Freedom to Imagine

By Shyama Parui

I distinctly remember that day in December of 2001, when my husband and I had taken a tram ride that was unexpectedly derailed. There was chaos and suddenly from the darkness we saw a gigantic, mechanical version of King Kong attempting to attack us. Instead of feeling fear or a pang of thrill, I chuckled at its artificiality. The old version of the King Kong ride at Universal Studios was far from impressive. That along with some of the other “rides" fell short of expectations, particularly for adults seeking an experience that would immerse them in some of their favorite movies. Fast forward to 2019 on my most recent trip to Universal Studios parks in Orlando, I was astonished by the new and improved Skull Island – Reign of Kong. The eerie studio generated effects managed to startle us at the right moments, and we ducked instinctively when the bats (or rather their computerized counterparts) emerged. As we disembarked the rickety bus, I felt equal parts relieved and excited. Well, relief because it was nice to exit the dark and spooky surroundings and excited because I was hit by a child-like exhilaration.

As we grow up and focus on the realities of our life we are rarely amazed while imagination is often restrained. We leave books of fairy tales behind in favor of practical guides. Criticizing this choice is hardly fair, because our duties and responsibilities demand action rather than fiction. But look at what we could lose? Imagination is the first step toward great inventions and discoveries. A visit to Kennedy Space Center was a timely reminder for our family, that there is an infinite amount of space beyond our immediate surroundings that is waiting to be explored. Creative minds had to envisage man's ascent to the moon and dream of a way to get there. The physics and engineering that went into solidifying that vision came much later.

Scientists who have had a first to their credit also had the ability to conjure up what they wanted to create or discover. In fact, that intangible figment of their imagination may have been the motivator driving them closer to their goal. Lady Ada Byron Lovelace exemplifies how the artistic side of mathematicians elevates the exactness of their field. The daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, Ada's “understanding of mathematics was laced with imagination, and she described math in metaphors," wrote Dr. Betty Toole. Lady Lovelace has been credited as being the world's first computer programmer a century before computers event came into being. She could foresee different ways in which computer programs could be used. That powerful ability to create in her mind what didn't exist is what put her ahead of the times.

A fictional world

Let's also consider the world of fiction. Many of us grew up reading and listening to tales from the Panchtantra and Jataka, where animals were personified, and their stories taught us many important lessons. If we limited ourselves to reading about “real" characters then these fables would be unheard of. Skepticism about fantastical tales abounds and it probably was the reason that J.K. Rowling had trouble finding a publisher willing to give the first Harry Potter novel a chance. I am sure the publishers who rejected the now famous series have regrets that are the size of Hagrid's hippogriff.

There is a beauty in using fantasy to explore plots and trigger emotions that may appear removed from ordinary humans like us, but it allows the writer to indirectly and tactfully discuss the demons and dilemmas we may be facing. Additionally, figurative speech in literature adorns the writing and makes reading more pleasurable than a dispassionate series of descriptions. “A very beautiful river, I love it above all else. Often I have listened to it, often I have looked into its eyes, and I have always learned from it." These lines from Herman Hesse's book Siddhartha create depth and imagery that would be impossible to do in terms that merely replicate facts as they appear.

We now have a wide menu of options should we choose to entertain ourselves using an electronic device. Yet, few shows are successful in holding our attention. My middle school children were watching a series that is set in a performing arts school and they pointed out that the characters were “way too dramatic with eventful lives" and they posed a reasonable question, “How many high schoolers lead such lives?" Fair enough, but I asked them if they would watch a show that only recorded high school students attending classes and doing homework day in and day out. “Never," they admitted. Similarly, we look for the masala element in Indian entertainment and even though I am not a fan of the hyper melodramatic Hindi soap operas, I enjoy watching more than just documentaries. I often pick mindless movies to allow myself some guiltless escapism. Judging from the success of daytime soap operas in the US and telenovelas in Latin American countries, it appears that millions agree. Just as we need a healthy dose of realism to keep us alive, our dreams give us reasons to live. Think of it this way, even if you follow a nutritious diet you wouldn't order oil-free samosas or kale chips in a popular chaat place (restaurant serving Indian street food). If a pizzeria is famous for its quattro formaggio, (four cheese pizza) it's okay to bite into the cheesy pie and savor its decadent flavor.

Paradoxically, you must suspend reality from time to time to appreciate it. An unwillingness to drop a strict adherence to “what is" rather than “what could be" can result in a loss of a sense of wonder which is childhood's greatest gift. Without it one can prematurely be consumed by the jadedness of middle age, although age is not tied to creativity. Here is a challenge for you. The next time you are asked to describe something, force yourself to be creative and use different figures of speech. Give yourself permission to add some color to the mundane list of factual data, perhaps through an analogy or an anecdote that will not only stimulate interest, but also illustrate the salient points you are attempting to convey. Enjoy the freedom to imagine.

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Shyama is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com