Theme: Child character.
Children are an enticing combination of wise innocence and alert selfishness. Writing about children can be tricky, if writers tend to think of a child as just 'child'. The challenge is to avoid making the child extremely cute or exceedingly wise, just to make the character interesting. That is not just too cliché or predictable, but also lacks credibility, because every child is unique, smart and intelligent in its own way.
And while authors tend to give each character their own special shades, they need to watch out for the common pitfalls that are to be avoided (either too childish or too adult-like); at the same time, one must remember that children are just that: children.
This is the story of a little boy, who is forced to cope with the consequences of his parents' broken marriage and their consequent separation.
The answers I cannot copy.
‘Did you copy the answers?’
I do not reply. I continue to stare at the ant on the floor.
‘Vijay, did you?’ Mom’s voice is not angry. It is kind.
I don’t know why I want to cry. I can feel the sting in my eyes. I try to control it, but it is hard. I never feel like crying when she scolds me. But when she is kind…
‘Vijay, answer me,’ her voice is a little more stern now. The ant is still struggling to drag the piece of biscuit I had dropped earlier. The piece is two times bigger than the ant, but it is a foolish creature. It thinks that it can move such a huge load all by itself.
I want mom to just hug me tightly and run her fingers in my hair. She used to do that a lot before. She forgets to hug me nowadays. She even forgets to kiss me goodnight, sometimes. A small tear escapes from my left eyelid. She doesn’t see it because she is still looking at my Math answer sheet.
The milk cooker begins to whistle. She sighs and tosses the answer sheets file on the sofa. It lands on the yellow foam, which is jutting out of the torn rexene. I see that there is an orange smudge on the spot where my teacher had written ‘I Std, C section’ on the file. I must have spilt sambar drops on it yesterday, without knowing it.
I can hear mom rolling out dough on the kitchen counter. She always likes to make sure that the rotis are nice and round for me. Two soft circles, which I tear into neat triangles, before I dip them into vegetable curry and pop into my mouth.
Today, I’m not hungry at all, even though Mom forgot to give me milk to drink in the evening. She never used to forget when Daddy was still with us…
I saw her crying softly while looking at her phone, yesterday evening. I went up to her to ask her why. She immediately turned the phone away from me and smiled as if nothing had happened, even though her eyes gleamed with tears.
Later, I unlocked her phone and checked the place called ‘history’ where I can see the last few apps that she had opened. The only one was Instagram. I clicked on it and saw that mom had been looking at the picture of a beautiful auntie. But, why did she cry? I then saw a comment from my dad under the picture. It had some kiss and heart emojis in it. It also said, ‘Looking gorgeous, my love…’
Oh, no wonder mom felt bad. She usually cries whenever she sees Dad’s comments for the aunties on Twitter or Instagram. He never comments like this on Facebook. There, he posts my pictures with him and puts up heart emojis only for me. But on Twitter, he has some funny name like ‘LoverBoy’ with some numbers in it. Mummy says it is called as Anon account. Dad does not know that I know about him on Twitter and Instagram. Mom made me promise that I would never tell him that I know; otherwise he would blame her for it.
I once heard Mom tell her best friend how Dad flirted shamelessly with everything that wore a skirt. I understood that flirting is a shameless thing to do, just like copying in the exam. But I did not understand how things can wear skirts. I wanted to ask her but I knew she’ll scold me if I did. She does not like it, when I overhear what she says to her friends about dad.
Mom returns from the kitchen, with my orange Pokémon plate in her hands. She begins to feed me with little pieces of roti dipped in my favorite aloo curry. I eat. I love it, when she feeds me food, even though I have learned to eat by myself without spilling anything on my shirt or on the table.
Her fingertips brush against my lips every time the roti touches my tongue. Her fingers are rough, because of the soap she uses to clean the dishes and wash our clothes. They feel scratchy whenever she touches me, but I somehow like it.
I want to watch Chota Bheem on TV, but I don’t know if mummy is sad or angry. I look up at her face. The black patches under her eyes look bigger today and her lips are thin and dry. I know that her boss scolded her because she had not gone to work yesterday.
‘What happened in the court yesterday, mommy?’ I ask her, without thinking.
She looks up in surprise. She doesn’t know that I had overheard her talking to grandma last night. Her voice had been soft. She thought I was asleep, but I was listening to her. She told Grandma that the divorce may come through this week.
‘Nothing…’ she replies, tearing the roti into little pieces. The pieces are too tiny, but she goes on tearing them. They almost look like dry upma now.
I feel afraid, again.
I could not sleep last night because of the fear. I know that daddy cannot take me away with him because the judge uncle did not allow him. I never want to leave mom, never ever. I cannot live without seeing her even for a single day.
But, I love daddy too. I want to be with him. Mom cooks and cares for me. No one loves me more than her. But she cannot play cricket and take me swimming at the pool like daddy. She cannot buy clothes or pizza for me at the mall like daddy. Daddy does not even think about the price of anything I want, he just buys them for me.
But, I don’t mind if he does not buy anything for me. All I want is for him to continue to love me. I am so scared that he will stop loving me one day…
‘Vijay, beta,’ Mommy takes a deep breath. I know what she is going to say.
‘Your teacher told me…’ she says. I look at the ant. To my surprise, it has pulled the biscuit all the way to the foot of the sofa now.
‘I didn’t know the answers, ma.’ My tongue is burning. The curry is too spicy.
‘So you should have just left them, na?’
‘I would have failed, ma.’ I cannot tell her that I am unable to study. I don’t want to tell her that it was easier for me to remember everything I studied when daddy was with us. I can’t tell this to mom, she will feel very sad if I do.
‘It is better to fail than to cheat, Vijay’. Mom’s voice is sad. I want to cry again, now. I don’t know how to make her happy. All I want is for her to be happy.
‘Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set beforehand. And each of us will have a different syllabus, a different paper, beta.’ Mom’s tone is gentle. Her eyes are watery; I know that she wants to cry too.
She runs her hand in my hair, as she continues, ‘You can pass your school exam by copying, Vijay. But what will you do in the exam of life? Where will you copy from?’ I don’t know how to answer this. I don’t know the answer. The more I think about this, the more frightened I am.
‘Sorry ma. I won’t copy next time.’ I lie to her. She smiles at me and lays a soft kiss on my forehead. I don’t know why I am still so unhappy, even after this.
I wish I had not got caught by that horrible Shaila ma’am when I was looking at Renu’s answer sheet in the exam last week. Shaila ma’am called mom to school and showed her all my answer sheets. All my answers had the same mistakes as Renu, Shaila ma’am said.
Dad used to teach me Math and help me with project work. Now, my math scores are so low that Shaila ma’am has put me in remedial classes on Saturday mornings. I got C and D grades in all my project work. Mom is so busy and tired after she returns from work. I never ask her to help me with studies. I will manage on my own.
But there is something I want very badly. I know mom won’t answer me. I have asked her many times before with the same result. I don’t know why I still ask her this question again and again. I try to control myself. But I cannot keep my feelings inside me for too long, without telling her what I want.
‘Ma, can we go back to daddy?’
Mom stares at me, but as usual, says nothing. Her face looks even sadder than before. As always, I now wish I had not asked her this. I should have kept my mouth shut…
She picks up the plate and returns to the kitchen. I can hear her mute sobs even though she has turned on the tap at full speed, so that I should not hear her. She does not want me to know how unhappy she is.
Daddy is allowed to meet me only on weekends. But, mommy never lets me to stay with him overnight.
I once told grandma that I miss my room and my bed, in daddy’s apartment. Grandma replied that it is not important to have a big house because it is much more important to have a big heart.
I did not tell anyone that I miss everything else in the apartment complex as well…swimming in the pool, playing in the park and reading comics in the library there. I miss going to school in the school van instead of pillion riding on mom’s scooty and most of all, I miss all my friends there.
I miss the long drives dad used to take us on, during the weekends. He would buy us junk food at a different mall every week. Mom and dad used to laugh so much together then; I used to laugh so much too…
Mom has told me many times that it is not my fault that we cannot live with dad anymore. But I know that she is lying. I heard Dad tell her many times that she used to ignore him more, after I was born. If I had not been born, mom would not have ignored dad. Then dad would not have gone and become friends with all those other aunties.
Mommy and daddy fought so much because of me. Mommy has to live in this small house and go to work all day instead of living with daddy…
I am aware of something heavy in my middle region, it is a horrible feeling. It is worse than the pain I feel when I hurt myself on my knees or elbows when I fall down while playing. I don’t mind that pain, but this…weight on my chest is worse. I hate carrying it with me wherever I go, it is hard to ignore it or forget that it is there. I want it to go away, but it won’t. I know that it won’t go away all night and maybe even in the morning when I am in school.
A tear escapes from my right eye. I wipe it quickly, with my knuckle. I don’t want mommy to see me crying, even though she has told me that it is okay for boys to cry like girls too.
I remember most of mommy and daddy’s fights. They used to talk in low voices in the beginning and then, as always, they would forget that I was in the next room or within their hearing range. Then, they would begin to yell at each other. It would terrify me so much. I would cover my ears and shut my eyes tight. But I could still hear their words.
I don’t know how, but I can remember everything that they used to say while they fought, even after so many months. It is strange that I cannot remember my school notes despite studying so hard.
I once heard mom tell dad not to blame her for his…his affairs. I don’t know why she calls them affairs. My friend told me that an affair is a bad thing. He told me that his uncle had an affair with a neighbor aunty and now, no one in their family was talking to him.
But my daddy is not bad; he would not do bad things.
I don’t want to stop talking to daddy. I don’t mind if he talks to a hundred aunties as long as he still loves and wants me. My friend Roma told me that her dad did not even remember her and never called her after he divorced her mother. I was terrified to hear that. What will I do, if dad forgets me completely and never comes to see me after mom divorced him? I am terrified to think about it.
When I had asked him about it, the last time I met him, he had laughed and said ‘Vijay, don’t believe everything your mother tells you’ and then bought me an ice cream. He always buys me nice stuff but never answers my questions properly.
I want to ask him and mom a lot of things. Why can’t mom stay with him anymore? Why is mom so angry when dad talks to other aunties? Why can’t dad stop making friends with other aunties to make mom happy? Why do those aunties talk to dad even when they know that my mom doesn’t like it? Why can’t mommy and daddy just stay in the same house with me? Why can’t we just become like before, we were so happy…my family was a happy family…why can’t I get that back again?
I wish there was some place from where I could read and get answers to all the endless questions. Exams are easy. If I don’t know the answer, I can just copy from my friends’ papers.
But these questions in my mind…where can I copy the answers from?
Mom returns to the sofa where I am sitting quietly. She has finished cleaning the kitchen counter and has put out the milk coupons too.
‘Time for bed!’ she says, cheerfully. Her eyes are still moist but she has a forced smile on her face.
She carries me in her arms to our bed. I know that I am going to feel scared again tomorrow. But for now, I am safe. Because, I know that mom loves me. Because I know that mom will never, ever leave me and go away. Because I love my mommy more than anything in the world and she is with me.
I hear the pitter patter of raindrops beating on the window pane above my head. It is cold. Mommy wraps the blanket tightly around us and hugs me close to her. She places another kiss on my forehead and coos, ‘Sleep, baby. Sleep’.
I see her tired eyes looking at me with that tender look I know so well. I know that I am the only person in the whole world for whom she gives that look. I suddenly realize that the heaviness in my chest is gone. I am not so frightened anymore, even though I still don’t know the answers to all my questions.
Grandma always says that we should count our blessings and be thankful for them. For me, the biggest blessing of my life is the love of my mommy and daddy.
‘Thank you, dear God, for giving me mommy and daddy,’ I smile silently at the calendar of Sai Baba on the wall, before closing my eyes.
Picture : Google Images.