By Dhanya Nair
Last week, I ambled to the Milwaukee public library to get some books for my three-year-old nephew. I was pleased at the wide variety of children’s books at the library; along with Snow White and Cinderella, there were folk tales from South America and Africa and books which focused on the experiences of immigrant children. As I browsed through rows of fairy tales, folk tales, animal tales, nature tales, mysteries, and tales of horror, I felt a twinge of excitement. I was surprised at my excitement because I was not engaging in anything new; libraries have always been my safe haven. Later, I realized that I was excited because I was going to be the controller-of-tales. I would influence my nephew’s flights of imagination during his short stay at my home.
I found myself thinking about the tales I used to read as a child; Enid Blyton’s Famous Five used to be one of my favorite books. The Famous Five was about four siblings and their dog: Julian, Dick, Anne, Georgina (George), and Timmy (the canine). They would routinely find themselves involved in a local mystery during their vacations. Nothing about their geographic settings were familiar to me; they often sought adventure in places like Wales and Cornwall and ate scones, jam tarts, cold cuts, roast potatoes, and kidney pies. I remember being fascinated by the adventures of the five, and today I marvel at their amazing ability to transport me to a place which was inaccessible to me. The Indian tales which I used to read always had an element of magic in them, whether they were from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Jataka, or Panchatantra.
Magic is the word I associate most with childhood tales, these tales are often also associated with an emotional landscape. When I reflect back on my childhood, I remember the stories and rhymes which my aunt and mother narrated to coax me to eat food or fall asleep. I also vividly remember the eagerness with which I would await cartoons and other kids’ shows on Sundays (my childhood was spent in simpler times, when delayed gratification was the rule and not the exception). Tales are also often the perfect gateway to a rich alternate world, where most children find comfort and refuge. My nephew is adept at pretend-play and often adopts the voices and words of the characters from his beloved tales.
My fascination with tales is child-like, however, I am not ashamed at admitting that they hold a strong sway over me. Tales are powerful, the world around us is filled with them. They not only serve as vehicles of morals and values for children, but also reflect the times we live in. Salman Rushdie conveys the importance of tales in his wonderful book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. In the book, Haroun’s father, Rashid, is a master storyteller and is much sought after by political parties to weave positive stories about their candidates. Rashid is called the “shah of blah” in the book and I will always remain grateful to the various “shahs of blah” whom I have encountered in my life.