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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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#MeToo Movement Shows The Decaying Soul of India: Mahesh Bhatt

These are larger issues. The soul of the country is decaying. We are far away from what we claim to be. And cases like this only put spotlight on that," added the director

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Nana Patekat, Metoo, Women
#MeToo movement shows India's soul is decaying: Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt

On the one hand, Indians bow down to a goddess to pray and on another some people violate women. This dichotomy in India is creating a mess of things, says filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, who feels Indians are far from what we claim to be.

“The #MeToo movement cannot be resolved through the court of public opinion. There are people standing up for something. I would say more power to women who scream from the rooftop about something wrong done to them — whether it is after 10 years or 20 or 50… It doesn’t make a difference,” Bhatt told IANS in an interview when he was in the city to promote “Jalebi”.

“You cannot deny the right to individuals to say what they say. But the question is whether the quotes are in sync with the legal system, which is based on a certain understanding. Are they in sync with this so-called enlightened new view that we have? If punitive action is not taken, the cynicism that nothing happens would be reinforced,” he added.

women
The dichotomy is what has made a mess of things.

 

The #MeToo movement in India started in September after Tanushree Dutta recounted an unpleasant episode with veteran actor Nana Patekar on the sets of “Horn ‘OK’ Pleassss” in 2008.

After that, a slew of controversies surrounding Vikas Bahl, Chetan Bhagat, Gursimran Khamba, Kailash Kher, Rajat Kapoor, Alok Nath and Sajid Khan have emerged.

“There is only one thing you can’t use this #MeToo movement for (and that is) settling old relationship issues. You cannot categorise that.

“There is domestic violence which is there between married people or lovers. There can be sexual misconduct which can be tackled legally. But we are talking about sexual harassment which is another case. Women need to handle that very responsibly,” Bhatt said.

The director feels it is time to ask a “deeper question”.

#MeToo, women
Bollywood actress Tanushree Datta presents a creation by designer Sanjeet Anand at the Bangalore Fashion Week in Bangalore, India. VOA

“During Durga Puja, you bow down to the deity which was created by this great story of male gods putting their best to create her so that she can kill the demon to save the world and heaven from the wrath of that demon. It is time to understand that you support the woman and let her retain her dignity or she will perish.

“The question is, ‘Do you really view women in the form of the goddess you worship in the temple’. Because in private life you violate them.”

He said “there is a kind of dichotomy”.

“The dichotomy is what has made a mess of things. We have an idea about ourselves and the reality is quite different from the idea. Look at what you are doing to women. There are issues which cannot be resolved themselves within a time frame of a week, a month or a year.

Nana Patekat, Metoo, Women
#MeToo movement is a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. #MeToo spread virally in October 2017. Flickr

“These are larger issues. The soul of the country is decaying. We are far away from what we claim to be. And cases like this only put spotlight on that,” added the director, who has helmed projects like “Arth”, “Saaransh”, “Naam”, “Sadak”, “Junoon” and “Papa Kahte Hain”.

As a film producer, how does he ensure a safe workplace for women?

Also Read: India’s #MeToo Movement Makes The Most Glamorous Industry Its Subject Of Scrutiny

“Human beings are vulnerable to all this and more. But I can only say that you lead by example. You set the tone about what the morality of the house is going to be. I have enough women force. I have my own daughter (Pooja), who is a tough chick. I have my sister who is hands-on. I have my niece.”

“If there is any outrage anywhere, I think there are enough pockets to bring out what is happening,” added Bhatt , who will be back as a director with “Sadak 2”. (IANS)