When I am asked who my literary influences are I name a triumvirate: Mirza Ghalib, Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. However, it would be more accurate to say that they are my earliest influencers and had the most impact for they impinged upon me in early childhood. Thereafter, I’ve admired and greatly enjoyed several writers but it would be fair to say that I haven’t been able to “shake off the pear and close the dikkan” - as a character in my second novel, The Long Walk Home, says.
Shakespeare and Dickens were part of the English curriculum at our school (a convent run by Keralite nuns) and my eldest sister - ahead by five classes - was riffling through Julius Caesar and Great Expectations when I was lost in a world of numerically named detective clubs - Secret Seven, Famous Five, Five Find-Outers - who had an awesome dog, collated clues over scones with marmalade, and solved mysteries.
At some point, when Enid Blyton gave me breathing space and my sister felt like reading aloud, the Bard and Charles also impinged upon my consciousness. So I made acquaintance with Philip Pirrip who could only call himself Pip, with young Estella who had no heart, with Miss Havisham who resided with her rotting wedding cake in a ruined mansion, with the escaped convict in shackles who wants to eat Pip’s fat cheeks!
Oooh! I listened, with terror in my heart and begged my sister to not stop. Of course she did but she continued to indulge me with several readathon sessions where she felt that reading aloud would help her memorize the soliloquy that was a surefire Board exam question or the paragraphs which lent themselves exquisitely to the examiners’ ‘Reference to the Context’ questions.
So I listened, chronology or context be damned, for the words had me in their fevered grip as Mark Antony exhorted his “Friends, Romans, countrymen”, Miss Havisham trawled Satis House in her wedding dress, a shocked Caesar said "Et tu, Brute?" and fell to his death, Uncle Pumblechook breathed like a fish, a soothsayer warned to “Beware the ides of March!”, Estella married Drummle and broke Pip’s heart, and “it was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold; when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade” ...
It kindled a love - for words, books, characters, and compelled me - at a point in my corporate career when I was jaded - to resume a love affair of my own making. A vocation and passion for which I have to thank, in part, the Victorian novelist with wise eyes, balding pate and scraggly beard who wrote the most terrific tomes to ensnare a ten-year-old.
On 7 February 2012, Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday celebrations have been galore. Google’s doodle featured some of Dickens most popular characters including Scrooge and Pip; Prince Charles led the celebrations in UK; and bells rang out over London as fans gathered to mark his bicentennial.
And rightly so! Dickens is hailed as the father of the novel and the magic of his words stays strong. If you haven’t read him, for whatever inexcusable reason you might profess, may I suggest your initiation with either of Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities? You’re lucky, you know!
As for me, on his 200th birthday, what I wish to say to Charles Dickens really is, “Please, sir, I want some more” - my need is as great as Oliver's. Perhaps some jugaad in good ole Desi fashion might yield results: Please sir, thoda adjust karo grave sey, yeh dil maange more!