Chris Rosenblum: A tale of surprise for noted Indian storyteller

CDT photo

As a master storyteller for 38 years, Ashok Gandhi made a practice of adding twists to ancient myths.

The Indian community in State College expected them during his story hours.

Take Narada, an omniscient sage and key figure in the Ramayana and Mahabharata, two Hindi epic texts. He can travel anywhere, even spiritual realms, and knows everything and everyone.

Naturally, in Gandhi’s accounts for modern children, the sage owns the most powerful computer in the world.

But the raconteur full of surprises didn’t see one coming Saturday.

Thinking he was stopping by a friend’s anniversary party on the way to a dinner reservation, Gandhi instead walked into a party in his honor at the State College Friends School.

“Surprise!” cried most of the 100 friends around the tables as the lights flicked on to hearty applause.

Accompanied by his two sons, Gandhi stood in the doorway, stunned. His wife, Smita Gandhi, covered her eyes and laughed. “Oh my god,” he kept saying while smiling, looking around in amazement, and accepting one hug after another. “Thank you.”

Everyone had gathered to celebrate a beloved figure in the Indian community: a pharmacist who entertained and enlightened children and their families for almost four decades, turning story hour into an institution spanning generations.

A banner across the guests of honor table in front proclaimed: “Thank You For Your Dedication to Story Hour For 38 Years.”

“I’m not even dressed for this,” Gandhi said, gesturing to his blue polo shirt and khakis.

Nobody minded. They were too busy enjoying the moment: a heartfelt tribute to a skilled orator and a respected teacher.

“I don’t think we knew it would have been this long. It was like one day at time, truly,” Smita Gandhi said.

“It felt like the thing to do. He felt he had the gift of storytelling and he wanted to share it. The memory of the mythological stories, he could pass on the values to the kids through the stories.”

Earlier this year, her husband retired from the story hour stage, passing the torch to another dispenser of wit and wisdom, Penn State professor Krishna Jayakar.

Gandhi’s rich run began when he and his wife were newlyweds and ended with them being new grandparents.

“The reason I continued the stories, in my mind, was for ourselves,” he said, nodding to his wife beside him. “Because one thing I always kept in mind, what values I will try to teach the children, I will first try to adopt them myself.”

He knew he had to lead by example.

“They will listen to me, those beautiful, delicate hearts, they will at least listen if I’m trying,” he said, recalling his inspiration. “That was the driving force. I tell people, ‘You are thanking me for something that I should be thanking you for.’ ”

Because of his commitment, story hour remains one of the Indian community’s cultural cornerstones.

Families take turns playing host. Twice a month, everyone gathers at a home late Sunday morning, usually in basement dens. After a prayer, the stories follow. The audience sits cross-legged on the floor, except those who require chairs, with the youngest children up front.

Afterward, all tuck into Indian dishes for lunch and socializing.

Just as his successor is doing, Gandhi took over the hours in 1978. They had started a few years before, but after the custom’s founder, Penn State professor G.P. Patil, asked him to tell the stories, Gandhi put his stamp on them.

Along with the prayer, he always began by chatting about the Penn State and Pittsburgh Steelers football teams, two of his passions. Then he would get down to business, usually concluding with a cliffhanger end that would draw groans.

His material came from the Vedas, the traditional Sanskrit texts, and their tales of Lord Rama, the supreme being, and a pantheon of devas and danavas — benevolent deities and demons, respectively.

All served as yarn for Gandhi to spin his versions of allegories to help his audiences ponder right from wrong and reflect on their lives.

Rama embodies perfection, his actions and experiences providing a moral compass. Hundreds of characters populate the Mahabharata; some clearly good and evil, others harder to tell. For instance, danavas can take human form and be dazzling, fodder for one of Gandhi’s lessons.

“What he tries to tell: It’s not the looks,” said Shama Kulkarni, a dentist and mother who has listened to Gandhi from the start. “Are you beautiful from the inside or are you ugly inside?”

Over the years, Gandhi coined a mnemonic word “hadage” so children could remember emotional excesses to avoid: hatred, anger, desire, attachment, greed and ego. “Hadage” inspired many a story discussion — and not just for young minds.

“We all actually learned from his stories,” said Manisha Patel, a doctor, mother and story hour regular.

That’s how it has always been. Nobody’s allowed to drop off children; it’s never been for baby-sitting. Parents listen in the back, silently, for only children can ask questions.

“We don’t interfere with his stories,” Kulkarni said. “But you should know what Ashok told, so you can answer kids’ questions at home.”

Whatever the tale, Gandhi’s approach was consistent. So children could relate to the tales better, he liked to modernize them, sprinkling in football and other contemporary references and leavening the narratives with humor.

“He caught the real meaning of the Indian mythologies,” Vijay Vakharia, a local doctor, said. “He did it in a story form but with the philosophies behind it.”

Often, in the middle of stories, he paused to ask children what they would do in a character’s place, fostering a discussion before resuming the plot.

“Another thing I admire about him, whenever he tells a story, he somehow, interestingly, will come up with his own stories with what happened in his childhood,” Patel said. “He’s so humble and so good with that.”

She remembers a line from Gandhi, whom she considers a close friend, when she met him soon after moving to State College 10 years ago. Larger towns and cities tend to have several Indian communities, reflecting the many languages and ethnic groups across the vast home country — Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi and others.

Gandhi told her that wasn’t the case in her new home.

“Here in State College, it’s a whole community,” Patel recalled Ghandi saying. “We are just one family.”

She credits the story hour for reinforcing those ties.

“I guess it brings the community together,” she said. “It’s a very strong bond because of the story hour.”

Gandhi’s stories have served another important role — preserving a shared heritage in an ever-changing, pop culture-dominated world. While visiting family in India, Kulkarni ironically has found that children there have less knowledge of the Vedic stories than their State College counterparts.

Patel said her son and daughter astonished their visiting grandparents from India.

“When my in-laws heard them telling and knowing all these stories, they were amazed,” she said.

Venk Varadan, now in his mid-30s, grew up with story hour. He spoke at Saturday’s party, recalling how, as a small child, he would forget about his aching legs from the floor and feel himself “every time leaning in further and further, how enamored I was with the stories.”

He said Gandhi’s story hours helped define a cultural identity for him and many other first-generation Indian-American children.

“It was divine. It was thankless,” he said. “And it was something I wish we could give back a fraction of what you gave us.”

Both Patel and Kulkarni know Gandhi’s lessons sink in because their children have chided them for forgetting some part of “hadage.” They loved hearing that, just as when their children, inspired by the stories, asked difficult moral questions.

“What truly gives happiness is that they’re thinking about these things,” Patel said. “They do remember, and we hope that when they grow up and they’re not with us, they’ll at least remember the values.”

Gandhi’s stories certainly won’t be forgotten for years, if Kulkarni’s children are any indication. They’re grown up, but they haven’t outgrown a treasured part of their childhoods.

“They still want that tradition to not go away,” Kulkarni said. “They want it to carry on.”

So it will — just with Gandhi in the audience now. At 67, he’s content to listen, to laugh, to wonder like everyone else what the next Sunday will bring instead of plan it.

Noting “the time comes when the process is more important than the person,” he said he’s glad a capable, younger storyteller was found.

“If you want to continue the tradition for the next 20 years, he will do it,” Gandhi said, adding he feels fine stepping aside.

“But I will feel much, much better when I hear the stories that are much better than mine. Then I will know that story hour will continue.”