(This article appeared in Atticus Review on 16th April 2014.)
Who is Silas again? And what the hell is this Raveloe I fawn over?
For those bewildered readers of my earlier blog post on visiting a tiny street light bereft village in North Yorkshire, let me explain.
Silas Marner is a weaver George Eliot wrote about in 1861; the village he lived in is Raveloe. The entire world isn’t a bunch of English literature students and enthusiasts like me thus are forgiven for not knowing who George Eliot is.
She is difficult to read – some would say, most of my aggravated school mates definitely would - didactic even, in her moral posits and indeed not as popular as several other British ‘women’ writers around her times, Jane Austen certainly, or the Bronte sisters. Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie and J. K. Rowling all had better luck getting read.
To the wider world, Eliot construes only one name in literary context, the other, a male, Thomas Stearns.
A farmland girl, leading a socially debauched life for her times (psst, she lived with a married man, unbetroth, and denounced the church), Mary Ann Evans adopted the clever pose of a male writer to ward unfair prejudice off her brilliant pen.
Shrewd that, and sad, for an intelligent, qualified woman had once to dis-acknowledge herself to be taken seriously and respected for her just worth. Many would say the world hasn’t much changed in these matters.
Someone in the school board curriculum committee obviously thought well of her enough to include Silas Marner as the central text; and later in University of Calcutta her corpus constituted one of the special authors. I am glad. If I had to put up with the honourable Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I would be bored to tears and have not one subject left to be good at (with least effort, which is always the clincher with me.)
In junior school a pamphlet-thin Great Expectations and mid school an abridged The Mill on the Floss had already enamoured me. Those were the days when a new school year commenced with the Gregorian calendar. A booklist would be supplied with the annual report card’s last circulation, an event of enormous relief in itself. The books for the fresh class were purchased early for me, in the misplaced hope of my advanced preparedness. I would pick the couple of English and Bangla literature books from the bundle, polish them off in haste by a warm stand lamp through the nights or snoozled in the afternoon quilt. I would laugh, cry, smile, dream, deflate with the biographical lifelines of Tom and Maggie Tulliver, Phillip Wakem, Pip, Joe Gargery, Abel Magwitch, Mrs Havisham, Estella, Silas, Geoffrey Cass, Nancy Lammeter and Eppie.
I can never get out of my mind the naughty child’s pleased chant when punished by wee confinement with the coal by her anxious, myopic father for having run away more than once, “Eppie in the tole hole! Eppie in the tole hole!” It were as if I have seen them and heard her myself.
Such is the bewitchment of pen. Such the completely word-clouded inside of my head.
In high school during an altercation, a classmate had retorted, “That only happens in books! This is real!” I must have been snootily trying to quote something to show her the light.
For the first time, someone pointed out a demarkation I had hitherto been unaware of. Books? Life? Different? Till this day, I haven’t understood how.
Nor worshipped anything as immersively.
Why does it sound absurd that Silas is an ‘is’ for me as are the rest alive, here and now, and I’ve been in love with both the Tullivers?
Half the civilized world is silly over a dead detective from a non-existent Baker Street address to more than prove my point!
My first memory is of words. Dad’s voice telling me stories from Arabian Nights in Bangla.
I don’t know how old I was. Looking back, I can’t see anything in the black room as he tucked me in and asked what I’d like to listen to that night before falling asleep. My frequent demand was for Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. I particularly enjoyed when Qasim, the greedy brother, forgot the password to open the cave and in desperation garbled a whole lot of vegetable names save the correct one. The wicked man’s troubles delighted me no ends; I remember gurgling with laughter as Dad intoned “alu phaak! potol phaak! ucchhey phaak!” (= open potato! open wax gourd! open bitter gourd) but never the chi-ching, the equivalent of sesame in the Bangla version.
Dad was always an evocative storyteller and his small repertoire of nightly tales never failed to engage me. When the story ended, he would fold me in one last time, warning against sticking my hands out or else, “Winter, the father and son, who are out with a large scissor, would snip them off.”
It never fails to amaze me how mundane school syllabi, so accursed at the time, left their residues. How I homed in on the promises of those first sensibilities and took to words in print; and how the magic of those early reads have lingered. I devoured Charles Dickens in original when the senior school library allowed me entry at the unripe age of twelve. I dumped T. S., regretful because the University would allow me to study only one ‘special’ author, remaining faithful to the Eliot of my first love.
Except Hiawatha, Tom Sawyer, Louisa May Alcott and Walt Whitman, there wasn’t much of American Literature included in the school courses. So when in my MA final year I had a chance to read American Literature, I eschewed it in favour of the fascinating postcolonial horizon of Indian Literature in English.
English Literature still remains for me essentially British Literature. I’m old world, so still cling to my Dickens and Victorian novels in favour of the new-fangled genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror tales and chick lit. The un-dead are a breed I don’t understand. After Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark, I’ve closed the chapter on sci fi (excuse me, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Margaret Atwood, maybe I’d make a concession for you.) H. G. Wells and Mary Shelley extended the frontiers of horror and monster tales I am reluctant to cross.
The rest of these ‘modern’ writers don’t cut it. I’ve not yet acquired the taste for one bestseller spawning a thousand imitations and birthing the latest marketable genre the publishers are gushing about. Excuse my rudeness, they are phony. For everything that was worth saying had been said by the eighteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic. Anything new worth listening to is now coming largely from the Asian and African diaspora.
Outside the covers, Life happened. The idyllic evenings watching dad gather a book under his chin after a hard day’s work or mom return to the pages every few minutes between stirring the curry, passed too fast into adulthood. Real dramas. Pains as unapologetic as unfictitious.
Quite not fast though.
Words had found me by then.