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.
To the floor manager at a restaurant after a family lunch:
“Hopeless hotel. And you charge so much!”
“I like watching Mahabharatha1 on Vijay TV.”
“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?”
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.
“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.
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.