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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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Low Cure Rate For Childhood Cancer in India: Experts

On International Childhood Cancer Day, the hospital organised a ‘Sit and Draw competition’ with pediatric patients and rewarded the winner

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Health insurance covers only for hospitalization and doesn’t necessarily cover the medical expenses incurred for the treatment of major illnesses. flickr

Childhood cancer comprises almost 3-5 per cent of the total cancer cases in India, experts said here on Friday, expressing concern over the low cure rate due to lack of available data.

“The disturbing reality is that the cure rate of pediatric cancer is almost 80 per cent in the developed countries. When we see the data from major cancer centres, it actually can match up to the Western standard but this data is not enough,” Haemato-Oncologist Vivek Agarwala said at an awareness programme conducted by Narayana Superspecialty Hospital, Howrah.

According to the Indian Council for Medical Research, cancer in children constitutes approximately 3-5 per cent of the total cancer cases in India.

Agarwala said a large portion of the incidence of childhood cancer in society is still not addressed.

Cancer survivor. Flickr

Also, a large section who don’t have access to premier institutes are often diagnosed late due to financial crunch and that is why the overall treatment rate in India is low.

“Probably, the government and society at large are not considering it a big problem as it is just around 5 per cent. We are always campaigning for breast and cervical cancers,” Agarwala said.

“We must remember this 5 per cent of cancer is majorly curable if given proper treatment,” he said.

Leukaemia and retinoblastoma (a form of cancer where children have a white eye) are the two common forms of cancer in children.

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Talking about awareness and symptoms that parents need to watch out for, he said: “Symptoms are different for different cancers, but children who have cancer have poor growth, poor weight gain and decreased appetite. One must get their children evaluated on seeing these symptoms”.

On International Childhood Cancer Day, the hospital organised a ‘Sit and Draw competition’ with pediatric patients and rewarded the winner. (IANS)