Sunday Morning Storytelling: Musings of a PeaceWorks Volunteer

Sunday mornings have never been busier.

For most, Sunday mornings are lazy, blissful hours spent in the company of books, friends and family, and other happy things. For me, Sunday mornings are revelations. Some months ago, after I signed up to be a volunteer for the Share Stories Open Minds project (a four-year old humane endeavour by PeaceWorks, which in turn is an initiative of The Seagull Foundation for the Arts) I began to save up my pennies in order to pay for the short bus journeys to Salt Lake. Child Care Home, run by the Women’s Interlinked Foundation, in Sector IV, is a pleasant pink building nestled on one side of a busy street in Sukanta Nagar, but the first time I beheld its gates, I was immensely nervous. Officially, I was a Storyteller, and the idea was to teach through the medium of stories. Armed with a bagful of fairy tales, I rang the doorbell for the first time. What I hadn’t grasped then was that to “teach” meant to “touch minds”, and that stories could build, heal, ignite, and create a deep desire for learning, if they were told with love. I would come to learn these lessons over the course of the next few months, and I can happily report that I am still learning.

Nearly two weeks ago, the children surprised me, once again. Traffic had been slow, and I’d arrived at the centre nearly fifteen minutes past ten thirty in the morning. Volunteers usually have an hour with the children, but I was generously allowed to extend the session beyond the stipulated hour to make up for lost time. Nonetheless, my beloved group of little girls rushed to surround me, and criticise my tardiness. “Aunty”, “Didi”, “That lady who shares her name with Priyanka Chopra,”- I have several names here, but my favourite is “Golper Didi”. “So what shall we do today?” they asked, as we climbed the steps to the first-floor classroom where all the magic happens. “Today, we’re going to do something different,” I replied. It usually takes around five to ten minutes for the entire group of twelve to fifteen to gather. Everyone is bursting with stories, and there is never a quiet moment. The sheer red dupatta however, caught their attention. They listened, excited, as I laid down the instructions, “You’ll have to act out your own story, and I’ll write it down.” Shyness has never been an issue with most of them. They jump from their seats immediately. The eldest ones want to be the main character, and the younger ones who are brave enough to ignore their established laws of age-based hierarchy push and pull for the same part. I used to struggle, but now, I simply raise my eyebrows, erase my smile, and position my hands on my hips to maintain decorum. I simply will not entertain those who do not raise their hands. They oblige and wait for their turn. I picked the quietest, the naughtiest, the most outspoken, the funniest, and the most attentive ones (in that order) to spin the tale. I handed them the dupatta and challenged them to use it to begin their story. Within minutes, I was left speechless.

Two of the girls held the third one still, while the others began to drape it around the latter. To build momentum, I asked the seated girls to guess what their peers were up to. After a lot of discussion, debating, and wrong answers, a tiny voice announced, “She’s a monk!” Indeed, she was a religious old man, bent double with a quavering voice (my own guess of an ancient grandmother had been mistaken after all). They began the tale with the familiar, “Once upon a time…,” but the following words were as unknown to them as they were to me. The old man’s journey was nothing short of an odyssey; there were magical caves, dragons, miserly housewives, castles made of gold, enchanted snakes, and wayward princes. Some of these snippets were inspired, some original, some mind-bogglingly ingenious (a woman who cackled like geese when she cried). I could hardly help but join the fun, and we crawled, climbed, ran for our lives from forces of evil. The baton of proceeding with the story was passed on from one girl to the other- our audience eagerly participated with their own interpretations and observations. At the end of the hour, I had a long, quite impossible story. There was no moral awaiting us at the end, I perhaps failed in my capacity as a teacher to direct the girls to produce something cohesive. But there was something magical, beautiful, in letting go of the rules for one morning. As they twisted their faces, swung their arms, and changed their voices to suit the situation, I was reminded of the true purpose of a story. A story is meant to engage, involve. Inside it, differences of class, creed, position, wealth, are feeble human institutions. A story is a portal to newer identities, millions of other universes. These children, so acutely aware of these truths, have reminded me to love what I do. I am better because of them, and I hope I’ve affected them similarly.

The bus ride home is always a pensive one for me. I reflect upon the bonds I’ve forged with the children, and how important they’ve become to me. Sunday mornings are revelations. The world is better on Sunday mornings.

Priyanka Sen is one of the several volunteers in the Share Stories Open Minds project, and a writer for Eye. 

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