No time for a story?

The tales grandmothers tell are no longer in demand, thanks to the games one can play on smartphones and the ever-present social media

My four-year-old nephew has developed the habit of playing video games on his father’s smartphone before going to sleep. He will not listen to anyone and anything if denied his right to do so. Bedtime stories never seem to interest him. Once, his grandmother tried to make him listen to one but he clearly said he wants to play games instead!

His mother has given up all hope that he will ever listen to bedtime stories. She once told me, “I think mine was the last generation which would get fascinated by stories. I would literally wait for my grandmother to visit us every summer, so that I could listen to her narrate some fascinating tales from Indian mythology.”

Not quite, as I distinctly remember that even my generation was fond of listening to stories during childhood. I would literally pester my grandmother for that, and she would end up shooing me away. Sometimes she did tell me stories, but those were more of ‘haunting’ tales (for a five-year-old kid at least) of how life will eventually become tougher, especially for girls. So, yes, in a way she was too ‘realistic’ to feed me fairytales, but those were wonderful times indeed.

Nowadays, there are so many kids who have their own phones, and not just any phone — they have smartphones with WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram. And some of them are as young as eight! I remember once I was given the arduous task of babysitting the nine-year-old sister of my friend. I thought I will narrate some stories to her from my childhood books — some fables, some fairytales. But when she arrived, I was startled to see that she was showing off her new phone. She wanted to pose for photos (which I had to click) and then promptly posted them on Facebook.

After some hesitation, I popped the question of the ‘storytelling session’ which I had planned. But she dismissed it with a laugh. (Yes, I was insulted by an under-10). Moreover, while leaving, she told me we can ‘keep in touch via WhatsApp.’ After she left, I re-read my childhood books. That was fun!
Even after joining college, storytelling continued to intrigue me. Coincidentally, I ended up becoming friends with some ‘artsy’ people – who were into oral storytelling, recitation, drama and stuff. I enjoyed watching them perform at various events. Also, I always looked for such storytelling events.

This is how I landed up in a Dastangoi (Urdu oral storytelling art form) performance a few months back in Delhi. But only a few people were present. A girl in her teens was heard complaining to her mother (who seemed to have brought her here against her will) that she would have rather watched a Netflix series than ‘waste’ time here.

‘What’s with this generation?’ I thought — while scrolling through my Instagram account and posting a photo of the ongoing Dastangoi performance — #Storytime #Dastaan #Delhi #blahblahblah). Then I saw a middle-aged lady rolling her eyes when she saw me on my phone; She was probably thinking the same about the generation I am a part of!

Recently, I went to attend the Kathakar festival — India’s only storytelling festival in which tales are told in Hindi and English. There were so many good storytellers from across the world – all of whom joined in and presented wonderful performances. I thought probably the event will not have many guests (and even if they do, then it will be middle-aged men and women, and not youngsters). But I was proven wrong. There were so many college kids present there. And they were thoroughly enjoying the performances, and the talks that were based on the art of storytelling.

So we should not judge any particular age group. Yes, smart phones are all-consuming and seldom leave us alone – no matter how old we are. After all, who will give up a PUBG game or miss the latest Netflix series to listen to stories from their grandparents or parents?

There have been various debates about the art of storytelling, the culture and how it might be dying. But like they say, charity begins at home. Maybe in this fast-paced world, people fail to find the time to sit and narrate stories to their younger ones. Or maybe, they try to but the kids are not as interested because they are too much into tech, or too busy in the rat race. Whatever the reason may be, this practice of storytelling – this passing down of age-old tales through generations – are becoming rare indeed. Who knows? Maybe a storytelling app will surface soon, which will narrate stories of all sorts to the kids and then they will find it interesting – after all, whatever the smartphone does is smart, isn’t it?

I still wish I could go back to those days. When me and my siblings used to curl up in our blankets on winter nights and our grandparents or parents would tell us stories of faraway mystical lands. I still remember a story my father used to narrate often — a garden which had trees, and those trees grew candies and chocolates and ice creams. I was so intrigued by such stories; my imagination ran wild and I would often dream about that garden.

My brother took these stories way too seriously though, and even sneaked into our neighbour’s ‘prohibited’ garden (thinking it was ‘the garden’) and got beaten up by the old woman. Poor boy!

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