Sunday, October 9, 2016
What the Dickens
Having recently watched the entire season 1 of Dickensian, the TV series from BBC1, which over the course of twenty half hourly episodes spans the entire spectrum of Charles dickens books giving a prelude to each and every one of dickens immortal characters and their motivations for behaving as they do in the books, I embarked on the next logical step for every diehard dickens fan. To re-read the entire oeuvre, every single one of dickens books again. And not only that but this time I wanted to do it in the proper chronological order in which they were written/published by the author -from his first book Sketches by Boz which he published under a pseudonym to his last and uncompleted novel- Mystery of Edwin Drood halfway through writing which Charles dickens died suddenly. I decided to make a proper job of it and have spent the last one month finishing up the dickens collection and here are a few stray thoughts on re-reading dickens after a lapse of so many years.
To begin with (to my surprise) I found that some of my old favourites like pickwick papers and Nickolas Nickelby though favourites still, are no longer capable of gripping my attention like a few others which I once deemed to be too morbid or morose in the past. The antics of the pickwickians and the incorrigible sam weller still raises a few laughs when I re-read the books but now the entire gang seem like one of the old familial whatsapp groups you drop in from time to time just to check who’s still in there but otherwise leave well alone despite the notifications. The ones which I enjoyed now include bleak house, great expectations, oliver twist and mystery of Edwin drood.
Bleak house which as the name suggests is every bit as bleak a story can be, absolutely captivated me when I re-read it this past month. The fictitious legal story of jarndyce vs jarndyce, the great case of the chancery courts has very eerie similarity to what we see and read every day in Indian courts and justice system. The way that cases are postponed indefinitely till the parties to the case conveniently die off and the court costs swallow up the entire property, the way the lawyers on both sides collude to keep dragging the case till the unfortunate litigants are forced to regret to their graves the day they stepped into court expecting justice in a mistaken belief of the majesty of law and fair play - everything seems to have been written just for Indian courts and legal system.
The book “Bleak House” left me wondering if our Indian judiciary is right now where the British courts where 300 years ago- an uncaring, money squeezing enterprise capable of driving everyone- both litigants and witnesses to despair with the never ending process of offering justice. In a span of nearly two centuries after the book was first published the British seem to have improved their justice system to such an extent that British law has turned into a more responsible version of itself now. But although we Indians inherited that same legal code and the same system of judiciary we did not, to our eternal misfortune, inherit the same system of accountability for the processes of law which the British have instilled in their justice system. I guess it will take another 300 more years (at least?) till Indian courts become accountable to the common public and cases will be decided when the litigants are still alive to hear the news of the judgments. Till then every day you can see another travesty of a jarndyce vs jarndyce in Indian law.
The next book I really loved this time was great expectations which when I was younger I never really appreciated to the extent I do now. Although the book is filled with despicable characters none of whom can claim the least amount of sympathy from us the readers, the book is a very fine example of the folly of people who are always maneuvering to gain the smallest bit of advantage in their personal lives by often missing the big picture entirely in their micro management. If we look around ourselves we can see a lot of typical characters from great expectations in real life every single day. All those ass kissers, boot lickers, revengeful persons who spend all their life plotting to gains some minuscule bit of advantage over someone else- every single character in great expectations sounds true to life and sitting just beside you in the next cubicle at work. And now that I am older and wiser and been through enough heartbreaks I can appreciate miss Havisham’s character more clearly although I cannot countenance any sympathy for her because in my view she deserves what she got for being who she is- a haughty, imperious egoistic feminist who falls for the worst possible fraud. Great expectations is the definitive lesson to every single girl who friend zones nice guys for not agreeing with their feminazi views. If any man wholeheartedly agrees with the femi-nazis there is no doubt he is a compeyson in the making who kisses ass just to screw her out of her money later on. Nice guys don’t always win is the take home message from great expectations.
The other book I liked when I reread it this time around were the mystery of Edwin drood- dickens only attempt at writing a detective novel and the only one which he left unfinished, which in a way is the perfect ending for the book. For although we can suspect every one and the uncle character is steadfastly built up to be the evil villain the book reflects the real life conundrum that sometimes perfect crimes can never be exposed and villains do get away with them. In my view as a lifelong dickens fan I believe that Edwin drood should be left well alone as it is without being finished by someone else as is often proposed by amateur dickens societies. The mystery of Edwin drood should remain a mystery till the end as maybe dickens planned?
I also could look on and sympathize a whole lot with dickens complex characters who require a certain maturity to understand them. I can now confidently say that I understand better Ralph Nickleby’s (the evil uncle from Nicholas Nickelby) motivations perfectly well. Here was a man, a self made man who had worked hard to get where he was suddenly in the twilight of his life thrust upon with fawning relatives left behind by a man careless enough to have children but with no thought to provide for them except to believe his rich brother (the brother who started life at the same footing as him) would provide for just because he doesn’t have a family to call his own and all his money has to go somewhere and where else except to the wastrel brothers brood of kids who grow up thinking themselves entitled to it. No wonder ralph nickleby is bitter at his dead brother and his groping relatives.
Similar is the case with Fagin. Here was a man who took in runaways and wastrels and street kids and gave them a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. In return he made use of them to rob rich people of frivolities life pocket handkerchiefs. is he such a villain then? When the entire society has turned a blind eye to homeless kids and strays who live on the streets, this man takes them in and makes us of them. Just like the government does in its workhouses. I don’t see that Fagin is such a great villain as he is made out in the later adaptations on TV and film. Remember if he was such a bad man who harassed his kid the dodger for one, a genuine badass himself, wouldn’t have stuck around and defended Fagin as he did for so long. There is equal parts good and bad in characters like Fagin. It takes a long time and many re-readings to understand his point of view. And there lies dickens genius. To make you look at old familiar characters in a new light every time you re-read the same book.
I hope I haven’t been boring you with this doctoral dissertation level analysis of dickens novels. If you too are a fan of dickens or even if you have just read one or two of his novels write in to me in the comments section and we wil have a ball discussing our views.