September 2017 By Purnima Coontoor Our ability to wonder is the magic key that unlocks the scintillating world of discovery, invention, knowledge, play, and finally self-realisation, says Purnima Coontoor.One morning, a man started playing the violin standing outside a metro station in Washington DC. He played six famous masterpieces of great composers for about 45 minutes. It being the rush hour, hundreds of people went through the station. But barring a few who slowed down to listen for a while and throw a few coins into his hat, people hurried on their way to their destinations. Among the only attentive audience were children, who, tagging along their parents, stopped to listen to the violinist. But they were invariably forced to move along by the adults who were clearly in a hurry. The children kept looking back at him and straining to listen even as they were dragged away. In all, the violinist collected 32 dollars in 45 minutes, and when he stopped there was just one who walked up and spoke to him. The violinist, apparently, was celebrated musician Joshua Bell, whose concert was sold out just three days earlier in a Boston theatre at approximately $100 a seat. This experiment in social behavior was set up by Washington Post to assess the perception, taste and priorities of people in contemporary times. I read aloud this Whatsapp forward at the breakfast table that morning, and went on to list the implications of this experiment, most obviously the lack of time and inclination among most of us to recognise and appreciate beauty in commonplace situations. “So?” remarked my software engineer son dismissively, “Which idiot would expect a celebrity to perform incognito at a metro station, when people have a million things on their minds? There should be a time and place for everything. I hope this was one inference that was derived from this exercise.” My husband grunted in agreement, both left for work in a flurry of activity as I sighed in resignation. That afternoon, I visited a handicrafts sale with a friend, and was smitten by the vibrant colours, fabrics and artifacts on sale. As I lingered admiringly over an intricate hand-woven basket, the salesman at the counter called out to me in exasperation, “Madamji, lena hai to jaldi lelo, nahin toh aage bado. Yeh museum thodi na hain…” (Buy it if you want, else leave. This isn’t a museum). Embarrassed, I mumbled a ‘sorry’ and left. I doubt if one is allowed to linger even in a museum these days, I fumed, the whole world seems to be in such a hurry all the time. “Time is of essence. Practicality and efficiency are the premium qualities of a successful person in contemporary times, my dear,” said my friend. Sure, but ‘What is life, if full of care, there is no time to stand and stare?’ This was poet Davies anguished cry in his celebrated poem Leisure way back in 1911, so this malady seemed to be an old one with the human race. I sighed again. Twinkle twinkle little star When perceived with a raised awareness, this very world comes across as an ethreal wonderland Determined to shake off the general feeling of despondence and disappointment with humanity that was dogging me through the day, I sat in my little patch of garden that night to enjoy the breeze and quiet and darkness. “Shut off the TV and come out and sit here for a while,” I called out to my husband, “It’s lovely out here.” No response was forthcoming, so I settled back deeply into my favourite chair and stared at the sky. Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are! My mind drifted to my childhood days when the entire family would often gather on the terrace, eat curd rice doled out by mother into our cupped palms, and count stars. Does anyone wonder about you anymore, little star? Do you matter at all in this smartphone age of apps and Google maps? Don’t you get bored with your life, like we humans do? Have you ever taken your twinkling for granted, like we have? How I wonder what you are, whoever you are! What’s your name, little star? Tara sounds good. How long have you been around, Tara? Will you talk to me or should I just Google you, huh? As random thoughts went round and round in my head, my eyes grew heavy, the words died down and I was drifting away to sleep _ when I noticed that the star had grown larger. I sat up warily, and even as I watched in amazement, the star smiled at me. “Did you call?” she asked. I was totally flustered. “I did, but it was just idle wonder, you know… are you real?” “Well, seek, and ye shall find,” she said, “yad bhavam, tad bhavati _ as you think, so it shall be. If you wonder, you land up in Wonderland. Welcome, my dear.” Wait a minute! Wonderland? Sounded fake, and so did a smiling and talking star. Most likely I was dreaming but it was too childish a fantasy for a grown-up me. “Men grow too old for love, my loveMen grow too old for wine But I shall not grow too old to seeUnearthly daylight shine…” recited the star from Chesterton’s A Second Childhood with a broad grin! Now I was fully awake.“Who are you?”“You just gave me a name, didn’t you. I am Tara.” She sounded very much real, and I was intrigued.“Interesting. I didn’t expect you to ‘talk’. Have you always been able to do that?” “To the one who wonders, everything in the universe will talk.” “Oh, like that is it!” I was getting comfortable and chatty now. “Wonderland, hmm? Thank you for your gracious invitation. Do you get many visitors? Is entry free? How long may one stay over here? Can one stand and stare? And what do you have here in your Wonderland?”“Everything one has ever wondered about, and everyone who has ever wondered,” she said, and swept her hand in a flourish. A strange, ethereal world, sprinkled with stardust, appeared in front of me. The filter of human mind “Looks like a set straight out of Disneyland to me, or like Devlok, where I come from,” I said cheekily, looking around, “But much better.”“Hmm. But then you wouldn’t know any better. How could you?”“What do you mean?” “I mean that you have been so used to giving a name and label to everything around you, that you cease to see anything beyond it. So the mystery eludes you completely,” explained Tara kindly, “You were quick to give me a name as well, rather unimaginative if I may say so.”I was stung, but Tara didn’t give me any time to recover. “Right now you are looking at Wonderland through the filter of your mind which has impressions of the depiction of those places by some people in your world. But,” she looked at me intensely with twinkling eyes, “that’s not the way to look.”“No?” I was startled by the earnestness in her voice. “No. ‘He who is certain that he knows the ending of things when he is only beginning them is either extremely wise or extremely foolish; no matter which is true, he is certainly an unhappy man, for he has put a knife in the heart of wonder’. Someone wise from your world said that. Do you know who?”Deciding I was the ‘extremely wise’ one, I reached for the smartphone in the pocket of my dress and Googled for the info immediately. “Tad Williams, American author, TV and film personality. He apparently writes comic books as well. By the way, this place has excellent wifi connection. I didn’t know I’d get the signal here. Thanks,” I added, impressed. “Why not, when a million satellites are up here?” “A million?!” I cried, “No way. It’s more like…” I started to reach for my smartphone again.“1300, and counting” said Tara. “See how you don’t allow yourselves to wonder and dwell on things anymore? Everything is reduced to facts and data, supplied instantly by...”“Swami Googleananda. Yes, we do that quite a lot.”“Thereby putting a knife in the heart of wonder, like Williams puts it so well.”I was mortified, but ventured to defend myself somewhat. “But it is stupid not to make use of technology when it is so easily available these days. Why waste time and energy in reinventing the wheel?” “Agreed, but what do you do with all that extra time and energy you are left with?”What indeed? I had no sensible answer, except to say that people spent lots of time on Whatsapp and Facebook, but I didn’t dare. “So you are allowing your mind to become dull, lazy and rust away by not allowing for the natural process of greasing and polishing of the mind and intellect, isn’t it?”Wonder, not worry I sighed yet again, for the nth time that day. “You are right. We are all buried in excessive technology these days. People are losing basic skills and instincts, take simple pleasures for granted, and get bored easily. And because they get bored they immediately immerse themselves in their virtual world. We are forgetting how to be alone, to be silent, to relax, to wonder… Kids can’t do basic math anymore, nor find their way about the neighbourhood by themselves. There will come a time when they will start using GPS to find their way from their bedroom to the dining room.” I was horrified by the imagined future. “We are staring at a world full of people with dull eyes and droopy shoulders, all bent over their smartphones and sleepwalking through life. It’s a wonder that anything gets done at all in their lives!” I added bleakly, “I think you’ll have to shut down Wonderland for lack of visitors, Tara. You’
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