Every culture has its own canon of folk tales which shape how stories are told in that culture. A few become universal ‘truths’ and many are shaped and reshaped by each retelling. I grew up listening to such telling and retelling of folk tales.
During the two-month long summer vacation, in my childhood, from April to first week of June (we have killer summers in South India) my cousins and I would spend it in our maternal grandmother’s house. It was a large house, lived in by a larger family (at least twenty people at any given time) that was made up of a significant number of young children. The best feature of the house, apart from its two open terraces (those hold stories too) was the Well. The most interesting stories were told sitting by it. That Well, if it could talk, will give any paparazzi worth their salt a run for their money.
The aunts were in charge of corralling their nieces and nephews, who were running riot around the house and onto the streets beyond. Like a cowherd rounds up and drives their cattle homeward by sunset, my aunts would holler and if that didn’t work a sound scolding was enough to make sure we reached the Well.
I can never express, in words, the sheer joy and pleasure you get when you have a metal-pot (kadava in Telugu) of cool well-water emptied on you to wash away the sweat and grime of summer. It is an experience!
The task immediately after the bath at the Well was dinner. The Well was witness to this too. My grandfather had the space around the Well cemented smooth so it would dry quickly and would also allow us to sit close to it.
My aunt would mix – in a large bowl – rice, dal and fresh avakai (pickled mango, a summer speciality). To that she’d add generous doses of ghee and mix it well. The aroma of ghee and mango pickle was enough to shut us up.
And then the stories would begin, by the Well, under the blanket of a moonlit sky and twinkling stars. Each of us would get a big ball of rice, mixed with dal and pickle, and the story would continue.
The story was a grand narrative where fantasy was your imagination running riot, unbridled and unencumbered – and not a genre of fiction. Where mantrikudu, bhootam, pretam and pisacham were far more familiar than wizards, trolls, elves and other such exotic creatures. My aunts were “serialising” Kasi Majhli Kathalu to their captive audience of boisterous nieces and nephews. Written by Madhira Subbanna Dikshitulu (1868-1928), in Telugu, these stories were our dinner time pleasure during summer vacation.
Kasi Majhli Kathalu are a collection of stories (in 12 parts), and are told by an ascetic to his companion – a goatherd, on a pilgrimage to Kasi (Varanasi) from their village in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. The goatherd promises to accompany the ascetic provided the ascetic tells him a story for every majhli or halt they make on their journey at the end of each day. And what stories they are! Riveting, funny, filled with suspense and a charm that comes only from oral story telling.
And, when I began writing my novel, The Sword with The Ruby Hilt, I went back to that Well and dipped into its endless source.