questions

Of cows and independence day!

The little miss, as is her wont these days, has been shooting me a heap of questions. There is not a thing that passes the attention of her senses that just passes by without a question popping up. Be it an earthworm, a snail, a ridiculous honk from an autorickshaw, the neighbour’s loud movie screening, the sartorial choices of her mom (& dad ) etc etc. You get the drift right?

Me and the missus have had to work overtime to ensure that we engage with each of her questions and give her answers. Most of the time she ends with a ‘whatever’ look. Especially when I attempt to answer. The missus fares better.

The ‘whatever’ look is what I remember my physics teacher reserving for me, in school.   She would ask a question and her eyes would droop so much that they would be waiting to roll down her cheek if I was late by another moment. Her shoulders would drop and a smug smile would lurk at the corner of her lip. Her whole body language would seem to be so much waiting in expectation of a ridiculously inept answer. I guess I met her expectations every single time. I would dread those classes.

It is kind of dreadful to think that the little miss reminds me of that time. The only difference now is that the little miss forgets the inept answer in a jiffy and moves on to some easier stuff at the wave of a hand. Like, ‘Can I go touch that cat Appa?’ Or even, ‘can we go say hello to the rain drop appa’? Now, these are like lifebuoys to someone in a cesspool. We survive with her kindness and love.

She has been excited about the Independence Day for over a week now.

“Appa, when are you buying me a gift?”

“A gift? But why?”

“It is India’s birthday appa!”

I realised that thats how Independence day has been positioned in her mind.  Gandhi, Nehru and the freedom struggle can come much later.  For now, if there are some festoons, cake, pizzas and a gift to boot, all is well. Fortunately, the gifts that she has demanded haven’t yet gotten to meaningless stuff that pops a hole in the pocket. A national flag was all that was desired this time around and was dutifully bought too.

So today, on the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, after the flag hoisting ceremony in the apartment complex where we live in,  came another string of questions.

“If we hoist a flag for India’s birthday, why didn’t you hoist one for my birthday?”

Patient explaining ensued.  Of India having a flag and it being a country and that individuals don’t have a flag etc. Inept answers, I can guess. With drooping shoulders she proclaimed, ‘Appa, once we go home, I am going to draw my flag. You have to hoist it for my birthday”.

I demurred in agreement. “My flag will have a cow and a cat in it Appa”.

“A COW?” I spluttered.   The nation would want to know now.  An involuntary muttering of ‘Holy Cow’ under my breath reached her sharp ear.

“Not holy cow Appa”, she said. “Just one nice cow”.

Silence ensued. And then with a momentary pause she asked, ‘what is a holy cow Appa’? I didn’t know where to start. Or end, for that matter. And then, she threw me a lifeline. Actually two.

“If you don’t like the cow, let’s just have the cat in the flag Appa. It is easy to draw the cat “.  A huge sigh of relief clung to the air as Lata Mangeshkar ruled the Independence Day sound waves of the apartment complex.

And then she said, “Can we go to the play area and slide Appa?”.  She was on her way to the play area and shouted out a changed plan.  “I have been on the slide for sometime Appa. Today can you push me higher on the swing?”

“Of course”, I said. “Of course”

 

Questions are answers!

Quick. Take a shot at this. What are the top questions that you were asked as a child? Come on, take a shot.

Did they resemble this set?
1. What is your name?
2. What is your father’s / mothers / brothers / dogs / name?
3. Which school do you go to? Which class do you study in?
4. Who is your best friend in school?
5. What is the name of your class teacher?

I remember getting plain bored with these questions. Sometimes answering the same questions to the same folks in the same birthday parties with a year’s difference. My answers wouldn’t have changed. But hey, neither did their questions.

To figure out why at all anyone would be curious about my class teacher’s name, was clearly beyond me. But that question always managed to shove a frog down my throat and I suddenly became interested in the cake. Or whatever was the nearest object.

Cultures pass down furniture and jewelry as heirlooms. I guess with many of us, these questions get passed down as intact heirlooms ready to be deployed on the nearest kid available. Incredible isn’t it. That these questions are still in vogue.

I know that these questions are still in vogue, for I caught myself asking these questions in yet another random birthday party!! The needle on the time machine has moved on to bring in french-fries and burgers to birthday parties, but left these questions as religious relics of sorts.

There must be strong reasons why these have survived. Well, for one, they are easy to ask. And almost everyone that asks has been asked the same question. Two, It usually gets a definitive answer. Dug out of memory.

Three, It is safe territory. The kid has been that question a zillion times before that. Usually, the kid doesn’t ask ‘what do you think?’ when you ask them ‘what’s the name of your class teacher?’.

Kite Train

Questions can do many things to children. They can help sharpen the memory, or maybe, even their routines. And many times, get a conversation started! And these questions are super good value at that. The trouble is many of us don’t go beyond these questions!

There however are another set of questions. Those that shape imagination. Those need some effort and involvement. Definitely more than ‘what the name of your class teacher?’ There is very little a child has to do to ‘IMAGINE’ the name of the school, the class teacher or the class.

As a young boy my dad introduced me to a very old friend of his. For the ostensible reason of learning ‘English’ and ‘correct grammar’. Am sure you have a point or two about how ridiculously lousy my English grammar is. But then, I ended up learning several other things from him. He was a frail old man and all I remember is looking forward to talk to him. In retrospect, I think it is because he never cared for my class teacher’s name!

‘Why is banana yellow’ he would ask. And I would rack my brains and ask him, ‘Why’? He would shrug his shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know’. ‘How about finding out’, he would say. That used to be my quest until the next weekend when we would usually meet.

“If there is one thing about your shirt colour that you would want to change, what would that be?” He would ask and after parsimonious sipping of some filter coffee accompanied by disproportionately loud slurps he would ask, ‘why?’. The ‘why’ would reek genuine curiosity. Once I got started speaking, he would let me go. On and on. Nodding. Leaning forward. Smiling. His parsimony was not restricted to the coffee sips, but also extended to what he spoke!

As the weeks flew by, he would extend his hand and get the next available object out and place it on the teak table in front of him. “Now, let’s go”, he would say. The game was simple. Each of us had to write down as many questions as we could about that object. It could be a banana. It could be the day’s newspaper. It could be his glasses. His cycle keys. Whatever. We had to think up as many questions as we could.
Some we answered then and there. The rest of the week, was usually spent in quest of the answers that we couldn’t find. Those were pre-google days.

I was gripped with intrigue and joy in that quest for questions, even as the world around me was looking for answers. More often than not, one thing leading to another and a thought train that would touch the sky.

I didn’t think of it as big deal back then. But as I tumble around in the corporate world, and as Microsoft Word keeps correcting my grammar I sometimes wonder about my time with him. And when I chance upon such stuff like this  in the Boston Globe and other stuff like this in the Harvard Education Letter, I realise what a gift he left me with. He was a man ahead of his times.

All that I recall was that I could ask questions. So could he. I could be curious. So could he. There was nothing wrong with ‘I don’t know’. For he himself would say that often. When the questions are right, the answers usually flow! He taught me that the joy was in the search.

So the other day, I narrated all of this to the missus. And told her about my grand plan to ask questions that would spark our daughter’s imagination and let her mind roam the blue sky. The missus crosses her hands shakes her head, tilts her chin and asks, ‘So you think, that would give her a complete education?’

‘I think it will’, I say, emphatically. And then realise who I am talking to. I issue a correction. Thinking of the frail old man who would have said, ’I don’t know. But how about finding out’!

This post was originally written for Parentous.com. But wouldn’t you agree that the skill in asking the right questions can often determine where a project or strategy is headed?  The more the skill to ask the right questions the better the chances for the conversations to move to a higher  orbit!  

What do you think? 

Questions are the answers !


Children and their abilities to question are legendary. Coming from a clean slate, an inherent curiosity to know more and just be present in the moment.

Amongst the kids of friends and family, many questions abound. And some stay with me. More in that moment as their parents struggled for answers. Here are a few recollections.

  • ‘Why do you have to stand straight ? Can you just crawl around ?’


  • ‘Who invented walking ?’

  • ‘Papa, why don’t you wear a blue cloth on your head like that man ? ( Pointing to Manmohan Singh)’

  • Upon seeing a Korean Air plane, which is blue in colour : ” That is the only plane that flies in the sky”.

  • Papa, do you really work when you go to office or sleep like you do on Sundays ?

  • Mamma, ( looking at slum children ) can i play with them ? Why not ?

  • Uncle, are you the one from office, that my dad complains to my mom about daily ?

  • ( After watching Animal planet ) Animals are wonderful. So much better than my school teacher. Isnt it ma ?

  • If the rose can be red in colour, and it so good, why cant everything be red in colour ?

  • If i will be big one day, there will be somebody small also ? I need to teach somebody like you are teaching me.

  • After watching Discovery Channel : “If all people are the same, why do we have to fight ?”

  • Watching a news telecast : ‘These people have no other work’

  • Upon being asked what his name was : ‘You are the 10th person asking my name today. Please ask that uncle in that green T-shirt’.

  • Mamma, if God invented the world, he invented ice-cream also ? Are you sure, God invented vegetables also ?

Children and their questions / statements have always promised a hope for the future. That things indeed will be different. And to date, that’s a promise that never fades. At least as long as us adults don’t interfere ! That is !

Here’s to a great year of education ! And the next time he or she, comes up with a question, no matter how silly, no matter how odd. Perhaps its important to note that many answers to his or her future stays pregnant in the questions themselves !

And of course, one last question asked by a certain R. The mother had no answer. Can somebody help her.

“Why do girls sit and do ‘su-su’ and boys have to stand and do ‘su-su’ ?” [ ‘Su-su’, is accepted child / adult speak for pee ]


This post concludes the three post series on the kids world of today