27 April 2015

To be a child caught in wonderment

"The most beautiful sea:
hasn’t been crossed yet.
The most beautiful child:
hasn’t grown up yet.
Our most beautiful days:
we haven’t seen yet.
And the most beautiful words I wanted to tell you
I haven’t said yet."

These lines, written by Nazim Hikmet on September 24, 1945, were sent to me by a Turkish friend. I sent them on to another friend, Sharon, who wrote back: "It is beautiful. But I don’t want to think about the future. For me, it is easier to reflect on what has already taken place." She had just broken up with her lover of six years and as such the future was nothing less than endless space which she just couldn’t will her life to fill. Understandable, I suppose.

When everything comes apart it is difficult to see sunshine, even on a cloudless day. In such situations it is a common remedy for people to dwell on those special moments lived and shared in exhilaration. Memory, I tend to think, is something special since it has a way of weeding out the unhappy, distasteful and even embarrassing from recollection. For the most part, I must add, because some wounds, as they say, are slow to heal. To think of the future is to dream, and great dreams are possible only when one is free from the dead weight of the present. Discontent is also a fuel that can power such vision, for as Bernard Shaw once said, "Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world; unreasonable people adapt the world to themselves". He therefore concludes, "All progress is due to unreasonable people". But that’s beside the point.

I have come to believe that scientists preoccupied with the possibility of time travel are just wasting their time. Somewhere along the line human beings developed two faculties that made the question of movement along the time vector as ridiculous as asking "can we breathe?" First, we came equipped with an imagination, which allowed us to look as far into the future as we pleased. And then, we have memory, a devise that enables us to roll back the years and caress lived moments and absorb all over again their formative shapes and colours, in our lives and in the lives of other people, communities and even civilisations.

This, however, is not an essay on dreams, nightmares and the magic and unease that comes from subverting the uni-directional, linear movement of time. It is about the tenderness that wanders from thought to thought, memory to memory and how in that caressing, we are made more conscious of our humanity, our frailty, our endless capacity to suffer and our will to overcome.

There are times when we consciously and deliberately delve into the past, looking for events, people, statements and other things just so that we can understand the present, its trends, potentials and pitfalls better. It is an exercise useful in a precautionary sense and in terms of more productive engagement. This is why it is said that a good memory, i.e. a finely tuned capacity to call forth the minute details of things that have taken place, is an invaluable asset.

But recollection is not always a result of volition, for there are ways in which things lurking in the shadowy waters of memory are awakened and persuaded to bloom. All it takes is a single ray of sunlight to fall at the precise angle and intensity and we are instantly transported to a different time, into a garden where people like butterflies flit from one brilliant flower to another and where old ideas shed the dense dust called "the passing of time" and stand firm like ancient trees, awaiting reflection and the compassion that ageing brings.

It can happen when you hear by accident an old song, pass a landscape that appears to have been transplanted from another time, when you get a whiff of a fragrance long given up for lost, taste the tastes that marked pleasant times or when you meet an old friend after many years. Or when you come across old books.

Last week I happened to come across a book written by E. Nesbit. "The Railway Children" was for me the name of a fascinating film that I saw as a child. I didn’t know then that it was based on a novel and one that has never been out of print since it was first published in the early 20th century. I was loathe to put down the book until I finished it, interrupted frequently by the various demands of my daughter which included interestingly her breaking her toy train and insisting that I fix it. And of course my wife who was already half way through it.

My thoughts ran with the three happy, resourceful and courageous children in the book in the in-betweens of domestic chores. I recalled again the vivid frames of what I had thought at that time was the best film ever made. The exercise did much more. As my eyes passed quickly across each page, I found myself surrounded by a host of perfumes, colours and tunes from my childhood. They were like long lost friends gathering in a reunion of sorts. Shirts I had worn danced before my eyes, their patterns and prints not one bit smudged by the passing of time. Songs that floated from an Elect radio that no longer exists returned after a long exile and I could hear a voice singing "podi kaale muhudu verale..." Cricket scores of inter-school matches, glorious half-centuries made by friends on turning tracks surrounded by coconut trees, bloodied knees and cool palliatives derived from kurumbetti, schoolboy pranks and the exchanging of wild explanations pieced together from the fragments of adult conversations, all this and more arrived unannounced.

This has happened to me before. It probably happens to everyone. This is why I like to read every once in a while Lassana Vesilisa or the English translation of the classic collection of Russian fairy tales. Sure, Baba Yaga is no longer terrifying. But she casts a different kind of spell whose ingredients, impact and lessons are probably timeless. Richmal Crompton’s William was created from the ancient dust that makes up the heart of the universal boy. This is why, if I were to read Sibyl Wettasinghe’s Duvana Ravula today, I am sure I will find myself sitting in my Grade I classroom.
In fact just writing this brought up the picture of how a careless gesture saw my friend Samitha Samaraweera’s beautifully coloured biththara mama, fall on the ground and break. He burst into tears and I just stood there not knowing what to do, terribly upset, guilt and sorry. There are some things that cannot be put together again. Then again, it is always possible to bring together pieces in different and beautiful ways.

Every children’s story, every fairy tale, all the dashing heroes, beautiful and brave princesses, the castles, the magical kingdoms, dragons, wizards and giants, are complete in and of themselves. But more than all this, they are coated with a special magic, it seems, for the mere caressing releases an endless stream of stars and colours that remind us of the paths we travelled, how they twisted and turned, and brought us to where we are today. There is one word that remains shining even after all the magic dissolved in adulthood. It is called healing.

Maybe there is some truth in the saying that in each of us there is a child that lives and a child that has died. There are times when we are that living child. And maybe now and then we actually become aware of that innocent being within us, mischievous, joyous and curious. I remember angrily telling my father once, "you are suffering from delayed childhood". I think I was exasperated with his teasing, for he has an annoying way of going extra slow with his measured words when I am in a hurry. It took me some years to realise how much it amused him and how harmless it really was. But

I will never forget his soft response. "Children are innocent".

Maybe it is in recognition of these qualities and their potential, and because he saw the worth of tarrying a while to converse when our childhood visits us now and then that Nazim Hikmet recommends that we "live as one divines a masterpiece, as one hears a song of love, as a child caught in wonder...".

"Let us give the world to the children at least for one day
Let them play with as if it is a spangled balloon
Let them sing and dance among the stars."

When he entrusted the world to children thus, he was not excluding any of us adults, I believe. For we are all children at times. The more often, the better. For as he said, "The children will take the world out of our hands and they will plant immortal trees". I can’t wait.