For a good part of my life, I didn't quite understand the story. Part of the folklore in southern India, it was about an object. In common parlance, the name of this object translated as ‘nothing'. This confused me. Could there be a story about nothing?
When grandma, in all her regality, took centre stage as we sat up listening to her endless stories before drifting off to sleep, the story of ‘nothing' would invariably come up. We liked it immensely — simply because the title always intrigued us. Could ‘nothing' actually take form and go on adventures? In fact, at one point in the story, as I remember, grandma told us how ‘nothing' almost got washed away in a storm. But ‘nothing' had the courage to battle it out and come out a winner. Grandma would then end her story by saying that every one of us was gifted with a strength that we should recognise and use.
I remember listening to the story, even in my teens, still baffled and unable to crack the mystery of ‘nothing'. I never gathered the courage to ask grandma what the story was really about or how there could be a story about nothing. When I went to college, I asked grandma to tell me the story again and she narrated it in exactly the same way she had all those years ago — not changing a single detail.
Long after she had finished telling me the story, I wondered whether the story had a deeper philosophical meaning. I couldn't come up with anything and eventually I gave up. Of course, I had to admit that my imagination seemed so much better than actually finding the logic in the story.
When my mother visited us last month, I asked her if she could tell my son, Sid, the same story. She knew the story, but when she told it the subject was no longer ‘nothing' — it was ‘Jack'.
"Jack?" I asked her later.
"Sid would never understand if the story were about ‘nothing'," she said.
"Come on. There can't be a story about ‘nothing'. ‘Nothing' cannot take a form, it cannot talk or walk. Tell me a real story," he would have said.
The story, when narrated in its native language, conveys not just a tale, but the essence of a culture that only its people can relate to. Sid had no idea about any of this and it would have been foolish to even expect that he would like the story. So, the story had to be about ‘Jack'.
Sid has probably never even heard of the word that translates as ‘nothing'. Since our native language has been invaded by English words, we have each developed our own dialect of the language, which is understood by distinct groups. We have found an English equivalent for most of our words. When we cannot find the right word, we Anglicise it by suffixing the word with an ‘ing'. Yet, at times the inevitable happens: I face a word, rooted deep in our cultural identity, that I cannot translate.
I think my mother faced the same situation that day. The story was told interspersed with English words and I watched the sad death of a good tale.
Although Sid asked my mother to repeat the story later that day, it lacked the charm and intrigue that had kept us spellbound on those long summer nights. Whatever happens to the story about ‘nothing', I pray that it is retold in its true form somewhere in the heartland of southern India.
For my household, of course, it is now the story of Jack the adventurer.
- Sudha Subramanian is an independent writer based in the UAE.