Childhood chapters

Childhood chapters

Representative image. Credit: iStock Photo

The 18th-century English writer Dr Samuel Johnson once said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." He obviously meant adults. When I was growing up in England, although I occasionally found trips to its capital tedious, the boredom did not dampen my childhood. Besides, the Tower of London housed an extraordinary exhibit, a little diamond diadem. 

It had belonged to Queen Victoria, who felt that a small-sized crown befitted her widowhood. My request for that miniature marvel— a perfect fit for my head— was refused. Earlier, I was disappointed when I hoped to adopt a baby elephant in Ceylon. A biblical passage talks of children’s wishes being granted. Unfortunately, when it came to both animals and ornaments, my parents did not fulfil their scriptural obligations. 

What they did, with enormous enthusiasm, was sightseeing. We lived in Cranfield, where my IAF father was pursuing a course at the College of Aeronautics. When he was free, we set out on exploratory expeditions. London was about 70 km away but our county of Bedfordshire had a stately edifice of historical interest. Woburn Abbey had been the family seat of the Dukes of Bedford for 400 years. In the 1950s, the then holder of the title opened his residence to the public. We paid to view its splendid interior and sprawling gardens. On our return to India, our souvenir mug embossed with a crest went unnoticed. Nobody had heard of the Duke of Bedford.

Everyone had heard of William Shakespeare; everyone, that is, except me. I could not understand the need to spend several hours at his birthplace. I recently came across a faded snapshot that was taken on a visit three months before my 4th birthday. It shows me at Stratford-upon-Avon, walking away from a statue of Shakespeare instead of posing for a picture. I was unable, however, to escape being photographed with characters from his plays. I may be seen standing beside a sculpture of Hamlet, a suitably sullen companion for the melancholy Prince of Denmark.

Looking back, I am appalled at my indifference, born of ignorance. Of course, in 1958, I could hardly have foreseen that and in time to come, I would be devoted to the dramatist for decades. Rephrasing Dr Johnson, "the day I tire of Shakespeare, let me retire from life."

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