I was just about to enter my daughter’s bedroom, when I stopped dead in my tracks. I stood listening while a grandmother held two of her grandchildren spellbound with a story that transported me across decades, into a time when there was no television or computer and storytelling was an art.

My mother always maintained that stories were nocturnal activity, otherwise travelling near or dear ones were liable to lose their way. There was impeccable logic behind what appears to be an old wives tale, for daylight hours were meant for work alone, both for the narrator as well as the audience. I consider myself lucky that these stories were passed down to my children and then my grandchildren. I would rate myself luckier if my grandchildren would continue the chain.

My mother’s favourite stories were rhymed. There was one about the ‘Podna and Podni’ (two tiny birds), in which the male of the pair makes a chariot out of bulrushes, yokes a couple of frogs to it and goes forth to the ‘Raja’s’ palace to rescue his mate. Then there was the tale of two sparrows, where the female puts some stuff into her eyes and feigns sickness to shirk chores. The masterpiece featured a female rural mouse, who stands on the roadside and stops a cavalryman of the local ‘Raja’ so that he can carry a message to her sister, who lives in the palace - what happens then is, perhaps, the subject for another column.

While my mother was a master storyteller, the doyen in this category was Islamuddin. This ageless individual, who also went by the name of ‘Baray Mian’, was a retainer with my paternal grandfather and had migrated to Pakistan in 1947. It was out of sheer loyalty and attachment with the family that he spent weeks in locating my paternal grandmother and my father, and then moved into our servant quarters. My mother looked after him in sickness and in health till the day he passed out of our lives. It was not known where he had picked up the art, but he adopted the role of a professional storyteller, which morphed into one that can best be termed as the ‘keeper of the swing’, during the monsoon season.

‘Baray Mian’s’ favourite tales were two epics that lasted more than two hours and starred ‘Sindbad Jahazi’ and ‘Tabal Shaitan’. This latter character was an arch villain, who sat under a tree and devoured his victims after broiling them in a cauldron. While the ‘shaitan’s’ eating habits intrigued us, we specially looked forward to his physical description: “Matkay jaisa pait, chhetay ki si kamar, tinka jaise hath paoon, mirak ki si ankhen.” I have often wondered as to how could a person have an overgrown belly and a waist like a cheetah, at the same time - but then this was storytelling.

Islamuddin’s stories, all began with an introductory paragraph, which was repeated faultlessly with unerring flow every time he began a tale –

“Eik dafa ka zikar hai kee ik tha badshah. Hamara tumhara Khuda badshah. Khuda ne banaya Rasool badshah. Kanon kisunikehte hain, ankhon ki dekhikehte nahin. Soway sansar, jaagay Paak Parwar Digaar, nahin Uski kudrat ka koi shumar.”

It was unfortunate that this iconic old man walked out of our main gate one day and despite our frantic efforts to locate him, was never seen again.

The cast of characters in bedtime stories of my childhood always had a king and queen, a prince or a princess and a villainous wizard, who met his end at the sharp edge of another prince’s sword. The story always ended happily when the prince married the princess. Spice was added to these tales by a never ending procession of giants, ogres, fairies and animals that talked.

It is regretful that over a period of time and the passing away of storytellers, be they members of the family, domestic retainers or professionals, the art and tradition of telling bedtime stories is becoming extinct. And as each story breathes its last, it kills a part of the child that resides inside every adult. Little do we realise that this child must be kept protected and nurtured if we are to retain our sanity in times to come.

The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.