Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Some people are born storytellers. My friend’s grandma is one of them. Petite in stature but mighty with words, she connects the imaginary world to her listeners, weaving the two together.

To watch her almost draw stories from the air around her while her eyes gleam with delight is always a treat. It isn’t only the tales she spins that lingers on after she leaves; it is also her expressions and gestures. They are finely produced in passion, anger, bewilderment, enthusiasm, joy or fear – just the exact emotion called for by the character or the story.

As a child, I loved crowding around her with the other kids just so as to be amused. These days, I visit her every now then, when I go through an occasional low, just to be transported to a land of make-believe where dragons and trolls still exist. Her magnetism and skill as a storyteller, I can’t remember what it’d do to me as a child, but now makes my troubles disappear.

Mary wed big time game hunter Joseph five years back and moved to Africa to be with him, she began one of her stories when I recently paid her a visit during an all time low.

Surprisingly this time, she didn’t concoct one with knights and dragons and the lot. The master storyteller was taking me on a journey to Africa.

Mary remained there farming and rearing horses and employed Hutu and Tutsi workers. “While the Hutus are farmers by profession, the Tutsi managed livestock,” she explained as she watched me closely.

Congo was soon gripped with civil war after its independence from Belgium in the 1960s and violence trickled over the border into Rwanda, her face wore a sad look while her hands were clasped together.

Rwanda’s Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority were clubbing, shooting, slaughtering, burning, skinning and lynching each other to their deaths, but harmony still prevailed in Mary’s farm, her lips quivered and her eyes were misty as she continued.

The bloodshed over the years had simmered down and normalcy was returning. People were… she was abruptly interrupted by the cries of her great granddaughter.

Lost in thoughts, my mind wandered - to Africa and to the movies I had watched about the Dark Continent. My head was free of worries as I imagined chaos, wild animals, malnourished children in the midday heat and bodies scattered around as flies hovered around them.

She couldn’t possibly have visited Africa or anywhere else abroad for that matter. Yet, she narrated the story as if she was present there when it all happened. Every single story she told, she told it like it took place around her. Perhaps, that is why she is a master of her craft.

“I put her off to sleep,” she whispered as I helped her sit on her chair in the garden. “She sleeps like an angel.”

“In 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan president, a Hutu, was shot down by rebels,” she got back to the story without any delay. “And suddenly the violence that had simmered erupted into genocide.”

Her eyes blinked furiously and she looked disturbed and lost. Taking a few deep breaths, she shook her head in disbelief. As if to say – how can humans be so barbaric?

Mary’s farm too wasn’t spared. The Hutu regime was hunting down Tutsi rebels. And in her farm, where she had allowed them to attempt to hide, about 100 people – all innocent, were clubbed to death as they tried to flee.

“Within three months, over 800,000 Rwandans died violent deaths,” she lifted her hand to her mouth as if visualizing the scene.

Mary, who was branded a sympathizer of the rebels, fled her farm and was later evacuated to Canada, leaving behind her husband and a few brave workers who had avoided detection by the regime; looking at the leaves of a tree trembling in the evening breeze, she continued.

Restless in Ontario, Mary could neither sleep nor eat. She couldn’t bear to be away from her farm that she called home in Rwanda. War or no war, she had to return. And return she did, my master storyteller was finally forcing a smile.

I knew the climax was nearing. I also knew it would be a happy ending like all her stories had been all these years. The fire breathing dragon would be slaughtered by the brave knight in shining armor and the princess would be rescued from the castle in the air.

Then for a fleeting moment, when I’d retire to bed, I’d reflect on her story, her expressions and let her voice play in my head. It had always happened that way. As a kid, I’d try and narrate the stories to my mother at dinner and watch her feign interest. Now, only that would change.

“It wasn’t easy for Mary to try and sneak back into Rwanda,” she sounded a little excited while she looked at me and saw my mind roving.

Kenya was where Mary would board a plane secretly to get back. Apart from her brother, no one else knew about the plan, she whispered so as not to let another soul around know what she was talking about.

Her great granddaughter, once more, started crying.

Getting up to tend to her, she whispered again while holding my hand.

“As Mary was rushing to the car that would take her to where the plane was, she was hit by a speeding truck,” her face was suddenly blank.

I looked at her, my face too probably as blank.

“Do you know what the morale of the story is?” she asked.

I shook my head in reply.

“Look left and right every time you cross the street,” she left to tend to the baby.


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