A couple of days back, I caught my son watching “Bob the Builder” on TV. He is thirteen going on fourteen, has the beginnings of a moustache under his nose, and has started reading Agatha Christie of late: so this was a sort of regression, and it surprised me. My son was acutely embarrassed.
This was one cartoon he used to watch in KG after coming back from school, as my wife fed him by hand. It was not the cartoon as such, but those memories he was trying to revisit. He had finally come to the realisation that his childhood was ending, never to return. It was a poignant moment.
I left him to it and walked away. I could feel my eyes moistening.
Does childhood really die?
I don’t believe so. There is a child in all of us – this is the world that writers and artists cater to. A world of make-believe, a world of wonder: because this is what childhood is all about – the sense of wonder.
Incidentally, I am reading the complete set of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. For those of you who don’t know, this enormously popular comic strip was created by Bill Watterson and was syndicated from November 1985 to December 1995. Calvin is a six-year old with a supercharged imagination (sometimes dark and sadistic) and Hobbes is his stuffed tiger toy which magically comes to life when they are alone. Calvin is an attempt on the part of the cartoonist to imagine the grown-up world through the eyes of a seriously weird kid.
In one way, Calvin is the natural successor of Charlie Brown of The Peanuts.
The world of “grown-ups” is many a time incomprehensible to children – the same way, a child’s world is often a closed book to many adults. A great many writers, however, carry a child within them, and is often able to look upon the world from both angles – from within the child and without.
The most touching story in this regard is The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. This is a magical fable of a pilot (the author) crash-landing in Sahara desert, and coming upon a little prince who has arrived there from a distant asteroid the size of a house. He is on the lookout for a goat to eat undesirable plants such as baobabs on his tiny home so that they don’t overrun and engulf the place. The author draws a goat and cage to keep it in, so that the goat does not eat a rose which grows on the asteroid, the one love of the prince’s life. The prince is overjoyed and the author gratified because his drawings have never been taken seriously by “grown-ups”.
The beauty of this small fairy tale is the amount of rich detail it manages to pack in. On his travels, the prince meets many people on other asteroids; their homes are as small and limited as his, but their concerns are much more grand and global and, ultimately from the prince’s point of view, extremely foolish. But these grown-ups never realise that. The pilot, with his child’s imagination, can easily empathise.
Here, as well as in the Calvin cartoons, the child’s naiveté is used by the author to point out the stupidity of the adult world: the child has his illusions, but he does not consider them absolute. He’s quite happy to live in his little world provided the grownups let him.
The world becomes not only incomprehensible but frighteningly so in the hands of the horror writers – Stephen King’s The Shining comes immediately to mind. Danny Torrance is blessed (or cursed, depending upon how you look at it) with ESP, the ability to see into other’s thoughts. Isolated with his recovering alcoholic father and mother in the snowbound hotel Overlook, Danny is pursued by the phantoms of the evil dead within the hotel – they want him there as a permanent resident. For this, they try to get his father to murder him. Danny’s claustrophobic effort to escape the unspeakable evil pursuing him makes for a gripping story, but underlying the out-and-out ghost story is the demons that plague all of us: alcoholism, failure and domestic violence. Children see much more than we think.
This motif of the “lost child” is used by Ingmar Bergman in his movie The Silence, which also features a child trapped in a hotel in a strange country with an unintelligible language. The movie straddles the line between reality and fantasy, and is much more disturbing than The Shining. But the underlying theme is the same – the child’s eye view.
Moving on to more pleasant matters, there is one area of fiction where we adults can let our imaginations roam without feeling guilt – science fiction and its sister, fantasy. Here, all stops are pulled, and the author can take us millions of light years away to “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. The trappings of science are often just props to build a rip-roaring tale. The suspension of disbelief, a gift of childhood, is assumed the moment one picks up an SF paperback (even when the author is someone like Isaac Asimov, who goes to great lengths to provide “scientific” bases for his fantasy worlds). The fact is that the child does it all the time – like in the movie Jurassic Park 2, when the tyrannosaur walks into the backyard and the adults are frozen in fear, the child takes a photograph.
My son is leaving this magical realm. This transition is painful, like all rites of passage: but at some point of time future I am sure he will understand (like I did) that one need not leave permanently. The land is always there – we need to only believe in it. It may be sometimes frightening, but that is also part of the thrill. We can be grownups in our “official” lives, and escape to childhood the moment the shades are drawn.
I do it every night.