Ducks in Sunday best: the stories of my Nana

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Hanley Swan is a sleepy English village. The ‘main’ road is empty most hours of the day and the only entertainment is provided by being as interested in your neighbour’s lives as the ‘nosy, interfering auntie’ in your local colony. You might think that growing up in such a hamlet would be a nightmare, but my grandmother—who had herself lived there as a girl—taught me to love and get connected to Hanley Swan by amusing me with the stories centered around this hamlet.

Nana (which means ‘grandma’ in English, rather than ‘maternal grandfather’ as in Hindi) delighted me with bedtime stories whenever she could. I would fall asleep listening to the high jinks of Mr. Rabbit, who would figure recurrently in her everyday adventures. The local wildlife and landmarks would feature frequently, along with a healthy dose of Nana’s straightforward Christianity. She would describe a family of ducks crammed in their `Sunday best’, waddling down to the church, crossing the back of our house. Or rival mice at the farmer’s market would find mention while arguing about the price of cheese, just like the grumpy farmers I saw on the weekends. Nana interwove talking animals with every part of traditional rural life.

She also used these stories to relive the world she grew up in and share it with her granddaughter that is me. The courteous Mr Rabbit would often stop on the road to let horses and carts pass, which had been a common practice in Hanley Swan during the time of Nana’s growing up years. Mountainous harvest machinery would loom from the fields as Mr. Rabbit stopped to shoot the breeze with bunny farmers. Nana’s tales put the photographs she had shown me of men sitting high on carts full of straw into perspective.

These stories always had one particularly nasty baddie—the dastardly Mr Fox! He would seize any opportunity to trick or even eat Mr Rabbit. Making sure that I grow up to be distrustful of foxes was important to Nana. They are a common pest in the countryside as they prey on livestock and dig through fences, disrupting farming. This dislike of foxes was translated into support for foxhunting, a countryside tradition which Nana held in the highest esteem. The riders that mustered outside the village country pubs in all their finery became heroes to me, protecting the vulnerable farmers against the evil foxes.

Nana also taught me that the countryside could feed us. In one of her stories, three hedgehog sisters collected bundles of blackberries in their aprons. Their mother baked blackberry pie and blackberry crumble, feeding everyone and still having some left over for the neighbours. The next time Nana went out to collect berries, my six year old self was with her, swinging my basket just like the hedgehog sisters. I was so excited to help her bake a pie, just like the sisters had.  The stories that Nana told me shaped my relationship with the countryside and with her. She passed on decades of rural wisdom and experience camouflaged as light-hearted folklores.

The stories of our grandparents and parents instill in us inadvertently, how to interact with our surroundings and connect us to the people rendering them. The storytellers at Kahaani offer children different voices to listen to and new stories to learn from. The festival is like an extended family for the children attending, with a vast array of experiences and magical adventures to pass on. Please tell us the stories that stuck with you from childhood. Which stories would you like to share with the next generation?

 

– JC Cairns

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