“Once upon a time there lived a prince in a planet far, far away.”
This is how the novelette “The Little Prince” did not start. True, there is a little prince in the book, and he does live on a planet far, far away. But this is a story for the grown-ups, and grown-ups need to be explained about the realities of Boa Constrictors and Elephants inside Boa Constrictors, and therefore, the story goes thus:
“Once when I was six years old I saw a beautiful picture in a book about the primeval forest called ‘true stories’. It showed a boa constrictor swallowing an animal.”
“The Little Prince” (“Le Petit Prince” for the puritans) is the story of a child whose innocence carries the wisdom of a million miles and a million years. It is the story of a boy who sets out on an unknown adventure in search of, of all things, a sheep. Yes, a sheep, so that it could eat away little baobabs before they grew too big. A little complicated, is it? But of course, you are only a grown-up after all.
Our author is a grown-up, too. But somewhere, deep inside, he retains that shrunk down, child-like heart, and therefore the questions of The Little Prince only amaze but never confound him. Our author goes by the name of Antoine de Saint Exupery, the aviator. He has done big things as all grown ups do–flew planes, rescued doomed pilots in the desert, pioneered the mail route from France to South America–the things that bring money, fame and prestige. He has also done the little things that all little ones do–sketched pictures, understood the simple things like love and sorrow, scribbled crazy words on crazier sheets of paper–and he did all that when he was a grown up. Somewhere down the line he also scribbled down “Le Petit Prince.”
The story of The Little Prince first occurred to Saint Exupery when he was downed in an air crash over the Sahara desert–for years later he doodled pictures of a blond child with tussled hair, his comforter flowing in the breeze of some distant planet. And in 1943, the Prince emerged in our planet archives, as little more than a book, and a little less than the Holy Bible. It is more than a book, inasmuch as it does not take recourse to high-flown verses and yet has a story to tell, a tale to weave that can perhaps move the coldest heart. It is also less than the Bible, inasmuch as it does not speak of ritualistic spiritualism; it dwells instead on the strength of hope that lingers within the mortal spirit. So when the prince says, “water may also be good for the heart…” we know that he speaks of a heart that is independent of cholesterol and fatty acids. And when he utters “the men where you live grow five thousand roses in the same garden…and they do not find what they are looking for…” one begins to understand the sorrow that each one of us feels but cannot comprehend.
The novelette barely stretches to a hundred pages, but what a fantastic hundred pages they are. As one flips through the words, watching the prince ridicule the foundations of the modern era, namely power, wealth, fame and despair through his innocence, one begins to realize the hopelessness of hope itself, for our hopes are pinned on those very foundations which, unfortunately, hold little meaning to a naïve, vain rose who lies in wait somewhere for her hero to return home. And that is when one begins to respect responsibilities; not the crudely defined responsibilities towards oneself, but the selfless responsibility towards those that one has “tamed.” As the prince did:
“I’m beginning to understand,” said the little prince. “There is a flower… I think she has tamed me…”
The fox became silent and gazed for a long time at The Little Prince.
“I beg of you…tame me!” he said.
“Willingly,” The Little Prince replied, “but I haven’t got much time. I have friends to discover and a lot of things to understand.”
“One can only understand the things one tames,” said the fox, “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy ready-made things in the shops. But since there are no shops where you can buy friends, men no longer have any friends. If you want a friend, tame me!”
And that is how it goes. Little nuggets of wisdom delivered in an offhanded fashion, told through the words of a child, for it is a child who understands and values the absolute truth, the truth that goes beyond boundaries and beyond the self. The truth where one can love a rose and not be ridiculed, because in this truth the object of love is not important—what matters is that there is love.
As for myself, whenever despair strikes, I set out to ponder on the question that Saint Exupery sets out at the end:
“Look at the sky. Ask yourselves: Has the sheep eaten the flower, yes or no? And you will see how everything changes.”
And no grown-ups will ever understand why it is so important!
Grade ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ out of 5 stars
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