I love going back to Edmonton whenever I get the chance. It’s where I’m from; it’s what I know; it’s part of who I am. Other than my friends and family, there are many things I miss about Edmonton: the clean smelling air, the river valley close to my house, and the sound of the birds and the elephant from the zoo nearby… yes I did say elephant. Another thing I miss is hearing family stories.
Every family has stories that tie their family members together and bind each of them to their family heritage. These stories detail the history of the family: their trials and tribulations, their celebrations and joys, their failures and successes. Hopefully, they are passed down from one generation to the next, but often times they are lost. At times lessons are learned, but more importantly each story leaves an imprint on who we are – an identity. The roads I have travelled in my 41 years have presented me with many life lessons, but the greatest imprints are from my family’s and cultural community’s stories.
For me, there’s nothing like hearing stories from a South African East Indian community. They are told over food – eating food or making food. I remember being 13 years old and hearing about my friends going to movies with their family or other friends on a Saturday night. I, on the other hand, sat at the kitchen table with my parents and other family or community members listening to stories about distant aunties, uncles, and cousins while folding samosas or rolling out rotis.
There’s a unique tone and “way” in how the stories are told. I identify with this and it is a manner of storytelling I have yet to encounter with any other group of people. My family’s stories were not always about good times or struggles. At times it was about the latest family scandal and who did what to whom. I guess you could say that some of it was gossip, and it was juicy too.
If you’re a newcomer to the story, no worries because the storytellers will get you caught up on 30 years of love, family feuds, heartache and scandal in about 2 hours. Yes… it will take two hours. Why? A good story has a history, and the background is needed in order to know how it will end, and sometimes you never get to the end until the next time you meet. If you’re not a newcomer to the story, the repeated version will be slightly altered but just as good. All the stories I know detail how one family links to another. For instance,
“Auntie Thuno’s cousin’s brother’s wife’s sister who lived on Brickfield road married A.J Pillay’s grand-son, not the A.J Pillay who owned the butcher shop but the jewellers. That grandson’s cousin went to medical school with my cousin.”
This simplified and made-up characterisation is an example of how the stories I heard started. This complex multi-layered description was and is still typical of all the stories I heard from parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and other community members. Each element serves as a clarification to the stories. This was because there were numerous Auntie Thunos and A.J. Pillays. Most of the time, these stories were co-constructed. The teller and the listener together engage in a back and forth game of storytelling to confirm, clarify, or correct each other on its different key elements. These stories were told over and over again during lengthy phone calls to other people in the community in Canada or elsewhere in the world, or over empty plates and curried hands. As my family members recount the stories of their lives for the umpteenth time, a sense of “being” falls upon them; it’s a sense of belonging.
When I was growing up I didn’t really think about these stories too much, but today I wish I had paid more attention.. The art in which these stories were told is now dying with the storytellers. While there are versions of the stories floating in the air among a younger generation, the nuances with which they are told and voices and people they represent are no longer the same. Their colour and flavour have been lost on my generation. It’s now history rather than a living memory. I feel this even more so with the death of two people in my family. An uncle who passed away 2 years ago and another who passed away just last week. I see it even more so with the my father’s fading memory due to a stroke he had just last year. With the passing and aging of each of my storytellers, I feel a greater distance to my background. The sense of belonging and being is slipping away. Do I remember the stories they told me? Can I tell it in the same light? Will it impact my child and nephews and nieces in the same way? Bits and pieces of these stories are trapped in the corners of my mind, and one day I might want to recall them,. However, I know they will be different. I won’t be able to tell the stories in the same way. In fact, I believe that many of the stories will probably die with my parents’ generation.
The art of telling these stories will not travel with me unless I choose to make it so. Therefore, I venture to keep these stories alive – somehow. I won’t be heading back to Edmonton for Diwali/Deepavali this year, but I am heading back over the winter holidays. I can’t wait to hear the oldest and latest stories from the gang over a hot cup of tea and vadas or sweetmeats.
I plan to savour every colourful storied detail.