Now I am no Scheherazade, but it all started about six years ago. My younger daughter was six months old. Kuttu, the elder one, was nearing her third birthday. It was a hard time for Kuttu—coping with a new school, the insecurity that follows a sibling’s arrival, my imminent return to a non-stop TV job. She was clingy and anxious, something I had never seen in her earlier, accustomed as she was to daycare from the time she was a year old.
One of the things that comforted her was storytelling, especially stories about Noddy. Night after night, she would bring me a book from her Noddy collection and away we would go, on the nodding man’s little red and yellow wagon, his cap tinkling as he tangled with goblins and got into yet another adventure with his friend, Big-Ears the brownie.
Inevitably, we ran through the collection and I was weary of enacting the same stories. One night, I decided to make up a story. A break from the usual, just for a night. A story about two mice, sisters called Meethu and Meethi, Meethu being the elder. No one took them seriously because they were tiny in size and had the smallest of voices. I tried to introduce a touch of realism and keep their colour brown but Kuttu was firm that they had to be what seems to be every little girl’s favourite colour: pink.
Storyteller: Don’t be afraid to make up tales.(Thinkstock)
From then on, Meethu and Meethi became regular bedtime friends for Kuttu.
I enjoyed making up stories, disappearing into a world of adventures I had created. Their encounters with make-believe friends and teachers was an escape not just for my children, but also for me.
Every night, to the keen ears of Kuttu and six-month-old Amu, who could not follow a word but registered every change in inflection wide-eyed, I would dream up the adventures of Meethu and Meethi. Come 8pm, the lights would go dim and the bed would become a stage. My husband, if home early, would join in, his thwarted thespian aspirations finding expression in those performances.
Through these stories I also found ways to address troublesome issues. Getting Kuttu to eat vegetables, for instance, had always been a problem. She loathed everything, except potatoes. A few stories about Meethu’s superhuman strength (no prizes for guessing why) helped change that without too many scenes at the dining table.
Dealing with friendly strangers, a tricky subject when your child spends a large part of the day away from home, was something the stories touched upon repeatedly. Meethu helped Kuttu cope with a rather unfriendly class teacher because she had to cope with so many changes every time her family changed homes. Years later, Amu’s habit of pinching and biting was similarly resolved, although that took many stories. Amu also insisted on changing Meethi’s colour to sky blue in her first assertion of independence.
Over the years, I have wondered what triggered this ritual. I now like to imagine I was subconsciously continuing a hoary tradition. I have vivid memories dating back to when I was about four-five years old, waiting impatiently for my father to begin his stories. The lights off, he would start off in his deep baritone, “Oru naali ki...”, Tamil for “One day..”. The beginning would always be the same, later changing to a mix of English and Tamil.
Night after night, for well over an hour, he would narrate the stories of a little girl and her dog. These would be stories about the Alsatian we had, Bertie, and I. The rest of the characters would be animals from The Jungle Book, the then current favourite. His stories were simple, about the adventures and small scrapes we would get into. Sometimes they would be about animals in need of shelter and rescue. I don’t remember any attempt to get some message across.
Simpler times, I guess.
At some point he stopped telling them. I don’t know if I outgrew them.
The spoken word is energy. Energy is never destroyed. It floats about in the ether for eternity. Maybe one day, if we listen hard enough, we will all hear once again the stories our grandparents and parents told us on summer afternoons and winter nights.
Now Kuttu is nearly 8, Amu, 6. I retired Meethu and Meethi several months ago, thinking it was time to move on to some grown-up books. But I hope Meethu and Meethi gave them the eyes to see the stories that breathe outside of books.
Shai Venkatraman is a writer, teacher and blogger.
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