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Stories our grandmother told us...

September 02, 2018 08:45 IST

'What we really need is a revival of storytelling at bedtime.'
Avantika Bhuyan reports.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

As a child, my favourite event of the day was the power cut.

That's when the family would set aside its chores and gather onto the terrace with bowls of dal moth.

All eyes would turn to the storyteller, my grandfather.

Grey clouds would turn into armies of dragons, in his telling, and trees in the distance would transform into looming ogres.

My favourite was the one about a super-girl -- my namesake -- who was aided by gods and goddesses.

She vanquished evil, helped those in need, talked to animals, climbed mountains, walked through forests -- and even did well in her exams!

I wish I had written those stories down so my own daughter could enjoy my grandfather's flights of imagination.

 

Luckily, other people are now documenting their grandparents' stories. One of these is author Lalita Iyer.

In 2015-2016, Iyer took this up as a project to celebrate her grandmother';s prolific storytelling.

Two stories from her grandmother's rich repertoire formed part of her first book, The Boy Who Swallowed a Nail and Other Stories (2016).

One of these is the delightful The Man Who Couldn't Stop Farting.

"I am pretty sure it is something my grandmother made up," says Iyer. It's about a poor woodcutter, who goes to the king's birthday celebrations.

The royal personage farts loudly; the woodcutter covers up for him and is rewarded with a bag of gold.

An envious neighbour's wife then comes up with a plan to help her husband fart his way to richness, which, of course, results in disaster.

"My grandma would dramatise the fart, making it a huge hit with us cousins," says Iyer.

Unexpectedly, the story resonated strongly with readers.

Iyer started receiving e-mails from others who had grown up at a time when families would actually have conversations, undistracted by technology.

She decided to write back to readers and reach out to acquaintances about creating a collection.

This grew into a crowdsourced project, culminating in two books, Grandma Tales, published last year by Scholastic, and the just released Grandpa Tales.

Familiar stories here are tweaked and modified by a grandparent's imagination.

In a retelling by Kiran Manral titled Set in Stone, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in Dorihaat, Uttarakhand, struggle to finish work on a vast field.

When they don't return in the evening, the villagers launch a search, only to find two rocks in the shape of the women.

"Naniji would maintain this story was true and that these rocks still exist in Dorihaat," says Manral.

The story was also emblematic of the lives of women in Uttarakhand, who labour away on the fields while the menfolk are away.

"Which is why this resonates so much with women and they are the ones who have narrated it over generations," says Manral.

Iyer's intention was to have only retellings of stories, but she soon realised that not all grandparents spun yarns.

Some would share anecdotes from their adventures, impressions of people, family histories. And it became equally important to collect those.

So, the collections also feature essays, poems and sketches, by writers like Jerry Pinto, Menaka Raman, Deepti Menon, Binu Sivan and Arundhathi Subramaniam.

Some narratives made the contributors re-examine their relationship with their grandparents.

For instance, Sejal Mehta's Ma Lived at 74 talks about the family matriarch.

It was therapeutic to write this essay, she says, as she hadn't been very understanding to her grandmother during her sickness.

"I learnt how extraordinary my grandma was only after she passed away, through the research for this story," says Mehta.

It's a sentiment echoed by Sukanya Venkatraghavan. "My grandfather, T B Swaminathan, was a scholar. There wasn't a mythological story that he didn't know," she says.

Venkatraghavan grew up with the idea of her grandfather being a respected, dignified person. However, people would tell stories of his rebelliousness as a child.

Her story, Ghost in the Attic, is about two boys who set out to explore the source of noise in the attic.

"I am sure that if my grandfather thought there was a ghost in the attic, he would have set out to investigate. This story gave me a chance to understand what he was like as a young boy," she says.

Meanwhile, Iyer has been receiving more mails from people interested in documenting their grandparents' stories.

As and when stories come in, a third instalment might materialise.

"It is not just about the story, but about the package of history, culture and mythology," says Manral.

Besides this project, bookstores and festivals also host storytelling sessions for kids.

But, as she says, "These are by appointment. What we really need is a revival of storytelling at bedtime."

Avantika Bhuyan
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