Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fulfilling childhood dreams...

Sometimes I wish I could remember the man who helped built so many of my dreams when I was a child growing up in Varanasi of the 1970s. Yet I have only a hazy recollection of a skinny man on a rusty bicycle who brought around the weekly stack of magazines. I have a far better - and fonder - memory of those glossy stacks filled with pictures and words that seemed to be doorways to a world of fantasy.

Most of the magazines were grown up stuff - Dharmayug, that amazing literary magazine, and of course the Illustrated Weekly. There would be the film-zines, Stardust - the most coveted of them all. For the longest time, I could only turn the pages admire the pictures. I spent many years of my childhood waiting impatiently for the day when I could actually read and understand the words that filled those pages.

Of course, for us, there would be Champak, Chandamama and for a while Paraag, filled with stories and the "factual" bits - on history, culture and geography. And of course articles on far off places.

I would read the kiddie mags cover to cover, lingering especially over the travel and geography articles. All those places that I desperately wanted to visit and could not imagine how! Those were days before liberalization, and not only were currency exchanges strictly limited, there wasn't all that much disposable income around to throw around on foreign trips.

The closest we got to travelling overseas was watching Hollywood films where people spoke English all the time (and with odd accents), and lived lives so extraordinarily exotic that one could barely believe they were real.

Yet these are the stuff childhood dreams are made of...of remembered snippets from the Bond flicks where relaxing on a beach and sipping colourful cocktails seemed so normal; of treasure hunt films where seas were always impossibly turquoise blue; of Born Free brand of "kiddie" films where African skies seemed to turn every colour of the rainbow at sunset.

All through my childhood, I wanted to be in those films and magazines - in those places, doing some of those exotic things. I wanted to ski down a pristine white hill with nothing but two slim parallel tracks marking the trail (my only experience of the mountains was of the Himalayas where snow was heavy and the slopes too steep to warrant any form of skiing). I wanted to sail down the Nile as the sunset and watch the desert night swallow up the pyramids. I wanted to dress in glamorous khaki trousers and billowy white shirts and watch the elephants gather on the banks of the Zambezi. And I wanted desperately to be lost in the Amazon, trekking through the heavy foliage only to come upon suddenly on a spectacular waterfall.

For a while I kept a little scrap book of pictures cut out of magazines. It was a list of the places I wanted to visit in my lifetime. Every night I would mentally transport myself to an exotic place: Russia, Brazil, Austria, Samoa...and instead of counting sheep, I would list all the facts I knew about the place until drowsiness drowned all imagination. It was a little book of childhood dreams, even when they seemed impossible. Or perhaps because they seemed impossible.

But as I grew up things changed. Opportunities came up and we grabbed them by the armfuls: the Indian economy grew; my father took on a new job that took him overseas; then I won a scholarship that paid for an education overseas. After university, jobs came up in far off places - Africa, Latin America - and I jumped at each chance, using each one to travel and see all the places I had dreamt about for so many years.

One may well wonder why such a nostalgic post...well, because one place that had been on my list of childhood dreams was the Azure Window.
I remember seeing it first in a foreign magazine - perhaps the National Geographic - or at least in a magazine I wasn't allowed to snip up. To a child it seemed a place of impossible beauty. That is where I really wanted to go!

Yet somewhere in my travels over the year, it slipped out of my mind...not because I forgot, but perhaps I just stopped remembering. Until strangely enough this summer when a trip to Malta materialized rather spontaneously. (Actually, more accurately, the trip seems to have appeared in my life in January with a conversation with an Aussie and a Polish friend who had spent some time on the islands).

Then one afternoon this past summer, I stood on the rocks on the shore of Gozo, staring out at the Azure Window and felt like a very small child. All the wonder, awe, joy seemed to flood right back. We waded in the little coral edged pool behind the window and clambered on the rocks to get the best view. And yes, the water was impossibly blue - of this one particular hue that I remember from Parker's ink bottles, and the sky was so clear that it hurt to look out at it.

And I could only paddle about in the pool, with a silly smile on my face! After all, it isn't every day you get to fulfill a childhood dream...