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April 05, 2016

Riding on The Wings Of Imagination

Text by Madhu Jain

The escape into the fantastical realms that we’re encouraged to fabricate with a novelist’s assistance is intrinsic to many a childhood. An armchair traveller reminisces on the countless reasons to journey into these fabled worlds

As a child I didn’t need to leave my room to travel — or, for that matter, my bed. Hitching a ride on the wings of imagination transported me wherever I fancied — powered by the books I devoured, often clandestinely, under the sheets with a torch after the final ‘lights out’ call was made. My favourite place was Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood, with its trees ‘a darker green than usual’; ones you could whisper secrets to or make wishes in front of, with bated breath. The wood was obviously dark and deep, as many a poet would have us believe of all woods. But, I had a special loitering-with-intent place: The Faraway Tree. Fairies, elves and pixies — not to speak of a few nasties — lived here, weighed down by all kinds of fruit.

I can’t remember the number of times I have returned to this short story about a towering tree whose branches, soaring into the clouds, were passages to magical lands. If I remember right, the ‘land’ changed each week. So, if you didn’t return that week you would be in another location. The places on the agenda of The Faraway Tree sounded far more exotic than Tahiti or Greenland do today: Land of Spells, Land of Topsy-Turvy and Land of Dame Slap. Can you imagine anything more tantalising than the Land of Take-What-You-Want? Just think of the people you encountered there: Mister Watzisname, Saucepan Man, Moon-Face and Silky. Not exactly like your neighbours, family or friends.

Traversing new domains
Several other writers also airlifted young readers to the clouds. Peter Pan kept flying off to Neverland. Aladdin flew over distant lands on his magic carpet. But others, in other centuries, took us on voyages downwards: into the earth, and below the sea. Jules Verne, the 19th-century French writer, took his readers on a Journey to the Centre of the Earth: his protagonist Professor Lidenbrock goes down an extinct crater in Iceland towards a sunless sea. This classic read (written in 1864), for schoolchildren and adults alike, was the first in the series titled Extraordinary Journeys in the Known and Unknown Worlds — which included Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. British author Lewis Carroll did not take us that deep into the earth in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written a year after Verne wrote Journey to the Centre of the Earth. But it was deep enough, and an altogether different world. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s curious Alice (he wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll) follows a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat and falls down a deep rabbit hole, into the ‘wonderland’ peopled by strange characters: a queen, a Cheshire cat, the mad hatter and other bizarre beings. Adults, too, are taken on this roller coaster of a journey through a fantastical world created by the extraordinary imagination of the author.

Across the pond, in 1900, American writer L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz took readers on quite a voyage. The novel is considered a home-grown American fairy tale, and has as its protagonist Dorothy, a young farm girl, who (along with her dog) is swept up and away by a cyclone into Munchkin Country, in the magical Land of Oz. Here, she befriends a cowardly lion, a scarecrow and a tin woodman — all of whom are missing some essential part of themselves — and, of course, encounters the wicked witch.

Armchair travellers appear quite ubiquitous in the 19th century. Fast trains and jets, not to speak of discounted and group travel, were far into the future. So, if opium did not take you on a trip, the imagination did. A century of many significant discoveries and inventions, it also had the amazing writer H. G. Wells who arguably started the trend of time travel in 1895 with his novella The Time Machine. Had it not been for Wells, there may not have been the popular TV series Doctor Who — and countless other films and comics in which characters shuttle between time zones.

Illuminating forays
There are many reasons to journey to other worlds. For Dorothy, an orphan who lives with her aunt and uncle on a bleak farm in Kansas, Oz was perhaps an escape from a lonely childhood. The Grand Tour that took the British nobility and landed gentry to the Continent was a rite of passage for over two centuries. Writers and artists have long travelled, often to distant continents in search of inspiration. Sometimes, the distance from home also provides a different perspective about one’s own country and yourself; much of the writing on the Raj is about the authors themselves…or about Grand Britannia.

However, you don’t always need to displace yourself to find inspiration elsewhere. An object can transport you. The African masks Pablo Picasso first saw in an ethnographic museum in Paris led to his breakthrough painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, in 1907. The canvas with fragmented ‘distorted’ faces broke away from existing artistic conventions; it was a turning point in European modern art.

Books, comics and even films are the best vehicles through which to be transported to other worlds — to explore and experience other places, and encounter those different from you. Nor do you need to bother with visas, passports or mile-long queues at airports. Or be at the mercy of storms and bad weather. You also don’t have to eat food you can’t stomach. You are spared jet lag. And, if the going gets rough in the stories, you can always simply close the book or switch off the television.

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