Book Excerpt from Alyosha – A Blaze, Like a Shooting Star – Chapter: The Little Prince
Anyone who has read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic The Little Prince and reflected on it, will understand that the story is not so much for children as for grownups. Several profound points on human nature and life have been postulated by the author through the personality of the Little Prince (descended on Earth from Asteroid B612), who he saw while hallucinating in the Sahara desert, where his plane had crashed with just a few days worth of water and provisions. He and his co-pilot were rescued by Bedouins. Exupéry wrote this classic six years after the incident, which had occurred in December 1935.
It is worthwhile recalling some of Exupéry’s insights on human life and nature, brought out so beautifully in the story through the Little Prince’s interaction with different people in space and during his short sojourn on Planet Earth. The author deals with themes of honesty of purpose and self-centeredness (in the ‘Conceited Man’), empathy for others (in ‘The Streetlamp Lighter’), commitment and love (the Prince’s love for the rose and his commitment to it), inquisitiveness and hunger for knowledge (the Little Prince would never give up on a question, once asked). The necessity to look beyond the obvious as illustrated in the drawing of the boa constrictor swallowing an elephant, which to everyone else looked like a hat and the eradication of ignorance, symbolized in the destruction of the baboa tree (which the sheep must graze on and not let grow).
The need to take time off from one’s daily preoccupations to enjoy the beauty of nature as signified in his conversations with the businessman and the railway switchman.
Compassion is the essence of the story, best expressed in the lines uttered by the Fox to the Little Prince: ‘It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye’.
Responsibility for one’s actions and for what one has tamed is another message articulated by the Fox. ‘You become responsible forever, for what you have tamed’.
The other lesson was about the mortality of all living beings. The Prince tells the Pilot that his body resembles an empty shell; he realizes with sadness that the rose he loves so much, is ephemeral, and will wither away one day.
And finally, the book addresses how pretences and outward appearances count for more in our world than actual worth. Remember how the Turkish astronomer’s discovery of Asteroid 612 was not accepted the first time by the International Astronomical Congress because of his attire? The very next year it was accepted because the astronomer had dressed up in formal attire.
Alyosha’s personality was remarkably like that of the Little Prince. I do not say this only as his father, but as an impartial observer too. It was quite obvious to us, his parents, ever since his childhood, that Alyosha was an exceptionally gifted child. His quest for knowledge was not restricted to the classroom. He was a voracious reader and by the age of twelve had finished reading Charles Dickens and Shakespeare. He was presented their complete works by his grandfather when he was eight.
His taste in literature was varied: He was a great admirer of Dostoevsky, whose classic The Brothers Karamazov was his favourite. He read theology and philosophy whilst at NLS, despite the demanding curriculum. His general knowledge was also truly amazing, and he’d won numerous certificates in quiz competitions as a student.
Alyosha, like the Little Prince, was not one who did not accept conventional wisdom at face value. He would always question everything, through the prism of his own intellect and understanding. He was not a nihilist, but his questioning ways did lead him into unpleasant situations with those around him, be it peers, friends or teachers. I reproduce his own words on this aspect. “An incident from the 4th grade still strikes vividly in my memory. It was prep hour and my classmate Celina Stephen was walking hesitantly towards my desk. Seeing her hesitate, I approached her myself. We ended up discussing something in mathematics, but that little exchange broke the back of an ages-old institution called ‘“dame touch’ ” in our school, that had ordained fanatic abstinence from any social or physical contact with the opposite sex. That is one of the earlier stories, in what has been a life of not blindly accepting conventional wisdom, of filtering accepted taboos through the prism of my own understanding”.
Alyosha was a simple boy, and had no love for the materialistic world. He would dress simply, as he prided not on outward appearance but on his enlightened mind to make an impression. I distinctly remember that in the spring of 2006, when he went for an interview with a law firm in Mumbai, for an attachment as part of the NLS curriculum, he was simply dressed in trousers and a bush shirt. When asked why he hadn’t worn formals, he replied: ‘If my clothes are to decide my worth and not my intellect, then I don’t think I need to do an attachment here’. The interviewers were not expecting such a forthright reply and post their interaction with him, offered him the position. The following year, the same firm sought him out in the ‘campus placement’ sessions to work with them on completing his graduation.
Alyosha was an honest boy and in my memory, never ever uttered a lie. In the Lawrence School, Lovedale, in the prep school, he would have become the head boy due to his outstanding all-round performance, but did not, because of a small mischief. He sprinkled ink from his pen from behind on the robe of an English Teacher, who had come on an exchange programme from the UK. Later he had the courage to own up, knowing fully well that it would cost him the position of the ‘Head Boy’.
Alyosha’s compassion and empathy for the underprivileged and those in distress was truly remarkable. He had a way with people. In January 2005, when Delhi is at its coldest, he was doing an attachment with an advocate. On one of his trips, he saw the office’s liftman shivering within fever. Alyosha gave the man his jacket not worrying about his own self. When he came home that evening, he bought medicines for him.
After his demise, a prayer meeting was held in NLS after the break in October. During this meeting, a first-year student said a few words on Alyosha. He remembered feeling very intimidated by the atmosphere at the law school when he’d just joined and wanted to leave, till one night Alyosha took him for a walk and encouraged him to fight against the odds and reach his goals. He felt indebted to Alyosha for helping him tide over his insecurity.
During his attachment with the firm in Bombay in the spring of 2006, he helped the security guards in the building his aunt was staying in. I reproduce Alyosha’s own account of this narrative. ‘About a year ago, I helped secure for the security guards at my aunt’s building in Bombay their statutory entitlement to overtime wages, of which they were not aware. The residents of the building were reluctant to make extra contributions towards their monthly subscription but eventually came around to accepting their basic civic obligations. I felt particularly fulfilled by the fact that my legal knowledge could help those with real legal concerns affecting their everyday life, and that I could help influence the more affluent residents to eventually comply with what is an oft-flouted law’.
But it wasn’t just us who saw the Little Prince in Alyosha. There were others too – two people in particular, entirely unknown to each other and from different parts of the globe – who felt the same.
In January 2003, I had sent Alyosha for a short holiday to Singapore. It was a four-night, five-day package. During his stay there, he met a Chinese girl, Li Wenting, studying fine arts. The circumstances of their meeting were extraordinary: Wenting had got locked in her institute, studying late in the night. Eventually, Alyosha spotted her waiting near the fence at the rear gate, not knowing how to get out. Out of compassion, he helped her climb over the fence. They remained in touch over email for two years until he changed his email ID, in 2005, when they lost touch, whilst Wenting kept sending him mail on his old ID, linked to the NLS Server. Two weeks prior to his tragic death, Alyosha, knowing that he would leave the college for good was clearing up his accounts and accessed the server only to see mails from Wenting. They were reconnected on email on his new address. They exchanged a few messages, but he could not respond to her final message due to the tragedy of his demise. We accessed his mail, saw Wenting’s message and informed her what had happened.
Wenting was heartbroken; it was over email that she then narrated to us the circumstances of their meeting. She is also an only child to her parents, who live in Shanghai. In the true Chinese tradition of looking after parents in their old age, Wenting adopted us as hers. She subsequently visited us twice in India. On her first visit in May 2008, her primary aim was to give us solace from the grief of having lost our only child, and also to see the place where Alyosha lived.
During her stay, she showed us her pictures of when she had met Alyosha, and I noticed that unlike at present, she was rather on the plump side. I mentioned it to her and then she told us how Alyosha too had remarked to her in his usually candid and forthright manner in January 2003: ‘Why are you so fat, when all the girls in Singapore are slim and trim. You look nice anyway.’ Typical of Alyosha!
On his departure, Wenting went on a weight reduction programme and on being questioned by her friends as to why she was doing it, she replied ‘because I met an Indian prince, who preferred me to be slim.” Her answer took me by surprise. I asked her why she had called him a prince. She replied: “My favourite story is The Little Prince and I saw him in Alyosha’. This was in May 2007. I had to tell her then that exactly ten years back in May 1997, Alyosha had played the role of ‘The Little Prince’ in a school play during the Founder’s Day function at Lawrence School, Lovedale. It could not have been a mere coincidence and to us was really uncanny.
In March 2005, while we were in Dubai, Alyosha had come down for two weeks, during his college break. We visited Al-Ain, a city in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Close to that city is the highest mountain in the region known as Jebel Hafeet. We drove up there, to get a view of the landscape and the surrounding desert. There is a plateau on top, where vehicles can also drive up. I still don’t know why, but Alyosha went over the fence and stood at the edge of the peak for about five minutes, just looking down at the desert. He would not say why. I later read The Little Prince and came across the passage where the Prince stands on the highest peak in the desert, hoping to see the whole of planet earth, but only sees the desolate and craggy landscape below him, much like the one visible from Jebel Hafeet.
In the winter of 2006, I was stationed in Moscow on business, and Alyosha had come down for New Year’s Eve to spend ten days or so with me. We spent New Year’s Eve at the ‘dacha’ (the equivalent of a farmhouse) of a friend. Amidst the merriment, Alyosha made friends with a Russian girl called Mayya’. They hit it off very well, and later she would often visit us in our flat . She also kept in touch with Alyosha via phone and email.
The tragic demise of Alyosha’s tragic demise in September 20 07 , also hit Mayya very badly and she still thinks looksof at it as a bad dream, eventually to melt away one day. After the tragedy, it was better for my wife’s rehabilitation , (Alyosha was the focus of her life) to move shift back to Dubai, and my employers were very kind and understanding in enabling itthe move. In January 2008, I was in the process of packing up our house in Moscow and Mayya was there to help me. Just the day before my departure, she gave me a booklet, printed out from the internet, which she wanted Alyosha’s mother to read. She felt that it would help her in coping with the monumental tragedy of Alyosha’s loss. I asked Mayya, as to what the the printed material was ? . She said: “‘It’ is the story of The Little Prince, I feel reading it will help Deepa (my wife).”, When I asked why this particular story, she said “I saw the Little Prince in Alyosha”. ’. I was totally dumb struck. How was it that two girls, unknown to each other and from different parts of this world, saw the same person in Alyosha? I then told her of Alyosha portraying the role of ‘The Little Prince’ in the school play. She too was taken aback with this strange coincidence.
Like the The Little Prince, Alyosha was a very trusting person. He never imagined that anyone would harm him. In his worldview, there were no inherently evil people. It was his conviction that circumstances made people act the way they did. The Little Prince makes friends with the Snake in the story, and ultimately gets fatally bitten by it. In Alyosha’s case too, he was done in by snakes, only in human form.
The loss of our only child Alyosha, is a monumental tragedy, the grief of which can never be totally overcome. It can only be coped with. Each of us comes with his or her own destiny. To quote Paul Coelho, “I am filled by a profound sense of reverence and respect for man who is, at that moment, reminding me of a very important lesson, that each of us have our personal legend to fulfill, and that is all. It doesn’t matter if other people support us or criticize us, or ignore us, or put up with us – we are doing it because that is our destiny on this earth, and the fount of all joy”. I would add “sorrows” to it.
When Alyosha portrayed the role of the Little Prince in the school play in May 1997, who could have imagined that he was playing out his life? But just as the ‘The Little Prince’s’ message lives on through Exupéry’s classic, so does Alyosha’s through the charitable foundation set up in his memory, as per his own wish expressed as a nine-year-old boy.