Through a learning circle and a storytelling programme, grandparents at a gated community on Old Mahabalipuram Road go the extra mile for the sake of Generation Z

The pandemic may have upended priorities, but grandma’s tales — and grandpa’s too — have dodged the virus. In fact, grandparents are thriving as storytellers, getting more “air time” than ever before.

Now, as parents grapple with the challenges of working or working from home in a pandemic situation, stay-at-home children are often left to their own “devices” — actually, their parents’ devices. The fact that classes are now parked online does not help matters — there is too much screen time and it is doing little Johnny no good.

And a roll of storytelling honour at a gated community in Sholinganallur gives a reason to believe that grandparents are stepping up to the plate.

“Though grey hair is no criterion for choosing our storytellers, it so happens that in recent weeks, when we had revived our storytelling programme, nearly ninety percent of the storytellers have been seniors,” says Supriya Santhanam, a resident of The Central Park South (TCPS) and volunteer-in-charge of a library at the community.

The programme in question is “Stories Beneath The Clouds”, an in-person open-air storytelling component of TCPS’ library outreach, that has now been partially revived, stringent safety protocols in place, to tackle children’s gadget addiction during the pandemic.

Besides, grandparents at the community have raised their hands seeking to be included in a listening circle on parenting. This programme takes place once in two weeks on the terrace, following safety protocols.

Bindu Unnikrishan, who handles this programme as facilitator, in association with the library team, explains, “Initially, we started off with parents, and then we had grandparents also expressing their interest to participate in the circle. We felt that this was important, and that it would help every parenting discussion if grandparents brought their own generational light to it. We have grandparents who have shared their experiences, particularly about how parenting has changed — for a grandparent, how their children grew up and how their grandchildren are growing up are different. So, when they listen to parents (other than their own children), these grandparents become aware of new perspectives. Similarly, parents participating in the listening circle, get the perspectives of grandparents (other than what they have heard from their parents).”

Supriya points out that the listening circle has so far had five meet-ups, and its scope has now considerably widened.

Says Bindu, “The listening circle offers a safe space for parents and grandparents to discuss various topics related to parenting and learn from each other. It is a non-judgemental space where participants go back home with takeaways that they can customise for their family. What is discussed in the circle stays within the circle.”

Meet these storytellers

Now, let us get back to the open-air storytelling space — sometimes the poolside, and sometimes the terrace. There, a few senior storytellers from the community would tell you why it is necessary to continue telling those stories to children, in the middle of a pandemic.

Shanti Rajagopalan, 67 years old, can’t forget the joy two girls radiated when they saw each other in person, at a story-telling session, after staying cooped up in their respective homes for five months.

“These two girls are from this gated community, living in different blocks, and have been connecting virtually, but the joy they felt when they met in person — of course, following social distancing and other safety measures — illustrated the power of in-person connections. Plain in-person meeting has a level of interactivity that can’t be replicated by the most sophisticated digital tools. There is a spontaneity to the questions that children ask that is not possible online. From a storyteller’s point of view, we see the children’s reaction. When I tell a story, I don’t tell the story. I ask them questions, and they come up with answers and that shape the story. This interactive process is way easier than when attempted online.”

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Gita Bharath, who turns 64 in two weeks, is into narrative poetry and has a book in that genre to her credit. She has an acute sense of what a lot of screen time can do to children.

“I have two grandchildren, and the older one developed watery eyes on account of increased screen time,” she discloses. “In-person story-telling is livelier, as it enables more talk points to be introduced into a story. In the story sessions on the terrace, a pageant of unexpected characters would walk, or sometimes, fly into a story. For instance, when we had one recently, pelican flew by to the Perimbakkam Marsh, and the storyline took a detour to include this wetland. When children were told to stretch their hands when a story was being acted out, I lay on each side, say East Coast Road on the East. Stories anchored in one’s immediate environment stay with children longer. If the mission to wean children off gadgets through storytelling, the stories should be full of life.”

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Kusum Nathany, 66 years old, is the fulcrum of a joint family, and she shares the roof with five grandchildren. She therefore steps naturally into the role of a community grandmother.

“All the children in the community call me ‘daadi’,” she begins. “When online classes pop up on the screen, children wish they were offline. Otherwise, they would rather be online than anywhere else. Due to the pandemic, gadget addiction among children has assumed mammoth proportions, and intervention is necessary. This necessity provides meaning to what I am doing now.”



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