I come from a family of storytellers.

No one told us how to structure a story—that a story should have a beginning, the middle of the story was the discovery or that a twist in the tale was the best way to end a short story. We lived it because of my mother. Even a mundane encounter with the vegetable vendor would be a story she told us with breath-taking clarity and suspense. And thus my very own, in-house Scheherazade is the reason I grew up knowing the art of storytelling and story-creation.

My mom never read us bedtime tales. She never had time for things like that. Stories were told as part of conversations or to deal with real issues. On a daily basis this meant getting four kids to eat at one go. We were four girls. At one point, if the youngest was two years old then the oldest was nine. With no maid to help, my mother must have gathered us around her, taken all the food she had cooked for the four of us in one plate, and fed us. I remember my older sisters sitting to the left of her while me and the youngest sat atop the dining table. And like this she would start telling a story. Like Pavlov’s dog, to date, when I hear “Once upon a time….” I salivate. Truth.

She told us the stories from the Panchatantra, the Grimm, 1001 Tales from the Arabian Nights, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Russian Folktales, Akbar and Birbal, Tenali Raman … We sat where we sat, chewing mechanically as we rode horses, fought demons, dived from magic carpets, hid in forests, trekked through blinding sandstorms or sat in opulent courts counting giant pearls.

Seven days a week, three meals a day, for days and days my mom told stories, always asking us patiently what story we wanted to hear. Often we demanded repeats. “Tell me the story of the magic lamp, mamma!” Or, “Please tell me the story you told the other day about the Lion who lost his roar.” If a story was short, another was demanded …and produced. Sometimes, when we enjoyed the story so much we demanded more food. We had to hear more. She was pivot point that led us to the magic door. We never knew what was awaiting us behind the door; which story would lead us to which land that she conjured up with her words.

At some point she was emptied of all the stories in the written universe. But she never stopped. She dug deep into her memories and told us stories from her childhood. I may be a second generation migrant to Mumbai, but many people are surprised when I tell them that I was born and brought up in Mumbai, I tell them. I lived in Chembur. Then I add—as if to further validate my presence in the millennium city—”I am a Xaverite!” But it’s hard to believe. Thanks to my mother the scent of the sea drapes me and the brittle sharpness of broken seashell on sand stays crushed under my feet. The rains and rainforest are in my cells. I was her, running between trees in the backyard, scaling mossy walls to take a bath in the pond. They can see it, these people who are surprised I’m from Mumbai.

There are four of us and we are all storytellers. We know how to twist the tale to earn the gasps, we know how to draw laughter. We know.

To date my favourite time still is when my mother’s younger sister came to our tiny home. If there was anyone better than my mom in telling stories, it was her. (They were a family of ten–four sisters and six brothers, each one better than the other in telling stories. Apparently, their mother and her sister were even better) We thirsted for mealtime because … oh the stories that came! We would sit with our plates licked, our fingers caked with food drying, clutching our sides as we laughed and laughed and laughed.

As for me, stories went on to be great sanctuaries. I had an invisible friend all through my childhood when no one chose to play with me. The backside of my building was a forest where i was chased by dacoits while I swiftly dodged bullets. It didn’t matter if there were worries at home because (by then I had started on Enid Blyton) I was looking for fairies under leaves and checking for a ring of toadstools. Later, when I got into unhappy relationships I pulled a book and slipped into a story. With a story it was ok to laugh, grieve, celebrate. It felt safe.

Somewhere before that I learnt that I had one more connection to stories: I could weave a story with a single word. We used to play a game in class. They would throw a word at me; a random word, say red. And I could build a story on that word. Truth. I remember because they did throw the word red and I did build a story so fascinating that my classmates sat in front of me, mouths opened.

And thus I became the class storyteller at age 7; the person pulled out of the bench when the teachers had to be in a meeting, to keep the class silent. I became the neighbourhood stand-up comic at golu and among friends it went: wait till you hear vinitha say this.

Stories are the places I stole into and ensconced myself at every point in my life. Soon enough, I used it to make my kids eat food they didn’t like. I find that all my sisters did that too. We took over from my mother. Apparently, spinning stories has been our inevitability.