I grew up under the affectionate care of a child-minder at home. In Bangla, my mother tongue, it is the usual practice to address our nannies respectfully as “Mashi” (aunty). I called her “Didi” (elder sister) simply because my mother called her that. She was perhaps as old as my mother.

Didi had no name. Or maybe we just didn’t know of any. Most of the domestic staff who traveled to my part of the city from Didi’s part of the village called her “Rano’R Maa” (Rano’s mother). She was a widow in her early forties. Her only living relative was Ranojit, her son, who was a rickshaw puller by profession. Didi was always dressed in white khudder sari with a small black border, and wore black rubber flip-flops. She was very short, dark-skinned, almost the color of polished ebony. Her soft oval face was framed by jet black curls of hair.

She came from a village in the outskirts of my city. And she came with a bag full of stories. Folklores of the earth. Myths moored to the smell of rural Indian soil.

Of the many stories she had told me, one that stuck in particular to my mind was that of Chander Maa Buri (Old Mother of the Moon). To my little brain she fed the story of an old woman, who sat inside the moon and spun on a wheel making milk white yarns. I really cannot remember with exact clarity if it was her own silver hair that she spooled into threads, or was it the puffy cloud she picked from her neighborhood sky.

But spin she did. Like no other.

Plucking out clouds or hairs in strands, Buri would twine them into a yarn. This was as endless a process like the earth’s revolution round the sun, as eternal as the continual switch between night and day, as infinite as words rolling into stories.

It never came to me to question the practical impossibility of sitting down in the moon, where you were supposed to fly without six times your heaviness added in gear. Of course, she was the mother of the moon and clearly commanded greater gravity than us mortals?

Didi’s round eyes would grow rounder as she stretched her hands outward to show me exactly how big the spinning wheel was. And then her hands would go further up in the air to signify the mass of snowy white tresses this lady had flowing from her head. Buri was also sold early to me as the one goddess to be appeased if I wanted good strong hair.

I was in awe already. Not because a head-full of hair meant any achievement to me. But more because the sway this hair-goddess held over Didi.

I didn’t know the art of spinning tales back in those days and fell for this homely yarn with a love that is akin to the love of the miraculous, the impossible. To reinforce the existence of her Buri, Didi brought me dandelion puffs as evidence. Right from the head of the tress mistress, she said. Since Buri never braided her hair, was it not natural that tiny puffs would drop and drift like snowflakes?

And they did drop and drift down to us. Especially during the autumn months. Of course, my child brain did not see the logic behind their seasonal arrival. And the moment I saw a puff floating in the air, Didi recommended in all earnestness, I was to run after it. Chase it down for dear life and stick it in my own hair. That, she said, was a sure shot recipe for thick, glossy, flowing locks. Also, the ghostly white puffs were so ethereal in their appearance, that they confirmed my faith in Buri and her ancient hair-raising spell.

I did as told.

Years later when I grew up, I realized that Didi actually believed in her story herself. Not for a moment did she doubt the presence of Buri and her homespun hair. Buri was so real to her, that she would push a puff into my mass of curls as soon as she caught one between her rough fingers. Her life revolved around her own narratives, the only vestige of a life she had left behind in her ancestral village.

Can we live without stories? I don’t think I can. We all have our respective spindles to hold the threads of our world together. We twist our realities around spools of fairy tales so that life becomes that one bit easier to live. Sometimes memories buried deep inside the crevices of our minds, forgotten bits of history - personal or impersonal - all merge together until no clear divide between imagination and reality exists.

The art of storytelling has had a sustaining role to play across cultures. Spinning stories every night had kept Scheherazade of The Arabian Nights alive through one thousand nights. Just as spinning gold thread out of straw had ensured the miller’s daughter her life in Rumpelstiltskin. In Greek mythology, the three daughters of Zeus and Themis – Clotho (spinner), Lachesis (allotter) and Atropos (un-turnable) — are the white-robed sisters of providence, who spin human destiny on their wheel. So while Clotho brushed and spun the yarn – the life of man, Lachesis measured the length of yarn/life given to each mortal. The youngest, Atropos, the goddess of death, did the final cutting of the yarn, ending the life her sisters had been spinning. Women, as I see are mighty good spinsters then.

What appeals to me as a curious gift attributed to women is their continuous spinning of tales, yarns, narratives, even the metaphorical thread of events called Life. Out of a formless mass of fiber, straw, hair, and cloud or fluid amorphous moments, they give birth to a perfectly tuned thread, which is weaved to give us the 'fabric' like story. Like a miniature life. Like perfectly formed babies. Mini human forms born in perfect but just reduced proportions of length and breadth. My babysitter, in that sense was my first storyteller.

Even before Thakurmar Jhuli happened, and the Grimm’s Brothers and Hans Andersen took over my imagination. So when I tell my son a story, I remember Rano’R Maa with a lot of love, my petite Didi from an unnamed village in Bengal.

She gave me my first yarn.


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