This is a book everybody, absolutely everybody, needs to read. To Kill a Mockingbird is not so much a story as a parable. Told in the first person, it is a soothing read in which the voice of the protagonist, a 10-year-old tomboyish girl, stands out for actually having the innocence and child-like joy of the character it inhabits.
The hero of the novel is a man named Atticus Finch, whose gentlemanly ways and monkish behaviour stand in stark contrast to the alpha male society of today. Who could believe that a respected man spit upon in public by a white thrash male would be non-violent in his response? There is a Gandhian streak in Atticus, and in there lies perhaps its ultimate appeal for us in India.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel about the American South in the 1960s. The story it tells is that of a black man accused of raping a white girl. However, the society in which the accusation is made is at a cusp. Its attitudes are changing, and the old ways of simply “whipping the nigger” aren’t holding up.
It is in such circumstances that a white man generally too drunk or wasted to provide for his family, and loaded with the insecurity that comes with being a failure — white thrash, for short — pressurises his daughter to blame a gentle black man for raping her. In reality it is his last attempt at finding a hurrah for himself. He is an incestuous wastrel, and the daughter he compels to make the charge is responsible for initiating congress with a black man who she invites inside.
Once the charge is made and a case is filed, old battle lines are redrawn. Atticus Finch, hero of the book, is assigned the task of defending the black man in court. It is his acceptace of the brief that gets him spit upon.
Like the movie Sairat, there is no “filmy” ending to this book. The black man charged with the crime is shot dead while attempting to escape prison, and the story meanders on to tell us about the protagonist, the 10-year-old girl.
Throughout the story, we are reminded that children, although cute, innocent and not given to being a nuisance, can also make snap judgements, be mean, and imagine things when none exist.
The story ends when a reclusive person the children thought evil ends up rescuing them.
Throughout the book though, what stands out is the voice of Atticus. Given to prolonged meditation, well-thought out replies and a quiet certainty, Atticus is the man of reason who you just KNOW is a hero. In a world that loves the high-decibel, Atticus, with his strength of character, reminds us of the importance of low-key.
The follow-up, Go Set a Watchman, is true to form, if only because the protagonists voice returns, this time as a 26-year-old visiting from New York. The message here is not in what is there in the voice, but what is not there.
Everything that made the 10-year-old voice enduring is missing. This is the voice of someone unsure who doesn’t want anyone to sense the doubts. It is the voice of someone who rebels out of fashion, not out of need.
Both books hold out something more for India. Analysing the case in TKAM, we learn the real reason the jury, although willing to consider a defence of the black man, must ultimately sentence him to death. It is not because they believe he committed the crime. Nor is it because they hate him personally.
It is because of the circumstances that made the white girl invite him in. For years, passing their home, he had noticed the absence of wealth in the family. Knowing that there was a man with no wife and many children trying to run a home, and knowing that the white man was usually passed out, he had offered to help the young girl chop wood, fix a light and performed menial chores that she couldn’t and her father wouldn’t do. It was the sentiment that doomed him. He, a black man, had taken pity on a white family. It was too much for the society to bear.
As India rises, and the old social structures dissolve, such issues are bound to come to the fore. At such moments, it is only the voice of Atticus that one can believe. We need Atticus. But before that, we need everybody to know this story. We need them to read this book. Not for themselves, but for us.
Reading Recommendation: To Kill a Mockingbird is a story everybody can read. Even those who are starting out. But Go Set a Watchman is not recommended until you are a more sophisticated reader. Too much of the story is grounded in the history of the American black rights movement to make sense for beginners.