Some may consider it superstitious. So be it. As we (children of my generation) grew up, our imagination got increasingly peopled by numerous indefinable characters belonging to the abstract world of the unseen.
They were fairies which inhabited Fairyland, imaginary place in some remote recesses of our mind. Their reality was established by the fact that they were characters not in one but in numerous stories you’d come across during those enchanting days of childhood and early adolescence. Fairies were real and they were particularly good towards the oppressed.
Their magic wands had the power to materialize overturning and unexpected situations and objects. An example is the transformation by a fairy, by a flick of her magic wand, of six mice and a pumpkin into a splendid and sparkling horse-driven coach for Cinderella dressed up gorgeously as a princess. All you needed to benefit from the boons they conferred was to be on the good side of life and not act naughtily.
Since there were more forests then than it is the case now in Mauritius, it wasn’t too much of a strain upon us to fancy that there were brooks, rivulets, streams, forests and woods and that these were inhabited by elves and hobgoblins of different sorts with extraordinary powers. All of them came out of the books we read. These were creatures invisible to us but they could see us from afar and, why not, grant us a wish or two, for which all that was required was good behaviour and obedience.
Their job was to set right a situation that was getting too tense or plain out-of-hands. They conferred unexpected benefits as did the fairies, towards your welfare, provided you did not indulge in mischief that parents did not approve of. Such flights of fancy and imagination only got confirmed when we came across tinsel inhabitants of Wonderland like Oberon, Titania and Puck influencing real life events in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (courtesy: Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare).
Cultivating wider vistas
When I think back about the extent to which we were capable of suspending disbelief, I have no regrets. This was fertile ground for cultivating wider vistas than what we saw in the reality around us. It was not a device used to delude ourselves into overlooking the numerous constraints with which life was lived during those days. It was more about giving ourselves a dimension which went out into open space to live in harmony with invisible, sometimes mischievous, but overall well-meaning spirits that had a reality beyond our own less subtle existence. They could walk on clouds whereas we couldn’t and we believed it firm; let no one try to budge us from this kind of conviction!
It was the foundation of a system of an all-encompassing belief based on an inclusiveness that is totally alien to our modern world in which people are even killed for believing in or failing to believe in whatever has been given out as the true and accepted path – essentially political systems for a long stretch of time, but now increasingly occupied by religious dogmas and both directed at seeking and holding on to power and/or capturing the minds of the people. There was nothing alien or calling for rejection in that ethereal system of values which pervaded our small minds as we flipped from one adventure to another. We accommodated all the protean characters, whichever climes or cultures they came from, so long they kept our imagination on fire and in quest of the sublime. When the Jinn came out of Aladdin’s bottle, it was his capacity to do superhuman acts, to travel beyond customary boundaries of time and space and to do things impossible, which captured our imagination.
We took it with a pinch of salt when Don Quichotte, the knight errant facing a windmill, found himself challenged by a giant with long arms and readied himself for battle, but it was amusing and entertaining. From here to imagining the moon as a cake and have a sweet slice of it on the occasion of the Chinese New Year was not really a strain upon our imagination. We could even dream at times about a spark detaching itself from a star and dropping on us so we could also attain Herculean proportions in our field of endeavour. This way, we invited to ourselves a variegated folklore from everywhere along with a multiplicity of magical characters who peopled our marvellous little universe. Briefly, the realm of possibilities was unlimited and it could open up in mysterious forms provided one had the right attitude of mind.
We read all of this in English and French, the two languages in which most of the books were to be found, unassisted by the native language(s) we used to address each other. Our understanding was perfect since we moved on in natural progression to learn the more complicated and esoteric words from the two languages as we took on the more complex stories later in life. Just as the stories of the idyllic characters belonged to humanity as a whole, the languages they were being conveyed in were also international. Unwittingly, we were going beyond linguistic and cultural boundaries on our journey to a much bigger world full of magic and beauty, a world that has helped many of us transcend our insularity and shape up our destiny to full bloom.
A software for a lifetime
This background, to my mind, made an enormous difference in character and the attitudes we picked up for life. It was a software which equipped us for a lifetime, not requiring daily repairs and watch-outs against bugs and viruses. We held our elders in awe, never called them by their first names or in the singular person; we really believed and acted on the dictum: ‘honesty is the best policy’ which was largely writ on the covers of our school exercise books. Society was not worse off nor was our social outlook narrowed down to sectional interests due to this. We saw others better endowed than ourselves but it never crossed our minds that we could just snatch away what was not ours. The big changes which started taking place in society before and after Independence made us feel conscious of the need to support them for the good of all and to contribute to overall advancement rather than be content to extract for ourselves the better part of the good things happening around us.
A country, it is said, rolls itself out towards development on the strength of its resources and the skill with which it applies them. In our case, the most important resource so far has been our human factor. As times have changed, it has adapted itself beautifully to take on ever-tougher challenges. Growing sugarcane had been the major ambition of the country for centuries. But it was not sustainable. We got out of this mould when new challenges came with mounting unemployment and a future which looked anything but bleak. The capacity to make breakthroughs is, to my mind, derived not only from the enormity of the problem facing us; the depth of inroads made into development depends on the quality of the imagination used to tackle it. If Theseus was able to despatch the Minotaur and get out of the labyrinth thanks to Princess Ariadne’s thread, no task howsoever prohibitive at first sight was impossible.
It is like moving several hierarchies up from insubstantial elves and fairies to fiction superheroes, the likes of Batman and Superman for whom no problem, it seems, is insuperable. Whatever the difference might be, the goal remains the same. It is to brace up the imagination high enough so that what appeared to be outside our realm of possibilities yesterday is marshalled up firmly today. This goal is achieved not by folding ourselves in, looking back incessantly to the past miseries or limiting ourselves to our small cocoons but by reaching out for the stars.
Ambition is realized at the country level when every individual’s heart is fired by the same objective to rise, the same enthusiasm, the same desire to rise above its lot.
There is a strong case therefore for us to keep learning about the goings-on in Wonderland and to learn about them not with the help of two international languages, as we did in the past, but five perhaps, including Mandarin, Mathematics and Science. Unless we pan out and let the imagination fly, we will have our wings clipped and ourselves grounded. Let us break away from all that has been holding us down. If imagination born of the insubstantial beings who cohabit this universe along with us is of help, why should we neglect it at the risk of being bogged down otherwise in trivial pursuits and mutual recriminations?
* Published in print edition on 27 December 2013