If you think that children ask me profound questions about life, you’d be mistaken. Most of the time, they are just puzzled by the adult lunacy they see around them and want a reasonable explanation. Often, they spring up and question whatever theory I am expounding because they think I’m showing off. Also, at times, it is just to make everyone laugh.
However, one thing you can be sure of: they like asking questions and not always polite ones. When a bunch of wide-eyed eight-year olds asked me how old I was, I pointed to my senior citizen grey hair and said “guess”. After a lot of frowning they came up with the largest number they could think of. It seems I was 39!
After many encounters with children, the important thing I have learnt is to listen to their questions carefully, reply honestly and admit immediately if I don’t have an answer. They spot fakes very quickly. Unfortunately, Indian adults in positions of authority — from parents and teachers, to the local Uncleji — disapprove of children who question or argue, and instead, offer sanctimonious lectures that kids dismiss as “gyan”.
My interactions with children are around books, reading, writing and history. As an introverted, non-gyani type, I don’t lecture; I design the sessions around questions that start conversations at schools and walks around monuments. Usually, the discussion begins with history, but I let the conversation flow in any direction they want. At times, keeping up with their racing minds is quite nerve-wracking but it has its special joys.
At a children’s lit fest, we were going to talk about “being a teenager”. I entered the room to find half the seats occupied by adults and began to throw them out, until one woman begged to be allowed to stand at the back as she wanted to discover, “what my daughter is thinking”. With the permission of the children, the parents were allowed to stay on condition that they did not speak and that led to loud, ironic applause from my teen audience.
What I remember about that chaotic, argumentative talk fest was one child jumping up like a hyperactive grasshopper, asking, “Why do some parents try to copy us? Why do they try to be all young and trendy?” Clearly, they did not like parents dressing like them, listening to their kind of music or joining them in their hangout time. What came through very clearly was that they don’t want parents acting like their buddies. They want parents to be exactly that — adults who lay down the rules.
Sometimes a simple “why?” can start complex conversations. We were standing before the Qutub Minar, staring up, when one girl asked, “But why did they build it?” I struggled to explain. The Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque nearby was for prayers, the madrasa was for education and even the sun dial had its use. Why waste time and money on a useless tower and then have another sultan plan an even bigger one? We then talked about hubris and how absolute power curdles the brain. They understood it perfectly, mentioning the crores to be spent on the Sardar Patel statue when their ancestral villages still had no schools, roads or electricity.
One interactive session I do with older children is on “Living in a Violent World” and it provokes questions that are oddly revealing. At a book club session in a swanky south Delhi club, when I said that the caste system was also a form of violence, I got a lot of puzzled, “How’s that?” For them, violence was about terrorism, men beating their wives or bullying at school.
However, the same comment made to a bunch of government school children made them nod in instant understanding. These were the children of maids and plumbers, drivers and kabariwallahs, and for them, caste discrimination is a daily reality. Then I got a question for which I had no answer, “In ancient India, why did they start the caste system?” And then another child asked, “Ma’am, is it true that only India has people like the Dalits?”
From that session, there are a few questions I want you to provide answers to because I have none. Why do homes have separate plates and glasses for their servants? Why can’t a maid use the bathroom that she is cleaning every day? Why can’t a cook’s daughter help herself to a glass of water from the refrigerator or sit on the sofa? I’d really like to hear from all of you who still believe in the purity of the higher castes. Maybe, you would like to meet my bright, enterprising friends and explain how the caste system and the Manusmriti are for their good?
I also get questions by email and there are these questions that come every year after May 15. Every mail starts with fulsome praise for my books and, so far, this year, there has been the questions — “What were the causes of the downfall of the Mughals?” and “How did Chanakya help Chandragupta Maurya win the throne of Magadha?” These are the smarty-pants trying to con me into writing their summer holiday history projects, and the sheepish apologies that follow have kept me laughing through many summers.
Some questions haunt you. I was talking to seniors at a school and mentioned that Akbar and his sons had a very fraught relationship. All three sons were alcoholics. Does that mean Akbar was a bad father? Then the discussion veered into how they find it hard to talk to their parents, especially fathers. Then one child asked casually, “For example, what do you say to your Dad when you find out that he takes bribes?” He said it without emphasis, like a theoretical query, and the discussion went on but I’ll never forget his eyes. He was asking something very personal and I don’t recall if we gave him an answer that made any sense.
My favourite question came at the Deepalaya Community Library at Sheikh Sarai, Delhi, where children from poor families queue patiently to get one book to read. I was stacking a shelf being helped by a 12-year-old library veteran in a jazzy T-shirt, rolled-up threadbare jeans and rubber chappals. I pointed to some of the books and said, “Humnay likha hai (I wrote them)”. And then showing off, began to point, “That one… that one…”
He craned his neck to look up at me, widened his eyes, gave a disbelieving look and asked, “Sach muchh (Really)?”
Subhadra Sen Gupta writes on Indian history and culture. Her latest is a new series ‘Exploring India’ published by Red Turtle (Rupa)