Conversations: Two writers on their favourite master: Dickens

Sunil Sharma
Jaydeep Sarangi (JS) and Sunil Sharma (SS), two widely-published poets/critics/ writers, discuss their common idol in this freewheeling literary interview. Excerpts:


JS: Do you find relevance of Dickens as a novelist in the
postcolonial world where things fall apart?

SS: Works are written primarily for your own age and audience. Dickens is no exception. What make him a stand-out literary figure are his uplifting artistic vision, scathing realism, strong moral tenor, social involvement and conscience---things that make him taller than his Victorian literary peers. He provides the best moral critique of a heavily-industrialized society out to colonize the rest of the world on the basis of naked greed for poor colonies and naval power. He exposes, like Baudelaire, the underbelly of such an industrial narrative that tends to benefit only, as Occupy Wall Street Movement claimed in 2011, only 1% of the population by excluding 99% of it, the toiling masses. Dickens punctures the narrative of progress by showing up dark London and its marginalized figures. His work is consistently humanist, liberal in the true sense and pro-poor. He articulates the muted voices of such a progressive society that denies full opportunities of complete growth to the poor folks. He negates the full force of such a progressive claim made by capitalist class regarding the emancipator powers of capitalism as a humane formation, as an advance on earlier societies. Dickens, the writer, shows the darker side of such a social development and denounces it most strongly. He is truly democrat. His sympathies are with the marginalized of a very class-conscious English society. His profound moral vision, memorable characters, gritty realistic portrayal, public engagement and use of media like print magazines for serializing his fictions place him in an enviable vantage position that few writers have come to occupy since. Tolstoy, Hemingway and Marquez come to mind that got the same level of adulation by the reading public and left the same kind of impact as well.

Regarding his enduring relevance to a post-colonial world, well, to me personally, he is still meaningful not only to the culture of the independent countries headed in the direction of global capitalism but to the post-modern, post-structuralist, post-Marxist, and, other post- worlds as well. All these intellectualist discourses by an overfed critical hierarchy operating in the sacrosanct sphere of the academy have one common agenda: To deprive the working classes with right tools of resistance, of correct cognition, of correct mental theorizing. These pseudo attempts are meant to deny the praxis and revolutionary potential of such a scientific praxis. They deliberately paint a depressing picture of the world beyond any hope of change for better. This is not historically true analysis. It is a deliberate distortion. Dickens fought such cynicism, annihilism, pessimism by attacking the ideology of utilitarianism and posited his own artistic version of refreshing and reinvigorating humanism against it through a vivid wide canvas full of believable people and situations. Writer as a subversive emerged strongly in the open day-light that successfully challenged the hegemonic classes and their thoughts and could bring in reforms by awakening the vestigial conscience of a mammon-worshiping society.

This unique moral tone, this ability to see through the lies of so-called narratives of progress and change, this standing up for the rights of the disenfranchised sections, this moral critique of the vampirish system, makes Dickens still very relevant to a society, post-colonial or any other post, that continues to suppress and oppress large silent majority. His enduring popularity and appeal across the globalised world proves this point.

 Dickens stands as a seer. He rubbishes as lies the ideology of capitalism and points out that any society bleakly following the sole agenda of profit is both morally and materialistically doomed. Regeneration is possible through a revival of humanistic philosophy only. He is, will be, valid to every other age that is to come.


JS: Who according to you is the most interesting creation of Dickens?

SS: Scrooge. He stands for any cold, calculating, money-driven, utilitarian age. He speaks for our post-colonial society as well where thingification is happening fast and our souls are shutting up. He is both a victim of utilitarianism and its artistic negation. By listening to the ghosts and believing, he begins changing internally for better. The message is: Seeds are within us. It is up to us to change or not; to grow as a better person by connecting with the larger humanity. For any moral regeneration, personal initiative is to be undertaken. And the joys of such re-connect with the larger humanity are varied and immense for us all. Even in most totalitarian societies, you will find folks like Schindler, helping out other folks. That is a strong message of hope that redemption is always possible through individual metamorphosis. It is said that this delightful novel changed the way Christmas was celebrated in England and, later on, in other nations as well. Christmas as an opportunity of reaching out to the poor and to God through them, of spreading cheer in cheerless lives, of feeling pain and suffering through wonderful human faculty of empathy. It is a great novel with huge emancipator powers, almost sacred, like the scriptures, for me, for its potential to effect deep moral transformations within and without.


JS: When did you read Dickens for the first time in your life?



SS: In school days. That was superficial reading. Deep reading came later on. The teachers did not help, of course. That kind of literacy is still missing in class-rooms everywhere. Literature is taught in a vacuum and most unimaginatively by the teachers who have no clues. No alliances or homologies are made between life and serious literature. It is a vacuous activity. Class-room teaching, in fact, kills the creative potential of great art-works everywhere. Literary literacy needs to be promoted and cultivated in a big way.

JS: Why did Dickens write about children and their hard pressed life?

SS: That you have to ask him only. Humour apart, in my view, kids and women are most vulnerable sections anywhere and most exploited. Childhood preoccupied Dickens, especially deprived one, as his own was very traumatic. Orphans and sick children roam freely his landscapes as they serve as the doubles for his own loveless childhood. He felt betrayed by his mother and that subliminal sense of abandonment gets echoed through creation of disadvantaged children and innocent women being victimized. In a way, innocent women and suffering orphans or abandoned children are identical in Dickensian universe---both often get brutalized and try bravely to retain their innate sense of beauty and innocence in such a lawless cruel bleak world of exploiters and ruthless gangsters and heartless suitors and scheming family male members. In every such unlucky family, a young woman tries bravely to be an angelic force. The portrayal of children is very sympathetically done by Dickens. Some of his shorts dealing with them are very poetic and tender. He appreciates their world much better than some of the current children’s books writers that pander to the marvellous detached from the immediacy and create false worlds of power and magic. Dickens never does that, despite his life-long fascination with the supernatural.
Here is the wonderful paradox: His fictions dealing with the young ones are more magical than the current blockbuster children’s books dealing with the magical in everyday life! Only a great Master can do that: Create magical lands: Lyrical, moving, soft and tender.


JS: Do you like his language?

SS: Language is a vehicle for expressing ideas in a creative way. For a highly prolific writer like Dickens, it serves him well. For some, Dickens might not be the cultivated or careful writers like a Flaubert or Henry James, but for me, he conveys the chatter of the streets so well. The rough and the tumble are captured so artistically by him. In his busy hands, it is not polished language but a passionate language working for him.


JS: What are his strong points as a novelist?

SS: His profound humanism; concern for the deprived; questioning the dominants, and, critical stance. He comes nearest to writer as a prophet for readers like me.


JS: At times Dickens’ characters are lifeless. Do you accept this criticism?

SS: In that case, we have to revise the meaning of the very term lifeless! I do not accept. His characters, after Shakespeare, are immortals!


JS: Will anyone read Dickens in the year 2050?

SS: Crystal-gazing is an art denied to me but as long as there will be an anguished search for a just, human and better world, Dickens will be a topper on the future reading lists of the humanoids.


JS: Is there any counterpart of Dickens in India?

SS: Premchand in Hindi. Manto in Urdu. Bashir in Malayalam. Mahasweta in Bengali. P.L.Deshpande in Marathi. List is endless. These are people’s writers, like Dickens.


JS: Should Dickens be read and studied as socially committed writer?

SS: That is for talented new critics like you to decide. Cannon-formation is these days highly elitist and reflects a bias for those writers that promote private fractured dismal and extremely limited worlds of drug-n-sex abuse, sexual orientations, individual ramblings of a fashionably-sick mind and what not. Dickens, even if outlawed by the dons, will continue to rule the hearts of public---his real readers. He enjoyed good rapport with them and changed his endings as per the public opinion. Such a rapport is missing, almost impossible, these days. Both writers and readers are getting atomized in the commercialized mass society. Literature is losing its élan for us. It is becoming an anguished cry of a neurotic only. These are real Hard Times for us.

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