Every Tuesday and Friday, about 10,000 children in India and overseas eagerly await a voice message from Sarla Minni. On these two days, for about 10 minutes, the children are transported into lands of fables – where animals talk, Birbal outdoes Akbar’s tricks with his wit and where gods walk among common people.
The Bengaluru-based homemaker is known as the ‘Kahaniwali Nani’ (the grandmother who tells stories) to these children. Every Tuesday and Friday, she records voicenotes of herself telling children’s stories and sends them over messaging app Telegram to her 10,000 ‘grandchildren’. “These could be stories from Panchtantra, folk tales from around the world, value-based or moral stories, Akbar and Birbal tales…” Sarla reels off.
Stories have always been a significant part of Sarla’s life. The 61-year-old is an avid reader, and recalls reading the likes of Reader’s Digest and Enid Blyton’s novels while growing up. While her reading habit dipped once she moved to Bengaluru in 2009 and family responsibilities took over, she never forgot the joy stories brought her.
In March, Sarla’s niece Parul encouraged her to record a few stories. She sent them to family and friends, who loved them, and forwarded them in turn in their own circles. Soon, Sarla was getting a number of requests to record more such stories and send it to them. With Parul’s insistence, she and Sarla co-founded Kahaniwali Nani.
A typical week for Sarla involves household work and also research for the week’s stories. She looks out for folk tales and reads up on the different renditions of it. Then she writes her script using the different versions of the story and her own improvisations, and records the stories. On Tuesdays, she sends a Hindi story and on Fridays, she sends one in English.
Sarla’s stories don’t have the detailing of what you would hear in a radio play for instance. There aren’t atmospheric sound effects or any such additions. “It’s just a grandmother telling a story to her children,” Sarla states simply. “It has to be personal,” she says.
When Sarla records a story, she does it in one sitting, without breaks, edits or cuts and on her phone. She keeps her tone light, modulating it slightly according to the emotion of the characters in the story. But what Sarla’s stories lack in theatrics, they more than make up with their informal, intimate nature – almost as if a grandmother was telling the story right in front of them.
Once Kahaniwali Nani started, it grew immensely popular, mostly through word of mouth from her first subscribers. “One time, I got around 800 subscription requests in a day from Mumbai,” Sarla tells TNM. Now, she has subscribers from all over the country including the major metro cities, and some smaller ones too.
Though most of her ‘grandchildren’ are aged between two and twelve, there are some adults too who have subscribed to Kahaniwali Nani. “They tell me that the stories make them nostalgic and remind them of their childhood,” Sarla says.
Many children also message Sarla about how they liked the stories. “Sometimes I get messages like ‘Nani, we are waiting for the next story!’. Many parents told me that their children don’t have grandparents, and Kahaniwali Nani has helped with their absence. Others say that their kids are learning new words, and have started liking stories more now,” Sarla says happily.
She mentions that many people have suggested that she monetise the initiative. And while Sarla has considered adding more features to Kahaniwali Nani and charging for them, she insists that she will keep the bi-weekly stories free. “I have so many grandchildren around the world. I want my stories to reach even more, not just the children in the big cities,” she asserts.
Sarla often feels sad when she sees so many children today are growing up away from books and stories. “It makes me really sad seeing children of all ages glued to watching these animated cartoons the entire time. How will they learn to imagine?” she rues.
With Kahaniwali Nani, she hopes to do her bit to restore the joy of storytelling for children. “It teaches you to listen. It teaches you patience. It teaches you to close your eyes and imagine an entire forest. That is worth more than money,” she says.