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“Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em,
But remember, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
I am not a Christian but I have grown up on a fairly steady diet of Christianity, having been through a succession of evangelical schools as a precocious kindergarten kid at St Joseph’s in Allahabad, a frisky 6-year old in St. Thomas, Kidderpore, a naughty pre-teen at St. Xaviers, Durgapur, finally finishing high school at a joint that was at the same time the most rabidly Christian and the most debauched of them all – La Martiniere, Lucknow – where, if you had an ass, you had to have fists to guard it. It might as well have been La Guardass Martiniere, but that’s another story I’ll tell you later. For now, let’s do some religion-bashing.
By the time I graduated from high school, I knew more hymns and psalms, sonnets and verses, saints and prophets in Christianity, than I did, in the Bhagwad Gita. Christianity set itself in me like jolly-glue and hasn’t let go, since. Not that I am losing any sleep over it. I don’t care if there is still some Christianity left in me or any other religion (including my own – Hinduism). They can all fight over my soul if they like.
But looking at the kind of Christianity that exists in the world’s most Christian nation – America, with it’s pandering to the marginally educated rednecks, it’s empty clichés and it’s vast income disparity, I am forced to wonder how very far this nation has removed itself from Jesus’s own words – Blessed be the poor, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God. Jesus didn’t stop there – he confirmed the line-up at the gates of heaven – the last shall be the first and the first, the last. I assume he meant that the poorest of the poor shall have the first crack at heaven.
Jesus had the best job in town. It was so simple – no one could challenge him on his depiction of heaven, which he made it look like it was sheer bliss. I know of no one who has actually been to heaven and managed to come back to tell us about it. If I did bump into someone who actually did, I imagine he would probably have a dry, bored-ta-death drawl, like….
“Yeah, I bin there, man, but it’s really no big deal. There’s nothing up there, but just clouds and lots of nude folks in white chiffon. You can’t do anything about all those boobs since you can’t feel nothin’. ”
In the Bible, there is hardly any or maybe no mention of gays and lesbians. Nowhere in the holy book does it offer an opinion on whether being LGBT is virtuous or evil. Likewise, you won’t find a twit there, on abortion. Yet, these are the two most critical issues to America’s evangelical, Jesus-breathing Christians.
Offering refuge to the dispossessed is on virtually every page of the Bible. Jesus laid so much stress on charity and equality that he might as well have been saying,’ Read my lips, you stupid jerks.’ I am pretty sure he meant all humans, not only white folks, were welcome in the ‘kingdom of God.’ And yet, immigration by non-white minorities is fast becoming anathema to America.
The most tweets and posts quoting from the Bible and the maximum number of mentions of the word ‘Jesus’ on any social media platform are from Americans. Yet, they seem bent upon subverting the words of their own prophet. I am absolutely convinced that America is to Christianity, exactly what Saudi Arabia is to Islam.
Christianity, Jesus and America are in a way what this piece is all about. It is about a book I have read a million times and most recently once again just last week – To kill a Mockingbird.
If you have never read the book, I would advise you to stop reading this piece immediately and go get yourself a copy. Not only is it a beautifully crafted masterpiece, it is a timeless story where every word hits you deep down and settles in there for quite a while, like a warm rug. What I am about to write is not a review. A review of this book is almost impossible to write, like trying to make out a character certificate for God.
Mockingbird is a classic, of that there is no question in my mind – a story that is important for every single person to read at least once in their lifetime. And when a classic is undemanding and easy to read, it becomes a runaway best-seller.
Set in or around 1935 in a small bigotry-ridden farming town called Maycomb, in Alabama, the story spans around four years in the life of a little girl called Scout Finch and her elder bro, Jem. The author tells it through the voice of the girl – a Louisa M Alcottish tale of games, mischief, squabbles, fist fights at school and calf love, all laced inside a tapestry of racism.
Scout’s father, Atticus, is a widower – a lawyer who also has a seat in the state legislature. America is still deep in the depression and times are hard, though the little family gets by a lot better than the most of the town folk. Atticus Finch is a moral, inspirational man – a genuinely good person – whom the two kids hold in awed reverence, one who commands great respect among the town’s white inhabitants.
There have been many classics written on the plight of the blacks in America, but none can hold a candle against Mockingbird, even among white American readers. I suspect that the reason is because Atticus Finch is the portrait of an ideal virtuous man that every white American male wants to be, deep down. The main character, the hero, is a white man and that must be why Mockingbird is such a hit.
The Finches have a black housekeeper named Calpurnia, who is treated like family. She is in fact like a surrogate mother to the kids and doesn’t hesitate to scold them in case they have been naughty. Like all the other blacks in the neighborhood, Calpurnia lives in a ghetto-like shanty town next to the city rubbish dump, away from where the whites live. The blacks are barely tolerated by the town’s white folks and only because menial labor is necessary – to cook, clean, harvest and run errands. A dollar a week is what a black man gets by on, in these parts.
Maycomb is also the county seat and has it’s own jail and courthouse where a 25-year old black man, named Tom Robinson is being tried for the rape and assault of a 19-year old white girl. Atticus Finch has been appointed by the court, to defend Robinson.
And Atticus Finch is the right man for the job. A die-hard liberal, he lives by the true teachings of the gospel, believing that all human beings are born equal in the eyes of God. He is convinced Tom Robinson is innocent and he is bent upon seeing him exonerated. There are no DNA testing and rape kits and it is pretty much the victim’s word against the defendant’s. That Robinson will be convicted and sentenced to die, seems a foregone conclusion, given the rampaging racism of the times.
But Tom Robinson is an honorable family man and the whites of the town of Maycomb know it deep down. Everyone suspects that the girl is lying and that it was her own sadistic father who had assaulted her. Buried deep inside their bigotry, the whites of Maycomb still have a conscience and barring the girl’s family, they have trusted their collective conscience with one man – Atticus Finch – satisfied that he will do the right thing. To my mind, Maycomb is America and America is Maycomb and even though eight decades have gone by since Mockingbird, nothing has really changed.
Meanwhile, Scout and Jem are growing up as happy, playful kids and every summer they have a boy named Dill visiting from a nearby town, to spend the holidays with his aunt. Dill has promised to marry Scout when he is grown up and he kisses Scout once in a while, when Jem is not looking.
By far the most fascinating character is their neighbor, Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley, a reclusive man in his 20s, who has never been seen by them. The kids make him out to be some kind of an evil monster who eats cats and squirrels. They are terrified and fascinated by him at the same time. I’ll let you find out the rest of the story by yourself.
I cannot help but sense that certain aspects of the author’s writing style didn’t quite gel with me, but those can well be overlooked, given that this was a debut novel…..
For one, the story line does seem a bit impossible, given the times that it is set in – 1930s. America was so murderously racist then, that it is hard to believe that a black man charged with raping a white girl would last even a day, let alone come up to stand trial. Harper Lee presents the picture of a court and law enforcement that are surprising unbiased and liberal for the times.
And then, when the case comes to trial, the press (except the Maycomb gazette, which is just a rag) is absent. For a case as explosive as that of a black on white crime, one would have expected the New York Times to be present there.
Even harder to consume is the fact that, in 1930s America, a man like Atticus Finch would be allowed to co-exist with the rest of the town and not get shot, for defending a ‘nigger’.
Lastly, even though Scout Finch is only 7, she tells the story in the mature style of a well-educated adult. Somehow that doesn’t mesh. At times, Harper Lee does attempt to make passages sound like they are from a 7-year old but they seem sporadic to me. But all in all, Mockingbird is a masterpiece that should adorn your bookshelf definitely.
I will leave you with an excerpt at the end where Atticus is putting Scout to sleep……
I willed myself to stay awake, but the rain was so soft and the room was so warm and his voice was so deep and his knee was so snug that I slept. Seconds later, it seemed, his shoe was gently nudging my ribs. He lifted me to my feet and walked me to my room.
“Heard every word you said,” I muttered. “…wasn’t sleep at all, ‘s about a ship an’ Three-Fingered Fred ‘n’ Stoner’s Boy….”
He unhooked my overalls, leaned me against him, and pulled them off. He held me up with one hand and reached for my pajamas with the other.
“Yeah, an’ they all thought it was Stoner’s Boy messin’ up their clubhouse an’ throwin’ ink all over it an’…”
He guided me to the bed and sat me down. He lifted my legs and put me under the cover.
“An’ they chased him ‘n’ never could catch him ‘cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things… Atticus, he was real nice….”
His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me.
“Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”
He turned out the light and went into Jem’s room. He would be there all night, and he would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.