I have been searching for quite some time now.
For some trace of the innocence that lit up the world once upon a time. It used to be everywhere- within me, around me.
I was not proud of my innocence then. It used to embarrass me because it prevented me from being street smart- a trait necessary for survival in a man-made world. I felt ashamed of the ignorance I demonstrated in social circles. People discussed popular soaps and TV shows and raised their eyebrows when I appeared completely ignorant of their very existence. Those were embarrassing moments because people looked at me with a question mark that almost seemed to ask: ‘What planet are you from?’ I feared those awkward pauses in conversations that came up when they picked up a trending topic and expected me to contribute an opinion. I often felt out of place. Everybody seemed to settle so naturally into a common world of people, places and interests. It baffled me as to how they all shared the same interests. They knew exactly what dress to wear for an occasion. They all watched the same movies. They knew the top ten songs trending at any given point in time. They knew how to order drinks and how to shake a leg. It all came so easily and naturally to them, and I wondered where they had learnt this art of fitting in. I wondered what their secret was. How could they possibly know what was expected of them?
On the contrary, my world was so different. It was as if I was still stuck in my childhood reverie. I continued to love and long for the world I had reveled in as a child. I continued to love stories, walks, games, riding, nature, children- all that I had loved as a child. I could sit on the terrace of my house and watch the moving clouds, the trees yonder, or the people faraway who looked like little blobs that moved on the landscape, and feel enthralled. I could read a book, find myself transported to a magical world, and feel happy. I could play with a child and feel happy. But I couldn’t talk about these things to people. There was no place for such emotions in conversations. I dreaded moments where I was forced to socialize with people who had no room for the true magic of life in their conversations. I was happier chasing happiness as I defined it, and I would chase such joys, collecting beautiful perceptions as they dropped into the basket of my mind.
I have always loved the company of children. I would surround myself with children. It was perhaps my attempt at holding on to the childhood I never wished to leave behind. It came naturally to me; I could settle effortlessly into their world without disrupting the integrity of their world. They never regarded me as a threat or as an intruder and they easily allowed me into the privacy of their beautiful world. My house was home to many children in the neighbourhood- children of all age groups. Children who walked into my room, would find it hard to leave. My room was full of things that would delight a child. In fact, many people would mistake it for a child’s room. My neighbour’s daughter who was only 2 years of age, would refuse to go back to her house at the end of our play. I had to pretend to play hide and seek to hand her over to her mother and slip back to my house. I remember 4-year-old Sai Shraddha who came crying to me because her brother was being sent to boarding school. I remember that night when she and her brother came to sleep over at my place. We spent half the night talking and when our eyes finally began to slip into sleep, Sai Prem asked me,”Vidya didi, do you know why we close our eyes when we sleep?” I was certain he had a beautiful answer. “Why?“, I asked. “So that we can see our dreams better“, he replied.
I remember young Srijit whose sister was getting married to one of our acquaintances. Srijit was a shy child and he was deeply attached to his sister. He had come over to his cousin’s place for the wedding. There were many kids in the neighbourhood and we would all play games the whole day long. We would also play pranks, taunt and tease, and have silly fights. Srijit became very gloomy towards the wedding. After the wedding, when he said goodbye to all of us, I remember that forlorn look on his face when he said,”You will get married too and go away, right?” It was only then that I understood what was playing on in the child’s mind. He felt a sense of loss when his sister was getting married. In the brief time that we had all been together, I had temporarily covered up that loss. And now, he felt it again. He sensed the fact that you could not own people forever. I was deeply touched.
Children made me feel beautiful. They thought the world of me. This was delightful because in my world of adults, I certainly didn’t qualify for ‘beautiful’. I would take Sai Shraddha to the terrace, lift her up, and the two of us would chatter away, oblivious to the difference in age. Somehow, we saw the same world, and it was lovely seeing it together. The wind would blow and a few strands of my hair would cover my face. Sai Shraddha would suddenly stop talking, look at my face with awe, push aside the strands of hair, and innocently remark, “Vidya didi, you are so beautiful!” She would sometimes pinch my cheeks, play with my hair, mess it up totally, rub noses, give me a hug, and say,” You are so beautiful!” Children taught me that beauty was something deeper than what adults make it out to be. Her mother surprised me one day by informing me that Sai Shraddha had started to ask every young man who visited them if they would marry Vidya didi!
I also remember the poor children in my world. Especially the children who belonged to the construction workers who would appear out of nowhere, set up a temporary shelter made of bricks, and go about their work while the children were left to fend for themselves. I remember the sight of little girls carrying their younger siblings and taking care of them. In those days, it was not their poverty that I saw. I saw their abundance. The glee on their faces as they crawled and climbed mounds of sand in tattered and soiled clothes, struck me. It seemed to reflect pure, uncontaminated joy- a joy that was progressively thinning out in the world I lived in.
I was torn between these two worlds. On one side was that beautiful world of childish innocence, and on the other side was the adult world where innocence had lost its value. After much embarrassment over my innocence and ignorance, I learned to surround myself with people who were street smart and adept at survival, but who valued the innocence within me. I owe much to these people for they taught me essential survival skills. Also, they exposed me to the true essence of a world I had feared until then. There were people who were truly passionate about music or dance or films or places, and they would be willing to take me along and help me find out for myself what I liked and what I didn’t. That awakened my interest and curiosity, and also helped me shed feelings of worthlessness.
In later years, responsibility taught me much. When I was forced to stand up on my own feet and take decisions on my own, I realized that it was necessary to understand the ‘business of life’- the shrewdness and manipulation that was all around. One learns the ways of the world, at least to a degree that enables survival. I feel proud that I did learn, despite being me. However, at the end of it all, I look at the world with new eyes. I look at it all over again, and realize there is something I have been gradually losing. Something I miss immensely. At first, I couldn’t point out as to what it was. But now, I am beginning to see light.
All around me are people who are trying hard to establish something. Everybody is competing with everybody else. Everybody wants to be the hub. Everybody wants to be spoken to, and spoken about. Everybody wants to be unique, different and famous. Applause and appreciation- these are the driving forces for most people. People wish to be successful, and to most people, success translates to money and fame. People chase formulae that would lead them to success. But in truth, these are people who have permanently lost the one gift that makes life worth living- the gift of innocence. I have finally realized that it is this childish innocence that preserves our ability to be truly and purely enthralled by experiences. Only a mind brimming with childish innocence can feel the joy of a little beam of sunshine stealing its way into the darkness of a tunnel through an inconspicuous crevice. Give me a choice between fame and innocence, and I would choose innocence. For in that state of innocence, there is nothing that you wish to prove to the world, and so you are free. Free to feel and be enthralled. Free to cry and to laugh. Free to be mystified and to explore. Free to be clever or foolish. It is in this innocence that we discover the real ‘us’. And to be true and real- that is the greatest freedom of all. For then you are what you are capable of. Nothing more, nothing less.
I sometimes look at the millions of people trying hard at establishing themselves, and wonder how many of them still have the ability to be delightfully tempted by the food spreads that Enid Blyton artfully describes in her books. I wonder if they have the ability to be tickled enough to laugh aloud when Buster, the dog, sets himself on Mr Goon’s ankles. These private moments when you can feel the temptation of food, the thrill of a mystery, or the satisfaction of playing a prank on a troublesome character- these moments are priceless. For the simple reason that you are real in these moments.
I think back to the most beautiful moments of my life and I realize that they were all embedded in innocence- in the innocence within me, and around me. Whether it was the joy of playing with a child or holding the hands of someone you loved, the happiness of those moments was rooted in the innocence that characterized our personalities then.
In conclusion, let me quote one of the most beautiful pieces I have read about this innocence. This is one of the pieces from Michael Jackson’s book “Dancing the Dream“. It is titled ‘Wise Little Girl‘.
I know a wise little girl who cannot walk. She is confined to a wheelchair, and she may spend the rest of her life there, since her doctors hold out almost no hope of ever making her paralyzed legs better.
When I first met this little girl, she flashed me a smile that burned me with its blazing happiness. How open she was! She wasn’t hiding out from self-pity or asking for approval or protecting herself from a sense of shame. She felt completely innocent about not being able to walk, like a puppy that has no idea if it is a mongrel or a champion of the breed.
She made no judgements about herself. That was her wisdom.
I have seen the same wise look in other children, “poor” children as society sees them, because they lack food, money, secure homes, or healthy bodies. By the time they reach a certain age, many of these children grasp just how bad their situation is. The way that adults look at their lives robs them of that first innocence that is so precious and rare. They begin to believe that they should feel bad about themselves; that this is “right.”
But this wise little girl, being only four, floated above pity and shame like a carefree sparrow. She took my heart in her hands and made it as weightless as a cotton putt, so that it was impossible for me to even begin to think, “What a terrible thing.” All I saw was light and love. In their innocence, very young children know themselves to be light and love. If we will allow them, they can teach us to see ourselves the same way.
One sparkle from a little girl’s gaze contains the same knowledge that Nature implants at the heart of every life-form. It is life’s silent secret, not to be put into words. It just knows. It knows peace and how not to hurt. It knows that even the least breath is a gesture of gratitude to the Creator. It smiles to be alive, waiting patiently for ages of ignorance and sorrow to pass away like a mirage.
I see this knowledge itself in the eyes of children more and more, which makes me think that their innocence is growing stronger. They are going to disarm us adults, and that will be enough to disarm the world. They feel no reason to spoil the environment, and so the environment will be cleaned up without a quarrel. A wise little girl told me the future when she looked at me, so full of peace and contentment. I rejoice in trusting her above all the experts. As light and love drive away our guilt and shame, her prophecy must come true.