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How India needs characters created by Harper Lee, Umberto Eco

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By Vikas Dutta

Last week the literature world witnessed the death of two great authors as American reclusive Harper Lee and Italian philosopher Umberto Eco passed away. The connection between them is not just the timing of death but that both of them had a decent, tolerant lawyer who combats prejudice and vigilantism and a rational, tolerant monk who solves mysteries as the main character of their first fictional work. Recent events in India showed the need of both as role models.

Mockingbird” (1960) set in segregationist American south in the 1930s and Brother William of Baskerville of “The Name of the Rose” (1980) taking place in superstition- and schism-ridden northern Italy in the 14th century are not only models for emulation but the authors’ abiding contribution towards the goals of human dignity, equity, tolerance and reason. Remembering them is the best tribute we can pay to their creators.

Both works have been made into acclaimed films, with the parts played memorably by Gregory Peck and Sean Connery respectively (and earning them an Oscar and a BAFTA for best actor). Most of us would have read the books and/or seen the films but for those who might not have, or forgotten, the characters can be introduced again.

Like their creators, the middle-aged, widowed lawyer and the Franciscan monk are both disparate characters, not only in time and space but nature too though they have certain points of resemblance. Apart from being “moral compasses” and morally and personally courageous, they are caring father figures – Finch to his children (six-year-old Jean-Louise “Scout” and 10-year-old Jeremy “Jem”) and William to a companion, novice Adso.

“To Kill a Mockingbird”, based on Lee’s own reminiscences (Finch turned out to be based on her own father) and incorporating some contemporary racial issues, is set in a small town in Alabama during the Great Depression. Finch is asked to defend a young black man, Tom Robbins, accused of raping a white woman, and agrees despite public disapproval. Not only does he defend his charge the best he can, he also protects him from a lynch mob. He is, however, unable to get Robbins off despite demolishing the prosecution case, and learns later that he has been shot “while trying to escape”.

But despite the outcome, it is the qualities Finch embodies – decent, fair treatment to all people, not to respond to violence with violence, to stand for what you believe and not force it on others – that make him relevant for any time.

A quote from the book – also used in the film – is illustrative. As he advises his daughter: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was Lee’s sole work. “Go Set a Watchman” (2015), set some years in the future and presenting a Finch who is not so heroic, is touted as a sequel but as per detailed examination is deemed to be an earlier draft.

Eco, apart from being a best-selling novelist, was an academician with significant contributions to semiotics or study of human signs and symbols and their interpretation, aesthetics, literary theory, media culture and philosophy and it shows in “The Name of the Rose”.

William and Adso reach a northern Italian monastery to attend a theological disputation, but all is not calm there. First there is a suicide and then several other mysterious deaths and William is asked to probe but there is labyrinthine library whose mysteries have to be solved, some secrets that the abbot is unwilling to divulge and the Inquisition is also present.

With his name commemorating a medieval philosopher and the area of a famous detective’s most celebrated exploits, the character’s inspiration is obvious. William of Ockham’s philosophical technique “Ockham’s Razor” advised that the simplest explanation accounting for all the facts should always be accepted as most likely mirrors Holmes’ dictum “that when one has eliminated the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth”.

William also looks and behaves like Holmes, being tall, so thin that he appears taller, with sharp and piercing eyes, a thin, sharp nose and a prominent chin, is capable of most intense activity but curiously still when not intellectually stimulated, and has the same sharp intellect and deduction powers. Unlike Holmes, his skills were not very welcome in his era but he didn’t let it deter him.

When brute prejudice reigns, unthinking conformity imposed and dissent deemed criminal, such models are more than necessary. But will we – and especially those demeaning these professions – only let them remain fictional archetypes?

(21.02.2016 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )(IANS)(image-wikipedia)

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Across Asia’s Borders, Survivors Of Human Trafficking, Dial in for Justice

The trial has been ongoing since 2013

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Tara Khokon Miya is seen in her village home in Shipur, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2018. She is helping to prepare her 27-year-old daughter to testify via videoconferencing technology against the men who trafficked her to India.
Tara Khokon Miya is seen in her village home in Shipur, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2018. She is helping to prepare her 27-year-old daughter to testify via videoconferencing technology against the men who trafficked her to India. VOA

When Neha Maldar testified against the traffickers who enslaved her as a sex worker in India, she spoke from the safety of her own country, Bangladesh, via videoconferencing, a technology that could revolutionize the pursuit of justice in such cases.

The men in the western city of Mumbai appeared via video link more than 2,000 km (1,243 miles) west of Maldar as she sat in a government office in Jessore, a major regional hub for sex trafficking, 50 km from Bangladesh’s border with India.

“I saw the people who had trafficked me on the screen and I wasn’t scared to identify them,” Maldar, who now runs a beauty parlor from her home near Jessore, told Reuters. “I was determined to see them behind bars.”

“I told them how I was beaten for refusing to work in the brothel in the beginning and how the money I made was taken away,” she said, adding that she had lied to Indian authorities about her situation after being rescued, out of fear.

Thousands of people from Bangladesh and Nepal — mainly poor, rural women

and children — are lured to India each year by traffickers who promise good jobs but sell them into prostitution or domestic servitude, anti-slavery activists say.

Activists hope the safe, convenient technology could boost convictions. A Bangladeshi sex trafficker was jailed for the first time in 2016 on the strength of a victim’s testimony to a court in Mumbai via video link from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital.

Convictions for cross-border trafficking in the region are rare as most victims choose not to pursue cases that have traditionally required them to testify in Indian courts, which meant staying in a shelter for the duration of the trial.

“They have always wanted to go back home, to their families,” said Shiny Padiyara, a legal counsel at the Indian charity Rescue Foundation that has facilitated videoconferencing cases and runs shelters for trafficking victims. “And most never return to testify.”

But videoconferencing is making it easier to pursue justice. Survivors have given statements, identified their traffickers, and been cross examined in at least 10 other ongoing international cases in Bangladesh, advocates said.

“Enabling victims to testify via video conference will lead to a possible decrease in acquittal rates for want of prime witnesses,” said Adrian Phillips of Justice and Care, a charity that supports the use of video testimony to help secure justice.

Even then, it is tough. During Maldar’s three-hour deposition, she withstood a tough cross-examination, showed identity documents to prove her age and countered allegations by the defense lawyer that she was lying about her identity.

Students Combat Human Trafficking
Students Combat Human Trafficking, flickr

‘Unpardonable’

Tara Khokon Miya is preparing her 27-year-old daughter to testify against the men who trafficked her to India from Dhaka, where she had been working in a garment factory.

“I almost lost my daughter forever,” she said, sitting in her home in Magura, less than 50 km from Jessore, describing how she disappeared after work and was taken to a brothel in India, and raped and beaten for almost a year before being rescued.

“What the traffickers did to my daughter was unpardonable,” Miya said, wiping her tears. “We seek justice. I nurtured her in my womb and can’t describe what it felt like to not know about her whereabouts.”

The trial has been ongoing since 2013 when the young woman, who declined to be named, was repatriated. The charity Rights Jessore is helping the family through the process, by providing counseling and rehearsing cross-examination.

“The best thing is her father will be by her side when she talks in court,” Miya said, finally breaking into a smile.

India signed a bilateral agreement with Bangladesh in 2015 to ensure faster trafficking investigations and prosecutions, and with Nepal in 2017, and laid down basic procedures to encourage the use of videoconferencing in court proceedings.

“The procedure is very transparent,” said judge K M Mamun Uzzaman at Jessore courthouse, which often converts its conference hall into a courtroom for videoconferencing cases to protect survivors’ privacy.

“I’m usually present and victims are able to testify confidently … it is easy and cost effective for us,” he said. “But the biggest beneficiaries are the survivors.”

Silencing Victims
Silencing Victims, pixabay

The future

Videoconferencing in Bangladesh has been plagued by technical glitches such as power cuts and poor connections.

“Sometimes the internet connection is weak or it gets disconnected during the testimony,” said Binoy Krishna Mallick head of Rights Jessore, a pioneer in using this technology to encourage trafficking survivors to pursue justice. “But these are just teething troubles.”

The bigger challenge, activists say, is to ensure survivors remain committed to the trial despite delays caused by a backlog of cases and witnesses’ failure to appear to testify.

Swati Chauhan, one of the first judges to experiment with video testimony in 2010, is convinced that technology can eliminate many of these hurdles.

Also read: Imagining Panun Kashmir: Dissent And Detente in South Asia

“Victims go through a lot of trauma, so it is natural that they don’t want to confront their trafficker in a court — but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the trafficker to be punished,” she said. “A videoconference requires meticulous planning and it is not easy coordinating between departments and countries. But it is the future for many seeking justice.” (VOA)