Book Review | Three little girls go looking for meaning

Warmth, humour, playfulness, earthiness, and intelligence shine out of this absolutely charming book.

Twelve-year-old Kalpana goes missing — she was last spotted on her way to school. It was the village policeman who said aloud what everyone feared: “Was she kidnapped, or raped, or perhaps even murdered?”

While every person in the village is anxious and fearful, her guilt-ridden grandmother confesses to a relative that it is her fault alone that Kalpana has vanished. That morning before Kalpana left for school she had teased her devout grandmother about praying incessantly, and said, “Ajji, have you ever asked yourself if anybody is really listening to your prayers? You keep saying these prayers but where do they really go? Do you know? Do you?” Her grandmother furiously responded by telling her if she wanted to see where her prayers went, “…go and follow these words and see where they take you.”

Three days later, Kalpana is found at a bus stop. She’s scruffy and muddy, but is much the same, apart from the fact that she doesn’t speak at all. She’s taken to temples and doctors of all kinds for a diagnosis. The prognosis appears to be that she will speak when she wants to. While her mother is worried, she is also secretly relieved, because, “Every time she thought of forcing Kalpana to speak, her heart filled with the unknown fear of discovering what had happened to her in those three days. That was not a truth she was ready to hear.”

Only you, Dear Reader, know the truth: Kalpana can but won’t speak, and is extremely wary of being tricked into uttering even a squeak. A waiting game ensues, but Kalpana is obdurate and suppresses words that bubble and boil to her lips. She leaves it to her expressions and actions to convey her responses. She later takes to writing messages, and the most important one is this: Words are lies. After all, she followed her grandmother’s prayers but did not find God.

During this time, Kalpana’s bond with her younger sister Deeksha deepens. Initially, Deeksha tries to cajole her into speaking, but eventually understands and appreciates why her sister is silent. She tries to find out the answers that Kalpana wants and ropes in her friend Kumari as an accomplice. It’s quite hilarious when they ask school teachers questions that you won’t find in ‘Tell Me Why’ books because they have no straightforward answers. Philosophical questions like, is language a lie, do dogs speak Kannada, when I speak where do my words go, and more! Their dispirited Kannada teacher responds particularly well to these questions and dull classes are filled with queries and laughter — everyone is engaged.

From questions on language and words, Kalpana moves to numbers. Then, when her grandmother enrols the sisters in an informal singing class hoping that it will coax Kalpana’s voice out of her, the teacher tries to explain the magic of sounds. Kalpana remains silent, although she actively participates in her own way.

A debate between Kumari and Deeksha seems to settle the question that the brain is more powerful than God, and when Kumari declares that they should build a brain temple, Kalpana agrees with enthusiasm, and Deeksha insists on making Kalpana the temple priest — a female priest, imagine! Their conservative mothers are not too happy with the brain temple idea, of course.

Things come to a head when a rumour that Kalpana will speak after the Deepavali festival does the rounds of the village. Read on to find out if the stubborn girl does.

Warmth, humour, playfulness, earthiness, and intelligence shine out of this absolutely charming book. A must read for adults and young adults.

Following a Prayer

By Sundar Sarukkai


pp. 240, Rs.599

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