Monday, April 13, 2009

Once Upon A Time...

Ammuma - my grandmother is an ace story-teller. When my brother and I were young, she regaled us with some not-so-conventional bedtime stories. That is how I first heard of 'The Titanic' and was taken by the phrase "ill-fated maiden voyage". It was also the reason why, many years later while reading Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca I knew how it ended even before I had finished. And first sentences from books like "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again" and "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" were in fact all too familiar. Charles Dickens' Tale of Two Cities was an instant favourite. My brother and I asked again and again to hear the story of Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton and Lucie Manette. I found the descriptions of the siege of Bastille and the rolling heads at the guillotine magnificently macabre.

I have an image from one such narration - it is of an old almost toothless woman sitting on the other side of the guillotine knitting away an inexorable scarf watching with considerable glee as the heads roll into a basket. One would imagine that my child's mind would reject such violent imagery - but somehow it stuck. As did Marie Antoinette and her "let them eat cake" remark which is something of a historical myth. I think my grandmother's bedside oratory brilliance had something to do with the fact that both history and literature became dear to me.

But the stock of great stories was endless. She never tired of telling us about our illustrious lineage. We would puff up our chests and preen at the mere mention of the 'Royal Family of Cochin'. And the inevitable child-like barrage of questions would follow. So did vallia-muthachan (great grandfather) wear a crown? Did you have an elephant of your own? Did you eat dinner on a table that was as long as a coconut tree? Of course, none of the above was true. And my grandmother would try her best to sound mysterious when she said "No.But we had two cars!! An ambassador AND a Chevrolet!!!" Needless to say, we weren't impressed. Not even when we heard about the children stealing dosas from the kitchen. Stealing? Dosas? Royalty? Pffftt.

But we loved hearing about Padmalayam - the big house, with the central courtyard. The lagoon at the back witht the coconut tree bent so low , it almost formed a bridge. The maid who would catch tiny fish using her sari like a net just to amuse the children. My great-grandfather who loved wearing walking shoes even with a mundu. And how the eldest of 6 brothers and sisters fell into a ditch full of dung while trying to run away from his tution-master.

Today, even at the age of 80, my grandmother is holding on to those stories for dear life. For so many years, growing up in family that was more scattered than together, she has been my eye and ear into the past. Going through old family albums, identifying thumb-sucking uncles and mischievous aunts while savouring anecdotes like adamaanga - yeah, that was our thing. Now, as her memory fades she finds the urge to talk about those days and years past, more often. Repition seems to be the backbone of remembrance. And even though names and incidents get all mixed up, the story never ends. She will stop mid-sentence, squint and frown - as if putting a puzzle together in her head. Eventually, she returns to her audience with a fresh detail or a forgotten twist in the tale. And we forge ahead...... It's amazing how much she still remembers, and how easily we seem to forget.

Grandparents perhaps intuitively take on the role of chief-storyteller. Their own lives, mirrored in their children and their children's children, take on mythic proportions. Perhaps it is some primordial preservation instinct that makes us want to pass on our stories to each successive generation. So that even in un-living and un-being, an echo of the life lived may resonate in time.


errormsg! said...

yeah...and its a beautifully open ended connect.

love this post. it quaint, and occasionally whispers :)


Mandakini said...

glad you liked this :)

and yes, it is exactly ended. the stories keep getting made and re-made :)

Bondhu said...

Hey Mandakini... very touching post...I must say...i had the privilege of listening to such stories in my teens till I reached my grandmom who passed away the year i came to NID.Perhaps one of the earliest women to graduate in Economics and History as Major in the British era back in 1936 :)....She was the source of all my childhood fantasies and storytelling...which I scavenge through till date just for memory sake and marvelous inspiration !!!!

Mandakini said...

@priyankar -somehow most grandparents tend to be firebrands!your grandmotehr seems to be no exception :)

looks like ours is the tamer generation no?

thanks for the comment!

ARUN GUPTA said...

Memories are elusively beautiful, as they unfold in an interactive, changeable way, based on who is remembering and for whose benefit, and when.

Have you seen this film 'Big Fish' by Tim Burton ?

Mandakini said...

@Arun: I agree :) its what i love about memories....the changeable, transient almost shapeless nature they have.

I have seen Big Fish by Tim Burton.

Definitely one for the 'favourites' list. I enjoyed it a lot more than the rest of Burton's darker, slightly macabre films.

P. said...

Lovely! Really interesting how memories get re-archived constantly... Nostalgia is the most engaging landscape, come to think of it :)

fulcrum said...

hehe i suppose you can see a lesser version of it amongst nidians wherein seniors sit n tell all the 'man, those were the years' stories to wide eyed juniors..
yep, we're all grandpas and grandmas :D