Elysian Enlightenment

Paisleyanne Webster

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I was a student in college lacking the slightest clue of how to navigate my future. My humble parents had sent me to Royal Holloway, University of London. The 1920’s were winding down, and with the turn of the decade, I was thirsting for something different. I had always done well in school and didn’t mind it. However, as a man on the brink of twenty, with the brim of the world in his palm, I couldn’t help but lust for more than what was currently set before me.

I had been raised to believe that time is precious, and to waste it is ungracious. So naturally, the thought of spending the next few years, aimlessly taking classes in attempt to establish a career did not sound appealing. However, once I had been enrolled at Royal Holloway for a semester, an opportunity presented itself to me. A writing professor of mine, Mr. Abernathy, had a tradition of spending every other summer in India. It was meant to be his escape for philosophical writing, and, an emotional release.

Mr. Abernathy was a content man, who many labeled him to be, “living in the past”. True, he had a wistful sort of spirit. However, it was accompanied with refreshing compassion. All those who had him as a professor voiced no complaints, although his simplicity tended to bore them.

After Mr. Abernathy’s fifth trip to India, he wanted to give others the same opportunity he had – to experience the beautiful country firsthand. Consequently, he added to the tradition by selecting one student to accompany him on the biennial trip. The selection was based entirely on his opinions, not of academic success, but of character. At the beginning of my second semester, Mr. Abernathy offered me the position. I had never even considered the possibility of this, however, accepted with little hesitation. It was so sudden that the more I thought of it, the more delighted I was for something fresh and far away.

When summer arrived, Mr. Abernathy and I made arrangements to meet at a sea port in the heart of London. There, he knew a sailor from his own days in college, who had two reservations on his ship for us. I had never traveled by ship before, but seen pictures of them from the Royal Holloway library. However, what the books couldn’t tell me of, was the salty aroma that saturated the air and the lazy churning of the black water under the hull. I recorded the scene in my memory as I waited on the dock that day for Mr. Abernathy to arrive. It was then that I knew for certain, I had made the right choice by accepting my professor’s offer. I hadn’t even left my birthplace of London yet, but was already being exposed to wonderful things.

Life until my voyage to India had been sheltered. Before it, I had savored things such as books, lectures, and evenings to myself. While they were undoubtedly pleasant, I was painfully aware that I had been missing an entire other element of life. My free time had been spent mindlessly allowing the hours to waste away, rather than meditating on what truly makes life worth living. When I told this to Mr. Abernathy, he compared it to the senses. He had said to me, “Close your eyes.” We stood on the deck of the ship, facing the rolling sea. I did as he instructed, and closed my eyes. “Now.” he continued, “Pretend that you are blind. You would be missing out on the beautiful scenery in front of us. Open your eyes.” I obeyed and allowed my vision to drink in the view my professor spoke of.

Mr. Abernathy waited a moment before he finished with, “Some people wonder if there could be a whole other part of life that we miss because we don’t have the necessary organ or sense to perceive it. As for you, you are lacking the necessary mindset to perceive it.”

“If people were blind, then we would have no idea what color is.” I commented, beginning to understand. Mr. Abernathy nodded as he turned away from me to face the sea. From there, I learned things that I didn’t know could be taught. Such as; how to appreciate. Nights alone on the ship, when I would walk through the cloak of the mist, introduced me to much of this. I grew to love things like moonlight, the dancing fires I could see on the distant shores, and rain storms. I grew to love things with soul.

About the time I had cultivated this appreciation, the ship docked at a harbor on the rim of India, in a city called Landour. I had been told that the Middle East, as a rule of thumb, was quite hot. However, the crisp wind created by the ocean shielded me from discovering that until Mr. Abernathy and I descended the lowered ramp that connected our ship to the dock. The swollen heat made the air heavy and thick.

Waiting beyond the harbor was a man in a wooden cart being led by two creatures that looked something like large deer due to their antlers. Mr. Abernathy informed me that in this part of the world, horses were an uncommon source of transportation. I extended my hand to the lip of one, who received it just a horse would. Once we boarded, the cart took us down a dirt path that was lined with palm trees. Mountains painted the distant skies and as I grew accustomed to the Indian air, I noticed that it smelled like rich spices.

Atop a valley that the deer like creatures pulled us up, sat a house with two stories. A staircase stood on the outside that connected the two. Vines meandered around it, adding to the majesty. Staircases such as this in Europe are often made of ivory, however, elephants are sacred to India. Instead, these were made of stone.

The man driving the cart lived in the second story apartment and he opened the one below him to us. The apartment was sparsely furnished. What furniture was inside was wooden and a few oil paintings done by the man above us hung on the walls. “Less is more.” Mr. Abernathy sung to himself as we unpacked. The first day following our arrival was spent settling into the apartment and readjusting to being on land.

The next morning, we walked across the town of Landour, to the market. It was incredibly colorful; there were garments of all pigmentation and the brightest fruits and vegetables I had ever seen. The aisles of display at the market were much for the eyes to take in.

Following the morning market, Mr. Abernathy told me of his plans to travel to a nearby village that practiced traditional Indian culture. The men and women adorned themselves with the customary attire and rejected most modern advancements in order to preserve their beloved, classic way of life. We took a pair of donkeys across the valley while it was still early to avoid the blazing midday heat. Approaching this town, Kiaan, I could see the colorful blocks, houses, that nestled into the curves of the land. Small hills decorated it with the grand mountains placed as the backdrop.

Upon our arrival, we learned that a festival was being held that night. Mr. Abernathy insisted that we stay to witness the exotic music, dancing, and foreign food. He made arrangements at what we call a Bed and Breakfast in England. The remnants of the day were spent exploring the architectural aspects of Kiaan. The places of worship were especially impressive buildings, with grand detailing.

That night, the residents of Kiaan concentrated to a corner of their village. Lanterns of glowing lights warmed the feel of the night. Women of all ages wore long dresses that had flowing sleeves. They were wearing an incredible amount of jewelry compared to English women. Rings and bracelets clinked as they danced which created their own layer of music. I had never even imagined wearing jewelry around one’s ankle or toes.

Then, amongst the mass, a girl became apparent. She was not flashy, nevertheless, was without doubt the focus of the festival as she twirled beneath the luminance of the lanterns. I couldn’t decide if she was wildly adventurous or dangerously intelligent. All I could know for certain of her character was; that she was beautifully out of place. A girl with long and dark, messy hair, feet dirty from dancing in the streets, and emerald eyes, with a fierce sparkle in them.

Eyes are iconic throughout history and literature. This was a pattern that I, as well as most, had noticed. However, I had never before fully captured the true essence of why. To succumb to cliche; you could just see it in her eyes. People can see your heart through them, and through her eyes, I could see all the hearts that she put ahead of her own.

It was then that I experienced one of those rare moments in life. You can’t create them, but they come along every so often. I stood apart from the world – watching. In the darkness wrapping around that corner of warm festivity, I observed and was in a position of being, of feeling, more than what people so often take for granted. Life was deep and meaningful, and it all made perfect sense. A gentle smirk spread across my shadowed face as I savored the few and far between moment.

The following morning, during the journey back to Landour, there was a tension that had not been present when we first entered Kiaan. I understood more about Mr. Abernathy, and he knew it as well. I had surpassed any fantasies or falsehoods, so I plainly asked him, “Do you ever, apart from everyone else’s world, get lonely in your own?”

Mr. Abernathy smiled, “Do you ever feel vulnerable or discontent living in everyone else’s world?” The smiling became mutual and the remaining ride home was silent. Mr. Abernathy spent many days of the summer in the company of the old man who lived in the apartment above us as a result of his, “stiffening joints”. I, however, enjoyed exploring the city and traveling to Kiaan every Saturday for the night festival. Undeniably, India was a wonderful experience for me that I will forever cherish. However, being still a boy, the comfort of familiar London was something that often entertained my thoughts.

When the heat had reached its peak, it was time to go home. I hadn’t been back to the dock since I’d arrived nearly two months earlier and was reintroduced to how much I loved it and the water. Mr. Abernathy and I discussed the contents of the upcoming semester on the journey home.

As the ship glided into the London harbor, I couldn’t help but notice how different it looked from the one in Landour. There were swarms of people beneath the cold fog and huge brick buildings sat with thick clouds of black smoke been released from the tops of them.  I had enjoyed my sojourn across the ocean, but I hadn’t been able to keep myself from thinking of London all the while. At that point in time, I buried any feeling of disappointment as I walked onto the British shore.

Within a few days, I returned to Royal Holloway. The core of my joy had always been the information I received while there. However, something was now different. I had experienced another way of living. London suddenly seemed so divergent and I came to the realization that my beloved lectures were only inculcating patriarchal values into me.

Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” With my due respect to one of the greatest philosophers, from my personal experience; the examined life provides no guarantees either. The ways of the fast-paced world are fleeting. I, a dreamer, in a world as this, refuse to be discontent. Rather, I channel my optimism to teach, to reassure others, that there is so much more beyond what is set before them.


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Elysian Enlightenment