As a kid I grew up a big dose of stories – especially traditional tales, witty stories of tricksters and wise tales of Mulla Nassruddin and Tenali Raman and Raja Birbal.
Stories were like the third chutney served with my hot idlies – stories were in the recipes, at the dinner-table and in the air.
Most proverbs and advice were delivered in parables. For example, whenever my mum or grandmother wanted to advice me on self-help and doing things on my own, I would hear this story.
“There was once a man who was very devoted to God. But he was very poor. So one day he went to God and asked to become the next lottery winner. God appeared before him and granted him the wish. The man returned the next day after the results were announced. He was not the winner. There was no one outside his door offering a lot of money. He accused God of cheating. God appeared promptly and told him that at the least, the man should have bought a lottery ticket if he had wanted to win.”
I have never forgotten that lesson and my friends know that I’m averse to asking for help. I’d rather do it myself than ask for help. As a girl who grew up in 70s India, it was an advice ahead of its time and stood me in good stead.
There are more stories and fables that warned me about greedy people, about the wisdom of honesty and the joy of giving even if you had only little. One such story that stuck to me was the lake of milk. This is a story that transcends time and accurately depicts human behavior at its worst – when we have to survive, would we eat our young?
In a kingdom that used to be rich, famine struck. People lost crops, and their livelihoods and their livestock. Eventually some were really poor. A wise man said the famine has been caused by people who had no good intentions and if the people couldn’t change their ways, the famine would last forever.
The king was troubled by this. He wanted to believe that his people were not selfish and greedy. So he invited his people to donate a jug of milk for the poor people in their town. He cleared out a huge man-made lake and asked people to pour their jug of milk that night.
The milk deposit was planned for the night. People stood in queues with a jug. In the morning, when the king came to inspect he found a full pool. But filled with water. Everyone had assumed his jug of water wouldn’t be noticed in a pond of milk. Alas, no one had brought any milk to share.
The people were ashamed at their own selfishness and they didn’t need the king to emphasise this. The people gathered to share and to donate what they had with others thereby ending the famine of kindness in their hearts.
I never checked if these stories were from India or abroad. I read voraciously, listened to stories and joined in after dinner reminiscing of family stories.
One such story that stuck with me was the story of the camel and its master. Camels are clever animals and I always have a soft spot for them – next only to giraffes and elephants. When I was six and I went to Delhi, I saw my first camel on the street. Coming from the south, used to seeing cows and elephants on the streets, seeing a camel was so different. I loved their shape, their quietness and their angry calls.
I had read so many Mulla Nassurdin stories that camels were part of my staple diet. Couple of years ago, I decided to retell a camel story that demonstrates the cleverness of camel. And then I sent it off to a publisher I work with in the US.
And here it is – the finished product illustrated by Eugene Ruble – the story of Clever Camel right from the deserts of the middle-east.
In this story the camel is a trickster and even though it is the underdog, it turns the table on its master.
If you love stories about animals – especially stories featuring Anansi or the Brer Rabbit, you would love this.
You can buy the book here from my website and all copies would be signed. If you want me to come to your school or library to tell the story, then check out the School & Library Visits page.
If you like retellings of folktale, do check out my story website http://thestorytrain.blogspot.co.uk/.