A dear friend of ours had just lost his wife. She died, after a traumatic, brief illness, of a brain tumour. We were talking about it, my wife and I, in the disbelieving, devastated manner that is brought on by news of a sudden death.
‘Did she have children, Baba?’ our daughter asked. She knew well the person we were mourning, and knew better her husband.
I said they did not.
‘Good,’ Oishi said. She had found something to be cheerful about.
‘If they did, somebody would have been without a mother.’ And then, in the verbal shorthand she used at the time (she was seven then) to convey sympathy for the grieving, she spoke of our friend: ‘Poor man, poor house, poor everything.’ This led to one of her favourite subjects at the moment.
‘Why didn’t God protect her?’ she asked. ‘Why should one pray if there is no use?’
‘Look,’ I said, ‘neither of them prayed.’ (My friend’s last book, a meditation on death and mortality, opens with the sentence: ‘I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.’)
This whole business of praying and believing, of being rewarded for one’s faith and the not-quite verifiable benefits of doing all this, had been occupying Oishi. We had been down this road before, especially after news of bomb blasts, and of innocent people killed in them. She looked carefully at the pictures in the papers, and always asked what the dead did wrong – and why some benign, overseeing, divine superpower had not saved them.
I do not believe at all. My wife’s response to organised religion is equally unequivocal, but her views on faith are more nuanced and complex than mine. We do not have photos or iconic representations of idols in ourhome; and we practise no rituals.
When we moved into our flat in Mumbai in the autumn of 2005 our elderly landlord was appalled to see his walls defaced by Kandinsky and Picasso prints without being redeemed by any of Kaali or Durga. He thought we were setting a bad example for our child.
We try and let Oishi figure things out herself. My view is that the moment we insist that she simply must do something, she will specifically do the opposite. So if we tell her what we think about this whole God business, she will, I suspect, very quickly turn into an unwaveringly devout person. Now I know that if I wanted to employ a bit of adult cunning, I could tell her that praying is the solution to the world’s woes. She will, in no time, I suppose, acquire Richard Dawkins’s atheistic fervour.
But I do not do that. I let her be. She half-believes in fairies and a god, I think, and she prays (I have often asked her what she prays for, and have been surprised at the answers) but there is this other, rational, logical streak in her that questions all that.
She cannot quite make up her mind.
That evening we saw her torn between those two ways of thinking again. She returned, like a dog chasing its own tail, to what she had asked me many times.
‘Okay, Baba,’ she said, ‘so they didn’t pray. What about the ones killed in the bombs in … Where was that?’
‘Assam,’ I said. ‘Yes, Assam. What about them?’ I shrugged. I did not know what to say.
Well, what about them? What about the ones killed in the blasts in Mumbai? The four year-old mowed down by a speeding drunk? The teenager abducted and raped by a relative? The child devoured by encephalitis? The stillborn? There are too many questions. And there are no easy answers. One spends a lifetime trying to work it out. How could a seven year-old even begin to comprehend it?
I remember buying From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, Marina Warner’s riveting, subversive gloss on myths, fairytales and their hidden meanings, at the cut-price giant on Charing Cross Road many years ago. I devoured them then, but I have been going back to it in the past year for a particular reason. Now that I have a little daughter who is obsessed with some of the tales that Warner deconstructs, I seem to read them rather differently.
I do not know what it is like with your children, but our girl seems to oscillate between two emotions: scepticism about fairytales, myths and legends (she inhales cynicism in the air she breathes at home) and a desire to believe that it is all true, that it can happen, and that it does: the myth of the tooth fairy, who takes away her milk tooth at night and leaves a present instead, and Santa Claus, flying in through the window on Christmas Eve with the things that she most ardently wishes for, wrapped in crinkly, shiny, coloured paper.
I had been meaning to talk to her about this, and the loss of her sixth milk tooth provided the opportunity. On this occasion, I had not got up in the middle of the night to slip money and a letter (ostensibly) from the fairy under her pillow. She was heartbroken the following morning, and kept saying, stricken: ‘But this has never happened before. What could be wrong?’
Late that evening I sat down with her for The Talk. On the sofa, she perched on my knee and we looked into each other’s eyes, unblinking, and only slightly smiled: this is our parody of a ‘grave’ pose, a prelude to an ‘important’ conversation.
‘So what do you think about the whole tooth fairy business?’ I asked her.
‘I was wondering, you know. How could she have forgotten? And how did she come in and have the money ready by the time I returned from school?’ (I had slipped in the money in the morning.)
‘What do you think?’ She looked at me enquiringly.
‘No, you tell me,’ I said. Her brow squirmed, and she smiled, a little bashfully.
Oishi tends to know the score in these circumstances, and she chose to be direct.
‘I think you gave the money. And that you have whenever a tooth fell out. When I was small, I remember waking up one night and seeing Mamma and you getting presents ready for me. You’d said then they were from Santa.’
I hugged her. ‘The tooth fairy, Santa Claus, none of them exist, you see. You love presents, so you want to believe in them. You get your presents anyway. We give them to you – and we pretend that the fairy did, or Santa did.’
She looked at me. I did not take my eyes off her. It is rare for me to speak, uninterrupted, for so long.
‘When you were little, you sort of thought they brought them. But you always also sort of knew that they didn’t. Now you are old enough to know better.’
I smiled. I searched her eyes, fearing I would see in them something dying.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘How silly of me.’ She laughed, the new gap in her teeth evident. And then: ‘So was all that I believed in a lie?’
I held her and told her that that no, it was not a lie. ‘What you really believe in at a certain point is the truth for you at the time. That’s all there is to it, I think.’
It is, don’t you think? That is one of the ways in which childhood prefigures adulthood. Or perhaps it is the other way around: that is one of the ways in which adults hang on to what they did or who they were when they were children.
Dad’s the Word, Soumya Bhattacharya’s memoir about the pleasures and perils of fatherhood, was published in India in April 2012 by Westland.