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Wednesday, June 29, 2022

What the Dickens!

Two hundred years after his birth,a salute to the man who created some of the most iconic novels and characters in English literature.

Written by Dilip Bobb |
February 13, 2012 12:52:55 pm

Two hundred years after his birth,a salute to the man who created some of the most iconic novels and characters in English literature.

For a generation who had the good fortune to have read Charles Dickens as part of their Bachelor of Arts curriculum,it was truly “the best of times.” It’ is a tad surreal to realise that he was actually born 200 years ago (on February 7),so profound and durable has been his influence on the literary scene and book lovers of all ages. Many rate him as one of the greatest storytellers who ever lived. The characters he created,Oliver Twist,Scrooge,the Artful Dodger,Fagin and the one supposedly modeled on himself,David Copperfield,are even today identified with certain characters and characteristics. So too is ‘Dickensian’,a term that evokes cold dark workplaces and poor social and economic conditions. Even today,I cannot look at a beggar kid tapping on my car window and not recall those immortal lines: ‘Please Sir,I want some more.” While his literary inspiration was Victorian England,in India,he earned a legion of fans not just for his writing and his captivating books and characters,but also for his ability to incorporate social commentary into his novels. (Dickens is in fact,lesser known role as a social activist and reformer). ‘Oliver Twist’,’A Christmas Carol’,” “David Copperfield.” “Great Expectations,” and ‘A Tale of Two Cities” are among the great novels of English literature but they also transcend culture and language and time.

Indeed,the reason Dickens resonated with Indian readers of my generation was that the issues he wrote about in the England of the mid 19th Century; a slothful,uncaring bureaucracy,social injustice,poverty and the emerging middle class,were also the perennial problems facing India. In fact,his own life experiences—born into the poverty of 19th century Victorian England—pulled out of school and sent to work at a boot-blacking factory to earn a pittance to help support his family while his father was in debtor’s prison—made their way into his writings. What made Dickens so special was his ability to create characters of such great intensity,and many were adopted from real-life people he had encountered. The abusive,sadistic headmaster in David Copperfield was a mirror image of the one who had made his own young life such hell in the Wellington House Academy,the London school he attended as a young lad from a struggling family. That unhappy childhood would manifest itself in Oliver Twist while the grim working class conditions he encountered in later life became the literary bedrock on which his later novels were based.

His themes deeply resonate with Indians: the importance of extended family,familial bonds,the rich-poor divide,child labour,domestic violence,social injustice and stratification,and the plight of the deprived and displaced. Those who missed out on the original broadcast on February 7 can still catch writer Ayeesha Menon’s exploration of India’s love affair with Dickens on BBC radio (the BBC website will connect to the broadcast) on Saturday,February 11. Menon is something of an authority on Dickens and this tribute is worth catching,especially on the India angle. There is,in fact,another,more substantial India connection. Dickens’ second son,Lieutenant Walter Landor Dickens,is buried in a Kolkatta grave. Walter is believed to have arrived in India in 1857,the year of the Sepoy Mutiny but died from illness. His father, Charles,wrote a letter in which he said: “ he will fall into that strange life up country before he knows he is alive,or what life is…..” The grave was originally in Bhowanipore cemetery but a group of Dickens fans in Calcutta,as it was known then,had the tombstone moved to Park Street cemetery. The epitaph reads: “In memory of Lieut. Walter Landor Dickens,Second Son of Charles Dickens,” but then trails off,“at the officers… on his way… December…”

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My own connection with Dickens extends beyond his books I read in college and later. Every time I was asked to write a review of the year in my previous journalistic avatar,the temptation to use his classic introduction to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times,it was the worst of times,it was the age of wisdom,it was the age of foolishness,it was the spring of hope,it was the winter of despair,” was always overpowering. Dickens created many of our favorite fictional characters,including Oliver Twist,Fagin,Ebenezer Scrooge,Bob Cratchit,Tiny Tim,Samuel Pickwick Esq.,The Artful Dodger,David Copperfield,Nicholas Nickelby,Miss Havisham,Uriah Heep and a heap of others whose lives went beyond mere fiction. From Oliver Twist who grows up in a workhouse,to Pip who wants to becomes a gentleman,to cold-hearted Estella who’s determined to break the hearts of men because her adopted mother Miss Havisham has trained her to do so,the stories of each of his characters weree always linked to human struggle,both personal and material. What endeared him to readers then and now,apart from his literary genius,was his humanity: he was a driving force behind new laws in Entgland concerning the poor,was responsible for getting many prostitutes of the streets and was the first author to campaign for Copyright laws for authors. Reading his biographies,it was clear that he was not a paragon of virtue in real life—his family life was quite tragic—but his declared aim through his work was to draw people together and thereby lead to a better understanding of each other. In his own words,he believed that “In this world a great deal of bitterness among us arises from an imperfect understanding of one another”.

Two hundred years on,there’s great reason to raise a toast to one of English literature’s greatest figures but also one who,like some of his characters in the 15 novels he wrote,had a darker side. It’s a side explored in fascinating detail in a recent book,’Charles Dickens: A Life’ by Claire Tomalin. The author,who has written an earlier book on Dickens,has received rave reviews for her book with the Guardian calling it a “superb biography…in the sense it gives of the man himself.” (Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin—review/Books/The Guardian).

Literary News

Follow the Penguin

Trust Penguin boss ‘Chiky’ Sarkar to come up with something innovative and quirky. The publishing house is completing 25 years in India and its choice of ambassador for the year-long celebrations is,well,the Ambassador! They have acquired the iconic car,painted it in Penguin’s familiar colours of white and orange stamped with their logo and ’25 years’ along with the clever line…’Follow the Penguin.” The anniversary kicked off with a well-attended party at the Jaipur Literary Festival where the car was unveiled before it set off on a trip across the country,manly the major metros and cities (in Delhi on February 25th to coincide with the Delhi Book Fair),with its cavernous boot packed with Penguin titles. It will halt at famous landmarks and bookstores where literary events will be staged with their authors in attendance. Presumably,the Ambassador was chosen because it is a classic.

New Title in Town

A brand new publishing house has made its debut. Palimpsest is the name of the imprint and its first book was launched at the India International Centre last week. The book is ‘Freedom’s Mother’ by well known Bangladeshi author and journalist Anisul Hoque,an English translation of his highly acclaimed Bengali novel Ma. Set against the backdrop of the Bangladesh War,it is a compelling story of love and betrayal and the human cost of conflict. (Palimpsest,pages 348; Price; Rs 599). Clearly,subcontinental authors are the flavour of the season.

Bold and Beautiful

There’s considerable buzz around the new and awkwardly titled ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life,Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity’ by American journalist Katherine Boo. For almost five years,Poo spent hours in a Mumbai slum documenting the lives of the slumdogs. Apart from interviews,she also used the RTI to extract thousands of documents which showed the corruption,venality and greed of social workers,policemen,doctors and the like,as well as the exploitation that went on between the locals. This is what Boo calls “immersion journalism’,the civilian equivalent of being ‘imbedded’ in a war zone. A writer for the New Yorker,Boo has written about Mumbai’s underbelly,a well worn subject,with great style and empathy. (Hamish Hamilton; 254 Pages,Rs 499)

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