Once upon a time…

BY Anil Gujadhur

All the bedtime stories my maternal grandmother – Nani, we called her – related during her occasional visits at our place, whenever she would pay a visit upon her daughter, my mother, would begin with those words. So engrossed were we, all the children, with the contents and the consistency of the plot of her stories, with inbuilt suspense and all, that we dared not interrupt the flow of the narrative with useless questions.

Her bed was besieged by all of us huddled together around her; she was a singularly unifying factor endowed with as much magic – a bigger-than-life character — as the characters that walked the stage when she recounted her numerous tales. Her descriptions were lavish in details so we could paint out a clear mental picture of each and every one of the personae in her stories.

We simply listened in thrall, discovering strange persons and vistas that peopled her stories – some to be feared, others to be loved and respected, still others to be admired for their courage delivering unequal fights against demons of various sizes, hues and colours and succeeding at the end. We accepted the existence of all of them though they did not belong to anything we could identify within our immediate surroundings. We travelled with her stories delivered in the dark of night to far-off idyllic lands on the wings of imagination.

In her stories, trees could hear, speak and remember, mountains could change places, and birds could converse with humans, highly empowered benefactors materialized out of thin air with saving grace to unwind plots that were becoming too complicated: our fancies and flights of imagination soared to great heights. The stories took so charming turns that, to enjoy them, it was absolutely necessary to suspend disbelief. Angels and fairies entered and exited the scene at will and we gladly accepted that state of affairs.

As the stories unfolded, we were literally transported into fairyland, a world of magic in which everything, however much ‘invraisemblable’, was real and truer than existence. With pin drop silence, our inquisitive and exalted minds waited anxiously for the next events to unfold. She was conscious perhaps of the power she exerted on our young minds when she postponed the latter part of the last story to the next night, claiming that it was time to go to sleep. Perhaps she wittingly let us dream about the twists and turns events could take with the characters she had just depicted being engaged in a continuing discussion with life in all sorts of different circumstances.

There was no television at the time, no electricity, only the battery-powered radio that you could listen to – mostly songs — late in the afternoon for some short hours. As dusk approached, Grandmother’s tales were therefore awaited for with great excitement and expectations by our young minds as an opening up to the inextricable mysteries of time, place and life action with which they were all intertwined. Unbeknownst to ourselves, we had become explorers of all sorts of worlds wrapped in some kind of magic that does not form part of our present-day bloodthirsty existence except perhaps in JK Rowling’s stories of Harry Potter.

As children waiting for those mysterious tales of which she appeared to be an inexhaustible storehouse, we believed in every word Grandmother said. To our untainted mind, the stories were true to life as it should be. In them were planted the seeds of good conduct and a code of life we came to discover only later in life as we matured up. They acted as a catharsis in later life against any bad tendencies we might be inclined to harbour contrary to the direction shown in the stories. Sometimes I wonder whether children today have the benefit of similar good and enriching exposure.

Codes of conduct

On deeper examination, I realized that the stories covered a whole lot of codes of conduct valid for running the course of our lives. They were about filial duty (Shravan Kumar), gratitude and ingratitude (the poor woodcutter’s luck), keeping one’s word (Ramchandra), giving up comfort and luxury for the sake of filial obedience and fulfilling duty (Ram and Sita), reward for perseverance (boy who turned a seed of maize accidentally obtained into a full maize field), triumph of sincerity and truthfulness over deceit (the two sisters Chinta and Minta), valour and bravery (Arjun), sticking to virtues and principles at any cost (Raja Harischandra and Taramati), courage and fearlessness (the Pandavas), patient endurance (Ahilya), selfless love (Meera), frugality and exaggeration (the ant and the grasshopper), winning through patience rather than speed (the tortoise and the hare).

Quite a few of them made references to gods coming in disguise at people’s places to see whether they will be well received or not (hospitality). There must have been many more but I can’t recall all of them now. Imperceptibly, they became an integral part of what is called the soul.

It did not dawn upon me at the time. I realized later that those tales could be fitted into any time, the times we were living in or the times we had not known but which had actually existed in an unidentified past. Now, I realize that, dressed up in some other accoutrement we are not familiar with today, the same characters will keep appearing on the stage under the same guises in the future as well.

I became an incurable reader of tales during school-going age. It was probably the enduring effect of seeking to discover a world of an altogether different dimension from the reality I saw daily, a quest inculcated during my tender years by Grandmother’s stories. In some cases, these newer stories in the print form were imaginatively illustrated as in ‘Le Petit Prince’ of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry when you would stop for longer at the illustrations (which tells you a story of its own) than at the text itself (which was narrating something going even deeper than the main story at its literal value).

I discovered a whole lot of them that Grandmother had not known about perhaps through Les Fables de Lafontaine, Charles Perrault, Anatole France, Alphonse Daudet and many others. Hers could have been stories passed on in an oral tradition of Indian folktales and India’s scriptures from one generation to the other or they could have been added on to from contacts with new civilisations: I recall one of them was about a Danish girl with ‘hair of gold’. Some of these had an indelible impact, urging us to rise to more sublime levels compared with ordinary seeking.

At this stage, I came across innumerable stories like A Thousand and One Nights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, King Midas, King Solomon’s Justice, Cinderella and her Cruel Step Mother, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bluebeard and his Seven Wives, Sindbad the Sailor, Jason and the Golden Fleece, The Sleeping Beauty, Gulliver’s Travels, The Travels of Ulysses, Romus and Remulus, Abel and Cain, Alexander the Great, to name a few.

Like the tales of my early childhood, I was transported by them into a whole new world of myth and legends, often with characters larger than life. But their emphasis was different: many of them advocated a quest for unchallenged power and unmatched riches in favour of their principal characters. They must have constructed my outlook about life just as well as what I had heard from Grandmother.

Stratagems and intrigues

I might have suffered some distortion due to my training as an economist in later life. Considering again most of the tales I came across in the stories of school-going age through the prism of economics, I saw in most of them a thirsting after power in material and monetary terms to the subjugation of deeper values which actually give real meaning to a human existence. There was a lot of blood in many of them. There were plenty of stratagems and intrigues justifying ends irrespective of the means employed.

There was still the mystery of a bygone and other-worldly magical and mythical past clothing the narrative, but many of the stories like Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello, revolved around cupidity, jealousy, untruthfulness, relentless harassment, murder, betrayal and power-seeking at any cost. I learnt later that Macbeth was actually the good king, not Duncan as it appears from Shakespeare’s play, but that the cronies of Duncan who took over reversed the roles to justify the power they seized after Macbeth’s death. Even stories like Cinderella and the Sleeping Beauty found their apotheosis and redemption in the destitute girls being ultimately married away to the Prince, the highest aspiration being, it appears, to be wedded to the springhead of power and influence. The Prince was preferred as a suitor to the common man. This may have gone down into the subconscious of so many of our maidens.

This elevated position of power and influence looked like the defined goal to be sought after. Even though poetic justice punished the wrongdoers in certain stories in the later period of my story reading, there was also left behind an indelible trail of evil characters that would brook no opposition in pursuit of their overall objective to belong to a limited club of the nonpareil wealthy wielding the accompanying power ruthlessly over the rest. Unlike Grandmother’s bedtime stories, these newer stories brought to light a world closer to the one we live in. They did not stop at characters rising by dint of effort, oftentimes assisted by the elusive good forces that operate from another non-physical dimension at critical moments, to lead a more decent life than before. Rather, they focussed on obtaining what one wants by all means possible, at any cost.

I was fortunate enough to watch lighter musicals such as Mary Poppins, Brigadoon, The Sound of Music, etc., with Fred Astaire, Julie Andrews and Audrey Hepburn plus a host of other performers whose special skill was to give you a break from the ruder things of day-to-day life. Their stories brimmed with life of the better sort, a whole new world of fantasy and fiction which Broadway and the Studios have masterfully crafted to give us an escape, a necessary escape. I was amply compensated at the personal level by this means. But that should not mean that the current day reality painted in the cruder stories revolving around ever-present greed and cupidity and an endless quest for material and financial security does not hold. It does.

Chief magnet

In the early 1990s, after having accompanied my children for the CPE, I thought I was knowledgeable enough to share what I knew about this dreaded examination, with school-going children of one of the few remaining enchanting villages of Mauritius, La Laura, which I visit regularly since 1975. It is found in the lap of Pieter Both and Le Pouce mountains, seized in the same lush greenery and pastoral care that I had seen in my childhood stories. At the intercession of my friend Mohun, the Arya Samaj of the village kindly made available its hall for my coaching classes. We worked at the office half day on Saturdays in those days. So, I went there after a quick lunch once back from office in the latter half of Saturdays and then on the first half of Sundays.

Each session on both days began with one childhood story to get the children engaged. Time was on my side. All I needed was to get the children’s steadfast attention and show them how to make their minds work in an orderly fashion. I could actually see how their expressions changed and lighted up as the story progressed and how much their curiosity was aroused and comprehension enhanced; it seemed that the story was a chief magnet drawing them to the classes. Actually, the numbers attending the weekend classes increased so I had to split them into two succeeding classes. But the interest evoked by the stories helped me get the maths, environmental studies and the languages through just the same. I’ll never forget the joys I shared with them in those days! I was at one with the children. If I had a choice between the gory stories I became acquainted with in later life and Grandmother’s, I would prefer to put my life to rest with one of hers, at any time.


* Published in print edition on 28 December 2012

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