New Delhi: He gave us Uriah Heep in "David Copperfield", the Artful Dodger in "Oliver
Twist", Ebenezer Scrooge in "The Christmas Carol"...characters who
live on not just in books but also in the English language itself.
As the world celebrates 200 years of Charles Dickens, so does
India despite the intense debate on the relevance of Dickensian
pedagogy in the 21st century.
The pictures he painted of Victorian England were often bleak, his
characters an unfashionable black or white in their evil or
goodness and his books sometimes dismissed as too long. But
Dickens, born Feb 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England, is the prolific
author whose contribution has seeped into the contemporary --
Uriah Heep, for instance, is the byword for insincerity, Scrooge
for miserliness and these are just a few.
Dickens' lasting contribution to modern English literature was a
depiction of grim social reality in details, a style many Indo-Anglian
writers have emulated in their contemporary, post-colonial and
diaspora canvas of the day.
To promote the Dickensian style, the British Council in
collaboration with Penguin-India is hosting an all-India creative
writing competition, "After Dickens", to encourage young writers
between 16-21 years to write a "small creative treatise on Dickens
in either poetry, prose, short stories and reportage".
The brood of emerging celebrity writers are also on the radar.
The council has invited contemporary Indian writers in English -
"especially those whose writing dwells around cities and urban
landscapes" - to contribute pieces on what they feel Dickens would
have been writing today. Some who have agreed to contribute
include novelists Amit Chaudhuri, Neel Mukherjee and Anita Nair.
There are other programmes planned, including a film programme in
major cities offering cinematic milestones like "Great
Expectations", "Pickwick Papers", "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Oliver
Twist", as well as a series of talks by author Craig Taylor
discussing creative ways of teaching Dickens.
According to Mitra Mukherjee-Parikh, head of the university
department of English, SNDT Women's University in Mumbai, "Dickens
had a fascination for the new idea of the city".
Dickens as a classical literary legacy lives on the Indian campus.
"Dickens remains important to us. The orphan figure and the
figures of childhood move every reader. He deals with England
getting industrialised and how man gets caught in it the trap
which is not of his making. His books marks a shift into the urban
world with its unemployment, poverty and wronged women who lose
property," Sherina Joshi, associate professor in Delhi
University's Deshbandhu College, said.
Delhi University teaches Dickens' "Hard Times" in its
But the legacy could be waning.
"We regularly have one or two texts on Dickens. Currently, we have
one, which is part of the compulsory course. However, students are
getting more attracted to contemporary literature," Coomi Vevaina,
head of the Department of English at the University of Mumbai,
Simi Malhotra, as associate professor of English at the Jamia
Millia Islamia, added that the "Indian understanding of novel
writing has changed in the last 10 years with post-colonial novels
and feminist novels".
"Students are interested in contemporary novels - let's say Amitav
Ghosh has more relevance here than Dickens. In last 10 years, the
volume of research on Dickens has declined sharply," Malhotra
Dickens does not inspire publisher Shobit Arya of Wisdom Tree
personally, though he concedes Dickens' "power of story-telling".
"We have moved on...we would rather read a novel that speaks of
immediate reality - in the Indian milieu," a post-graduate student
at the Jamia Millia Islamia told IANS while Alka Bansal, a senior
librarian at the Tagore International School in Delhi (Vasant
Vihar) said she "virtually forces Dickens on the children, bred on
fast-paced Twilght-kind of mass fictions".
But for writer-politician Shashi Tharoor, who played the leader of
the gang of child thieves in a stage production of "Oliver Twist"
in 1968, "the Artful Dodger" remains his favourite character.
Till five years ago, Dickens' books were in demand at all major
book shops in the metros.
"Children read classics then. But with the arrival of the mass
fiction, no one wants to read Charles Dickens any more," a
spokesperson for the Midland book shop told IANS.
Compared to the Rs.50 edition of the 1970s, economics has taken
toll on Dickens too. The prices of the books now range between
Rs.150 to Rs.1,500 depending on the nature of binding and the
publisher, the spokesperson added.
Quaid Najmi and Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at email@example.com