A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story?

Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan, Fiji’s leading writer, has been invited to be a visiting scholar at the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, from January, 2017, to research and write
17 Dec 2016 15:04
A Christmas Carol:  A Ghost Story?
A Christmas Carol

Emeritus Professor Satendra Nandan, Fiji’s leading writer, has been invited to be a visiting scholar at the Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, from January, 2017, to research and write his historical novel set in three cities: Suva, Canberra and Delhi.



Last Friday I attended a session on ‘Books That Changed Humanity’. It’s been a popular series and continues next year.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas was the last book discussed this year.

From last August, every month onwards the Humanities Research Centre (HRC) at the ANU hosted an expert from one of a variety of disciplines, who led the discussion on a major historical text such as the Ramayana, the Iliad, The Communist Manifesto and The Origin of Species.

The texts are drawn from a variety of cultural and intellectual traditions and which have had a formative influence on society and humanity.

Readers and members of the audience come from all backgrounds and professions and the sessions are open to the public.

The presentations are followed by lively discussions that informed the way we understand ourselves, both individually and collectively, as human beings.

I’ve been a keen participant in this series. It made me re-read some of the texts and re-think their complex messages and interpretations of our world as explorations of human curiosity and creativity.

The series continues next year.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) wrote  A Christmas Carol, his most popular prose work, in 1843: he needed money and Christmas  was a  promising season  for a few extra pounds.

He wrote his 30,000-word novella in less than two months. It sold 6000 copies before Christmas and became a classic.

Dickens wanted it to be read widely and the spirit of Christmas revived in Victorian England so full of social ills and the exploitation of children.

Few writers have written more movingly about childhood than Dickens mainly because of his own childhood experiences: Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations are now classics and helped reform the prevailing social evils of the times when children were brutally used by adults – Dickens had personal experience of child labour.

I was introduced to Dickens through A Tale of Two Cities, prescribed as a literature text for the ubiquitous Senior Cambridge Overseas examination in the colonies of the English Empire.

The examination was both a curse for many and a blessing for some. If you passed this extraordinary exam, set 20,000 miles away, you could go for higher education.

It was held in December and the papers sent for marking in Cambridge, England.

The results were declared in March over the radio and in the local daily.

As I was listening to the expert speaker from Sydney, my thoughts went back more than half a century when Shri Vivekananda High School was on the banks of the Nadi River, next to a wooden bridge on one side, a temple on the other.

The bridge went under water when the river’s mountain rains and the rising tide collided.

Our school got flooded often but we came to the school any way to eat ice cream and ice blocks from Mr Kumtart’s café with a wooden verandah in the one-street Nadi town where the traffic rumbled with lorries, buses, cars, and taxis; in-between a few tractors and horses from the farms nearby crossed the main road without bothering about traffic signals.

The moon then was a sixpence and if you had a florin, two shillings, you were the village prince and could shout your other rustic companions.

A sweet, white ice-block cost a penny.

It was here I read, rather heard it read, A Tale of Two Cities in its original version by Mr Bhaskaran Iyer.

The language was difficult: but Mr Iyer‘s accent made the reading quite fascinating.

He made Sydney Carton my favourite character in fiction.  I tried to memorise parts of the novel: how can one ever forget its opening lines–possibly the most famous opening lines in World Literature:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was a season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going  direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of the noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good and evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only . . .

Many years later, in the 1990s, I was invited to Churchill College at Cambridge for a brief stay. I gave a talk to about 50 postgraduate students on ‘The Literature of the Indian Diaspora’.

The students who attended my talk were from a dozen countries.

The rest of my stay I spent reading Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism just published in a most hospitable room and meeting many students at lunches and dinners and walking the ancient streets.

In the last few years the Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to a short story writer, a journalist, and this year to a singer-song writer.

I wonder if ever it will be awarded to a literary critic? Edward Said, a Palestinian-Christian, teaching in the USA, had changed the way literature is taught world-wide.

He would have been a notable choice for a Nobel. Sadly he died a few years ago.

One fine morning I wanted to see the hall where my eight papers from Nadi were marked.

I was taken to a building that looked like a shed no longer in use.

The place was closed; the marking hall that had opened so many doors for me and my generation in distant colonies looked neglected, abandoned.

Or so it appeared to me from the outside.

I’ve no idea who would have marked my papers.  When the results came out: I’d done rather well: It was my first Christmas miracle.

In the last fifty years the world has changed: for better or worse, it’s too early to say.

My sixteen-year old granddaughter Hanna Maya now reads a 400-page book in a weekend.

It took me months to plough through A Tale of Two Cities, the first work of fiction in English I read.

But I read many novels of Charles Dickens before I left to study in Delhi where I read nothing but English Literature. Writing in English in India was not even mentioned; nor in any other languages in which Indian renaissance was reflected.

Nor the writings of Nehru or Gandhi or Tagore who did so much to advance the cause of Indian independence through their prodigious and vatic works.

I recall reading Dickens’ works at the Ramakrishna Library in Nadi town that the Mission had so imaginatively established. It was housed in an upstairs room in a building not far from the then Bus Stand.

A narrow stairs led to the library where the librarian, Mr Krishnamurti, sat dressed in his elegant South Indian attire, starched and immaculate, with a rather large red mark on his shining forehead.

He often wore a brown Gandhi cap that matched the colour of his skin.

He was a wonderful librarian and seemed to have read all the volumes in the library.

Although I never got to know him, he seemed a genuine reader and had collected most of the classics of English Literature.

A Christmas Carol is really about the spirit of Christmas: ‘a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time’: it’s the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his ultimate redemption through his encounters with ghostly apparitions is one of the most memorable creations in fiction.

Through fiction, Dickens was able to comment on the ills so prevalent in the hypocritical Victorian society.

One sees a writer’s deepest humanity expressed in the novella.

It was only recently I read an essay titled ‘The Dark Side of Dickens’ by Christopher Hitchens who complained that the great author didn’t seem to possess the imaginative empathy for those who lived beyond his Victorian ken.

After the 1857 Indian ‘Mutiny’ Dickens had written in a letter: if he had the power, he would use all ‘merciful swiftness of execution . . .  to exterminate (these people) from the face of the Earth’. One of his biographers writes: ‘It is not often that a great novelist recommends genocide.’ And Dickens was a major voice in raising the consciousness of an imperial England.

When I raised this issue with the speaker: she said all writers have their ‘blind spots’. This infuriated a young member of the audience and an agitated, animated dialogue ensued raising the question of the ethics of writing itself and the role of writers in a society, more urgent now than ever.

As I left the hall the evening shadows had lengthened on the campus and I thought of our treatment of refugees in Australia and our immediate region; I felt as if Dickens was right in calling it a ghost story.

The reality, even on Christmas Eve, is too painful to contemplate what Jesus said:  Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.


Feedback:  jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

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