These were questions nobody answered for Kamala. Shalini Akka said something vague about Karuna-Athai having got something called a divorce and then about how adults could live with whoever they wanted.
The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women.
Gitanjali Joshua is one of the winners for the July 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Jane De Suza commented, “This writer brings in the most existential and challenging of questions, especially about women, through the innocent banter of a not-yet woman – a bright little girl. These are the questions that adults haven’t found answers to either, and we are left hoping that when this child’s generation grows up, it will.”
“Ma… can I ask you something?”
Amma sighed, as she rinsed the last bowl and placed it in the metal basket where dishes were left to dry. “What is it, Kamala?” she asked, trying to disguise her tiredness as she dried her hands on the towel, hanging by the sink.
Kamala waited, staring at Amma. She clutched the kitchen-door-curtain tightly and swayed, almost hanging off it. She scuffed her toe, swinging it repeatedly and rhythmically against the kitchen threshold. Finally, Amma turned from the kitchen counter and looked at her youngest daughter.
“Amma, why do dinosaurs lay eggs, like birds? Aren’t they great lizards?”
Amma blinked. She looked relieved. Clearly she hadn’t expected this to be the question.
“I don’t know, darling. Now, have you finished your homework?”
“No! I want to know about the dinosaurs! And why do we have to do homework, anyway?”
“Because if you finish your homework,” fabricated Amma seamlessly, “we can go ask Anna about the dinosaurs and he can show us in an encyclopaedia, or on youtube.”
“Okay!” sang Kamala, scampering off to her room.
Amma sighed, sitting down at the dining table. Her feet hurt. Her back hurt. And she had a meeting with her boss, tomorrow, to discuss the presentation they had to make to the funding agency.
“Yes, Kamala.” said Amma, closing her eyes for a second, to calm herself.
“I don’t have any homework left! We finished our sums during class itself! I already read the English lesson, yesterday. And in science we are going to talk about dinosaurs, tomorrow!” she beamed.
Amma stood up slowly, “Let’s go ask Kannan about dinosaurs, shall we?” She tried to sound cheerful.
“Why are you sad, Amma?” asked Kamala, holding her mother’s hand.
“I’m not sad, baby. Just tired.” replied Amma, smiling gently.
“Why does Appa get to sleep early, instead of helping you with dinner when you are so busy with work also?” asked Kamala.
“That’s a good question,” replied Amma with a grin, “Why don’t you ask him, tomorrow? But you know, Appa has a lot of work.”
“But, you also have a lot of work, don’t you?”
<p”>“I do,” said Amma, knocking on Kannan’s door, “Kannan! Kamala has a question for you?”
“Dinosaurs!!” breathed Kamala, her eyes shining.
They heard a muffled groan from Kannan and a drawer banged shut before they heard his unwilling feet shuffling to the door.
“What is it, Kamala?” He asked, as he opened the door, and stuck his head out to speak to them.
“Why do dinosaurs lay eggs, if they are great lizards?” asked Kamala, cheerfully.
“Not all of them did. But many were Oviparous. That means they lay eggs. Also, they aren’t exactly like lizards, many of them are precursors to today’s birds. And lizards lay eggs too, by the way.” Kannan pushed his glasses back more firmly on to his nose and tried to shut to door.
“Oh…” Kamala sounded disappointed, “What does precursor mean?” she asked quickly.
Kannan sighed, and stuck his head back out, “It means something that comes before.”
“Why can’t lizards fly, if they lay eggs?” asked Kamala.
“Lizards don’t have wings, Kamala,” Amma pointed out. Kannan nodded and tried to close the door again.
“Amma said you would show us on Youtube!” Kamala whined, quickly.
Kannan looked at Amma, in irritation. Amma shrugged. Kannan stepped back from the door and let them in. His room was a mess, and Amma’s eyes swept over it quickly.
“How can you keep it like this, Kannan! Why is there a dirty plate on the floor, next to your clothes?”
Kannan rolled his eyes.
“Kannan-Anna!” exclaimed Kamala.
Amma and Kannan looked down at her.
“That doesn’t make sense! You can’t explain that dinosaurs lay eggs by using a fancy word that means that they lay eggs!” She looked up at them triumphantly.
Amma and Kannan burst into laughter. Amma knelt down and kissed her on the top of her head. Kamala grimaced. Why were they laughing? She hated being treated like a small child.
The next afternoon, Amma was working on her presentation. She had told Kamala not to disturb her. Shalini was busy studying for her Semester Exam. Amma had told Kamala not to disturb her, either. Appa was in his room, working.
Kannan was annoyed with her, because Amma had made him clean his room after showing her a video about dinosaurs laying eggs on Youtube. Kamala still hadn’t understood why dinosaurs laid eggs. Her science teacher hadn’t been very helpful either. Even when you asked it clearly, grown-ups – and Annas and Akkas were included in this – often didn’t understand the question.
Quite by accident, Kamala had stumbled on to a novel way of getting attention, when she was bored. Asking questions. Initially, her questions were welcomed. Everyone thought she was such a very clever child, even if they did seem to get fed up after a while.
Kamala had felt like she had discovered a treasure that no one else had. Like the day she found a tiny transparent blue-green ball at the beach. It was like magic. As though someone had caught the ocean in a bead. She hid it, waiting to find out what kind of magic it contained.
When Karuna-Athai gave Shalini a Brainvita set for her birthday – Shalini seemed offended at the childish gift and had put it away in the games cupboard – Kamala was very disappointed to find the set of marbles inside it. Everyone treated the marbles as though they were normal things. And Kamala wondered if hers wasn’t magic after all.
Discovering questions felt like that. Like secret magic. It unlocked ways to interact with her parents and her sister and brother, who were too old to play.
It could also be confusing, though. People slowly started treating many of her questions as perfectly ordinary things. Like a set of marbles. It was almost as if they felt she should understand some things automatically. Like which questions could be asked. And which should be kept to herself.
Some questions just made people smile.
How do squirrels run up trees?
Why does red mean stop?
Others seemed to miss the mark, somehow. They were too easy.
What are biscuits made of?
Some questions were confusing. They made sense in her head, but they also made people annoyed with her.
How old is Amma?
Are we there yet?
And some questions got Kamala into trouble, for no reason.
Where is Paati’s own home? Why does she live sometimes with us, sometimes with Karuna-Athai and sometimes with Mohan-Peripa?
The more interesting the question, the more it annoyed Amma and Appa. Sometimes Kannan laughed and encouraged her to ask the question louder. She could tell from his hidden laughter that it would be a question that annoyed Amma-Appa. He called them trick questions. And he never explained. Shalini was nicer in these situations. She would try to protect Kamala by explaining the answer as best as she could… but her explanations weren’t very satisfying. And sometimes Kamala wasn’t sure whether Shalini was protecting her or their parents, from the annoyance of her.
Where is Karuna-Athai’s husband? Why does she live with Kasturi-Aunty, whenever Paati is here with us? What happened to Kasturi-Aunty’s husband?
These were questions nobody answered for Kamala. Shalini Akka said something vague about Karuna-Athai having got something called a divorce and then about how adults could live with whoever they wanted. Kamala could see that that wasn’t always true, though. Paati didn’t seem to like living with Karuna-Athai. And Karuna-Athai always seemed to be happier when her mother was with Kamala’s family, or Mohan-Peripa because then Kasturi aunty could come back to live with her. Strangely, Paati would never go to Karuna-Athai’s house if Kasturi-Aunty was there. Most mystifying at all, Paati – whose hearing was always very good and who could always hear things that people said in hushed voices in the other room – seemed not to hear this question. And when Kamala asked it again, Amma gave her a smack and sent her to her room.
Kamala decided that questions like these were trick questions. Little mysteries trapped in a question. Like marbles found on the beach, they were special and different from regular questions. She sought them out like little lonely treasures.
Shalini came out of her room to get some water.
“Akka, can I ask you a question?”
Shalini looked up. Her upper-lip and nostrils were weirdly magnified through the glass, as she drank. She nodded as she gulped down the water.
“Why do all grown-ups get married?”
“Mmm… that’s a good question, Kamala. You should ask Amma and Appa…”
“Oh,” said Kamala, sadly.
Kamala looked so crestfallen, that Shalini paused, instead of running back to her room to study. “What I mean is,” she said, “It’s a good question to ask. Actually no one has to get married, but most people do. Otherwise other grown-ups make life difficult for them.”
Kamala crinkled her nose in curiosity. This sounded interesting, “Do you want to get married, Akka?”
Shalini laughed, “No, darling. I just want to finish my course, get a job and move out of here.”
“Don’t you like living with us?” asked Kamala, troubled.
Shalini sighed, “Yes, of course I do. I just… I don’t want to get married and it’s hard to say no all the time to Amma and Appa…”
“If you don’t want to get married why are they trying to find boys for you all the time?”
“You should ask them, only, Kamala. I have tried so hard to explain to them…”
“Even Karuna-Athai is married, isn’t she?” pressed Kamala. She was beginning to feel like that question was related, somehow.
Shalini froze. And Kamala knew she was in trick question territory.
“Yes,” replied Shalini, carefully, “She is married… but she’s one of those people who shouldn’t have been forced to marry. She didn’t want to.”
“But she looked so happy in her wedding pictures!” gasped Kamala, confused.
Shalini smiled sadly, “Pictures don’t always tell the whole story. Anyway, she didn’t want to get married. So later, she got a divorce.”
Kamala nodded. Her was head full of new information. Shalini gave her a quick kiss on top of her head and headed to her room.
Kannan emerged from his room, “What’s up, akka?” he asked Shalini, “Is it lunch time, yet?” Shalini shrugged. All three of them heard Amma’s door open.
“Kannan Anna, what’s a divorce?” asked Kamala, quickly.
“Umm… it’s when people stop being married.”
“So… if Karuna Athai got a divorce from her husband, why doesn’t she marry Kasturi Aunty?”
Amma entered the room just as Kamala finished her question. Her eyes flashed. Shalini and Kannan looked away. Amma stormed towards Shalini and slapped her.
“What kind of ideas are you putting in Kamala’s head? Isn’t it enough that–”
“I didn’t tell her anything!” snapped Shalini, “Anyway, if you were more open and honest with her–”
Amma whirled around to look at Kamala.
“But Amma, it was just a question. If Karuna Athai likes to live with Kasturi aunty, why don’t they–”
The slap stung. And Kamala was sent to her room, with watering eyes and unanswered questions. She heard Amma yelling at Shalini. And Shalini yelling back that there was nothing wrong with being a lesbian.
The trick question had begun to seep in, however. It had become a trick situation. The longer she sat feeling sorry for herself, the less sorry she felt. It’s called a reverse something or the other. There isn’t time to get into that now. Kamala had to find out what was wrong. She had a nasty feeling that she had got Shalini into trouble.
Kannan Anna came to her room later with lunch on a plate.
“Anna,” she gasped, quickly, “What’s a lesbian? Why is Shalini Akka in trouble?”
Kannan just laughed as he left the plate with her and shut the door behind him.
Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been selected by Jane De Suza, whose books combine humour with thought-provoking insights, which have got them onto award lists and Amazon’s and Nielsen’s bestseller charts. Flyaway Boy (shortlisted for The Times AutHer Awards, PeekaBook and Neev Lit fest awards) and When the World went Dark bring hope to issues like death, grief and stereotyping. The Spy who Lost her Head and Happily Never After are of special interest to women, and the SuperZero series and Uncool for children. The Midnight Years, out soon, takes on young adult mental health.
The cue is from her latest book When the World Went Dark.
“The trick question had begun to seep in, however. It had become a trick situation. The longer she sat feeling sorry for herself, the less sorry she felt. It’s called a reverse something or the other. There isn’t time to get into that now.“
Image source: shutterstock