Tell me a story

I am not sure if I have said this before, but my grandmother’s Cool Factor is off the charts. She is convinced her children are country bumpkins, because they were unfortunate enough to grow up in Madras and Coimbatore, while she grew up in Bombay. She is fabulous – in spite of her bowel and limbs failing her ever so often, and her unsteady descent into dementia.

Sample 1:

To the floor manager at a restaurant after a family lunch:

“Hopeless hotel. And you charge so much!”

Sample 2:

“I like watching Mahabharatha1 on Vijay TV.”

<Why?>

“That Arjun fellow is very good looking.”

She isn’t typical, of this I’m sure.

She didn’t entertain us with stories from epics (as other grandparents often seemed to do, according to my field notes from the nineties), or stories designed to impart some kind of life lesson (wisdom/moral science/values) during bed times and meal times. Instead, she threatened to complain to our parents if we didn’t finish our tasks on time. So I gave myself the stories I didn’t receive. Animals that talked, demons (both male and female), evil mothers-in-law and crafty daughters-in-law, stupid sons and resourceful daughters, kings and queens, princes and princesses. I bought every Amar Chitra Katha2 book I could find and read it cover to cover.

The only story I remember hearing is the one about the old lady and the crow and the fox. I cannot, however, remember who told me this story. (Not my grandmother though.)

In some place, a long time ago, an old lady sat under a tree making vadai3. There was a crow that lived in this very tree. You see, the crow was often hungry and always lazy. When the old lady wasn’t looking, the crow snuck away a piece of vadai with its beak, and went back to its perch. A fox frequented this path, and the old lady chased him away without fail. So he thought for a bit, and decided he could make the crow part with the piece of vadai.

“Oh crow,” said the fox, “I have heard that you sing beautifully. Can you sing a song for me please?”

Version 1:

The crow was flattered beyond measure, and feeling full of himself, opened his mouth to sing. The piece of vadai fell from his mouth, which the fox picked up. He was immediately on his way, happier now.

Version 2:

“If the fox is smart,” thought the crow, “so am I.” He took the piece of vadai from his mouth and held it in his feet, and said to the fox, “You came all the way to hear me sing? You are so nice!” He went on to sing, which was unbearable to say the least, but there stood the fox, dejected at having lost his snack.

Moral(s) of this story with two endings: Foxes are universally depicted as smart (and not in a very nice way), crows can be smart (or not).

Today, I have with me enough stories to last a few lifetimes, because A.K. Ramanujan has collected them from all over India.4

There was one story in particular that made me laugh out loud:

A man had two wives, the second wife younger than the first. They quarreled all the time, and the man soon grew tired of it all. He made them live far away from each other, and promised to divide his time equally between his two homes. The first wife (who was jealous of the second wife) decided he looked too young for his age, and plucked all the black hair from his head. The second wife felt he looked too old for his age, and plucked all the white hair from his head. Thus the man with two wives was left with no hair on his head.

I imagined this story playing out with characters we all know5, especially a certain grandfather who might just be the spryest ninety two year old in the country.

Stories take on numerous forms, with each retelling shaping them a different way.

Go on then. Tell me a story you grew up hearing.

Key:

1Mahabharatha: Ancient Indian epic, shown on TV in a serialized format

2Amar Chitra Katha: Indian comics that were an important part of my childhood

3Vadai: Fried snack made from lentils

4Folktales from India by A.K. Ramanujan: Almost 400 pages of story after story [Bonus: helpful notes at the end]

5Political reference which I expect you to understand if you are from (/live in) Tamil Nadu. You can read about it here.


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16 thoughts on “Tell me a story

  1. That was very interesting. My brother and I read Amar Chitra Katha, and there were more such magazines like Champak, Nandan, Chandamama. It was fun getting to know the various versions of the stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata.

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  2. Not exactly a favourite but this is a one that I read from Poonthalir (Tamil version of something akin to Twinkle comics, which existed once upon a time, long, long ago), and am able to recollect off my head now. It goes like this:

    There were two friends – thieves, who went to steal from a wedding hall. They were walking on the roof when Thief1 fell through a slightly weak tile and fell amidst a group of snoring men. It was a ruckus. When it quietened down, Thief1 said “Oh, idhu dhaan boologamaa”, and everyone around him was convinced that he was an alien and treated him with food and he quietly snuck away the next day. Theif2, now, felt extremely jealous for the food and the jewellery which Thief1 was gifted by the people. So, he tried to imitate him and fell through the roof the next night. But, when things quietened down, Thief2, in his sheer excitement said, “oh idhu dhaan poosanikaaya”, and, lo and behold was beaten black and blue (for this time, the people did realize this is a thief) and sent him on his way back.

    The story did not have a ‘moral’ as the byline or even a PS.

    In fact, Poonthalir was known for its no-point stories. There were all types: moral stories, historical ones, from epics, from different religions, a corner of internation stories, funny ones, simple ones. Ahh, nice times. It is quite unfortunate that they stopped publishing when I was 10. I remember crying about it! 😀

    I so have a chinna paati (my mother’s dad’s brother’s wife…he he) who lived in the same city and was the usual child sitter. She must have told me some million stories. Those were awesome too.

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  3. There was a lot to take in here, and a lot lost thanks to cultural divides. It’s funny to see how very different countries tell stories and what meaning they have even within their own country.

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    1. Thanks for reading! I understand it must have been a lot to take in. I tried to make it easier with a Key, but I’m not sure how helpful it was. I routinely write stuff without ever putting it up on Yeah Write, but I just wanted to this time, as some kind of an experiment. Do write in if you have a favourite story you’d like to share! It’s always interesting to discover what someone in another part of the world grows up with. 🙂

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  4. My dad is a great story teller and told me loads of stories of the “Who will bell the cat” variety. He encouraged me to read from the Children’s Encyclopedia and so we read stories like “Baba Yaga and the Little Girl with the Kind Heart.”

    My favorite story was “Alibaba and the 40 thieves”. The MGR version. He also told me stories like “Kuleabagavalli”. He had so little access to cinema during those times. Being able to see the MGR movies was a type of God-send. Recently I tried to tell my daughter the bowdlerized of Alibaba and failed. I realized that I didn’t remember even half of it. So I asked my dad to narrate it instead. He still remembers the story perfectly. My daughter listened in awe to the story. She did not seem scared of the gory parts. Of Alibaba’s brother’s head being sawed off and all that. I realized that it was an integral part of that story. I just should not have censored it away.

    I am not good at narration. So I read to her. Narnia, Alice, Enid Blyton, naughtiest girl etc. It was difficult to convince that there is a whole beyond Suppandi. But I have succeeded at last. She has completed “Island of Adventure” and I have promised to buy “Mountain of Adventure” next. I hope she continues to read. It is difficult in these times. There is so much more adrenaline pumping games around.

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    1. I don’t know if I’m any good at story telling or not, I’ve so far only narrated entire movies to others 😀 I’m always confused about sanitizing stories for kids… I see my cousins censor stories for their children, and I find myself thinking “Nobody did that for me, but it’s quite alright.” Maybe these stories are a way to put forth strange/ frightening concepts in a manner that is easier to accept.

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  5. The following is my contribution:

    A simpleton is gifted a goat. He puts it on his shoulders and walks home. On the way three thieves see him. They hatch a plan. First one of them walks past him and says “Nice dog, but why are you carrying it?” “Are you blind?” says the simpleton. “It is a goat.”. “Hey, your dog, your wish. I was just asking” says the thief and walks away.

    Next comes the next one and says “Nice calf, is it not heavy?”. “What calf, dude” he says. “Can’t you see it is a goat?”. “Hey, the calf is just so fat and I did not want you to hurt your shoulders. That’s all” say the thief.

    The last one calls it a donkey and ridicules him. The simpleton is now convinced that it is a shape shifter and flees after dropping the goat down. 🙂 😀

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  6. A nice glimpse into your story-telling culture. I grew up in the southern United States, we have a story similar to the fox and crow story. The moral has to do with vanity, the crow thinks very highly of himself and looses his dinner to every animal who will admire his singing.

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  7. Lovely post! I loved reading this one. Brought back memories of my formative years where I lived in my grandma’s house most of the time.

    “That Arjun fellow is very good looking.”

    –> LOL! My mind went back to 1996, post Kadhal Desam, when one day there was “Pasa Malar” on JJ TV (That was the channel name back then). My grandma asked me if we could change channels and see if we could catch Abbas in “Mustafa Mustafa” elsewhere!!

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