Killing the Mocking Bird : Literature in Life

Satendra Nandan’s new book, Loving You Eternally: From Nadi to New Delhi, will be published later this year.     Almost four decades ago, at USP, I’d taught a remarkable
13 Mar 2016 08:57
Killing the Mocking Bird : Literature in  Life

Satendra Nandan’s new book, Loving You Eternally: From Nadi to New Delhi, will be published later this year.



Almost four decades ago, at USP, I’d taught a remarkable novel: To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee.  I’d first read it in Delhi when it was first published in 1960. Last month I heard on the radio that Harper Lee had died, aged 89. Lee’s novel became a phenomenon, just as a century before Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe had ignited a nation’s conscience.


Fiction testifies to power of truth

During the American Civil war, Abe Lincoln was reputed have said to the Miss Stowe, the author: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war?”

Fiction not only testifies to the power of truth but it attempts to reveals layers of our humanity. Unlike many religious texts, it doesn’t give us those ultimate answers but only the glimmering possibilities of being truly human with all the blemishes and beautifies within the flawed body.

This was followed by Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell set in the Civil War ostensibly to emancipate the slaves but really to keep the American Union united under the one great President, Abraham Lincoln, who paid with his life.

Gone with the Wind, in its cinematic version, became one of the most watched movies of Hollywood.  But ‘Tomorrow was another day.’

Defending an innocent man in a profoundly prejudiced Deep South

Then came To Kill a Mocking Bird situated in a small, obscure town in Alabama.

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit’em. But remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” This is the advice a lawyer-father gives to his two children, Jem and Scout. And how their lives become enmeshed in the turmoil of a little town when Atticus Finch has to defend an innocent man in a profoundly petty and prejudiced society in the Deep South.

The town was small; the writer was unknown but the themes continue to be of perennial interest: James Baldwin has written of it in his searingly brilliant book The Fire Next Time and a contemporary writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest work, Between the World and Me digs the same ground. And of course the finest writer of fiction is Toni Morrison, the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In the concluding lines of his famous essay, ‘Stranger in the Village’, Baldwin had written:

The time has come to realise that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man too….It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. The world is white no longer, and it will be never be white again.’


Donald Trump, wanting to lead Abe Lincoln’s party

In the world of Donald Trump one might add: the world is not only not white but not Christian either. And whenever, wherever pompous men have attempted to create a monolith, it has lead to religious wars, civil strifes, ideological conflicts, holocausts, partitions and coups. History’s pages are littered with such ruins and we can sometimes see its inheritance in our times and lives.

All the novelists I’ve mention are women writers. That in itself is worthy of celebration. And then there’s a distinct and devoutly-to-be wished possibility that Hilary Clinton may win the Presidential election on November 8.

I was reminded of these works of fiction, for several reasons: the temporary triumph of Donald Trump in the primaries wanting to lead Abe Lincoln’s political party; and of course the death of Nelle Harper Lee, whose second novel Go Set  a Watchman was published only last year. This was written before To Kill a Mocking Bird but doesn’t have the same power or passion or humour.


Of literary masterpieces

I’m also reminded of these literary masterpieces for another reason. I often wonder these days what do our students, children and grandchildren read and reflect on when confronted with some tragic aspect of life. In a mobile world so wired with satellites and all that, whether there’s any deep, enduring communication between individuals, especially in the classrooms of our schools and universities.

Virtually everyone you meet on the campuses is doing everything except reading literature. Yet when a tragedy strikes like a Tropical Cyclone or a coup, a death in the family or an accident, or some pain and sorrow that has been and will be again, where do we seek solace, comfort, love and restore our belief in life itself. And get our courage to carry on – one step at a time.


Trump: Treats his audience with contempt

That freedom of fiction and expression so essential to our lives, so integral to our existence, is often the missing element in the education of the individual soul.

The surprising thing is that Trump’s support has gained considerable momentum, especially when you consider the contempt with which Mr Trump treats his audience. Money and media are part of his mania but more significantly it’s those hollering mobs who lap his most outrageous outpourings from a thoughtless and a rather loud mouth and a cleverly empty thatched head. It is this blatant disrespect for citizens in a democracy that I find most pathetic.


Racial discrimination integral part of American politics

The theme of genocide and slavery and racial discrimination are integral to the political culture of America—the greatest and oldest of all democracies.

Harper Lee’s novel challenges the justice in a system, the integrity of a single individual, the kindness of a mysterious character, and, above all, the precocity of perception of a young girl and her loss of innocence. The moral complexity of a small town is examined from several perspectives.

At the end, Atticus Finch, Scout’s hero-father himself becomes complicit in saving the man who saved his innocent son’s life from a murderous neighbour.

Suffering, they say, makes you stronger. In the month when Good Friday and Easter are just round the corner, the idea of suffering, human and divine, take deeper colouring. History leaves its shiny trail on the human path like a snail moving at its own speed, symbolising perhaps the speed of life, if not of light.


Racism corrupts all

To Kill A Mocking Bird captured my interest for several reasons: one was the astonishingly lively character of Scout, that precocious daughter of Atticus Finch, the lawyer played in the eponymous film by Gregory Peck in his finest role. And how the innocence of our children’s lives is affected by the prejudices and brutality of a society that surrounds them.

The rust of racism corrupts all: it takes its toll in subtle and sophisticated ways. At the centre of the narrative is a most passionate and profound advocacy of the value and validity of a country’s constitution: Atticus Finch is pleading on behalf of an innocent black man falsely accused of raping a woman:

He tells the jury : ‘You know the truth, and the truth is this : some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not be trusted around women – black and white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men. There is not a person in this courtroom who has never told a lie, who has never done an immoral thing, and there is no man living who has never looked upon a woman with desire.


All men are equal

‘One more thing, gentlemen, before I quit; Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal….

“But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein and the ignorant man the equal of a college president. That institution, gentlemen, is the court…Our courts have their faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.”

The real mocking bird for Atticus Finch, the widower-lawyer father is the black man falsely charged with the raping of a white girl.

That Atticus Finch failed to save the life of the accused black is not the saddest part of the work of fiction. In real life the tragedies are far worse.

Lately I’ve begun reading American Literature. In the 1970s, I studied at the University of Leeds where that university had created the first Professor of American Literature in Europe and subsequently the first Professor of Commonwealth Literature in the world. I was more interested in the latter. It made some difference to me.

Only a few months ago I was invited to a conference in Brazil in November. I was keen to go as that is one continent I haven’t set my foot on. We thought we’ll go via the US, after observing the presidential elections. But Brazil has been hit by Zhika virus; and the US by Donald Trump.

I’ve been advised to postpone my trip to a more auspicious time. Alas.

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