Tales from Grandma: Are our children missing out?
At the end of a busy day, it was refreshing to go to my mum’s place for a special dinner yesterday. Ma had made a special effort to put together a simple but tasty version of the Onam Sadya, the traditional feast eaten during the Onam festivities in Malayali homes (and now, as food becomes a popular medium of social connection, everywhere!).
Before we sat down to dinner, Amamma gathered us together before her deities for a few moments. She used her walker and slowly lowered herself onto a chair in front of her puja ensemble. She gave us instructions and we performed the traditional aarti together. And then, to our delight, she asked my kids if they knew the story of Mahabali and Onam. Without waiting for a response, Amamma launched into an enthusiastic narration of the legend of Mahabali. With a liberal use of words from Tamil, peppered with Malayali expressions and strung together by some English and Hindi, her narration was driven more by her expressions and gestures than words. The children listened in rapt attention and so did we. Partly because mythology and legend is ever fascinating, but more because the act of storytelling had transformed Amamma from a placid, pleasant and largely inactive old lady into an animated, beautiful and expressive matriarch.
In those few minutes, I watched my children’s reactions but simultaneously I regressed to being a four year old in Amamma’s care, being fed and nurtured by her warmth, enjoying her wonderful cooking and listening to her unending stories about her life and times. That relationship with her remained through my life but of late has stagnated because she, sadly, has withdrawn into a shell born out of partial deafness and an uprooting from her native environment to Gurgaon where language and cultural context are drastically different.
The image of Amamma telling the story has lingered in my mind all morning and I’m thinking of the immense value that grandparents and great-grandparents bring to children’s lives. I worry about the problems arising out of an increasing focus on English, how grandparents are no longer able to communicate as well to the little ones as they used to in my childhood, when the primary languages at home were of their choice despite the pressures exerted by English-medium schools for us to be fluent in English.
The other thought on my mind is how mythology, while certainly mostly religious in origin, is being increasingly appropriated and intertwined with religion. In Kerala, though, the legend of Mahabali is widely narrated and Onam a statewide celebration across religious communities. Growing up in Lucknow, non-Muslims only missed the namaz bit of Eid, participating fully in the feasting that follows. On Diwali, whether children burst firecrackers was more about the economic status of their parents than their religion. Things seem to have changed today, sadly. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could revive traditions of storytelling and shape them into a collective format so children get to share legends across religious and regional lines, and also maybe share storytelling grandparents?
All the fuss around Krishna!- Aug 11, 2012
Yes, yes. I’m cheating and writing yesterday’s post now, but you can blame it on Krishna. Janmashtami or Gokulashtami as it is known (or simply Ashtami!) was not fully in focus on my radar till I had kids. Udai’s school is hot on celebrating festivals and when he was in Playgroup (pre-nursery), they made butter in school the week of Krishna’s birthday. That got my attention. What a wonderful way to teach kids a miracle of science while linking it to a popular character like Krishna. There must have been songs too, but Udai was never one to sing the school songs to us!
Aadyaa is another story altogether. She revels in music and dance and art. And she totally dotes on Krishna. No matter how cranky, a story around Kanha can set that right. Each time we go to Noida or Ghaziabad, the high point for her is crossing the ‘Yamuna’, even though she cannot really see the water. Well, she would be disappointed if she could, ‘coz there aren’t any gopis dancing there or Kanha playing the flute. The legend of Krishna is enchanting, especially for children, because Kanha is imperfect. He is naughty, he lies, he plays the fool and troubles everyone, but yet he is there to rescue people, help them when they are in trouble. That is a potent combination indeed!
So the entire week was about Krishna. In school, she painted a pot and filled it with cotton, making it look like a pot of overflowing butter, the sort of pot Kanha regularly broke to get at the butter. They rolled paper to make it look like his flute. They learnt songs about Krishna and about the monsoon season. Many traditional songs that celebrate the rains are about Krishna, so there learning about seasons and climate intertwined with the Krishna theme. They helped decorate the class and the day they celebrated Janmashtami in school they all got to give the baby Krishna a jolly good push on the swing on which he was placed!
At home, we had a little brood of Radhas (Krishna’s legendary soulmate), all decked up, all enthusiastic. They trooped into the little celebration in our local club, danced and generally had a great time! A lot of colourful, crazy fuss; all thanks to Krishna!