When I heard about the Storytelling Champions initiative by Pratham Books, I knew I had to be a part of it. I’ve always believed stories are a great way of enriching children’s lives and Pratham books was giving me that opportunity. It was also a great chance for the volunteers to introduce children to the joy of reading. Though I agreed to do this, I started getting jitters a few days before the reading session as this was the first time I was doing such a thing. Maya from Pratham was very helpful and quelled most of my apprehensions.
The morning of the event, which is when I usually write, was instead spent thinking about ways to conduct the session. My mind was constantly coming up with ideas to make the experience more interesting for the children.
The hour arrived and armed with my poster and books I drove to Saraswati Ashram for Children in Dapodi that is nestled in a narrow lane with houses on either side. I pushed open the blue door and was led to a tiny office. The staff then led me to an adjacent room, where I met the kids for the first time. He briefed them in Marathi as to what was going to happen and why I was there, and I noticed the sparks in their wide, attentive eyes.
I asked them to introduce themselves and some of them proudly showed off their English speaking skills, replacing at times, “My” with “I” and “I” with “Me”, saying things like, “I school is Saraswati Vidya Mandir School” or “Me in 5th class.” They stood with their arms folded, their eyes flitting left and right, feeling shy and uneasy about having to speak.
I picked out the book and showed them the cover. “I’m going to read you the story of King Cobra today,” I said, and immediately the eldest of them said, “He’s the king of snakes he is.” They even told me of their trip to the Katraj Snake Park and the names of the snakes they saw and how big they were.
When I began the story, they went absolutely quiet giving me their complete attention. I was still nervous, which incidentally came to fore when I reached the point in story where Kaala is lost and scared and his throat is parched. A kid with no front teeth said with concern at that precise moment: “Your throat seems dry. Are you scared, too?”
As I read to them, I noticed they were smart and bright children, who knew a lot about the world around them. They knew about kindness and giving and sharing. They knew they were not supposed to harm animals and that if they don’t tease or prod them, they won’t bother them either.
They were sitting in front of me when I started reading, but within a few minutes they were standing next to me, some had their hands on my shoulders, some sat close, their chins resting on my knees, while some held my arms as though they wanted to be as close to the story as possible, living and breathing every page.
As an activity, I asked them to enact the way snakes eat their prey, fight and swim across rivers; to imitate the sounds elephants and monkeys make, the way they move, their mannerisms and they did all of that with surprising accuracy and enthusiasm. I also prepared a small quiz based on the story, which almost led to a fight as all of them had answers to the questions. They all clapped at the end of the story, saying, “Too good, too good.”
I wrapped up the afternoon after taking some group photos, and a game of cricket. They all rushed to me as I was leaving and made me promise I will come again and said to me: “Bhaiya, when you come next week bring many, many, many books, okay?”
I want to thank Pratham Books for giving me this opportunity as part of their ‘Awareness Today for a Greener Tomorrow’ campaign (in anticipation of International Year of the Forest). This experience has touched and humbled me, and made me feel so loved. I’m now considering reading to these kids on a regular basis.