There are billions and billions of stories floating around in the world. Then there are those stories which are unique to every family – tales of love transcending time and distance, of sorrow that pervades even the dust motes, bitter enmity, secret loves, not so secret misunderstandings, childhood pranks and improbably hilarious moments involving the most serious members. Every member of the family finds a mention in such stories, from the most introverted to the most ebullient. In fact one of my father’s uncles, who apparently was extremely stern and somber, was the main protagonist in a hysterically funny story involving boats, benches and a displacement from the bench to the earth. Achan’s family abounds with the most fantastic storytellers and the older they are the more descriptive and interesting their stories. The most ear-splitting guffaws and roars of laughter marks any family gathering. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that most of us would win any laughter competition hands down, if it were judged solely on decibel levels. The protagonists of these tales were often the ones who laughed the loudest. This laughter was like miraculous glue which bound us together and celebrated the uniqueness of our family. It was also the scaffolding, which propped us up during innumerable instances of loss and bereavements.
On my mother’s side, the story telling sessions are not so loud but yet retains the magic of a bygone era when my mother and her siblings travelled the length and breadth of Kerala following the dictates of my grandfather’s profession. He was a judge and one of the most learned and benevolent person’s I’ve ever met. The backdrops of these stories were constantly changing, flitting from the vast rubber plantations of Pala to the narrow bylanes of Alappuzha. I’ve often wished to be a part of those uncomplicated times when the evening entertainment involved listening to the Tamil film songs wafting on the air from a nearby theatre. The characters inhabiting these tales were fewer but no less interesting. My mother, being the eldest, featured in most of the stories. One of my favourites has Amma in the lead role, and this happened when she was six or seven years old. Apparently the boundary wall of their house overlooked a steep drop, with the road lying far below. Amma and her sisters were strictly forbidden from climbing or peeping over the wall. One day when my grandfather was returning from work for his lunch, his blood ran cold on seeing the scene before him. My Amma was up on the wall, casually strolling up and down, with a smile on her lips and not a care in the world. He was paralysed with shock for a few moments since any slip on her part could be fatal. Suppressing his anxiety under a warm smile, he slowly approached her murmuring sweet endearments. He was afraid to raise his voice in case she took fright and lost her balance. Amma was quite happy to be the center of attention and she basked in the sweetness of her father’s words. As soon as he got next to her, he slowly reached up and brought her down to the ground. Once she was safe he let loose. There was thunder and lightning and copious tears from the little perpetrator of the crime. Amma still smiles very sheepishly when she recalls the dressing down she got from him. It was so bad that she has never disobeyed him after that.
Unsurprisingly, most of my favourite childhood memories are of family get-togethers. After a huge lunch, all of us would land up in my grandparents’ room. It was a cool spacious room with two big wooden beds set against the walls; wooden windows with pretty flowered curtains, a ‘chaaru kasera’ (reclining chair) and my ammumma’s wooden almirah added to the sublime charm of those sepia toned memories. While appuppan and ammumma relaxed on the beds, my younger uncle who is always the chief narrator sprawled on the cool floor. The aunts leaned back against the beds with their legs stretched out and we kids snuggled up in whatever space we could find. The conversation usually started with a discussion about the meal and what was good or bad about it. This part held no interest for me and I would wait eagerly for the stories to come tumbling out. Thankfully I wouldn’t have to wait long before ammavan gently started on a foray into their childhood. And out would come all the delightful exploits, peopled with endearingly colourful characters. I loved a particular grand-aunt whose sense of humour was fantastic and at the same time slightly weird. She revelled in frightening them with casual suggestions of the spirits of long dead ancestors dropping in for a chat and about the sounds of anklets she had heard one night. We’ve heard these tales countless times and yet each version is received with the same amount of fervor and interest. These anecdotal accounts would continue unabated until ammumma got up to make the evening tea. The aunts would follow her and the rest of us would stretch out, take up all the available space and fondly think about all that we had heard.
Another reason why I’m so attracted to such sessions is the opportunity to meet loved ones who have left us. So many who were such an integral part of my life and whom we lost appear in the stories narrated at family gatherings. The affection and intense love with which they are talked about is more touching than the grandest eulogy.
When I think about all these anecdotes which have been passed down through generations, I’m struck by the fact that not a single one of these instances were ever captured on film or recorded on a device; the sights, smells and the atmosphere of tales from the past were captured by the people who were wholeheartedly involved in those moments. Every single member was immersed in those parcels of time.
The question I keep asking myself today is “Aren’t we losing that essence when we let ourselves be captured by the demands of our phones and cameras ?” Today we are more interested in recording an event on camera rather than living that moment. These countless pictures are stored in yet another device, never to be seen again while we have no idea of whom we met or what we did at an event we attended. Our lives are not going to be blighted if we do not continuously take pictures of a wedding or a family event that we attend. If we step away from our devices, there’s a wonderful world out there waiting to be experienced, and so many opportunities to store beautiful memories in our minds, which can be taken out and relived countless times whenever we wish, and at whatever stage of life we may be at…..