"Mama," she calls from the next room where she is busily combing her My Little Pony's hair. "What does a comb do, anyway?"
I laugh to myself as I pour my coffee. "It takes the knots out," I say.
"Oh," she says, and her voice sounds disappointed. "I thought it made your hair longer."
She is five years old and doesn't know what a comb is for. It's all you can expect, really, from a little girl who has had dreadlocks since she was two. I combed and braided her hair until I had an operation to remove a tumor in my neck. Coming home from the hospital I couldn't face the snarl that her hair had become during my recovery, and thus began the beautiful dreadlocks of the YaYa sister.
I didn't teach her about the use of a comb because I figured it was obvious. It wasn't obvious, as it turns out.
We don't make a big deal about dreadlocks, in our house. Most of our family has them. But we don't have to make a big deal about YaYa's dreadlocks, because practically everyone else does.
We are walking down the hill into Baghsu, and YaYa suddenly says, "I want you to be the beautiful one, the most beautiful one in the world! I don't want to be beautiful."
I attempt to digest this. "Why?" I ask.
"Because then no one would talk to me and tell me I'm beautiful. Even when they don't say anything, I can tell that they are talking to each other about me."
The extraordinary thing about this conversation is that YaYa is so completely outside of herself most of the time that I had no idea she even noticed the people pointing at her, talking about her. I knew she dodged many of the reaching fingers aimed at her hair, and declined an answer when people oohed and aahed over her. But she spends most of her time drawing, or running, or climbing, or falling down, or coaxing snails along to places that are safe from our snail-smashing neighbor, or making snakes out of plasticine and curling them up in their nice soft beds. ("Look, Mama!" she said, the other day. "This one is a teenager snake and it's bigger than it's Mama!") She also loves to crack eggs, peel garlic, and make her bed. She is the originator of most of the pretend games that are played around here, and if she uses the word beautiful, it's usually to describe a dress or a butterfly.
"Oh YaYa," I said. "You shouldn't wish to be different than you are. The most important things are being kind and polite, anyways." I was being sage. And I know there are many other important things, but I was mainly talking about when she's out in the world, where people point and stare.
"I know, Mama," she said. Not really exasperated, but ten steps ahead of me. "But I can be those things and not be beautiful. I just wish you were the one."
Thinking about it, as we walked along, hand in hand, I realized that she wasn't really talking about beauty. Those are just the words people have used when they've pointed her out. And believe me, there are many, many beautiful little girls in the villages of India. As much as I think YaYa's a stunner, I know that she's a rose in a rose garden.
She was talking about attention, about being different. She would like to shift it to me, someone bigger and stronger in her life.
This is one thing I can't do for her, though. I can't shift attention from her to me. She will always be different, no matter where we live. And it's good for her to be among the people of India, so kind to children. She is not teased for being different. But she will have to learn how to bear attention, to take on its weight and then smile and shrug it off.
It was a small moment, this little conversation of ours, and the monkeys on the road soon drove it out of our heads, but it showed me that she is paying attention, and that she notices. I can't take the strain of being noticed away from my daughter, but she is always welcome to turn and meet my eyes when it is becoming a bit much. We can make a quick exit, the two of us, and go and rescue some snails.