Once upon a time

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Neena Jacob

My memories of summer holidays when I was a child are a collage of pictures each one with its own flavor and colour. One of my most cherished memories is ‘Story Time with Papa’, my beloved grandfather. Summer would see all 11 of us grandchildren in the verandah with papa. He had a chair with arms and it was in a corner with two windows. The littlest one would be on his lap, the slightly older ones on the arms of the chair and we the older ones on the window sill. All 11 of us listening wide-eyed. Papa’s stories were a motley collection of Akbar and Birbal, Bible stories, mythological stories, family legends and jokes. How we enjoyed the narration, the voice inflection, the sound effects, the details and that is what binds us together over 40 years later, the threads of memory.

Please don’t relegate storytelling to an App all the time. Ideally never, but I am sure you may resort to it to get a breather and finish chores. The benefits of storytelling are for you too – their undivided and rapt attention, the loving arms that hold you, the family stories and values that you can pass on.

m Stories instill virtues in your little one: Stories of bravery, sacrifice, loyalty and patience. Honesty for me is always the story of Gandhi not being able to spell the word ‘kettle’ and despite the teacher prompting he cannot copy, and the school inspector dubs him a dunce and little Gandhi saying: “Sir, I cannot tell a lie.” These images are seared and that story made a big word like honesty understandable to me.

m Stories boost listening skills: Stories had us fidgety kids sitting still and listening attentively to the story as it unfolds, mimicking sounds and chanting spells like Abracadabra…Fee fi fo fum I smell the blood of an Englishman……Expecto Patronum……Alakazaam. I can still remember the story of Rani of Jhansi and her escape. As kids, we spent the whole day reliving the stories and acting out scenes, running around the house with a doll tied behind!

m Fosters their imagination: A simple story like Jack and the Bean Stalk conjures up images of a simple boy, a brown cow that he sold for a few beans, his weeping sad mother and the wonder of the magic beans that sprouted plants that went way past the clouds. We climbed up with Jack enthralled with the idea of reaching up, trembled when he heard the giant’s loud voice and held our breath as he made his mad dash for safety. The words and expressions could conjure up images more vivid in detail than any serial on TV.

m Increases their cultural understanding: Stories of how a grandmother used to cook using wood in a clay pot and feed her nine children. Stories of wars and how people came together to help one another. Stories of how our parents met. Stories associated with traditional food like how during Padwa we are given something salty, sweet, bitter, sour and spicy to eat. Why we need to feed the crows during ‘shrad’. All these stories ground a child and makes the child appreciate and understand one’s own cultural nuances.

m Enhances their communication skills: This doesn’t need explanation but I do know much of my Konkani and vocabulary comes from here. Certain stories had to have key bits explained in the mother tongue, it may be a nickname or a swear word. And words are what adds special ‘masala’ to the story.

m Helps sharpen memories: Remembering the sequence of events, places visited by the protagonist and making associations helps develop memories. Take a moment now, close your eyes and remember the stories you were told. Can you see the place in your mind’s eye and hear a beloved tone and remember the laughter? The story teller’s questions, what happened first? Who came next? Why do you think he did that? All these are tools that help us retain the information from stories.

m Makes learning easier: By making a child focus, concentrate, develop communication skills and have a better understanding of the world around we are laying the foundations for a good learner.

m Makes one a better social being: Children learn to listen to someone speaking. They learn to be patient and also open their minds to how another thinks. It makes a child realise that every person has a different opinion.

My own children have memories of their grandma telling them stories of how their father foolishly kept his crackers in his pocket and how a spark set the crackers off and frightened the life out of the grandmother but not their brave father. They learned how their grandfather paid for his ticket to UK by being the spokesperson for rich Arabs. They learned about Gandhi and Mandela, about Einstein and Bob Dylan. This is what helped them grow as humans and this is what ties them to us so we now play a role in their life stories.

“Remember when Amma…” Use those wonderful words ‘Once upon a time’.

Happy Parenting

(Writer is a volunteer in local schools and a trustee with Sethu)