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Friday, May 01, 2009

Great Expectations

In Toronto, spring is a pleasant combination of rain and sunshine. But it is also a state of mind.  Spring is an abrupt awakening from the winter hibernation. 

Winter lingers on till about early April and then life begins to stir as the snow melts. It brings on a sudden burst in public activities.

One of the events that I’m looking forward to is the meeting of the Dickens Fellowship, Toronto.  

I read about it late last year, but couldn’t find time to attend the monthly meeting held the 3rd Wednesday of every month at the Northern District branch of the Toronto Public Library.

I don’t think there is a greater novelist in English than Charles Dickens. There are many who are good, and in every generation, the novel in English language gets a preeminent star. Salman Rushdie is the star for my generation – the generation that became avid followers of literature in English in the 1970s and 1980s.

Even for that generation Dickens remains unsurpassed. He lives on in the works of different novelists whose works bear a Dickensian influence.

Among the recent books that I’ve read, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance come to my mind. Dickens’ influence is palpable on Mistry’s writing, including the tendency to be God. The novelist as God is a Dickensian trait that most readers today would find unacceptable and irritating. It worked well in Dickens’ novels, and it works in Mistry’s novel, too.

Mistry subjects his characters Ishwar and Om to unrelenting cruelty. It is no doubt an accurate enumeration of the circumstances prevailing in large parts of India during the Emergency. But the reader finds no respite from the series of misfortunes that befall these two.

I was just not able to come to terms with the horrors that the uncle-nephew duo are put through by Mistry. I almost wanted to tell the novelist to stop it.

If you have read Dickens, you realize how true this would be of any of his novels. Dickens’ portrayal of the grim realities of the industrial revolution’s excesses in Britain led to far-reaching changes in the labour laws. His works acted as a catalyst for a transformation for a better and just mooring of the society.

I haven’t read everything that Dickens wrote. But from what I’ve read (Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) I’d definitely chose Great Expectations as the best.

The orphan Pip, the abandoned Miss Havisham and the beautiful Estella are characters that stay with you forever.  Dickens creates magic in the old, decaying mansion that becomes the stage for the three to meet and Havisham’s schemes to make Pip fall in love with Estella and then to ensure that it remains unrequited. Pip continues to tolerate Miss Havisham under the mistaken belief that she’s the one who is sponsoring his education and stay in London. But the benefactor turns out to be the criminal (I forget his name) whom Pip had given food just once when he (the former) was on the run from the police.

The story and the narration has all the trappings of a television soap opera. That is what Great Expectations really was – a serialised novel published every week and (needless to say) lapped up by an eager audience.

Perhaps it was because I read the book when I was in my late teens, or perhaps because I remained tongue-tied when it came to expressing my love to the girl whom I believed I loved madly and wouldn’t be able to live without, my identification with Pip  was complete. 

Pip survives those pangs of love and loneliness, so did I, and so does everyone else... they leave bitter-sweet memories to be cherished on a spring morning. 

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