Telling Stories…

Is there anything that really stops me for writing more posts on my blog in a month than I did in a year? I guess not! That’s the beauty of being the master of your own space. It would have been rather sad to actually ask for someone’s permission before giving my own humble opinion about things. I mean not everything in the world has to be like having dinner with your wife ! Especially if the non-swimmer wife is a good seven sufficiently deep seas away…

However life on the road is tough for an otherwise thoroughly domesticated guy. You have to take care of the laundry for one… and the ironing. You need to remember to include food groups other than meat, sugar and alcohol in your diet. And you need to learn how to get up when an alarm clock tells you that you have less than an hour to exercise, eat and look smart before reporting to work. I usually ignore the exercise and eating bits and focus on looking smart. I mean coffee at work is as good a breakfast as any other and I walk to work in any case for exercise. And am not telling you how far my office is from my hotel !

But I digress…again…

What lead me to write was a picture of a Russian girl holding blue cornflowers that appeared in the New York Times the other day.

She could have been Olga in the first chapter of ‘Timur and his Squad’.

If unlike me you did not grow up in a world of books where people had names like Ivan, Jhenya, Vlad and Dimitri, the rest of this post is not going to make too much sense to you. And if the books you read never took you to the Russian country side full of happy, simple, poor yet generous people, then the tales I describe are the not the ones that you might remember.

I grew up in an India that was far more socialist than what it is today. As kids we looked up to the experiment called the USSR without ever seeing through the beautiful tapestry woven by the colorful Russian festivals organized so frequently across the country. For us, Russia sounded like a land of equality ! Where the people had actually managed to find a voice and define their country their own way. It all seemed to good to be true, and it probably was…

For all the pride we take in Indian literature; in the breadth of its diversity and the depth of its thought, it is painfully lacking when it comes to telling stories to our children. If we ever manage to move beyond our religious epics ,the Panchtantra and the ancient folklores, there is little else available that tells tales to the modern child. Indian comics meant the traditional ‘Amar Chitra Katha’ and the borrowed ‘Marvel Comics’ feathers of ‘Indrajaal Comics’… and the fun yet shallow publications of ‘Diamond Comics’. Comics however, could never really replace a book or a story. And I cannot remember reading a single Indian novel meant for children ever. (I did read a lot of novels NOT meant for children when I was younger but we are never going to talk about that ever again are we?)

The only books for children to be found were usually discounted books by Russian authors sold at street corners in small town India. The stories they told were different from our usual staple fare of Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys, the books were thick and usually full of pictures… and most importantly; they were pretty cheap.

So we read the stories of shepherds in Kazakhstan and commiserated with commissars from Crimea. Despaired when a little girl lost her mother’s ring in the snow and rejoiced when she found it again when the sun melted the thaw away…I smelt my first whiff of cigar smoke and the luxuriated in mahogany and leather chairs, without having seen either honestly… people in my home were usually not found smoking cigars while relaxing in leather chairs.

I got my first taste of tragedy when I read a book depicting child artists with tired limbs at a Russian circus and was inspired to do my bit for my country at the youthful age of 10 when I read about Timur and his squad of pioneers. Timur, there is that name again. A lovely story that then seemed like a book, written by a guy called Arkady Gaidar.

In my younger days, I think he used to be my favorite author, having read just about three stories of his: Timur and his Squad, The Blue Cup (published as ‘Neela Pyala’ in Hindi) and the beautiful story of Alyska the dog. These three stories remain amongst my favorites till date even though I must have read them first nearly two decades back…

Timur and his Squad, narrates the story of a gang of kids who take it upon themselves to take care of families whose men have gone to warfront fighting the Nazis. The boys (and girls) get into all sorts of trouble but they have their hearts at the right place. The story concludes with a mad dash to Moscow on a motor bike that eventually brings life back to normal.

The story of the ‘Blue Bowl’ begins with the object in question being shattered by a careless brush of hand by a little girl in a frock. Who then decides to leave home along with her father because she gets scolded by her mother at what the girl considers to be an honest mistake. So the little girl and her father, abandon the mother at their home and cross the road and go deep into the woods forever. They spend the day discussing deep questions like why is mother so bad, only to return in the evening because they decided to forgive the mother, and also because it was dinner time.

Alyska…one of the most heart breaking stories for a dog lover. A lady from Moscow rents a country cottage for summer and adopts a pup who becomes her most faithful companion for the next 3 months. She names her Alyska. A day before the woman was supposed to return to Moscow, Alyska disappears and is nowhere to be found. They assume that she has been carried away by the wild animals from the surrounding brush. Heartbroken, the lady goes back to Moscow alone. She returns to the same cottage during winters and during the night she imagines Alyska barking and scratching at the door. She decides that she must be dreaming and pulls her blankets closer to herself and goes back to sleep. In the morning, she opens the door to discover little paw marks and scratches all around her porch… and that is where the story ends.

I wonder if any of the kids today have even heard of these stories. And even if they did, would the simplicity of these stories still appeal to them like the way it did to us? When I come across some of these stories today, they seem to be full of Soviet propaganda, and some were probably meant to be just that. But when you weave stories around loving parents, hot bowls of porridge, faithful dogs and bales of yellow hay piled high around shaggy brown horses and weather gods called Kotura, the tales will probably end up being more than a vehicle for a communist message, they become stories you want to tell when you are sitting next to a fireplace surrounded by kids who are as old as you were when you read them the first time.

Some stories die with age I guess, and sometimes they just change and evolve and acquire a new context… just like the memories of a our past.

Or perhaps our past is really, just the story we tell about ourselves…