Late in life, and that too at the urging of a friend, I have come to Charles Dickens. Thirty odd years ago when I was doing my A Levels, Dickens’ Dombey and Son was one of three novels set for those of us doing English at my school. But without ever reading it, I took against Dombey and Son. Looking back, I can’t remember why. Perhaps I was daunted by its length. With almost a thousand closely printed pages, it is the quintessential big baggy monster of Victorian fiction. There was probably a more prosaic reason: I had figured out that the exam paper was structured such that you could get away with answering questions from just two of your three set novels. And since I loved and knew the other two – Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas – I, like many a blinkered teenagers before and no doubt since, put the passing of exams above enrichment, and ignored Dombey. It would have been just about forgivable if I had just ditched Dombey but I, in my ignorance, decided to ditch the whole of Dickens. It’s not for me, I decided.
So when I put aside thirty years of stupid prejudice and opened David Copperfield I was, as generations of readers before me, struck dumb by Dickens’ towering genius. His talent for dialogue, I believe, is unequalled in Victorian literature. And as for those characters – only someone of the highest imaginative powers could have created the likes of Uriah Heep, Barkis, Mr. Micawber and Aunt Trotwood. And what prose! He creates such vivid comedic scenes that I find myself laughing out loud on the Tube.
I decided to ditch the whole of Dickens. It’s not for me, I decided
My father tells me that Dickens was a great favourite of my grandfather’s. Though educated at the elite institutions of Aitchison and Government Colleges at a time when they were still run by Englishmen, my grandfather, Syed Mohammed Haider, was by no means an Anglophile. Rather, he was very proud of his Punjabi heritage. He died when I was just five, so I have very few memories of him, but what is imprinted on my mind is an image of him dressed in his habitual khussas and lungi, atop his beloved open topped tanga, his preferred mode of travel. Having completed his education in Lahore, my grandfather returned to Shergarh, his village in Okara district and became, like his father, a farmer. But my grandfather was an erudite man. Though a scholar of history, his passion was literature. Fluent in Persian and English and Urdu and of course, Punjabi, he knew reams of Hafiz and Ghalib and Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah. But when he wanted to relax, my father says, he would read Dickens. Settled in a comfy chair on the verandah of his haveli, he would he would dip into his old favourites – Bleak House, The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield – all the while chuckling quietly to himself.
I yearn to be able to talk to my grandfather about it. To laugh with him. To probe his mind, discover his taste
Now as I laugh aloud at David Copperfield while riding on the Tube in London, I find myself thinking of my grandfather in his haveli in Shergarh. Did he find Barkis’ courtship of Peggoty as amusing as I did? What did he make of ‘ever so ‘umble’ Uriah Heep? Could he, like me, find it in himself to pity him a little? Did he also think Dora irksome? Did he want to shake David out of his passion for Steerforth? Which were his favourite bits? I yearn to be able to talk to him about it. To laugh with him. To probe his mind, discover his taste. What did he think of Thackeray? Of my favourites, Austen and Eliot? My grandmother did not read or speak English. With whom in Shergarh did he share his love of Dickens? His well-read younger brother? Not with my father, I don’t think. Or it could be that Dickens’ novels for my grandfather were a private pleasure. Perhaps it was enough for him immerse himself in the creative world of Charles Dickens and have a quiet chuckle.
I have inherited some of my grandfather’s old books and a typed copy of his MA thesis, covered in his handwritten notes. I re-read bits of his thesis yesterday, which I hadn’t touched for many years. This time I read not just the content but paid attention to his style, his turn of phrase. With my forefinger I traced his small tidy handwriting – he used a fountain pen and royal blue ink – and as I did so, I realised that it was Dickens who had rekindled my interest in my grandfather. This then is the unique power of literature – its ability to connect us to our forefathers and our descendants and perhaps most important of all, to understand ourselves.