How Khalil Jibran Ruined My Childhood

I suffer from an overactive imagination. And I say suffer because my brand of whimsy is less rainbows and butterflies and children’s dresses made out of curtains, and more midnight panic attacks that my parents are trapped inside a painting. That nightmare was a particularly persistent one, revisiting every fortnight or so for three odd years. There was also the one where my parents were trapped by an evil witch on the top storey of our oldest house (we’ve had four so far). I was standing at the bottom of the staircase, trying to get upto them, but the witch wouldn’t let me! I was essentially trying to climb up an escalator the wrong way, and I kept falling down. And with every minute that I tarried, my parents grew younger and younger, and very convincingly so, might I add. My virtual, visual side effects would put Peter Jackson to shame. So the clock ticked backwards in high definition,  my parents shed their years before my eyes, and I tried in vain to get the them before they got to 38. Why 38, you ask? Well, because if my mother become younger than 38 years, it would mean she wouldn’t have been around long enough to give birth to me. There’s a horror story clincher for you. If you have no baby, you have no kid waiting to rescue you.

That’s the sort of suffering I’m talking about. If I didn’t dream in multiple time dimensions, with metaphysical impossibilities colouring my nightmares, I would probably have gotten a lot more sleep from ages 5 through to 17. Oh actually, scratch that, my last late night REM movie was actually a few weeks ago. I was woken up, at an ungodly hour, by my sister who was off to work, at said ungodly hour. Shaking my shoulder, she snuggled into the bed, trying to hide away from her work. More than half asleep, and more than half grumpy, I mumbled into my pillow, ‘Kingster, I just dreamt I was outside Teacher N’s house (our college counselor, who was supercilious and unhelpful throughout our final year, and then promptly took credit for our admissions). And she was in the garden, waiting to begin class, but we couldn’t get in. There was no gate, and no door, only a six foot brick wall surrounding the garden. So we looked and looked, and finally we found a small hole in the wall. All my classfellows climbed in, one by one, effortlessly. I was the last one left. And I got stuck. A plague on all their tiny asses. Anywho, there I was, literally stuck in Teacher N’s wall, while everybody else was already in, laughing at me. I was embarrassed, and disappointed, and confused. But I squeezed myself back out, and I started to climb over the wall. It took forever, I fell more than I rose, the class started without me right in front of me, but I didn’t give up. And then I did it. I climbed over the wall, and into the garden.’

I raised my head up a few inches, pried open my eyelids, and staring blearily in her general direction, declared, ‘You just have to climb over the wall, Kingo. Climb over that wall.’

She laughed. Raucously. Then she patted me on the head, and went off to work.

I like how God Man makes sure I’m never bored. I even have stories to tell from times I was literally asleep. No wasted minute. Experience wise that is. Achievement wise, I have wasted most of my existence.

If you were to think that my imagination works only at night, for a few hours, you would be severely underestimating the workings of my mind. I am capable of working myself up into a state about a completely imaginary problem when I am wide awake, surrounded by fact and reason. And I am capable of staying in that state for years. Queue the Khalil Jibran incident of 2003.

Back in 2003, I was 11 years old, and apparently had no recognition of my mother’s handwriting, or of the existence of a writer called Khalil Jibran. What I did have, was an old copy of The Love Story, which had belonged to my mother in college. On the very first page of this family heirloom, in an old world cursive, was an inscription.

‘Love possesses not, nor would it be possessed; for love is sufficient unto love.’

And underneath this beautiful, hand written message was a name. Khalil Jibran.

Now, I don’t know whether it was the suggestive name of the book, or the fact that the message was written in deep blue ink (the kind one associates with Mont Blanc pens and moonstone cufflinks), or the fact that Khalil Jibran sounds like the name of a Pakistani man. One of these things, all of the these things, kicked my imagination into overdrive. I was convinced that my mother had had a passionate, and completely non-physical, romance with Khalil Jibran in college. They had gazed wistfully at each other across the classroom, he had composed sonnets about her beauty, she had looked down at the floor and smiled softly when she passed him in the corridor. He had cradled a copy of The Love Story close to his chest, hoping she would look over and see it as a declaration of his intentions. She had. And then, on that fateful day, when he heard of her wedding, he had gathered the shattered pieces of his heart, pulled out his Mont Blanc pen, and signed over his book and his heart to her. He had slipped her the book in their last class together, whispering his Congratulations. She had looked down at the floor and smiled softly.

At 11, realizing your father isn’t the only love of your mother’s life is pretty devastating. What was even more worrying though, was the idea of Khalil Jibran resurfacing. I know he didn’t seek to possess her, but he could also mean that he would love her even if she belonged to someone else. Well, she belonged to me! And I would be damned before some two-bit college Lothario, shuffling along with his paperback novels and old fashioned ink pens would take away my mommy! So I prayed, and prayed, and prayed that Khalil Jibran would loose his way, that his ship would sink before he got back to Lahore (Oh, yes, he went away on a ship to make his fortune as a writer). I was extra nice to my mother, and just in case she didn’t notice my behaviour, I made sure to tell her, frequently, how good her life was. Great house, nice husband, precious daughter. Who would ever want to leave this little heaven?

It sounds amusing in retrospect, but at the time I was constantly living in fear of being ripped apart from my mother. And that time lasted for a good 3 years. I was 14 when I came across The Messenger. Thankfully, instead of being paralyzed by the fear that Khalil Jibran had now made it, big time, and would be returning for my mother, I opened the book. And realized Khalil Jibran was not Pakistani, and most certainly was not my mother’s contemporary.

This life I live in my head. It exhausts me.


Pixie Dust

We tend to relegate J.K. Rowling, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll to the children’s section of the library, and of our lives. The fantastical worlds they create, and the mythical creatures they populate them with, are looked on with increasing skepticism as our own lives become increasingly real. Willing suspension of disbelief seems to be a concept limited to childhood, when our own lives were lived mostly in our minds. When your plastic barbies can have tea parties and your tiny railway track actually goes places, its easy to humor fancies of Narnia and the Cheshire cat. But once even your dreams are taken over by mortgages and job applications, and real life looms in empty corners, threatening to overwhelm you when you’re not paying attention, there is no room left for flights of imagination.

I was wondering today, however, that most of what we adults (and I use that term loosely when applied to myself) hold dearest in life, and believe in emphatically, are no more than mere illusions. The idea of soulmates, a job that interests you and pays the bills, enjoying life after retirement, are all just ideas. There are people who have these things, but I am not one of them.  Still I go on believing in all of them, and like a tiny cartoon in a video game, I’m steering my car desperately so that I can collect all these little treasures along the way. They might not be on the screen right now, but I know that they will be there eventually. They must, because I believe in them. Its the eternal Tinkerbell conundrum: can something ever be real unless you believe in it? Also stated as: if you stop believing, even the realest of little fairies will die.

My favorite book growing up was Peter Pan. And again, growing up is a term I use loosely, as at 22 and 5 feet 8, I have certainly grown older and up literally, but figuratively I have not made a dent in my life. Which explains why, in hindsight, I loved James Barrie’s world so much, feeling kinship with the boy who never grew up. The most magical thing about books is that occasionally someone expresses an emotion or an idea you felt you were grappling with alone, and in that moment, in spite of the fact that you have absolutely no idea who the writer is, you know a part of their soul. In that moment, you are no longer alone in your thoughts and feelings. It is the most visceral of connections.

James Barrie died half a century before I was ever born. Unless I manage to wrestle my way into heaven (another one of my blind beliefs, a raison d’etre for this bloodbath called the modern world) and James Barrie happens to be there and available for a chat, I will never meet him. In this life, I have made no attempts to know him personally; I have diligently and deliberately avoided all biographies and movies and plays, which is no mean feat considering how tempting Johnny Depp can be. I feel no need to investigate his life and circumstances, I know him well enough. I read a book he wrote, and felt the terrible tragedy and incredible hopefulness of it. That is how I know him. And I know him well enough.

Although he was not aware of it, he knew me too. He understood my fear of growing up, of jobs and second names. He got the urge I have at times, to fly away, although in his case it was literal rather than metaphorical. I am not the only one he helped, he also set up R Kelly for a lifetime. What is ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ if not a paraphrasing of Peter’s lesson on the importance of faith, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust? In fact, he set up all motivational speakers all over the world! Oprah needs to write this man a check.

More than anything else, he understood how even in the best of circumstances, the most Darling of families, you can yearn for something else. He told me its okay, its allowed, even if I take the hapless infants I was babysitting along with me on my most fantastical of journeys. We all want to escape, to the Neverlands of our dreams, and we should. Occasionally. But, most importantly, he reminds us that we cannot stay there.Try as we might, happy as we are in the worlds we create, we have to go back to the real one. Peter Pan is not the story of the boy who never grew up, but rather a story of how growing up is inevitable. Its hard, and daunting, and, lets say it, boring. We all yearn for a little bit of magic in our Mondays and Thursdays. Which is why we must remember to keep the window open, remember that the occasional fantasies and escapes are allowed. In fact, they’re encouraged. The only way to keep our sanity in this world is to be a little crazy. As Lewis Carroll put it, all the best people are.

As per its standard description in bookstores, Peter Pan is a fairytale for children. I beg to differ. It is the most masterful of reality checks. I read that book as a child, but I held onto it to navigate my way out of my childhood. I hold onto it still, its my little dose of magic at 3 pm on a Thursday, when the urge to fly out of windows is at its strongest. It validates my nostalgia for my childhood, and encourages me to take off to my own little whimsical Neverland. And then, ever so gently, it reminds me why I cannot stay away forever. “Forever is a very long time Peter.” That, and that make-believe is all well and good until you have to make-believe your dinner. 

So we all leave our Never lands for the real world, firmly reestablishing our skepticism, and suspending our ability to believe. However, I know that as long as I hold my well-loved copy of Peter Pan in my hand, as long as I refuse to pack away my childhood books, I have a constant reminder of these wonderful grown ups who held onto the pixie dust well after they were officially out of the nursery. Even though I have to wear suits, and go to schools and learn of solemn things, I keep the window open just a little. And every so often, when life becomes a bit lack luster, I take off. Second star to the right, and straight on till morning. 


“Why can’t you fly now, mother?”

“Because I am grown up, dearest. When people grow up they forget the way.”

“Why do they forget the way?”

“Because they are no longer gay and innocent and heartless. It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly.”

“What is gay and innocent and heartless? I do wish I were gay and innocent and heartless.”