Like everything else, story time has changed over the years. Long ago, we could search for children's books in quiet cavernous places where we had to whisper and tiptoe around among hard-bound books searching for something that attracted our attention while adults frowned and watched hawk-eyed to make sure nothing upset the well-planned order of the racks.

Today there are libraries especially for children: cheerful, inviting places where books with colourful covers and attractive illustrations are scattered on tables and racks scaled down to be at hand or eye-level for young readers. Smiling faces, welcoming gestures, professional storytellers, abridged stories, dramatised versions with musical accompaniments, the variations are practically endless.... Of course, in our time, we didn't really need to visit the local library at all to ensure a foray into a fictional world. For us, anytime was story time.

We didn't sit around a campfire or wait for special occasions to experience all these tales. They were a part of our everyday life, launched into at dinner and going on well past dessert, keeping us enthralled during a black out, or just with the lights off because the darkness made the drama more intense and we saw clearer pictures in our mind's eyes.

Mother was the master storyteller with tales of her childhood adventures in a small railway town, romance in unexpected places, and many, many stories of human foibles. Her love of history and geography and her stories of struggle on land and at sea had us scrambling around searching for atlases or thumbing through each other's history books to verify facts about historical figures.

Mom was the one who introduced us to the movies as well. No, she didn't take us to watch movies nor did she have the luxury of going to them herself. Rather, when her sisters visited from the city, they sat around describing the most fascinating or frightening ones they had seen and we hid behind sofas and listened avidly, frozen in fear as we were taken through scenes from the original Psycho, Midnight Lace, or House of Wax.

Survival of the fittest

Father too had a talent for tales — his involved the hunter and the hunted, the predator and its prey. Even as we looked over our shoulders to make sure a leopard was not about to leap on us, he familiarised us with the wild life of our country. His true life Jungle Book had no avuncular bears and wolves — only the survival of the fittest, the fastest and the fiercest.

Mother and father were catalysts and made us want to find out more by digging into books for ourselves. Big sister, on the other hand, who combined mother's gift of building up an atmosphere and father's propensity for keeping secrets until he was ready to share them with us, made story time an unforgettable experience — and often we didn't have the courage to follow it up with a reading of the story for ourselves.

My hair still stands on end when I recall her rendering of the rattle of the convict's chains in Great Expectations and the murderous rage of Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist. She ensured sleepless nights for us as she unfolded the plot in her own time, not necessarily chapter by chapter. There was no way I could read the books after that!

So now when we rue that modern children don't have time to read Charles Dickens and others of his ilk, we conveniently forget that a huge chunk of literature slipped through the cracks for some of the older generation as well.

We like to think we turned out okay despite that gap in our reading list — or did we?


Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.