Last Sunday I took a friend and her nine-year-old daughter to Bull Temple in Bangalore. It’s the place with the country’s largest monolith bull – known to be Nandi, the servant bull of Shiva. The majestic Nandi far surpasses the tiny Shiva (who you almost miss in a small alcove behind the bull) in size, structure and sheer architecture. I promised this little nine-year-old lady who was too sleepy to be excited about a temple, with a true story after she had seen the Nandi in the temple.
Once she was slightly woken up (and I was fast realising it was hard to impress a kid as old as nine. Goddess save my new novel for kids) we sat outside in the temple veranda, the black sculpture of Nandi behind us and I began the true story I had heard from someone at the same spot the first time I had come to the temple:
“Hundred of years ago, Nandi, one of Shiva’s bravest warriors, was invited to come to the city of Bangalore to save it from its enemies. With all fanfare, a small statue of Nandi, the bull, was placed on top of a hill so that he could protect the city. But there was something special about this bull. Every morning when the people living around the hill woke up, they would find that the Nandi’s statue had grown in size.
This kept on happening again and again. At first the statue became the size of a dog, then a bull, then an elephant, then a dinosaur. At that, the politicians of the city were afraid that the bull that keeps growing will become big and big and big and destroy their entire city. That was when a poet suggested that they harness him and build a hall around Nandi. If he is indoors, he wouldn’t be able to look at the sky and his desire to grow more and more will stop. That will save their city.
And so it was done. A temple was built around this ambitious Nandi, the walls so close that the ceiling touched the Nandi’s golden horns and there was barely space enough for him to stand inside. And as soon as a structure was created, the dinosaur-sized bull stopped growing in size, content to remain at that size.”
‘Is the story real?’ asked the nine-year-old wisely. ‘Yes, I think it is,’ I answered, ‘The person who told me, told me it was a true story.’ ‘No, you’re making this up,’ she answered, looking up to her mother for confirmation. Her mother, in an equal mood to make her daughter believe answered, ‘It could be real.’
She looked back at the majestic monolith of Nandi, doubt in her eyes, but also a newfound interest. Her mother looked back at me and smiled, conspiratorially. We had done it. We had plotted to put make-believe magic in the child’s heart.
I came back home and started to wonder why more and more of the children I see are not ready to believe in things beyond their five senses, in anything beyond rationality. And I try it with as many children as I can find (parents, beware). To a four-year-old who I met at a party one evening, I asked if he knows why we don’t see stars in the morning. When he shook his head, I told him because every morning a monster called the Sun gobbles them up. So when you see Sun, you cannot see the Stars. For a second, I saw doubt in his eyes and then he shook his head. ‘Not possible,’ he answered. When with all the dignity of my adulthood I insisted that that was the truth, he went back to his parents to confirm.
We have become a rational, logical society. So much so that we explain to our children that myths are not true, that all stories they hear are just that, untrue, illogical, tales of magic. Are we so sure we want them to not believe in magic? I crave to see a child’s eyes go round in wonder, when told something her brain had thought was not possible. All stories used to do that to me. And I still crave to do the same. To get this sense of wonderment, this sense of mystery. This sense of magic that only a story and the possibility of it being true can bring.
Stories give us a glimpse into another world. A world which is beyond what we know, touch, see and feel. Stories tell us of other people, other creatures, other beings who are doing things we don’t think are possible. Through a story, this sense of being impossible turns to being improbable, turns to being a possibility. If you think something is possible, chances are you are ready to spend your life in doing that thing, believing in it. Isn’t that what stories give all of us? This conviction that everything is possible. If it can happen to Harry Potter, why not me? If Krishna can do it, why not me?
I end this blog with yet another story, which my grandmother, my Nani told me a few months ago, sitting in her bedroom. She’s 75 now. I am, well, have been an adult since quite a while. Still, she sat me down like I was the little kid I used to be, her rheumy eyes watery (she has acute cataract and can barely see) and her voice quivered as she told me this story. A true story, she insisted which she had heard from her brother who had been to Haridwar recently and heard it from someone who had experienced there:
“One day in Haridwar, there was a fat-fat lady. She was so fat, so fat, so fat (Nani’s hands spread wide) that her body could barely fit into a car’s back seat.
She stood on a road, asking for a ride from a rickshaw-wallah to Hari-ki-paudi, the popular holy ghat on the banks of Ganga. Since the fat-fat lady was so fat, no rickshaw driver was ready to take her up to the ghat, which is a winding road that goes up and then down and up again. She seemed too heavy!
She asked many rickshaw drivers, and all of them refused. Finally a thin, scrawny driver pitied her and agreed to take her. He helped her alight on the rickshaw and started to peddle. Surprisingly, though she was so fat, the driver could peddle the rickshaw as if it was empty. It felt so light!
He kept on turning back to see if the fat-fat lady was still on the rickshaw. It was an easy ride for him and he reached the steps of the ghat, the Hari-ki-paudi. The fat-fat lady stepped down and said, ‘Please wait for me to take me back. I would not find anyone to take me. I will just take 15 minutes for a quick dip in the Ganga and come back. Till then, hold on to this. It’s for you.’ With that she took out an handkerchief which was tied into a small potli from her fat bosom and gave it to the rickshaw-puller.
He nodded and started to wait. Fifteen minutes went by, then thirty, then an hour and then an hour again. The driver started to worry. Had she drowned? Worried, he went to the ghat and inquired. A lot of bathers saw a fat-fat lady go into the Ganga to take a dip but no one saw her come out. One bather informed him that he saw her clothes, floating in the water, but no woman inside them.
‘Poor lady,’ cried the rickshaw driver, ‘she has drowned in the waters of Ganga! She was so fat!’ He finally remembered the little handkerchief that she had given him and opened it. The kerchief had precious emeralds and rubies and diamonds! He went back to the same road he had picked her up from and inquired about the fat-fat lady.
Finally he found out that the fat-fat lady had lived in an ashram in Haridwar. She was a rich lady and had died there with a wish to take a dip in the Ganga on her lips. She had died a year before she had met the rickshaw driver! ‘She was a soul who needed to take a dip in the Ganga to be released,’ he thought, ‘and because I happened to help her that she gave me so much money.’
The precious stones had made him enough money to make sure that he and seven of his generations wouldn’t need to work. ‘This is the biggest tip anyone will ever get,’ he thought before giving away his rickshaw. He wouldn’t need it now. This is a true story. My brother heard it from a guy who had happened to meet the rickshaw driver.”
Thank you, Nani, for making my eyes go big with wonderment, even though I insisted after the story had ended that there was no way it could be a true story. Could it be?