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Inevitable and I don’t know why

india Updated: Jun 20, 2009 23:28 IST
Soumya bhattacharya

Random snatches of conversation in our family, all on a particular evening.

Driving home with the monstrosity of a skywalk- under-construction alongside us:

My seven-year-old daughter, Oishi: Baba, who invented skywalks?

Me: I don’t know. Perhaps, like electricity, no one invented them, but someone discovered them.

Oishi (pretending not to have noticed the irony): Oh, so who discovered skywalks? Who was the Benjamin Franklin of

Me: I don’t know.
A tall building, strung out with beads of lights from top to bottom is on our left.

Oishi: Why is that building lit up?

Me: I don’t know.

My wife: You could ask the people in the building.

Oishi (pretending to not have noticed the sarcasm): But I don’t know them. Do you know why?

Me: It’s the building’s birthday, I think. They could be celebrating the day the building got all done and ready to live in.

Oishi: Do you know that or are you guessing?

Me (through gritted teeth): Guessing.

Oishi: So you don’t know, Baba?

Me: No, I don’t know.

Later, at home, ruing India’s loss to England in the World T20 the previous night.

Me: If only we had batted better…

Oishi (putting on her wise face, and in her sage, knowing tone): Yes, but you can’t reverse time.

Me (rather too quickly and suspiciously): What do you know about time and its irreversibility? Who told you?

Oishi: They taught me in school today. About how you can’t go back in time.

Me: Oh. But you can. In your mind.

Oishi: But that’s cheating. Isn’t it, Baba?

Me: Well, I don’t know.

After dinner. In front of her pet birds, both of which are silent, their heads tucked in.

Oishi: Are they sleeping?

Me: Yes, I suppose so.

Oishi: Do birds dream?

Me: I don’t know.

Oishi: Maybe they are not dreaming now. But can they dream, Baba?

Me: I don’t know.

You couldn’t have failed to notice it, could you? I didn’t, as I wrote these conversations down.

I am made increasingly aware of it, every day, of how more and more exchanges between my seven-year-old and me tend to conclude with my saying, “I don’t know”.

And I don’t. Really.

It’s a truism that children are always inquisitive. I remember being so too, as a boy. I recall my parents bought me books (colourful, beautifully produced, with lovely pictures and intelligible — and, I see now, intelligent — text) to satisfy that inquisitiveness.

I had a series of — appropriately titled — Tell Me Why books. I had one called 365 Things To Know, a question answered for each day of the year. (I first learnt of the Ides of March and Valentine’s Day in its pages — long before reading Shakespeare or the advent of mushy greetings cards.)

I have passed on 365 Things to Know to my daughter. The trouble is, while the book has answers to questions like ‘Why is the sky blue?’, it has none, alas, on who invented/discovered skywalks.

And, of course, I have no answers to most of the questions she asks these days. I flounder, and I feel inadequate. I sometimes want to go back to my old science/history/geography textbooks. Sometimes I look things up on the Internet and tell her.

But that’s not of much use. When children ask questions, they want the answers right away.

And when they find that their parents are unable to give them the answers, somehow the adults fall in their estimation, begin to diminish, bit by bit, from the larger-than-life status they had in the children’s eyes.

I suppose that as they grow older and begin to see us as vulnerable, fallible and immensely flawed, we all fail our children in certain ways. And I suppose that this is when it genuinely starts: not knowing the answers, not knowing enough or as much as they think their parents ought to.