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How often have little girls identified with Clara dancing in the arms of her Nutcracker King and later found themselves holding onto the barre in mirrored practice rooms, stretching and standing on point? They would become like Clara, moving effortlessly within storied ballets.

Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Ballet (1892) is one of these; it is loosely based upon the Prussian Romantic E. T. A. Hoffman’s fairy tale, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The resulting two-hour production penetrates imaginations and transports audiences, worldwide, to clashes between good and evil.

The ballet opens with the Stahlbaums and their children, Fritz and Clara, welcoming guests to their Christmas Eve party. A late arrival, Clara’s godfather and village toy-maker, presents her with a hand-carved Nutcracker whose grim countenance was to protect her from evil and surround her with good. But in the children’s ensuing tussle with the Nutcracker, it gets broken, and Clara grieves the loss of her protector before falling asleep beneath the Christmas tree.

Within her larger-than-life dream, the bandaged Nutcracker in her arms, she enters worlds of darkness and light: the vanquishing of the seven-headed Mouse King and his army of mice, followed by the sleigh ride with the Nutcracker King to the Land of Sweets, filled with dancers from around the world.  

The composer’s discovery of the celesta, in Paris, adds a tinkling to the ballet’s score and seems to lighten the intricate steps of the dancers. Especially is this true of the Sugar Plum Fairy who moves like breeze-lilting streamers in a rose garden.

No wonder that The Nutcracker Ballet has become a Christmas tradition through the generations.

All was ready in the breakfast room: upon each placement were the buttered toast, sectioned grapefruits, cereal and milk, and coffee for my parents. A jar of mother’s freshly cooked grape jelly sat in the center of the table with the condiments. Through the Venetian blinds sunrays slanted upon the walls like a military band in procession, or so I fantasized. Strains of “Pistol Packin’ Mama” came from the kitchen.

This was a special morning, and I knew it. I sat on the edge of my chair, waiting as I glanced at my siblings dressed in play clothes and jawing, taking swipes at each other; then, studied my heel, tender from new sandals. Mother was settling my youngest brother in his highchair when I heard his footsteps in the hall. It was my dad. It was about to happen.

In resounding tones, he said, “Happy First of September, everyone!” His warm smile briefly assuaged my chronic anxiety, as he took his place at the head of the table and opened his napkin. I could breathe in his presence. So breakfast and the beginning of a new month began, September being the most dreaded with the parochial school reopening after Memorial Day.  

Throughout my childhood, I anticipated this ritual and was never disappointed: his way of sharing joy, despite stresses from work which also required wearing one of his three-piece suits and tie, with the edge of a folded handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket.

His early death, however, prevented me from fully appreciating his selflessness, his knack for telling Irish jokes when tensions mounted over the supper meal. Dad served us very well and I’m grateful.

Graced storytellers, from all times, seize imaginations of their readers and plunge them within new learning, not always pleasant.

Such a storyteller is the Indian-American author Sejal Badani. Because her maternal grandmother’s shocking experience in the1940s still smarted, she felt compelled to weave some of her story into the novel The Storyteller’s Secret (2018). It unfolds like a finely wrought tapestry with panels of shimmering and jarring colors.

Meticulous research into Central India’s Madhya Pradesh contextualizes Amisha’s impoverished village: the irritant of the British Raj’s occupation, Gandhi’s teachings firing imaginations with independence, the Brahmans’ domination of the natives, the despised untouchables, arranged marriages and dowries, wives subservient to their husbands and their families, temple festivals and dancing, and household shrines with favorite gods and goddesses. Within this milieu barefoot Amisha works out her destiny wearing plain saris.

On every page tactile images engage the reader’s senses: feeling oppressive monsoon rains and scorching heat, smelling garbage-strewn roads and the dung of oxen, cows, and dogs, seeing candles illuminating the Hindu temple’s pantheon and oil lamps in homes, tasting spicy foods, hearing temple bells, shrieks, children’s laughter, and worked up by “joinings” or sexual activity—and always, the incense.

Badani’s dialogue works extremely well in propelling the story forward. Yet silences are pregnant with meaning: hurt, disappointment, violence, ecstasy, dread, and romance.

The New York Times and Amazon bestseller, The Storyteller’s Secret by Sejal Badani features Amisha, a spirited woman admittedly ahead of her time—the stuff of storytellers’ artistry. Do let Amisha touch you with her buoyant selflessness.

 

 

Available on Amazon

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