Wednesday, March 31, 2010



A simple 7 lettered word, but very potent. A state of mind as well as a journey…..

For me the journey started almost 15 years back with simple bedtime stories.

My dad would tell us stories; my brother and me. Bedtime stories for us didn’t mean being read out classic fairytales from books in English with glossy covers. I learnt to speak English when I started school and that is when I was introduced to The Princess Brigade and made friends with Cinderella, Snow White and the rest of them dainty damsels.

My bedtime stories were about an African elephant; a brave elephant, who was the chief of his herd and lead them through a number of adventures through the dangerous and exciting jungles of Africa. Wrapped up in our blankets, snuggling close to our dad I remember begging him for a new story every night. All the poor man would have wanted to do I am sure is sleep his fatigue away but he’d never once turn away and go to sleep. He’d try and stall. Maybe tell us he’d say an interesting one tomorrow and to just sleep off the desire to hear one today but never once did he ever out rightly deny us a story telling session. Once tucked into our huge king sized bed dad would crawl in and ask “Ok, so what story do you want to hear tonight?”

The days the question never popped out of him were a sign of the extent of his exhaustion. Daddy really had to be bushed to refuse us a story.

I loved the elephant. He was so brave, so courageous, so exotic. He also had children: baby elephants who’d lead the herd when they’d grow up. Lying their in our dark bedroom with moonlight streaming in and creating eerie shadows, my father’s silhouette visible against the muted moonlight and my brother kicking me between the sheets I used to imagine in my mind’s eye the thick jungles of Africa and the enormous rivers that meant so much to these elephants. I used to imagine them migrate from dry, parched lands of their forefathers destroyed by wily, selfish human beings and go in search of greener pastures. Their brave escapades, scraps with lions {Wow!} which they obviously won and their ability to make medicines out of wild herbs for every wound possibly imaginable was riveting enough to keep me thinking late into the night, imagining. The days daddy did go to sleep I’d stay awake in bed thinking of the myriad situations possibly thinkable in a young child’s head. I’d imagine how the planet would have been before the arrival of humans and bleep: all mankind would vanish and a desert would remain in my head. Then I’d wonder what the universe looked like without earth and suddenly an image of all the planets revolving around the sun with the earth conspicuously missing would emerge. Then I’d try to imagine what everything would have looked like before the universe and then everything would just black out in my head. Then I’d screw my eyes shut tight, in concentration, trying to imagine something other than black because black is a colour and well, you only have colours in the universe not outside it. Then I’d get a terrible headache and fall asleep.
My father is an extraordinary story teller. I don’t say this just because he’s my father but because he really does have the knack to put across a story. His narratives were and still are always detailed. How the forest looked, the time of the day, the noises around, how the elephant looked with acute details regarding physical and emotional characteristics of the protagonists. It aided my effort to imagine, to recreate what he was imagining inside my head. He is also adept {as many who know him well, especially my mother would agree} at spinning yarns of a bizarre variety. You can call them fabrications, tall tales, lies excuses, whatever. The fact was that no one can come up with situations and reasons like he can, with the snap of a finger. It would seem almost natural, like a reflex action, the speed at which he would come up with stuff as if it was all there stored up in his head.

The best part about our tale-telling session was that not a single story I heard from him was in English. Not one. It was always in my mother tongue which is anything unlike English. My African elephants spoke my mother tongue.

The days my mother would come to put us off to sleep we’d be assured of a good laugh the next day. My mom was and is a working mom and works twice as hard as other moms. So that implies she’s twice as tired and that means she falls asleep twice as fast when she hits the pillow. While putting us off to sleep she’d be the first to doze off and relentless requests for a night time fable would result in disjointed sentences about
“There was a lion who was the king of the jungle…. Silence….. Mommy ? Hmph…. Yeah, he went to war and got hurt…..Mommy? {accompanied by a nudge in the ribs} Hmmmm…. And did you sweep the kitchen? The sink needed washing….you didn’t?”

Somehow the fact that household chores haunted my mothers dreams tickled me so much that I’d burst into peals of laughter with my brother which we’d later manage to smother, in an attempt to not wake up our drained mother.

My mother’s claim to fame was the letters she wrote: reams and pages of it to my grandmother who then lived away from us in India. I would always hear {and still do} my relatives exclaim in awe about her detailed descriptions and fluency of language. She is still the epitome of beautiful handwriting in our family. Funny thing is that she wrote my Gran in English who’d then have it translated by one of her nieces or nephews.
My Gran too is not far behind on the concocting- stories- front. The best part about having my Gran tell you a story, a real life incident or the episode of a show you missed is that by the time she tells you all of it there will be a lot of additions and deletions to suit her tastes. A lot more ‘masala’ would be the appropriate term. Even her emotions and reactions are always excessive to the action that triggers it in the first place. I always felt that she would have done very well as an actor. My dad thinks that if we’d sent her into movies or serials {and in Indian movies and serials emotional mothers always play an important role and capture the hearts of audiences} we’d have become millionaires by now. For my Gran everything has to have drama and be melodramatic; even emotions. Else life is never fun.
The best thing about mom was she was a book worm: an avid, voracious reader. I still remember her entire collection of books which I wasn’t meant to read since they ‘were books for big people’.

To oblige my curiosity she got me some of my own. It started with baby editions of Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, moving on to my favourite: - Enid Blyton. The first time I read her collection of short stories I felt I’d get a headache {I felt the same when I read Harry Potter for the first time, so you can imagine} but soon I was fast friends with gnomes, pixies, fairies, elves and friendly witches. I had images, of what I thought they’d look like burnt into my brain accompanied by my deductions of what the English landscape looked like. From then on there was no looking back and thus started my lifelong affair with books.

I’ve moved on since Enid Blyton and my African elephants and grown up enough to realize that not all mythical creatures actually fit my description of them and that the African elephants were a part of a series of stories my daddy learnt way back in school. Then somewhere along the lines I wrote a song, some short stories in school, and few bizarre essays about magical women in red who haunted empty woods riding a white horsed sleigh, and a rabbit who was given a secret treasure by a wood nymph {I am not sure if it was a wood nymph} and things like that and then came poetry…..

My father and mother are regular people doing regular 9-5 jobs, rearing two kids and trying to achieve the dreams most normal people have like buying a house, educating their children the best they can and being good human beings. My grandmother was one among the many young widows who raised three kids on their own and raised them well. There is nothing spectacular or exaggerated about them but for me they are raconteurs, authors and actors. They have something within them that shines through and reflects on me and the things I do or love to do. Maybe they never thought much of it and no one else did too because they were simple, unexciting behaviours. But it’s their ‘shining something’ that lighted up new avenues for me.

We all have that something we don’t think really matters but I think we should stick to doing things we love or things that come automatically and is second nature to us. Maybe it takes someone else to recognize the light that shines within us and find us special. Perhaps our little ‘shinings’ are there within us to provide light to others.

Yours, trying really hard to recollect what the African elephant’s name was.