She threw off her blanket, sprang out in the torch-lit dark and dived under the bed. But the midnight feaster girls couldn’t bite beyond a crumbled cookie and crunch a few crisps when they heard footsteps. Adult footsteps...

Here the story froze for a moment as one saucer-eyed kid wet his lip, the other gulped tensely. They knew how it ended. Yet they never tired of my mother-in-law describe dorm adventures from her Panchgani boarding schooldays.

More engrossing than Malory Towers fiction, these true tales did two things. They served the quite practical purpose of downing dinner veggies or paediatrician-prescribed sour syrups. They were also verbal building blocks which would equip them differently. With a sense of where they came from (“She’s a cool fun-like-us grandmother”). An urge to recreate a reconnect (“Weren’t you nervous? Ever ratted on?”). A need for reassuring slices of family reality lore (“Imagine Mamma sneaking around, wow!”).

There is charming anticipation in the words “Tell me a story from when you were little.” Such peeks into family once-upon-a-time make the best oral histories. As author Ursula Le Guin says, there have been great societies that did not use the wheel but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.

Almost every Indian child is treated to fascinating personal natter from the mouths of many family members. I recall hardly a day in those growing up years pass without the delight of stories spun in a richness of four tongues: English and Gujarati from parents and aunts, Marathi and Hindi from our maids Kamal and Kulsum. The last two tended towards definite drama queen stardom, embellishing to entertain. This they did with panache and pause, reeling off wildly exciting anecdotes about village life, replete with animal antics and lush local details.

Family sagas pass on in a wealth of sensuous ways no cold print or Kindle screen can match. And the TV remote is just that — remote. We’d be lost in an emotional wasteland without the hugs and whispers accompanying stories told.

Children listen thrilled to not only the fun parts. They grab the sad bits, the mad bits. They go for the supersized version, the full-on gory story. They crave smelly, not sanitised. Above all, they long to see you too as falteringly human. Naughty is nice. Kids are happy you’re sloppy, glad you’re bad: “Remember when you kept friends waiting for an hour?” “I can’t believe you were tempted to copy an exam!” “What happened after that bus bully jumped on you?” Who wants to deconstruct a perfect, prissy childhood — messy is magnificent because this is your unique story, not anyone else’s.

The power of the spoken word sweeps wide. Inexplicably, you may be asked to assume the voice of an adored hero. My daughter begged one night, “Tell it like Ringo na”, as I tried to interest her in falling asleep with a “railway story”.

Sharing her brother’s passion for train sets, she enjoyed the Beatle famously narrate the Thomas the Tank Engine video series. Rather than struggle to do what I couldn’t, I distracted her with a promise to have her listen to him sing ‘Octopus’s Garden’ the next morning. That was her offbeat introduction to the Fab Four.

I’d acted on instinct. Later, I read experimental studies that showed children of parents who reminisce have better understanding of other people’s thoughts. Teens with a strong knowledge of family carve robust identities and coping skills, with lower levels of angst while catching life’s curveballs.

On a lap, across the dining table, in a traffic jam, these tales are told anywhere. They cost nothing but our time, our memories and our ingenuity. They find us and bind us fast to a significant past. All the better to face the future with.
Meher Marfatia is the author of 10 books for children and two for parents. She has mothered her own kids well past the terrible twos and almost past the troubled teens.

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