The single most defining threshold of my life was when utter appreciation and abject reverence for books came to me, luckily it came very early on. This is something that makes me most proud and immensely humble, strangely at the same time- that the power, pleasure and perspicaciousness of books is mine to absorb and instill. That this knowledge is mine to keep, it cannot be taken away, it is indestructible. And it can be summoned in the hour of need, dug out from the deepest recesses of one's heart and soul. So i tell everyone- nothing, nobody can prove to be a better mentor, guide, companion, friend than a good book. You want answers? books will give you those...
(On demand and perpetual insistence from a lot of kind friends, i am happy to share a sort of review of one of my all-time-favourite books.)
It is said about To Kill a Mockingbird, that after reading the book, and knowing that it is Harper Lee’s only written work, one wishes she had published other books as well. This 1961 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, arguably, is one of the best accounts of the hysteria that racial hatred and prejudices could brew in Southern America prior to the Civil Rights era. Told through the eyes of eight year old Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, the story weaves the innocence and conflicts which constitute growing up, coming to terms with one’s own fears and reservations, of childish exploits, summers of freedom, town legends, loved/hated relatives, and confrontations with the class structure of Maycomb (their home county) in school; with the larger plot of the racial undercurrent in the community beneath the veneer of normalcy. Scout and Jem are children being brought up in the backyards and lanes of quaint Alabama in the 1930s. Their father, Atticus Finch, a widower, is a well-respected lawyer as well as Congressional representative for the region and has raised the kids with the help of a black nurse/cook, Calpurnia. Atticus is about to take on a case of a black man accused (falsely) of raping a white woman, and that is sure to stress the town and his own family and uncover both the prejudice and the dignity of the people of Maycomb.
The first section of the book builds only the background and character and is an introduction to the Southern way of living- which is extremely relaxed, bordering on being apathetic. The action commences once Atticus is drawn into the trial, it affects the children in many ways, they begin taking insults on account of their father and the tension rises. The already existing class
and race divide in the story becomes more pronounced, and Atticus’ quiet insistence and fortitude regarding the issue of basic worth of a human life becomes more pertinent and poignant. The end of the book ties back to one of the first sub-plots and hints at the town’s return to something approaching the ordinary. The closure gets more personal, closer to home and thus doesn’t feel as significant. It might seem like a bit of a letdown after the extreme emotional value of the trial. But if one would just stay with it, one would quickly realize that Lee has a point to make. In the last few lines, she juxtaposes the desire for action with the inherent humility of humanity by incorporating scenes which, if less grand than the courtroom scenes, have as much profundity.
Inspite of the main plot being highly political, negotiating the stark difference in perspectives determined by the colour of one’s skin, the book manages to not transform into an angry diatribe. Instead it is a story about seeing people as flawed creatures and yet trying to understand them. It is a book about taking small risks in order for things to change. And most importantly it is a book about great personal strength and honour. It tells the reader that things cannot possibly be expected to change overnight. People cannot be expected to rid themselves of deeply entrenched beliefs. But it still tells one to keep hoping, accepting the good and helping to deal with the bad. Lee portrays a heart-warming picture of a widower trying to raise children who are idealistic like him, but who also are capable of standing up for themselves if need be.
It is a book with immense appeal and efficacy, especially in our world of today, when we have a man of African descent holding the office of the President of the United States of America. It reminds one of Martin Luther King, Jr’s theory of the slow moral arc of the universe- which is an appreciation of small gains, the gradual pace which humans take to change, and the dignity which lies in trying for change.
But even if one had to disregard the deeper moral point, this is essentially good story-telling and deserves all the fame it merits, because (taken from the plot synopsis of the Warner books publication) To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior-to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos.