Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Little Prince

[I have been trying to review this book ever since I read it more than a month ago. Somehow, it had turned out to be a very difficult task, so much so that I finally gave it up and simply wrote down whatever thoughts the book had brought to my mind. So this is not a review, strictly speaking; this is the rambling of a restless mind one quiet summer afternoon.]

This is a rather strange book. I have read quite a number of books, both children’s books and books for mature minds. But I cannot think of any book that is quite like The Little Prince. I cannot even decide whether to call it a children’s story or a book for grown-ups. I am sure the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, in spite of being an adult himself, would have strongly objected to its being called a book for grown-ups. He has even dedicated the book to a grown-up, Leon Werth, “when he was a little boy”!

The day I read the book was the second day of dad’s admissions. It had been a very long day, and by the time it was nine in the evening, we were all dead-beat. I wanted to read something light, so I took The Little Prince out on a whim and curled up in bed with it. I had been expecting a funny and frivolous book, but right from the first page I could sense something very surprising; the author seemed to have turned society as we know it upside down. In his opinion it is the children who are the really deep and thoughtful entities in society, and the adults who insist on giving undue importance to petty and unimportant things!

The author starts the book by telling us how he had drawn a boa constrictor with an elephant inside it when he was six years old, and had asked the grown-ups whether the drawing frightened them, but they had all thought that it was an oddly shaped hat that he had drawn. He must have been a very unusual adult indeed, because right at the start he has made clear his low opinion of the average grown up. And this is a theme that he has continued to harp upon throughout the course of the story. He insists “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them”!

The author, who has grown up to be an aviator, has had to crash land in the Sahara Desert as something has broken down in the engine of his plane. It is there that he meets the little prince, who seems to appear out of nowhere, and asks the author very gravely to draw   him a sheep. And strangely enough, the author does just that for him, as “when a mystery is too overpowering, one dare not disobey.” That is the beginning of what goes on to become a deep friendship between the grown man and the strange child.

The story stretches over ten or eleven days, during which the author comes to know little by little the story of the little prince’s life. The little prince lives on a planet (the author thinks it is the asteroid B-612, though he acknowledges that any child would know such names and figures are of little consequence; it is the adults he is satisfying with this piece of information) which is so small that it is hardly any bigger than a house. He lives there with three volcanoes, and a haughty flower who thinks she is the only one of her kind. He used to live with his flower and watch many sunsets, because his planet is so small that the sun sets and rises numerous times each day. But the little prince was not happy, and wanted to travel around and see the universe. That was how his adventures began.

The author has memorably conveyed many essential lessons of life through the little prince’s adventures. He has also brought out some of the commonest weaknesses that grown-ups suffer from in the characters of the various people the prince meets on his travels. The price meets a king who loves to order people about and rule over people, and his only problem is that there are no subjects he can rule over in his tiny planet. Then the prince meets a conceited man who thinks everybody admires him, and then a drunkard who drinks so that he can forget how ashamed he is of drinking, then a businessman who counts stars all the time (‘stars’ here seem to me to be representative of money). The fifth planet the prince visits has a lamplighter whose plight is that he has to light his lamp and put it off 1440 times every day, as there are so many sunsets and sunrises in his tiny planet. Of all the people he has seen till then, the lamplighter is the only one whom the prince does not find ridiculous. The reason the prince gives for this is “he is thinking of something else besides himself.” The sixth planet has a geographer in it, who directs the prince to the earth.

Once the prince comes to the earth, he (and all of us readers along with him) learns some valuable lessons. He sees a garden of roses which look just like his own flower back home. He sees that she is not unique after all, and this leaves him dejected. Then he meets a fox, who makes him understand that his flower is unique because he had ‘tamed’ it, and was now responsible for it. The fox requests the prince to tame him. Here again, the author has said something wonderful: “One only understands the things that one tames. Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all readymade at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends anymore.”

The prince meets a railway switchman and sees the trains travelling up and down the  tracks. Here the author brings out another very true-to-life sentiment through their conversation. The switchman says that grown-ups are never satisfied with what they have, and are bored with life. Those travelling in the railway carriages are either asleep, or yawning. Only the children have their noses pressed to the windows as they watch the passing scenery. The prince replies “Only the children know what they are looking for.”

The part that has touched me the most is when the prince goes to the snake, who bites him so as to send him back to his own planet. Before going, the prince reassures the author that he will not be dying; he will only be leaving his body behind, as it is too heavy to carry home. This wonderful concept of ‘going home’ seems to take away a lot of the anxieties and miseries of human life. When one knows that death is just going back home after a long and tiring journey, one is able to face it without fear, and with anticipation even.

The line I found most memorable in the book was something that the fox told the prince: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” I understand now why my father keeps saying this was one of those books which changed his life forever. Somehow, I know that from now, I will be spending much more time and energy in looking at the ‘small and insignificant’ things of life. Maybe, one day I too will have a rose which will have tamed me, and which will be unique to me…