Expat Voice: Tales of India

The beautiful stories in India and his passion for the art of storytelling convinced Michael Burns to stay on in the country.


In 2011, when Michael Burns first came to India, his plan was to keep his stay short and sweet, but the land of stories, India, charmed him with its treasure trove of tales and he has been staying here ever since.

It is these stories that inspired him to start one of the country’s longest running, true live storytelling event series, Tall Tales Storytelling, in Mumbai. Burns has now started curating stories of people from different walks of life and has edited thousands of them from across the world.

He tells Little India about his life as a storyteller in Mumbai:

Journey in India
I came to India in 2011 as my girlfriend got a job here. We were planning to stay for 11 months, and it sounded like a plan. We came to Mumbai and I found it quite intriguing and stressful at the same time. Since my body was not equipped to handle the extreme heat and the spicy food, it was a bit of a struggle in the initial years. But after we spent a year in Mumbai, we decided to stay on to explore the rest of the country. We said, “Ok, just one more year,” and this became our mantra for the next six years.

I feel that India struggles with many things, for instance, the caste system and the level of inequality can be hard to believe. At the same time, behind these hardships are some unbelievably hardworking people who are constantly working towards changing the country for the better. For every tragedy in India, a bright mind is looking for a solution. It’s an amazing place!

The Tale of Storytelling
True storytelling is very well-known around the world and in the United States, true storytelling has become a popular form of art in the past 15 years. I wanted to recreate a similar forum for a night in 2013 in Mumbai. The response I received was overwhelming, and I was flooded with entries for the next show. People kept sending me submissions to participate in future shows.

As of now, we have had 63 shows where 218 different stories have been performed. Four years ago, I never thought I would be so passionate about teaching the art of storytelling, but now I am dedicated to it. My current project entails conducting The Story Retreat, that are comprehensive story craft workshops held in India, Thailand, Nepal and Greece.

Michael Burns (second from left) at a Tall Tales Storytelling event.

The Funniest Story About India
One line in my workshop that always gets a laugh is when I give a participant feedback in front of everyone by saying, “Not enough death.” They always crack up, but this is a very important point. To me, stories are a very serious business. I want to know what ideas a character will die for and how high the stakes are in someone’s story.

Teaching in India
Teaching here has been an amazing experience. In fact, the world of storytelling has opened up in new ways after I started teaching. Not only have I designed and led the Tall Tales workshops for writers, but I’ve also decided that next year I will form a new company called The Story Retreat, which will specialize only in writing retreats around the world. It is when I came to India that I realized that this was what I wanted to do. India gave me the chance to organize Tall Tales. I also wrote three books on story structures. Writing books and designing classes helped me go global via The Story Retreat and it all started in Mumbai.

Creating a Brand of Storytelling in India
I don’t have a brand of storytelling, but a mantra that I believe in is to avoid cliches or formulae. For instance, stories do not need to have a happy ending. In fact, the truly inspirational, satisfying and memorable stories rarely have a happy ending. In my workshops, I emphasize that as a storyteller, we need to understand the contradictions and absurdity of real life— which is never black or white.

Impressions of India
I love India. I really do. But not everything in the country appeals to me. I don’t love its extreme nationalism, the frightening trajectory of its freedom of speech, or the disparity between the rich and powerful at the expense of everyday citizens. However, I feel that India is a country that is evolving as the youngsters of the nation are not content to see India’s problems multiply into the twenty second century. It’s great to see Indians stand up for fellow citizens who’ve fallen through the social cracks or for important ideas that have little commercial value but can improve lives. These are serious battles and Indians are up for the fight. They don’t let things get them down — they rarely despair, the way we do in the West.

Traveling Around India
My favorite place in India would have to be the Jodhpur Fort. I went there for the Rajasthan International Folk Festival four years ago and it was surreal. With the mythical castle as the background, the concerts were held under the open sky among stars, it was incredible. This is the closest I have come to time travel.

I didn’t know anything about India before I came here and had misperceptions about the country, like so many other people. The only knowledge that I had about developing countries based on my travel to other regions was that the poor work amazingly hard. It is no different in India, no one here is lazy. Another truth about India, or any developing country for that fact, is that those who tend to have the least tend to be the most generous. My main takeaway from India is that it is bubbling with stories and struggling with rampant commercialism and patriarchy and racism.

The interview has been condensed and edited.

Expat Voice is regular column on expats in India. Email us at expat@littleindia.com to nominate yourself or another expat for the column.

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