The one thing my mother and her siblings inherited is the art of storytelling. As a child I would often be treated to a story and I suspect it had more to do with her interest than my good behaviour. Naughty or nice I got a story unencumbered by moral undertones or hidden messages. Not for me the oft repeated Ramayana and the Mahabharata, mythology was left to books and grandparents. What I got was stories vivid in detail, with rich characters and fairly engaging stories. There were princes who could talk to animals, there were queens and kings riding across deserts. There were magic sorcerers and housewives, sons fathers and servants conspiring endlessly moving life like. There was ‘kodoing’ the alien, elves that came from Vienna and invisible men straight out of Mr. India. These provided a rich tapestry of thoughts as I dozed off and today I have a fair idea of what I owe my imagination and some of my writing to.
I say inherited in the first line because I can recall every single one of my aunts and uncles doing this to their children. Often characters would crossover and get personality make-overs. Between 10 siblings a wide array of literature was digested and the remnants chewed thoroughly to provide fodder for thought. It was only as we grew that I discovered the master story teller in my grandmother. Paati’s stories were of her day to day life of potato crops that failed, of water that came in pots from miles away, of strange vegetables that grew in the backyard and of truancies that her children committed.
Old enough to understand the workings of this world, stories grew wilder and darker, the Mahabharata assumed new complex layers and black and white met midway teaching me gray. The Mahabharata may well have a standardized version that no Indian knows of, for each one of us has an own way about the epic. I always heard it as a loose collection of stories, proverbs and anecdotes. An aunt would throw in a reference as she cooked and a grandmother would admonish with a particular name, an uncle would ramble about sealing off some loose contact and the rest was dutifully filled in by books . Reciting the Mahabharata as a story is hard work, an effort spanning three generations and still counting. In the hazy depths of my brain the story told has somehow merged with the storyteller and it is those murky mists that intrigue me more today.
A similar arc is shared by Ponniyin Selvan, Kalki’s great epic. I heard the basic outline with names and plot as a wide eyed kid and even as a cynical adult I am woefully incomplete in its’ knowledge. Time and again I have cursed my inability to read Tamil making me dependant on people and their wispy memories for this story. The English translation I read was unanimously declared to be inferior and quite frankly I’d rather listen that read this story. On a windy December evening at Kodikarai my aunt recited lines about the same place. At every temple of Thanjavur visited, I have a collection of trivial bits of information which I know will link somewhere somehow back into the story. A childish quest I have embarked upon, to stitch memory and lore.
Stories never end, nor do they begin. Those are concepts reserved for numbers. Stories unravel themselves gently, sometimes passionately. Darkly or with cherubic goodness. The listener peels layer by layer off and in this action lies the thrill of discovery, the passion for information and the gradual building up of imagination.