Modern Family: The Story Of Us
It was as bad as forgetting to bring the ring to a wedding. At my sacred thread ceremony, the Navjote, the family discovered we’d left behind the lamb’s wool kusti cord that would circle my waist to initiate me into the faith. Fortunately, the distress was fleeting; the ceremony was taking place in a fire-temple that stood mere meters from our home. My brother ran down the road, got it and I was officially ordained a Parsi within minutes of the mistake.
Almost a half-century after that incident, I’m still called on to repeat the tale. My now-young adult children laugh out loud, no matter how many times they’ve heard it. And each of them will, in turn, tell the tale to their children, because that’s the power of family narratives.
As author Ursula Le Guin wrote, “There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Kids reach out to any generation that keeps them fed with a steady diet of stories. Mine happily help themselves to their grandmother, pleading over and over again, “Tell us about when you were small!” Despite knowing exactly how the stories end, they never tire of my mother-in-law’s descriptions of adventures from her Panchgani boarding schooldays. “I threw off my blanket,” she says, “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 her story always freezes for a moment as one saucer-eyed kid wets his lip and the other gulps tensely. More engrossing than any Malory Towers fiction, accounts like this have cemented a unique bond between three generations under a shared roof over the course of 25 years.
In a joint family you take this for granted. I didn’t absorb the real value of such retellings when our children were little. It was only later, when I read studies that found children of parents who reminisce have a firmer sense of self and better understanding of others’ thoughts, that I understood the benefits I had sensed in my own children.
Almost every Indian child is treated to the fascinating personal natter of their many family members. In my parents’ home, hardly a day passed 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. The first group told tales of their childhood years in the small sacred town of Navsari in Gujarat; the maids tended toward drama queen stardom with colourful embellishments as they narrated village life.
Oral histories act as amazing assertions and reassurances. They inspire and protect, soothe and support. A story about a simple peasant called Jeevan Mama, whose good deeds earned him the power to restore any lost object to its rightful owner, has been handed down three generations in our family. Even today, years after first hearing of this folk hero, all of us, kids to adults, invoke Jeevan Mama’s name whenever we’ve misplaced anything and are desperately searching for it – and have always found it.
Ideally, our stories go beyond the usual big news (like how parents first met and fell in love or the story of a child’s birth) to introduce life’s small nuggets, episodes that sparkle because of who is starring or recounting them.
Children listen, spellbound, not thrilling to fun parts alone. They grab the sad bits, the mad bits, going for the supersized version, the full-on gory story. They long to see their loved ones as falteringly human. Who wants to deconstruct some perfect, prissy childhood? Kids revel knowing you can be sloppy; they’re glad you were 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?”)
Stories from the past connect family members by creating communal memory, or an internalized, intangible documentation of how that family sees itself and the world. Shared tales shape the family into a single entity that experiences and changes together, over time. This is what social scientists call the transition principle in family stories. And feeling woven into this mutable yet stable family narrative helps kids weather unexpected change in real life.
Such sagas are passed on with a wealth of physical contact, too, that cold print and Kindle screens can’t match. And the TV remote has always been just that – remote. The hugs and whispers that accompany our spoken stories, the miming and imitations make memories of their own.
Family lore also teaches us to treasure symbols of a personal past lost to new generations. In an interview after the release of Kashmir: the Loss of Innocence, her mother Kiran Narain’s memoir, Abha Narain Lambah recalled that her daughter, who grew up in a city, only knew what a chinar tree was from listening to her grandmother’s stories of childhood in Kashmir, where the tree is plentiful. “Family stories are important if you wish to know about your roots,” Lambah said.
The most outstanding thing you can do for your family is simply this: write your own story. Be generous and invite everyone to add it, including, at either end, the youngest and the oldest in the group; their stories may meander, but they may also be truer, more honest, more revealing.
These tales cost nothing but our time, our memories, our ingenuity. They find us and fasten us to a significant past, so we can better greet the future.