I have always liked the story that comes whole and well-rounded, complete with annotation. But mostly I have come across the sharp, jagged, tip-of-the-iceberg variety, and I have always been foolish enough to ask a question.
I must have asked my grandmother Why? Thousands of times. She must have answered me; there were few questions she could resist.
But I was a child then, and the answers I now reconstruct were perhaps never really hers. Perhaps I put the oracular, paradoxical words into her generous, buck-toothed mouth each time I recall the fables of childhood.
What I do remember, with greater certainty, are the words of a more recent, pragmatic storyteller.
When I once asked my husband’s housekeeper, old Mayamma, why she had put up with her life, she laughed till the tears rolled down her wrinkled cheeks.
‘I can see you are still a child,’ she said.
‘When I lost my first baby, conceived after ten years of longing and fear, I screamed, for the only time in my life, Why?
‘The oily, pock-marked village doctor, his hand still dripping with my blood, looked shifty. A woman must learn to bear some pain, he mumbled. What can I do about the sins of your previous birth?
‘But my mother-in-law was far more sure of herself. She slapped my cheeks hard, first this then the other. Her fists pummelled my breasts and my still swollen stomach till they had to pull her off my cowering, bleeding body. She shouted, in a rage mixed with fear, “Do you need any more proof that this is not a woman? The barren witch has killed my grandson, and she lies there asking us why!” ’
Mayamma smiled toothlessly at me, as if the memory had lost some of its bite.
‘So be careful, Devi,’ she chuckled, her mouth sucking in gulps of air like a fish, ‘when you next ask a question.’