Remembering the Inherent Power of Words Through the Questions of a Child

Sundar Sarukkai’s 'Following a Prayer' is a deeply thoughtful novel about language, communication, creative expression and our interconnected lives.

“Twelve-year-old Kalpana went missing on a Monday.” It is chilling to read these words under any circumstances, even at the beginning of a fictional work. We know only too well that little girls do go missing, far too frequently, across the world; and when this happens, horrific things tend to ensue.

“That morning, in the peak of the monsoon, when the clouds played inside her mind, Kalpana left her home as usual.” However, the first thing that sets this novel apart is that fortunately, nothing bad happens to little Kalpana. On the contrary, she returns home, physically untouched – but transformed. That is to say, physically, she has returned; but in her mind, she appears to have embarked on another quest, all alone, into a strange new terrain where she will have to find her own answers. Thus, the first few pages set the tone for what will reveal itself to be an allegorical novel, not about the wretchedness of human capacity for evil, but about the profound mystery at the heart of creative human expression. This is the story of Sundar Sarukkai’s Following a Prayer.

Sundar Sarukkai
Following a Prayer
Westland, 2023

But first, one must mention the novel’s delightful emerald-green setting in rural Karnataka. If Kalpana’s Ajji is the quintessential grandmother, the village is the quintessential Malenadu village, nestled deep inside in the Western Ghats. We sigh with recognition at the mention of the clouds, the hills, the path to school, the shopkeeper, the old mother of the tea-stall owner, the brown cow at the gate of the priest’s house. We are familiar with the sounds: the crickets, the spluttering buses, the croaking frogs, even the deep silence of the curious grazing creatures. We recognise the familiar figures of Kalpana’s mother, sitting outside on the steps, waiting for her daughter to return from school; and Kalpana’s father, who loves going to Bappa’s cooperative shop, with its musty smell of kerosene, jute bags and grains. We know exactly the type of 55-year-old mother of three girls who would be exactly like the school principal, crisp and firm, who just knows that terrible sexual crimes have not yet reached her village school. We also recognise Siddaiah the bus conductor, who is Ajji’s relative, who buys her buns and tea, and listens sympathetically to her story.

We recognise them all, because these are the familiar figures that make up the glue, the relationships and bonds that would hold together any small, close-knit rural community. Even the police station, pronounced ‘tation’, is something one can just imagine: an old house near the forest, with a new set of mud tiles, and no power in the building.

Everything is just absolutely, beautifully, just what it is – and it is all washed clean and true by the monsoon rain.

Into this simple everyday setting comes the piercing, curious voice of a child. “Ajji, have you ever asked yourself if anybody is listening to your prayers?” The child’s question floats into the pages of the narrative. In the stillness of the mountains, we begin to wonder: what are words, what is language, and what is prayer? How does a word begin to represent something that exists in the natural world? How do words build bridges between human beings? How do they weave connections with nature? Where do words go when they are spoken into the air like seeds floating on the wind? And finally, what is music, and what is silence? The novel shows that these questions are not only meant for elite philosophical debates in academia, but for anyone, anywhere, at any age, who is curious enough and brave enough to follow their thoughts into unknown areas.

As to the question of music and what it means in the world, the singer Gangamma offers an instinctive answer: “When we sing, every note is heard by others. Sound is like water. It just flows. The dogs hear my songs, the peacock dances to it, and even the leaves of the plants wake up when I sing. I give my sounds to the world, and that is why I sing.”

Sundar Sarukkai.

The novel explains the role that singers like Gangamma play in the world: they sing it into meaning. An amazing thing about such singers is that ordinary people throng to listen to them, in village festivals and fairs, late into the night. “There were many singers like Gangamma in various parts of Karnataka. They came from very poor families and would supplement their income through farming labour. But singing was their passion, and what set them apart from countless other performers was the content of their music… For they sang about the world, the cosmos, the labouring women, the working body, and the dying body. They sang about the self, the sameness between humans, and the ways by which society had destroyed humanity.”

In her conversations with the children who come to learn from her, Gangamma, too, finds herself discovering new things. She finds that music need not the only form of creative expression; and that teaching, conversing and even thinking, itself, can be a form of singing.

Following a Prayer comes like a breath of fresh air at a time when we have all but forgotten the inherent beauty and power of words, of language, of communication and communion. Words, and question after question made up of words, are the first steps on the long journey of independent thinking, learning, making meaning and understanding. This exploration is not for everyone: it is arduous and lonely. But it is a great thing for the world that there are, nevertheless, those few fearless ones who set off readily on this trek, leaving everything behind until they get answers.

Sarukkai, a philosopher, is also the founder of Barefoot Philosophers, with a special interest in teaching philosophy to children. One way of teaching philosophy is with abstract concepts; another way, as Following a Prayer demonstrates, is through the power of storytelling. This is a deeply thoughtful novel about language, communication, creative expression and our interconnected lives.

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS, currently based in Bengaluru.