and repression fuel the rising epidemic of violence and bigotry. Can we learn enough, face enough, and do enough to reverse our current trajectories toward state-level fascism and localized nationalistic fervor?

I know this reflection has been complicated and overlapping. But these three stories kept forming Venn diagrams that I couldn’t ignore. Their characters and themes resonate with current events and feed my desire to actively push against, not passively observe, the emerging patterns of history repeating itself across our politics, our communities, and our world.

If there is hope, it is found in our storytellers that ask us to question the truths we are fed and who remind us of the histories that we spring from. It’s in the bravery of journalists, novelists, and artists who remind us what it means to be a contributing character of our own stories and how they intersect with other’s stories.

The Jungle Prince article with images and The Jungle Prince podcast series

The New Yorker article “Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India

A New York Times article on another woman journalist killed for reporting on Modi, and a Washington Post article on the danger Rana Ayyub faces for her work.

An article I found fascinating about the author of Where the Crawdads Sing that further illustrate the muddy intersections between truth and story: “The Dark History Behind the Year’s Bestselling Debut Novel

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