I suddenly decided to read the Kenneth Anderson ombibus of stories again, and while reading “Tales of the Supernatural”, I paused while my mind went back to my childhood, and the days of being told horror stories.
I have always been a voracious reader, especially of fiction, but there is a certain something to having a story told to one. There are the regular folk tales and the mythological tales that are told over the meal. During the summer holidays, we would visit Madras, and a horde of cousins would be called in to sit in a circle, with one aunt having made two large bowls, one of sambar shAtham and one of thayir shAtham. We had banana-flower petals or little bits of plantain leaves set in front of us, and vegetables and pickled would be served on this. Each child had to extend his or her right hand (the left hand, being considered unclean, was never allowed) and in turn, the aunt would drop just enough of the rice into it, for the child to eat.What fun meal-times were, with the aunt also telling us a story! One day it would be Tenali Raman’s turn to stun us with his wit and humour and lateral thinking; one day it would be the tales of Rama and Seetha and their journey into the jungle, one day it would be a tale from the Panchatantra.. Certainly we were never told tales from other countries..just the Tamizh folklore was rich enough for my aunts. Ah, how the food would disappear, as we listened! Those who listened and grew intent and forgot to put drops of “vattha kuzhambu” on their curd rice got a scolding.
My mother, too, always had the habit of reading several Tamizh story books and serials from the many magazines she bought, while my brother and I ate our dinner (steel plates, and by now, we were old enough to mix the rice ourselves and eat it!)
But there were the story-telling sessions by our peers, too. These generally occurred in the afternoons when the heat drove even us children indoors, and we would lie under the tiles of the verandah, or cluster under the single creaking fan in the large front hall. While the adults had their siesta, our older cousins would tell us tales of movies they'd seen, and of novels that they had read (surrpetitiously...it was not an activity that was encouraged!)
But best of all was when all of us had spread out rush mats on the floor of the hall, and lay down; the lights were extinguished (in the villages where some of my aunts lived, it was just Petromax lanterns or oil lamps...electricity often failed, and was hardly missed!) In the hot darkness, the voice of one cousin would begin a ghost or horror story. Our imaginations would supply the gory details that the cousin left out, and probably each of us pictured a scenario very different from that of the others, depending on what informed our childish imaginations. I remember four of us lying in my aunt and uncle's bedroom, with the moonlight flooding in at the window, being told the story of "Dracula". It was years later that I actually read the story, but how I remember the fear I felt! None of us could sleep very well afterwards, and we needed to go and visit the toilet only in twosomes, never alone! All of us would not get up at the first call of the adults the next morning, and would go to the "kollai" (rear of the house) to brush our teeth with water from the backyard tap, feeling rather foolish at having been so scared the previous night.
Horror stories have, I think, a special place in every childhood...the latest theory-mongers would have us believe that it would probably warp a child's personality..but I think such things helped us immensely. We could face our fears and tell ourselves that "it was a story, after all"....and we felt braver for having faced the fear, and that made us more courageous next time. But, of course, several of the younger children often broke into tears during the course of the night, after having heard some tale of horror and mystery!
We got to know the usual mythological stories and Jataka tales and stories from our rich culture. For some reason, the story of the crow, the fox and the vadai was the very first tale told to a child....I simply cannot understand why, and yet, that is the first tale I've told my grand-daughter, too!
click here the song, from the Tamizh movie "ammA engE", narrating this story.
Over the years, my mother kept reading us from childhood stories to more adult fiction...she would read out both good stories by noted authors like Rajaji, Kalki Krishnamurthy, or Kee Vaa Jagannathan, and playwrights such as "Marina". How well I remember the wonderful scenes evoked by a serial called "Minnal, mazhai, mohini"!
It was our introduction to Tamizh literature, and to popular Tamizh magazines like "Ananda Vikatan", "Kalki" and "Kumudam". She also read some Hindi stories and novels, and some Bengali ones too....she actually learnt Bengali when she moved to Calcutta, and learnt it well enough to read novels like "Anando Matth" in the original.
When we were left with a friend's family while our parents went to parties for the evening, it was Alamelu Mami who told us the most delightful tales. Scenes from royal courts, tales of wit, talking animals...they all came alive before our eyes. What a treasure those long evenings were! Very often, my brother would refuse to go home with my parents at night, and would bargain, before being dropped off, to stay there overnight and come back only the next morning!
The rich variety of stories that I heard (not just read) has enriched my life and my imagination, and I give thanks for a childhood that was filled with story-telling.