Once Upon a Time…

These four words open up windows to entire universes—unexplored, or familiar. This is how many a story begins. Stories are a life force that have imbued human life with that something extra, since the dawn of civilization. Stories are a way to convey history, culture, language, spirituality, and identity. One way to keep stories alive is storytelling. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication.

20 March is celebrated as World Storytelling Day–a day to remember and remind ourselves of the magic and power of stories. What began in Sweden, on this date in 1991, as All Storytellers Day has now become a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. On World Storytelling Day, as many people as possible tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night.

On this day I celebrate a storyteller who collected, recreated, and created a timeless repertoire of stories. Generations of children have grown up with these tales, told and retold by parents and grandparents over the last one hundred years. This was my grandfather Gijubhai Badeka, one of Gujarat’s foremost educationists and storytellers.

In Gujarati, as in most Indian languages, the child reader had remained somewhat neglected till the middle of the nineteenth century. There was hardly any specific literature for children; only stories retold from classical Indian literature, or heroic stories from Western literature, in not very satisfactory translations. Gijubhai pioneered the creation of special literature for children that also contributed to preserving the oral tradition of literature through exploring and compiling the rich legacy of folk literature. His search for folk tales crossed the boundaries of language and country. This journey of exploration he described thus, in his seminal work titled Vaarta nu Shastra (The Art and Craft of Stories) published in 1925. “So many stories have travelled in foreign lands, so many stories have changed their religion and form; it is an adventure to trace their journeys. If we become wandering travellers with the stories, we will discover that we find one story in Tibet and will see the same story in Africa; we will discover the same story wrapped in snow at the North Pole, and yet if we wander in the Arabian desert, there it will be, but uncovered and bare…but still we recognise the story. Some stories adapt to their land, taking on the form and language of their adopted home, while others retain their origins wherever they may settle. Some stories follow the creed of universal brotherhood, they see the world as their home and go wherever they get a chance to serve and please. Some settle firmly in different countries and come to be recognised as belonging to that place. They are then only translated to reach other countries.”

Many of Gijubhai’s stories are members of this travelling band. Gijubjai transformed and localised these stories, so that they are steeped in the sounds and colours of Gujarat, and have today become not only Gujarati, but uniquely ‘Gijubhai’s’ stories. They are simply told tales characterised by a mixture of prose and rhyme. The repetition of rhymes makes for lively storytelling which listeners join in. Gijubhai retold delightful tales of ordinary people, and familiar birds and animals. With equal panache he churned out stories of common folk with common trades—tailors, potters, barbers, shopkeepers, but also kings, queens and princesses. The characters reflect basic human traits—greed, envy, fear, desire for one-upmanship. Animal tales reflect a close and symbiotic relationship between animals and people. Many open with “once upon a time”… and end “happily ever after.” A hundred years after they were written these stories still touch a cord in the child, and also the child in each of us.

Stories are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going, and they are a part of us even though we do not realise this. But stories need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive.

Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok said “…what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.

In my own small way, I try to carry forward the legacy of my grandfather by translating and retelling these timeless tales.

–Mamata

It’s Not Easy…Being Parents

This piece is continuing Meena’s recent angst about parenting.

Indeed, parents need counselling more than the children. In many ways it seems that children today are more the receptacles of the parents’ own aspirations and, yes, peer pressures. How does the parent participate in conversations which centre around–What school does your child go to; what does she/he excel at; where did you go for your last family holiday; which are the different types of special coaching your child has… and so on. So the child has to live up to the expectations of not only the parents, but the social circles that they move in. And somewhere in all this circle of “well-meaning concern” the child begins to feel inadequate and undeserving, and there starts slow seeping of confidence, which sadly may end in extreme consequences.

At another level is the insidious guilt of the parents—for being so busy with their work and leisure; for delegating a lot of the traditional parenting tasks to external help; for not giving what they feel may be adequate time and attention; for not giving the child “the best that money can buy, after all what are we working so hard for?” This manifests in the over-concern, over indulgence and over coddling by parents; and a sense of birth right to privilege, self-centredness, and “my parents can set it right for me” on the part of the child. This too may have disastrous consequences should the well-planned map of “how we see our life” go awry.

Every generation of parents feels that the times that they live in are the most challenging, and that they require bespoke answers to child raising.

Interestingly, over 80 years ago, my grandfather Gijubhai Badheka, wrote several volumes on the challenges of parenting, with the apt title It Is Not Easy…Being Parents.  Gijubhai was not trained in child psychology; but his deep concern for the welfare of the child led him to observe, reflect, and note his thoughts. He described the dilemmas faced by both parents, as well as by children, and explored possibilities of how these could be handled.

For me, these simple yet profound notings are as fundamental and relevant even today. Sharing a few excerpts, translated by me from the original in Gujarati.

The young boy strenuously clambers up two rungs of the ladder. As he raises his foot to reach the third rung, the father says, “Come down; you are too young to climb ladders. If you fall you will break your bones.”

The young girl carefully wields a knife to chop vegetables or to sharpen a pencil. The mother scolds, “Put down that knife; you will cut yourself.”

The daughter wants to put the pan of dal on the gas stove. Mother says, “You will get scalded.”

The daughter says “Can I carry the glass of water for the guest?” Mother says, “You will spill it.”

The adults are trying to solve a problem. As they discuss the child offers some suggestions. All say, “Now you don’t try to act too big for your boots.”

Every day in innumerable situations we react in this fashion, unknowingly squashing the confidence of our children. Every time it takes up a task, it hears echoes of its parents’ cautionary warnings, and drops it forthwith, overcome by the fear that it will not be able to successfully accomplish the task. If someone asks it to climb up, carry something or use a tool, it may refuse, or if forced to do so, ends up falling or spilling or hurting itself. The child ends up even more ashamed at its own inadequacy to carry out the task.

By corroding our children’s confidence, we truly do make them unable to perform. In some ways our lack of confidence and trust in our children is a reflection of our own lack of confidence.

We need to have the strength to have confidence in our children. Encouraged by that trust, our children will prove themselves more than worthy of what we have bestowed. A child is human, a human striving to grow. We must enable this growth, the blossoming of its personality.

Removed from all the outer trappings of “success,” ultimately what do we, as parents, wish for our children? I think it should be “the confidence and courage to take on life!”

–Mamata