Telling tales — a family tradition

Like many families, ours too has an oral tradition.

Are we there yet?

All of us who have kids have heard this refrain so many times. And even those of us who don’t have our own, but traveled with kids have heard our share of “Are we there yet?”

The first time that I heard this, was when my great-grandmother — yep, my mother’s grandmother was telling us a story. Athai-patti, as all of us called my great-grandmother, had been widowed when she was nineteen and my grandfather was her only child. My grandfather however had ten kids, and lost his wife — when my mother was maybe 14. So Athai-patti, in her sixties had to step in to help raise my mom and her siblings. Luckily for us she didn’t stop with just them, but played a big role in our lives.

On weekends when I visited my grandfather’s place, my cousins and I would gather around her at dinner time. She’d have a large bowl in front of her, filled with thayeer-sadam, a mixture of rice and yoghurt, and we’d all be seated in a semicircle around the bowl. She’d ladle out a spoon of yoghurt-rice into each of our outstretched hands even as she told a story. This particular day the story she told was about a young girl, who’d been married to a lion — in the guise of a young man. After the wedding, the “young man” set out with his bride back to his “house” in a far away jungle. The ride was long and it was then that the young bride asked “Are we there yet?

Source: Random House

What made athai-patti’s tales special was that they were truly multi-media affairs. She’d not merely tell the stories — she’d make us live them. “Eat up, eat up your food” she’d have to say periodically, as we often listened with our mouths hanging open, the food in our hands uneaten. She’d sing songs. When the young bride sets out from her parental home with the groom, its customary for special songs, often sad, bidding adieu (or Bidaai) to be sung. And athai-patti would cry as she sang this “goodbye” song to the bride. It was then our turn to tell her “Please don’t cry!” Forty years on, this experience as real to me today as it was then.

My grandfather, athai-patti’s son was no shirker when it came to telling tales. His stories, many from the Mahabharata — the great Indian epic, often had life lessons or at the very least moral dilemmas, that expected us to discuss in debates he’d kick off.

When I became a father, I realized how lucky I had been. Not just that I had these two lovely daughters, but to have come from a family of storytellers. I’d never thought of my father as a storyteller, till I realized that many of the stories that I told in business settings were tales he’d shared.

Recently I joined the local ToastMaster’s club, and imagine my delight to discover a slew of great storytellers. It helped me realize that story telling has always been part of my lived experience.

The cherry on the cake is when my teen daughters come home — ever more rare these days — and ask “Dad, tell me a story.”

The tradition that my great grandma set rolling continues to this day!

And “No we aren’t there yet!