Brave New World of my Granddaughter
( Nov 27 2015 )
My granddaughter Kiran is 15 months old; born in 2014 in Rome of a French mother and an Italian-French-English speaking Egyptian-American, she seems destined to be 'global child', with many languages, many places to call home, and many dream to dream. Hers is a brave new world.
Visiting Kiran and her parents Christelle and Daniel in Bangkok, why do recall the world of my mother in a small village in India over a hundred years ago?
I wonder what is it like to live in a world so woefully shut off from you? How does it feel to be blind in a garden bursting with colours? To be deaf in a universe resounding with a thousand symphonies? To be unlettered in a home full of books? To be hungry, and be cordoned off from a banquet table?
My mother was utterly unlettered, and remained so for all eighty-six years of her life. 'For me kala akshar bhains brabar', she would say with great pain: 'the black letters in the book are no different than the skin of a buffalo'.
She knew the buffalo well: in her youth, she tended to them for milk and fuel, and they were part of the wealth of the family. But in the black hard skin of the buffalo, what could one read and not be wizened by it?
How would have Kiran entered her world, I wonder.
In 1709, two hundred years before my mother's birth, was born a man in France who was blinded in both eyes by an accident and an infection at the age of three. By the time Louis Braille lost his sight, he could have hardly known any form of script or writing. Yet he seemed determined to read and write - both faculties so abundantly available to us now all over the world. Those wiggles and squiggles of black ink, however, which capture our most delicate feelings and profound thoughts, began to emerge only about four thousand years ago. Before that, for tens of thousands of years, we had a world of many sounds, of many spoken languages. But to write that world down and to read it, to transform a thought and a feeling into sound, and then into a script, is a grand revolutionary step, far grander in our story of civilization than possibly anything else. Yet in early 18th century Europe, as the Age of Enlightenment was ushering, only a few could read and write. In the France of 1709, when Braille was born, more than three quarters of the population could not sign its name.
Though Braille was blind, he brought light to millions of people all over the world by pulling down the prison walls of darkness. Through one's finger tips, the vast universe of thoughts and emotions was made accessible by Braille.
However, blindness, it must be admitted, is both a physical affliction and a state of mind, and of heart and soul. How often we have eyes to see yet don't see. We are blinded by our arrogance or fear, by sloth or insecurity. 'Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men', says Greek philosopher Heraclitus, 'if they have barbarian souls.'
2009 was the bicentennial year of Louis Braille's birth. In the flow of history, that is not so long ago. How I marvel at his creation: how through the touch of six embossed points, a world is revealed and made manifest. I wonder if there are other points in the universe one has not learned to touch and be illuminated by.
This thought came to me recently when I saw Iranian filmmaker Majid Majidi's film The Color of Paradise (1999) about an 8-year old blind boy Mohammad. For his widowed, impoverished father Mohammad is a burden, a good-for-nothing son, forever to be taken care of. The father's anxieties and fears have blinded him to his son's special gifts to read and write Farsi in Braille, as well as a thousand other embossed points in all of nature - in the petals of flowers and the colours of plants, in the human faces, in the scales of fish, in the feathers of birds. His father, much like most of us - though fully 'normal' and endowed with sight - only hears wild frightening sounds in the forest and on the sea shore. Mohammad, on the other hand, hears the music of heavens in the sound of birds and waves. With his hands he can 'see' the colours of paradise.
When we are encaged in our own bloated anxieties, we touch nothing and the whole Niagara of life slips away through our fingers. When we blame our suffering on others, then what is beautiful and is ours, flees away from us, making us ever more impoverished.
Much before we humans invented alphabets for our various languages, and much before we became writers of our thoughts and feelings, we were, and forever continue to be, readers of what the great poet Coleridge called 'the mighty alphabet of the universe'. The signs of being and becoming, of transformation and discovery, of the heaving earth and the bursting seeds, of the path lost in the woods, or, in writer John Updike's illuminating words, 'of the way up in the torn clouds', are evident in all places, in the falling of the leaves no less than in the migration of Monarch butterflies thousands of miles away. There is a great firmament on earth and in heaven, and in every human heart. This is what the blind boy Mohammad could touch and read. And this is where so often we remain utterly unlettered.
'The Lord, whose oracle is at Delphi,' said Heraclitus, 'neither seeks nor conceals, but gives signs.' Each one of us deciphers these signs, and renders meaning to them, in accordance with what we can 'read'. Without the gift of this literacy, we are all somewhat blind. The luxuriating world then seems no different from a vast stretch of a buffalo's dark skin, without any embossed points for our touch. A world bereft of meaning!
My Momma was unlettered, of course. But I wonder in what ways had she learned to touch the universe. And in what woeful ways, I and my learned friends remain unlettered.
I wonder in what ways my granddaughter Kiran would learn to touch the universe.