Telling stories is not just a way of passing time. It is the way the wisdom gets passed along. The stuff that helps us to live a life worth remembering.”
Rachel Naomi Remen
Growing up in Kashmir was as if time had slowed down by a few notches. Living in a joint family was a norm. We were a total of five kids in the family, I had the privilege of being the youngest. That qualified me to snuggle up with my grandmother in her bed on cold winter nights. She would put one arm across me and with the other she would stroke my hair gently. The highlight of the ceremony was a simple unabridged story which she would tell me until one of us fell asleep.
There were two or three stories which she would narrate almost every day, and I would listen to them as if I was hearing them for the first time. I would be transported into different lands and imagine myself as different characters in those stories.
One story which fascinated me was about a louse which was very hungry. As it travelled it met different animals, a cat, mouse, fox, sheep etc and the louse ate them all. It was so full in the end that it couldn’t move and burst open and out came all the ill-fated animals. I don’t know whether she cooked up the story or carried it over from her own childhood, but I would be captivated by the imagery.
Another story was interesting as it defied the value system of those times, though at that time I did not understand the implication. The story goes like this: a boy finds a long hair on his desk. He picks the strand of hair and keeps shouting that whoever the owner of the hair was, would become his wife. Hearing this his sister vehemently protests as the strand of hair is hers. Instead of taking back his words the boy keeps up his stance.
Out of shame the girl climbs a tree. The shouts of the boy are still audible to the girl so she jumps on to the nearest tree and from there to another till there are no trees left. Desperately she looks at the moon and asks for help. The moon takes her in and my granny would declare that that is why we see a face on the moon. What an enchanting and intriguing tale! For a little girl it was food for thought.
How could anyone have become an adult without ever being told a story.
Another of her stories was funny but had a moral. I used to tell my son this story when he was little and he would love it each time he heard it, just as I did. The story is about a rat couple. One day the rat tells his wife to make rice pudding. He gets her the ingredients and leaves her to cook the dish.
The wife enthusiastically starts cooking and when it is almost done she tastes a little. It is really good so she has some more. And some more, till she ends up gobbling up the whole dish. When her husband returns and asks for food she starts crying and says a cat came by and ate the whole thing.
The husband is sympathetic and does not bother much. Next day he asks her to try again, but the same thing gets repeated. The husband ignores this again but is not happy with the explanation. The next day, he again asks her to make the dish with a reminder that she should make sure to safeguard the food. He pretends to leave the house, but hides in a corner to see what was really happening.
As is anybody’s guess the thief is caught, but the rat was so cross with his wife that he cut her ear. The poor she rat was followed by children teasing her for having eaten the pudding. She asks for forgiveness and never does it again. I had even made up a song for my son of how the children teased her. My son loved the story and making him eat his food was easy.
For me stories were a part of growing up, thanks to my granny and mother. I would do a pretty good job of story-telling myself, when my son was growing up. I had taken this fact for granted that stories were a part of every child’s childhood till I started teaching. I was working as a psychologist and primary teacher in a private school. One day at the end of school day I was waiting for the children to board the bus. One of my colleagues came urgently up to me, asking me if I could quickly narrate the story of Hansel and Gretel as she had to retell it to her class the next day. I was so taken back by the request that I dismissed her, saying that it would do her good to read the story herself and, maybe, even rehearse it by telling it to her own children that night.
The bus left the school but I couldn’t fathom how a young mother herself and a nursery teacher by profession wouldn’t know this age-old story. How could anyone have become an adult without ever being told a story. I investigated this further and to my disbelief more than half of the teachers of the school and the parents of the children did not know any basic stories.
Childhood stories, rhymes and songs play such an important role in our growing up. They are like the butterflies we chased in our childhood, which we never caught
YouTube and other gadgets have become story tellers more to keep children occupied rather than to stimulate their curiosity or enhance their imagination. The days of pop up story books are over. Grannies are redundant, mothers are stressed and fathers were never expected to know any stories anyway.
When my son was less than a year old, one night while trying to get him to sleep I was singing the lullabies I usually sang for him. Somewhere in the middle, maybe due to exhaustion or something I stopped mid-sentence. Suddenly a tiny little voice completed the line. My face lit up with happiness and pride for this tiny person who I never thought was even listening to my crooning. Not only was he listening, but he remembered the words too!
Childhood stories, rhymes and songs play such an important role in our growing up. They are like the butterflies we chased in our childhood, which we never caught – but the happiness they bought us while we chased them was immense. As someone said, “The one thing that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So, write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can”.
It’s time to invite grandmas back into our lives and know them better, and know our own selves through their stories of abundant love and wisdom.
Art: Abhilasha Kamre
Abhilasha is an artist and teacher who left her job some years ago to pursue her dream of Art. She runs an art academy and teaches art to underprivileged children and the elderly.
The other art is the writer’s own work.
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