By Ambarish Ray Jul. 11, 2016
Almost six decades after it was first published, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us that of all the segregations possible of the human species, the one based on race, colour, and religion is the most prevalent. And the deadliest.
Growing up in Calcutta in the ’80s and ’90s was a cornucopia of the simple pleasures of life. Things were cheap (still are), people were easy (still are), Bengalis were abundant (not any more) and rampant racism was present everywhere in constant and almost comical doses.
Against this happy horizon, where preconceived notions directed one’s perception of other people, I discovered a book called To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee in a dusty corner of the school library. At first, I had thought this was a cookbook judging by the cover – “Lee” was a Chinese surname (I had watched Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon by then) and Chinese people, well, cooked Chinese food. Judging books by their covers, people by their names, and entire lives by hearsay was pretty much par for the course.
I was older than Scout Finch when To Kill a Mockingbird came into my hands. When Scout and the kids are making a snowman without an adequate supply of snow, they use dirt instead, resulting in a dark-complexioned snowman. Now Scout is a sweet, conscientious, and non-judgmental girl, raised by the wholly liberal Atticus Finch but so ingrained is the racism in her milieu that she innocently asks, “Jem, I ain’t ever heard of a nigger snowman.”
The culture of the East in which I grew up was not very different from the deep South that Lee talks about in To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee does not suggest that there is any animosity in Jem and Scout with regard to blacks. Just like I had no animosity towards the people I blithely called “chinkies”. I come from a family of genteel bhadraloks and we were surrounded by other genteel bhadraloks who looked and sounded like us; but in my ignorance and my world, lay my racism.
Calcutta, much like Minnesota or Dallas, was (and still is) rife with prejudice. The innocuous snobbery that is breastfed into the grid of the average Calcuttan almost dictates this outlook. Brahmins and Kayasthas and their various gotras pretty much jostle for space with the skin-colour-based taxonomical system that separates the elites (moneeb) from the merely statistical (known by many monikers like proja, or the electorate). Thankfully, unlike in the US there isn’t always a handgun backing these judgments. Not yet, at least.
You might be wondering what the fuck Harper Lee is harping about in an unnecessarily fat book that deals with the simple subject of a Negro getting his comeuppance for being a Negro?
When I was growing up, there were the “chinkies”, people from the northeast of India and anybody with slitted eyes, extended enunciation, and a fair, swollen face with no trace of hair. There were also the Bangals, the borderline insurgents (if you can find a pun in there, you are fit to become the next chief minister of West Bengal) with hissy accents. They were meant to cook fish and meat in restaurants and live in dirty heaps in rented shanties, where they procreated unhygienically and created mild but annoying unrest around religion once in a while. The Biharis – a massive, overarching term that even embraced people from UP and MP – were all pan-chewing, perverted, and irredeemably stupid pall-bearers of the Calcutta commerce and culture machine. And the Meros (no, this is not an island in Greece) were the rich fuckers buying up all the land, naming roads and hospitals after themselves and pushing out Bengalis into oblivion.
Finally, there were the “katwas”. All Muslims (the term refers to the sundered foreskin) belonged to this genus. These were the heathens whose sinful food we ate but whose families we never acknowledged, whose soulful songs we listened to with our whiskey but whose sons and daughters we never married with ours. Butchers, cooks, tailors, and the occasional drivers they were, but never our friends and family.
As I think of the rainy afternoon in an empty classroom during zero period in St. Xavier’s Collegiate School, I can’t help but relive the orgy my schoolboy neurons had with Atticus Finch, Jem, and Scout, Dill, Boo Radley, and the rest of the Maycomb, Alabama crowd under the able orchestration of Harper Lee of non-Chinese cooking fame. As I think back to that afternoon, I remember being struck not so much by Harper Lee’s novel-writing abilities, as by her tremendous portrayal of the continued and consistent pointlessness of our actions.
Of all the segregations possible of the human species, conducted daily and in dangerously reckless haste by said human species itself, the one based on race, colour, and religion is the most prevalent. And the deadliest. The colour of the skin, the presence of a foreskin, the choice of rock one chooses to kneel in front of – these are the very foundations of a judgment system that decides regularly and at a rapidly decisive pace, whether a certain people have the right to move freely, the right to have dignity, and more often than not, the right to live.
You might be wondering why the hell I am writing all this now when Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in 1960. You might wonder at the connection between a dusty tome written by a delusional lady with little tact and an insane mother, and people shot, killed, tortured, humiliated, and marginalised today. In suave, sober, sexy 2019, when we are driving driverless cars, contemplating going to Mars with our kids next summer, and digitally rebooting every single tradition that ever existed on the face of this planet? You might be wondering what the fuck Harper Lee is harping about in an unnecessarily fat book that deals with the simple subject of a Negro getting his comeuppance for being a Negro? And a bloody Pulitzer for that?
If you are wondering about all that and a bit more, you should wonder about the fact that racism, colonialism, and nationalism have mainly been responsible for the deaths of over 62 million human beings in the last 100 years.
Harper Lee, 59 years after her To Kill a Mockingbird, is more relevant today than ever. In a world where you need to have a movement, a website, and spend countless dollars to remind people that #BlackLivesMatter, you need all the help you can from reading this book. There’s a reason why British librarians ranked To Kill a Mockingbird ahead of the Bible as a book “every adult should read before they die”. And there is a reason why, since the book’s original publication on July 11, 1960 it has never been out of print.
I believe the Bible sometimes has.
From selling cigarettes and Y2K software to teaching undergrad and grad students about brand planning and advertising, Ambarish has done possibly everything a migrant Bong could do in Bombay. Except get off his ass and publish his book. Which he finally did. Bastard Hearts, his first "flawed as fuck" love story, is half autobiographical, but he will be damned if he knows which half.