I’m learning Telugu, the mother-tongue of Anuja’s family, by attending the lectures of Doctor M. This sentence won’t strike you as funny until you learn that Doctor M is my nickname for my nephew, who is just shy of his fifth birthday.
One of the reasons I came to India is to see him. And I have not been disappointed. I know every family has their own cute stories about when their kids were young. But there’s something special about having those stories happen in a multi-lingual context. Especially if the context is unfamiliar. Already he has taught me: “Amma ekanno petisundi,” which means: “Mommy has put it [usually a toy] somewhere.” And “Amma, Atta na mukku tintundi!” which means: “Mommy, Auntie ate my nose!” As well as many other phrases of indisputable usefulness. Mind, that I am spelling phonetically based on the dialect and pronunciation of a toddler. Not an exact science.
Seriously. Treat yourself to the Wikipedia Rabbit-Hole on Indian Languages One Night. It’s Wild.
One cute instance of our multilingual relationship is my other pet-name for him (he has a lot of pet-names). “Nimboo.” Which is the Hindi word for lime. I named him that because, when I first discovered his existence, it was during the second or third trimester of pregnancy. He was about the size of a lime at the time. Coincidentally, that was, as yet, one of the only words I knew in any Indian language. Also “Nimboo” rhymes with “nephew.”
If my name for him is “Nimboo,” his name for me is “Tell one story.” It’s literally the first thing he says when he sees me. Not “Hello.” Not “How are you?” This is pretty typical behavior for a four-and-a-half-year-old. Usually, I just do it. I will prompt him to say “please.” But I don’t force him to go through “Hello, how are you, what’s new, etc.” There will be time enough for that when he is older. And anyway, I hate small talk. He is entitled to, as well.
I joked with his mother that you can tell she is a lawyer from the way he opens the negotiation with one story, but then wants another as soon as the one is finished.
Not Including any Aural Stories
Since arriving in Bangalore in early March, I’ve read to him from:
–Amma, Tell me about Shiva
–The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman
–Brave Irene, Shrek, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and Pete’s a Pizza by William Steig
–We Hate Rain and No Laughing, No Smiling, No Giggling by James Stevenson.
–All the Small Poems by Valerie Morse
A Brief Aside about Story Hierarchy
I do recognize that this list contains mostly white men. That’s been an ongoing conundrum for me. I want very much to read him the books I loved most as a child. Fortunately, when he gets older that will include Natalie Babbitt, Astrid Lindgren, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Tomi Adeyemi. But even then. I am trying to share the works I know and love. And, where I am from, William Steig and Neil Gaiman are Jewish authors. But over here, English-language books, and particularly those from the United States, have a kind of prestige that washes away the nuance of who wrote them and why.
I don’t want it to seem like I’m bringing better books from overseas. The books they have here are fine. I can’t wait until he is old enough for Rabindranath Tagore and R. K. Narayan and that’s before mentioning that there are already plenty of English-language books from The US, Britain, etc., widely available, because that’s how economics works.
I’m not sure what to do about Sherlock Holmes. I know he’s four and so this conundrum is a decade away. But still. I think of such things. I read the stories to my grandfather on his deathbed. They will always have a place in my heart. And yet the racism bleeds out of the stories. Read (or reread) one or two. You’ll see what I mean.
Tell One Story
The thing is, Nimboo is insatiable for stories. His modus operandi often involves yelling: “Tell one story.” while hitting my chest with his little hands. He doesn’t mean to yell. He’s a very small person in a very big world. If I try to divert him in any way, he will say: “Tell one story.” If I try to engage him in conversation, to ask him questions, to tell him that now is not a good time, he will say: “Tell one story.” Again. And again. And again.
I know I’m more patient than he is. I know I can outlast him if needs be. But I do want to tell him stories. So I often default to the ones I know. And particularly to the ones I know best. Because it’s hard to think of something creative and clever when a four-and-a-half year old is hitting your chest and yelling. Unfortunately, this means reading and telling stories written by a lot of old white men.
Somehow he got ahold of the name “Thor.” He started thumping his hands against my chest, yelling: “Tell one Thor story!” So I told him a story about how Thor got drunk and allowed a magician to trick him. I was vague about the drunk part. But like I said: he’s insatiable. And I don’t know that many Thor stories.
“Tell One Meta-Story”
So today, he started yelling: “Tell one Thor story.” And I came up with the following, based quite closely, on yesterday’s excursion to the park.
Once there was a boy named Thor. His favorite thing in the world was to hear stories about Nimboo. He would always say to his Daddy: “Tell one Nimboo Story! Tell one Nimboo story!” So Daddy-Odin took Thor on his knee and said: Once there was a boy named Nimboo who had a little bow and arrow made from a twig tied top and bottom with string. He played so much with the bow that it snapped right in half. CRACK!
Testing for a New Bow
So Nimboo and his Dadah [that means ‘uncle’ or ‘elder brother.’ It’s what he calls me] went down to the park to try to find a new branch to make into a bow. Each time one of them picked up a branch, they would test its strength, but the branches were all too dry or too rotten or too thin. They all broke so easily. But then they found one bamboo stave that was so thick and so heavy, it would have made an amazing bow. But it was too thick and too heavy! It would have taken a dozen people to draw an arrow back!
Still, Dadah and Nimboo had so much fun trying to test this thick bamboo stave against the stone bench. CRACK!
And against the metal swing set. CRACK!
And against the metal slide. CRACK!
Dadah made sure Nimboo was FAR out of the way when he swung.
But still, Dadah began to worry that people in the nearby apartments would think there was some trouble in the street below because of all the noise they were making. So he said: “Nimboo we need to go back upstairs. Tomorrow we’ll find something to make your bow out of.”
So they went back upstairs and they told Nimboo’s Avva [grandmother]. And she said: “Oh, you can’t find a proper stick for the bow? I’ll get.” Then she put on her flip-flops and went down. Five minutes later, she came back with a stick for a bow that was even better than the one Nimboo had lost. And the moral of the story is that Avvas are magic.
When the story ended, I found myself looking into Dr. M’s eyes. I don’t know if you have recently had the pleasure of looking into the eyes of a small child whom you love. But it’s a mystical experience. It helps that Dr. M’s eyes are beautiful, and framed just so by long lashes. You can get lost in those eyes. Or perhaps I think that way because I care for him. The whole logical train might just be circular. I love looking into his eyes because they are beautiful because I love looking into his eyes because they are beautiful because…
And in the midst of my reverie, Dr. M shouted: “Tell one more Thor story!”
Read Adam’s whole series of Bangalore Letters