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Dickens and empire
There are very few things Charles Dickens needs to ask forgiveness for. Yes, there are the skeletons in his vast cupboard of life - the mistress, the unloved wife, the deceptions and self-deceptions, the egotism, the touch of pompousness and self-satisfaction - but then who am I, on all counts to cast the first stone?
I may contend that being Indian there is one count on which a pebble would be appropriate and tempting, and those are his two letters about the Indian mutiny. He wrote the first one very soon after the news of the slaughter of British women and children by the sepoy mercenaries of the East India Company and by the feudals of Cawnpore. He was probably not primed by the British newspapers to react to the mass hangings in revenge of Indians, innocent and complicit, by the Company Bahadur.
What Dickens wrote to Angella Burdett-Coutts in his first letter, alluding to what he wouldn't in a million Victorian years characterise as a War of Independence, was that the punishment for such rebellion and slaughter of innocents should be genocide. "I wish that I were Commanderin-Chief in India. The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental race with amazement (not in the least regarding them as if they lived in The Strand, London, or in Camden Town) should be to proclaim to them in their language that I considered my holding that appointment by leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested;and that I was there for that purpose and no other, and was now proceeding with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth. "
It was not an uncommon British reaction to the events of 1857. Nowhere else has Charles Dickens expressed any such sentiment and though it was clearly the opinion of the man there is discernible in this startling, unchristian letter the hand of the writer, as distinct from the man, guiding the pen. The early wish of the diatribe casts him in the role of one of his possible characters. His cruel stepfather was called Murdstone, his cruel school dubbed Dotheboys Hall. Here is Dickens wishing himself commander-in-chief of the East India Company's armies in India. He never wrote a novel set in the India of his era, but had he done would the character he wishes he was be called General Hang mall or Lord Dothebrowns?
The Writer is at the elbow of this Letterwriter who declares to the natives in their own language (the 'koi hai?' idiom of Urdu, presumably) that their extermination is a duty entrusted to him by God. Far be it from me to dissimulate and make excuses for genocidal diktats or views, but is there not a tiny note of irony detectable in this communication? A straight political opinion would not have been clothed in the persona of a projected character.
He may have, as himself, said: "I, Charles Dickens, citizen of a Britain I castigate as a social, political, chaotic, unjust hell on earth join with the rest of my fellowcountrymen to condemn the cruelties of those mutineers and their Rajas who killed innocent white women and children and demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice. " It's not what he wrote. The man could never escape being the inventor of fiction. The Writer and his sensibility is, through the invention of character, the holder of opinions. A player on a stage.
One may read endless biographies of Dickens - and there are some excellent ones - but a discernible theme in all of them is that the life and times, the acuteness of observation that seems to exist from the start have shaped a boy into a writer. And finally there is no Man but that he has merged with the Writer.
Ten years after that first missive on the Mutiny, Dickens returns to the subject of empire in another letter to a friend but this time he doesn't assume the character of the commandant who would commit genocide. He is Dickens the Man/Writer, stepping back just that pace he uses in the contemplation of social evil to lament, satirise, condemn and universally confound. He writes about the absurdity of an army organisation that didn't see the mutiny of its own mercenaries approaching and nip it in the bud. No way to run a whorehouse, leave aside a developed empire.
Only one Indian writer, Ms Nilanjana Roy, the rare consistent Indian critic, has put the letters together and used them, not in a meditation on Dickens' sensibility, but as a commentary on his only venture into the colonial history that dominated his time - a sort of 'why-didn't-Jane Austen-write-about-the-Napoleonic-wars-which-were-happening-u nder her-nose' observation or complaint.
It's true that Dickens didn't apart from these letters bother with India, the continent whose fortunes, together with those of America were most in contention in his lifetime. He does however have a character called Tattycoram, an 'Indian' servant girl in Little Dorrit who doesn't in the novel prove to be a scion of righteousness. She is not in any sense representative of Dickens' view of colonial India and her ethnicity is left somewhat uncertain though her relationship with England and her mistress is certainly a seamless part of his observation of Victorian callousness.
It is amazing that no Indian writer has attempted, in imitation of Jean Rhys who wrote Wide Sargasso Sea as an elaboration of the story of an incidental West Indian character in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, a novel about the secret feminist life of this foundling. It could be the genre of novel that wins prizes in our febrile world.
The original Dickens wouldn't. Too long, too critical of every form of nonsense and not endowed with the twisted forms and justifications of our contemporary morality.
The last writers that India produced who, like Dickens, could claim to be the Man in the avatar of Writer, were Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas K Gandhi. They wrote the books they did with the entire animus and purpose of their lives as he did, despite the delusion of being an actor and magician and philanderer.
There hasn't since been an Indian writer, with the qualified exception of the selflimiting R K Narayan and perhaps Nirad Chaudhuri, who has transformed his or her life into the act of Writing - which entails finding a purpose for it beyond being published and read and stimulating readers' minds with stories, confessions and inventions. No Indian contemporary writer gives us the feeling that the Word is the Perception and the Life. We have pale imitations and mockeries of Joyce, Marquez and clumsy transformations of Mills and Boon, but no Dickens imitators in a social milieu that cries out for it.
The one writer, not strictly in the Indian tradition who has given his life and mind to the writing of books for purposes beyond earning his living or winning prizes, is V S Naipaul. His opinion of Dickens, expressed in interviews he gave me, doesn't precisely coincide with mine. He is of the opinion that Dickens' first books, Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers are his best as they are the freshest. He is looking at Dickens the observer and not Dickens the reformer who turned his life to describing with inclusive sympathy and endless humour the torn hypocritical fabric of Victorian society. So why not an Indian writer who'd do that for India today?
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