A few weekends ago, in the deepest hills of Shropshire, I found myself enchanted amongst storytellers, bearded ones (not me) and Bhangra dancers (true) at The Festival at the Edge to share and hear stories from all over the world. To make us go 'oooh' and 'aaaah', preserving the ancient traditions of oral storytelling.
Stories matter. We've all got one or a few. And it was the sparks of an old story that brought me here...
Rewind a few months to when I saw Peter Chand perform Tongue Tied and Twisted - a story telling performance about Punjabi folk tales. I was completely enchanted by how he wove tales from the Punjab told by South Asian elders with chilled out Indian beats including the story of The Leper of Amritsar - a tale my Dad used to tell me.
Listening to Peter, I realised my Dad was a storyteller. I never fully appreciated that he was whilst he was alive. Dad told us fantastical tales from Sikh mythology including the story of Guru Nanak stopping a massive boulder from blocking a river with one hand (and the hand print is still there in the boulder, Dad has seen it…), of the man who lived in his village to 125 years old and drank 8 pints of buffalo milk a day (true), to stories of how how he would dig tunnels through 15 foot high snow drifts in Kashmir whilst serving in the Indian Army as a teenager. Right to the end of his life, Dad continued to tell Guru tales and I listened as if I’d never heard them before. Dad told the same tales over and over with a twinkle in his eyes as if telling them for the first time.
And the tale of The Leper of Amritsar? There are many variations of this tale, here’s the one Dad used to tell me.
A King had seven daughters who lived with him and asked them all ‘who feeds you’. One by one they replied ‘you do father’. The King was pleased with their answers. He asked the 7th and youngest daughter ‘who feeds you’ and she replied ‘fate feeds me father.’ The King was very angry and asked her again ‘who feeds you’ and 7th daughter replied ‘I cannot lie father, it is fate that feeds me’.
The King was outraged and to teach her a lesson he married her off to a hideous leper, who used a wooden trolley to move on as he couldn’t walk and banished her penniless from the palace. ‘This is your fate daughter’ he said. 7th daughter accepted her fate and vowed to love and look after her husband and pulled him on his trolley. They lived hand to mouth, 7th daughter begging her way from village to village. One day she placed her husband underneath a tree in the shade whilst she went off to beg.
Whilst underneath the tree, the leper notice a crow dive in to nearby swampy water. He waited for it to emerge and to his shock, instead of a crow a white dove emerged. Again, another crow flew in to the swamp and emerged as a beautiful white dove. The leper was astounded ‘what if i go in to the water?’ he thought. With all his strength he barely managed to drag himself to the edge of the swamp and flung his tortured body in to the swamp.
When 7th daughter returned to the tree she was horrified to see her husband disappeared! She looked around but all she could see was a striking young man and asked him ‘where is my husband’. ‘I am your husband’ he said. ‘You?’ she said ‘but look at you’. She watched in disbelief as he pointed at the crows diving in to the swampy water and emerging as doves. ‘I too entered the water’ he said. 7th daughter was overjoyed as she hugged her husband and contemplated her fate.
This is the point where my Dad always stopped and with hand gestures and leaning towards me, maybe lowering his voice a little told me ‘and that swamp became the site of the holy water at The Golden Temple in Amritsar’. He’d nod his head knowingly, looking at me and then return directly to his beloved news on Zee TV. Dad firmly believed these wonderful myths he told me. A ruggedly practical man who learnt to drive tanks co-existed with one foot firmly in the mystical world of stories.
Whilst listening to Peter tell the full tale (it goes on a bit longer than Dad's version) it felt as if Dad was sitting next to me, nodding and listening. Something had been ignited inside me, a spark I needed to follow. Dad wanted me to hear the full story and hear the lesson it offered. After the performance, Peter came to talk to my friend and I, mentioning The Festival at the Edge, a storytelling festival which he organised and that we should go. I felt a nudge from beyond and Dad’s voice ‘Go.’
** Intermission **
(think Ice Cream seller coming down the cinema aisle before the second half begins...)