‘Settle down, settle down, otherwise there would be no story.’ Papa would tell my brother and me, and we would quickly quiet down and wait in silence for the day’s tale. I knew that Papa was making an empty threat, because as much as we liked hearing stories, Papa liked telling them more. He often dipped into the Greek mythologies, so at the age of five I heard about Oedipus, without all the censored parts, and I heard the tales of a Big Huge Wooden horses in which Five Hundred soldiers fit easily and the naïve people who accepted that gift horse did not bother to look into its mouth. At that time, the Horse People were the heroes of the story for me. I learnt about Homer’s odyssey and also about cunning fire thieves who were tied to rocks but were always always rescued because in my father’s stories there were no sad endings. Papa told us about wily Atlas who shrugged easily and fooled a muscular hero in to carrying his load. And of course, because it was a father who told the tales, we also learnt a lesson from the story of the child who was given wings to fly, but did not heed his father’s advice (he too did not die, he was hospitalized).
At times Papa would tell us sad tales too, about people who got changed in to insects and were first ignored and then discarded by their families, Papa would never complete that particular story. If we did not drink milk we were told about Ashwatthama whose mother could not afford to buy milk for him, and who drank atta mixed with water. And if we stayed outside too long, Papa would tell us about ‘Nanhi Lal Chunni’ who encountered a wolf on her way to her grandma’s house, although we never managed to get scared because Papa made all stories funny, (except for the one with the man-insect), and all tales had swashbuckling heroes who arrived on the scene at the nick-of-the-time. And when somewhere on the news we heard that Superman had died our father assured us that he was not dead and had just gone for a vacation (And my brother would continue this tradition when he would tell me that Animal Farm too had a happy ending, because we only had the first part of the book and not the second part in which Horses came and rescued everyone and killed the pigs). Papa also told us stories of the Detective and the Doctor who lived on Baker’s Street. But these stories were nothing in comparison to the detective stories Papa used to spin up and tell us.
Each night we would eagerly wait for Papa to finish his post-dinner tea and tell us a story, and once every week we would be treated to the stories of ‘Ram aur Shyam’, kid detectives extraordinaire, who would battle enemies (usually smugglers of an unspecified item) twice their size and would come up trumps. They were residents of Lucknow (as we were at that time), and all the chase sequences happened in Hazrat Ganj. They ran their own detective agency, though who they did contract work for and whether they were ever paid is something Papa did not consider important to the story. And the best part was that Papa made all the stories incredibly funny, and my brother and I would laugh for days remembering the jokes, and telling it to our friends who seemed dumb to us because they could not understand the context and thus would not laugh.
With the advent of cable tv, and Sunday morning cartoons of Batmen and cars turning into robots, and nearly naked swordsmen with cars that could fly, our attention started shifting towards them and we became more demanding in the night time stories. We wanted gadgets and ‘electronic items’ and cars that had guns in the exhaust pipe which could be used to fool villains and badmashes of all varieties. Papa being a luddite when it came to storytelling did not like the idea of wars being fought in the stars (though he rented out video cassettes from ‘Sharma Library’ when we begged him to, because we wanted to see that film in which people fight with tubelights).
‘Why don’t you read Tintin and Asterix instead of wasting your time watching those cartoons?’ Papa said once, while bringing home comics four times the size of the Nagraj and Super Commando Dhruv and Crook Bond that we were used to. ‘But Papa, Tintin has Professor Calculus and Captain Haddock, Asterix has Getafix and Obelix, who do Ram and Shyam have?’
Papa instantly replied ‘This is the day a new character enters our story, let me tell you about Ram and Shyam’s uncle and mentor Professor Chakram.’
‘So did Professor Chakram built them gadgets?’
‘Yes, yes, and the first thing he built them was a computer called ChumuChumu.’ This was where our father won over us again, because any detective agency with a computer (although at that time we did not know what a computer can do apart from playing a game which involved eating dots, we being fed on western movies and cartoons thought a computer could do pretty much everything) was an agency worth its weight in gold. Professor Chakram built many gadgets for Ram and Shyam, a grappeling hook, magic pens with invisible ink, and a scooter with a water pistol fit on it which they used to chase criminals.
‘Wasn’t it a motorcycle?’ We would insist, but we would always be told that scooters are sturdy and dependable, while bikes are used by Gundas. ‘But Shah Rukh Khan rode a bike in Deewana!’
‘And you saw how that poor fellow skidded over those stairs!’
Our scooter riding heroes always knew the exact location of the criminals and could predict what they were doing with the aid of ChumuChumu, and Professor Chakram would invent something on the spot that would help the heroes fight them. Papa’s stories were better than Duck Tales and Tailspin put together, they packed more jokes and more adventures than what any writer could imagine on a good day. When our interest started waning again Papa took inspiration from countless 70s Detective movies and introduced the character of Monachu, the wily secretary of the young detectives who could hire clients and take on villains with equal ease.
I don’t remember at what exact age my brother and I ‘grew out’ the stories of Ram and Shyam (maybe at an age when we became plain idiots and did not know what was good for us), or maybe Papa got too tired of telling them to us. It is my lasting regret that Papa did not write them down and serialize them, they were the best stories that I have heard in my life, better than tales of soldiers running marathon distances, or of Russians named Danko who suffered from excessive heart burn, or of tiny people throwing rings in volcanoes. Those are the lost tales that I wish I can find some day again.