Charles Dickens in India

“Please, Sir, I want some more.”

Charles Dickens would have turned 200 today. If you haven’t read his books, here is the digested read. At the request of BBC World Service I wrote a brief reminiscence recalling my experience reading Dickens in my childhood. Here is the longer version of what I recorded for them:

Children have lurid imaginations. They don’t need much help imagining misfortune. But if you are aware of poverty, or see suffering around you, Charles Dickens can be a boon. This is because he is so good at populating that stricken landscape with indelible characters outfitted with violent habits and unforgettable names.

I grew up in a small town in India. The novels of Charles Dickens, in abridged form, were required reading in schools. My uncles on my mother’s side worked in prisons. I could look up from a page of Great Expectations and see the convicts working in the house, sweeping a stone courtyard or feeding the cows. Each man, clad in white khadi with blue stripes, would have an iron manacle around his ankle. I went back to the page I was reading, but now troubled by the thought that soon one of them would be beside me, asking me to fetch a file.

In the books that we read, a dramatic pencil illustration would be printed every few pages, with a line from the novel serving as a caption.

“Please, Sir, I want some more.” That line was Dickens’s gift to me.

At bus-stops, in the homes of less well-off relatives, outside tea-stalls, I looked at the faces of other children as they regarded food that was displayed, or that someone else was eating, and I’d think back to the line I had read in Oliver Twist.

In the new shining India, 42.5 percent of its children suffer from malnutrition. The term “Dickensian” evokes cold dark workplaces and cramped rooms. It doesn’t belong to the India of teeming cities with soaring flyovers and glittering multirise buildings. Yet, you can still look at the stunted children and remember, without sentimentality, that old line from Dickens: “Please, Sir, I want some more.”

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Charles Dickens in India

  1. Pingback: Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Dickens

  2. Instead of “Charles Dickens in India,” how about “Charles Dickens on India”?

    Ugly racist stuff, no?

    Maybe we should think again before celebrating his birthday, two hundred years later. Begaani shaadi mein Abdullah diwana!

  3. When my daughter started reading and was well into absorbing chapter books I took her to the public Library ones and got her a copy of Oliver Twist. She said she did not understand and then I did not bother, but a few years later, I again asked her to try it and said she will be happy to know there are more like it from the writer whom we read as growing up. She gave it another try and then told me that why does life have to be so sad, why do you have to always show the sorry plight. Well I told her that dickens showed the world as it was (with some imagination to weave a story around it) and it is important for us the read works that shaped English literature. I guess she was not very convinced but then her tteacher said, she is interested in reading so let her choose her books, she will come back to these when the time comes. She continued her journey through the misterious magic of Harry potter and the imaginations of vampire love stories and so on. There is quite a change in the interests of the kids growing up. When we step intoa world where reading is replaced at all levels by viewing, I think keeping intact the enjoyment of reading is more important. Charles Dickens books are timeless classic, but then world moves on…… She made her shift at her pace and the last book I suggested hera nd she read were the poems of the Nicaraguan poetess Claribel Alegria… So reading is more important at the early stage than reading what and as long as you have a collection stacked at home on what you love, the reader in your kids will find his or her way to your stack of books, dust thema nd read them :)

  4. When my daughter started reading and was well into absorbing chapter books I took her to the public Library ones and got her a copy of Oliver Twist. She said she did not understand and then I did not bother, but a few years later, I again asked her to try it and said she will be happy to know there are more like it from the writer whom we read as growing up. She gave it another try and then told me that why does life have to be so sad, why do you have to always show the sorry plight. Well I told her that dickens showed the world as it was (with some imagination to weave a story around it) and it is important for us the read works that shaped English literature. I guess she was not very convinced but then her tteacher said, she is interested in reading so let her choose her books, she will come back to these when the time comes. She continued her journey through the misterious magic of Harry potter and the imaginations of vampire love stories and so on. There is quite a change in the interests of the kids growing up. When we step intoa world where reading is replaced at all levels by viewing, I think keeping intact the enjoyment of reading is more important. Charles Dickens books

  5. Charles Dickens, although a fantastic writer no doubt, was anti-semetic and anti-Indian. He made a comment following the Indian Rebellion of 1857 with these words (approximately) “to exterminate the race upon whom the stain of the later cruelties rested…to blot it out of mankind and raze if off the face of the earth.” I find it Ironic that one can see the plight of the malnourished children of Victorian England and call for the extermination of other human beings at the same time.

  6. ” It doesn’t belong to the India of teeming cities with soaring flyovers and glittering multirise buildings.”

    It does. I live in the NCR, visit Mumbai and Hyderabad on a regular basis. In both, the NCR and Mumbai, you’ll get a knock on your car window by a desperate looking kid with rags for clothes, asking for money pretty much every time you stop at a major red light.

    People here don’t really harbor hard feelings towards the Brits about imperialistic racism shown by writers of that time period–haven’t heard anyone bring it up so far. In fact, people seem to really like and quote Kipling quite a bit even though Kipling was in extreme favor of imperialism and, if I recall correctly, called ‘Indians’ and other ‘native’ people ‘half devil, half child’ in his infamous White Man’s Burden.