Neel Mukherjee’s first novel, A LIFE APART (PAST CONTINUOUS in India), won the Vodafone-Crossword Award for Best Fiction in 2009 and the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Fiction in 2010. His second novel, The Lives of Others, is out in 2013.
Photo credit – Daniel Hart
How could we ever have failed to imagine this marriage? Dickens and India. Just think of the correspondences: of sentimentality, of the impulse towards tear-jerking, of wild unreality in the texture of realism. Who, in moments of lucidity, has not agreed with Wilde on what was, by general consensus, the most unbearably moving moment in his 1841 novel, The Old Curiosity Shop: ‘You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of little Nell’? All the things that he took a scalpel to in Victorian England – poverty, child labour, the chasm between the haves and the have-nots, labyrinthine judicial processes, power exercised by an Old Boys’ network, the casual and entrenched cruelty of the powerful to the powerless – flourish with sick fecundity in the hothouse of India. In a sense, a lot of what enraged him, and provided the motor for his writing, has disappeared from theEngland (and theLondon) he knew: the slums and the squalor, the all-too-visible human costs of the Industrial Revolution that poweredEngland’s resurgent economic growth, the seething social ills. Where do you think these things still obtain?India would have kept Dickens at the hot edge of inspiration and in material for several lifetimes.
It is generally thought that the magical realism that marks the writings of Latin American writers developed as a response to represent in literature the surreality of politics and day-to-day life in Central and South American nations. If one were feeling charitable towards Dickens, as one feels somewhat bound to on his bicentenary year, that could serve as well an explanation as any for all those things in his novels that are so at home in a B- or C-grade Indian mainstream film or television drama – the wild and incredible coincidences, the tendency towards caricature in characterisation, the wishful endings. That typical irreality in a Dickens novel – how well it answers to the Indian condition, the condition that is both a cause (the social and political situation) and an effect (as represented in cultural forms).
Consider this particular scenario, serialised, appropriately enough for a present-day Dickens novel, in a literary magazine, one of those rare corners where book-serialisation still thrives. A political party has sucked dry the lifeblood of the state in which it has been in power for three decades. Its early days of progressive land reforms are far behind it. The economy has changed; the future is not an agrarian economy any longer. Banging the anti-industrial drum has got the party the rural vote bank but the world is changing. That same tune, played relentlessly, has robbed the state of investment, encouraged an infamous ‘flight of capital’, made it an untouchable zone for industrialists, businessmen, blue-collar jobs. It has been falling falling falling for decades, it has become a byword for retrogression. For a state that still boasts of a Renaissance in learning and culture in the nineteenth century and likes to think of itself as the intellectual and creative powerhouse of the nation, its crucial development indicators, such as infant mortality rate, child nutrition, child immunisation (think of the possibilities in a Dickens novel here – slums, starving children, seething poverty), are lower than those of the neighbouring state, one traditionally thought of as the Heart of Darkness. Oh, the ironies of history.
The people, tired of stagnation, negative prospects of any kind of economic development or growth, rigged elections, the micro-rule of political goons, the impossibility of moving forward in any domain in their lives, have become restless and refractory. Into this cesspit arrives a rabble-rousing politician, promising the one thing that the people want: Change. Every single bone in her body a populist one, she has promised to industrialise the state, thus creating sorely-needed jobs in the organised sector. Yet she has made her name chasing some prominent industrialists out of the state. How is she going to move forward? And why would the local power-brokers from the previous government, the public sector unions, teachers’ associations, the ‘dadas’, battened on thirty years of influence and power, allow her to erode their privileges? There are signs of an attempt to get out of this complete gridlock: playing Tagore songs at traffic junctions, initiating a public debate on tinkering with the name of the state. Think of the vast cast of characters as Dickens gets down to anatomise the different, clashing worlds, the hypocrisy and the festering stasis. Think of the fertile soil for some good old Dickensian caricaturing; admittedly, more the domain of the cartoonist than the novelist, but the situation is so rich, so inviting, that it demands it. The title of this novel? Great Expectations. Maybe even Bleak House.
Meanwhile, in the country at large, the coalition ruling party is mired in one corruption scandal after another; not your usual hands-in-the-till stuff (though there’s that too, in relation to an international sport festival) but on an industrial scale, costing the exchequer billions. But the main opposition party decrying this and demanding all kinds of anti-corruption measures, the party of the religious fundamentalist right, as it happens, has just had to depose a sitting Chief Minister of their party for his active, prolonged and leading role in mining and land acquisition corruption in a state down south; once again, the sums involved are tens of billions. As if this were not enough, ministers from this very party, hysterically vocal about morality and corruption, have just been caught watching porn on their cellphones during a session of the State Assembly. And what’s this one called? Why, Hard Times, of course.
Tolstoy, who had Dickens’s portrait on his wall, declared him the greatest nineteenth-century novelist; he would have been an even sharper twentieth- or twenty-first-century one.