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Saying Goodbye To Princess Leia Is Like Burying Yet Another Piece Of Our Childhood

2016 has been a year during which too many such pieces have had to be buried. 

28/12/2016 12:42 PM IST | Updated 29/12/2016 11:09 AM IST
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There was much more to Carrie Fisher than Princess Leia. The woman who talked frankly about her bipolar disorder and her substance abuse. The smart script doctor. The author of the semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge and the one-woman show Wishful Drinking.

Princess Leia might have gotten in the way of Carrie Fisher, but some things, good, bad or simply pop, define us as people, and become placeholders for adolescence and childhood. Stars Wars was one of them for many of us as Harry Potter will be for another generation. Saying goodbye to Princess Leia is like burying yet another piece of our childhood.

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Actress Carrie Fisher, left, with her mother Debbie Reynolds.

2016 has been a year where too many such pieces have had to be buried. Carrie Fisher, George Michael, David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Richard Adams of Watership Down. Growing up in socialist India, the West felt both forbidden and remote. Only fragments of it came to our closed country, like the debris of a comet from a galaxy far, far away. Those little pieces stuck in our collective memory like shards. Years later, long after we no longer hummed those songs, long after those posters had faded and gone, they could still trigger memories. The force, we realised, could still awaken.

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When George Michael died we could remember those two bouncy young men singing "Wake me up before you go go" on a precious pre-MTV half-hour pop music show on Doordarshan. David Bowie was an androgynous poster on a bedroom closet door, Ziggy stardust with eyeliner. Prince with his wiry sexuality oozed something carnal, almost forbidden in a country where even Alisa Chinai pop was quite antiseptic. Leonard Cohen was Suzanne playing on a one-hour lunchtime folk and country music on All India Radio, a song taped from the radio on a cassette deck on my old two-in-one, the announcer's voice cutting in as the last refrain faded. Watership Down was a precious book, bought at the Calcutta Book Fair, an adventure about rabbits and a warren in some meadow in rural England that still felt terrifyingly real in bustling Kolkata because in the end who can fail to be moved by the horror of losing a safe home?

Saying goodbye to Princess Leia is like burying yet another piece of our childhood.

All of these people were all of these things to us. They were not just pop icons. Or literary bestsellers. They were ambassadors from another world that was both remote and familiar, alluring and daunting. For us in Kolkata, England, America, Hampshire, Tatooine, Naboo were all the same. We live in a different world now, a much more self-confident India. America is just a holiday destination for many of India's well-heeled, while once, for most of us Nepal was about as foreign as we could ever dream of going.

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We had to travel in other ways through the pages of books or on sleek spaceships hurtling into the inky star-speckled darkness of cinema halls. We did not have or need 3-D to believe in that illusion because we desperately wanted to believe in Chewie and Han Solo and Princess Leia despite that donut hairdo.

Carrie Fisher dies but Princess Leia does not.

Childhood, we all know never lasts. Parents, beloved uncles and aunts, age, wither, die, become a shadow of their old selves, riddled with Alzheimers and osteoarthritis. We understand this and in some way brace ourselves for it. But it's harder to let go of those other artefacts of childhood and adolescence the ones that were preserved in posters and films and books and thus seemed imperishable. When we say goodbye to them, we are saying goodbye to parts of ourselves. It's the end of our personal Toy Story. We should have known that but we live in denial. As Princess Leia would have probably said "I don't know where you get your delusions, laser brain."

Of course in a sense they are not gone. While a Leonard Cohen dies, his Suzanne can still take you down to her place near the river and feed you tea and oranges that come all the way from China. Carrie Fisher dies but Princess Leia does not. Richard Adams dies but the rabbits of Watership Down are still marching, looking for a safe warren every time you open the book.

Jerry Mosey/Associated Press

But the spell is broken. We may not have listened to any recent song by David Bowie but as long as he was there we could imagine that one day we would. We may have never read another book by Richard Adams, and forgotten most of Watership Down, we may not even have known he was still alive, but the news of his death is a reminder of our own childhood, now abandoned to silverfish and cobwebs, of a father taking a son to a book fair, and buying him a bag of books, of the excitement of coming home and wondering which book to read first. That too is gone. And the death of a Richard Adams reminds us with sudden aching about that loss.

Carrie Fisher was a little different. Star Wars reincarnated itself over the years trying to hold on to the franchise. When an old Han Solo and Princess Leia and the ageless Chewbacca returned in The Force Awakens, the middle-aged audience cheered because embedded in that film was the reassurance that it is possible to have your youth back, time travel albeit with crow's-feet, wrinkles and plastic surgery. But the old team could still come together like the reunion of a favourite band, that new adventures were possible in old bottles.

Now we are forced to accept that there is no guarantee at all. A digitized Leia might still return as she did in Rogue One. But it will not be the same. It will only be a reminder of her mortality and ours.

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