Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee’s book on race tells us many things…

Go Set a Watchman – Harper Lee’s book on race tells us many things…

To Kill a Mockingbird was a childhood treasure – the book was in my father’s library ever since I could remember and was one of his favourites. Among his treasure trove of Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde and Cornelius Ryan, among others, Harper Lee’s classic took pride of place. The movie captured my imagination no less – my father was a great fan of Gregory Peck, who played Atticus Finch to perfection. Growing up in the midst of books – his gift to me was his love of reading and writing, he did both until his death in 2013 profusely – reading came as naturally as breathing. Even today, especially today, when less and less people read, the lure of a good book beats the glamour of the internet any day.

When I read about Harper Lee’s long lost and finally found book Go Set a Watchman, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out to be. The reviews were hesitant, given the content ; I found the book on a recent visit to Singapore – there was a banded offer on sale that combined both the books. With a retro cover that shows a train heading deep into the rural American South, the book felt a lot like going back in time. On all fronts, it seems.

Harper Lee is clearly a writer’s writer. The usage of words, the language is so vivid, you savour every sentence that is so beautifully crafted. I could live with the references to race in the book – it comes from a different era, a different time. It does not have to be politically correct but it has a story to tell, which, under the circumstances, made sense for the people of the time. A story that may seem stark and darker than we would like it to be, but there it is narrating and presenting a picture as it was during those days, in the deep rural South of the US.

Harper Lee’s writings cascade, much like the mighty Mississippi, in an ebb and a flow, making the writer in me want to re-read passages that are so beautifully captured. In your mind’s eye, you can see Jean Louise drive into town, play with her brother Jem and friend Hank under the chinaberry tree and the drinks on the patio on a hot summer’s day ; it was a world without iPods and Internet and you are held with awe with the way in which kids kept themselves occupied. You can understand her dismay at the courthouse as she watches her father take part in that dreaded meeting – and her reaction.

Yet for all its old world rhetoric, Harper Lee’s frank and no nonsense narrative asks a lot of today’s society that is governed by the principles of justice and equality. It also makes a sort of an inward looking plea, that makes you want to pause and think. Jean Louise might be a rebel and shocked at the Southern way of doing things well into the 20th century but there are many moments when you desperately want to see her deal with it and move on.

From another perspective,  there are other sides to the woman that Harper Lee so intricately presents, ones that you want to capture. One that struck me was her inability to accept another point of view, whether right or wrong. Sometimes we are like that too. We are too busy being right that we forget right or wrong, others may have various view points that at least should be listened to. There was a lot of that in the two elections we in Sri Lanka just concluded – so much of one sided arguments, whether right or wrong, cannot prevail. There should be room in an ideal world, for all sides.

But then, we don’t read fiction for lessons in race or race relations or to learn about the importance of being politically correct. There’s an earful of that everyday on media , especially in relation to shootings and protests. We read fiction to enjoy a good book and to remind ourselves that nothing is more enjoyable than a well written good book. Any day.

A father’s daughter remembers..

A father’s daughter remembers..

I rarely or almost never write on politics, especially Sri Lankan politics.

My late father did ; from his heady days as a lobby reporter for the Daily News until much later, when he left the newspaper world to work for a Ministry and then the overseas mission in Bonn, Germany.

As a child, I remember joining him to visit the old parliament, the one by the sea at Galle Face. It used to be such a pleasant visit – I remember the dignified men and women in the chambers although I don’t remember what they spoke about. Whatever it was, it was decent and perfectly safe for a child to listen in on. What a contrast to today’s one. I remember the sand coloured building so well, facing the sea majestically as it still does. I used to wonder who the serious looking statutes around its court yard were – until my father explained them  patiently to me,one by one.

Most  of all, what I remember were the cheesecakes and the rolls of the parliament canteen, which the press room had aplenty. These were the lean years before 1977 – cheesecakes and fat rolls were a big deal back then. Apples and imported cheese were a big deal too, back then. I still remember my father bringing home apples, much treasured, from an occasional visit to a ship at the harbour.

As a child, I also was a regular visitor to the house by the lake, Lake House. I would hold on to my father’s hand and climb its many steps and stare in wonder at the men and women who manned the desks and typed away. They looked very serious. Back at home, I would sit at my father’s old type writer and type, letter by letter , word by word. I wanted to be a writer even back then.

My father never liked the computer – until he passed away in 2013, which still feels like yesterday, he preferred to use the typewriter. When the typewriter broke, he started to type on the computer at my insistence but never liked it. He didn’t like the way it corrected itself and kept asking whether to save a file. His generation probably was not good at being guided by a machine. It was alien to him have the machine issue commands. If the typewriter was out of commission, he preferred to write – with pen and paper.

I wrote my first article for the Mihira children’s newspaper in 1973. I was in Grade 3 and had just discovered my passion – which came alive when typing away at the keys of my father’s typewriter. It was more than a passion ; it was the way I saw the world around me. My thought patterns were and still are formed around words. My brain understands best the words, the nuances, the meaning and yes, the pleasure of finding just the right word to explain something.

To be a wordsmith, I later learnt, you are most likely to be right brained. Myth or otherwise, those of us who find ourselves best explained in words and sentences are perhaps set apart from those who crunch numbers, in more ways than one.

Not that the writing types cannot be analytical either. Running a business involves analytical skills although not necessarily those crunching numbers. Thathi was a maths genius while being a wordsmith par excellence. Somehow, I didn’t quite get around numbers that well and still find it easier to use the calculator which is now easily available on the smartphone.

Today, we are told that not many young people like to read. Or write. Which is why I am fixed on a mission to get my kids to write and read. Write and read ; that’s their daily mantra.

We are told by the experts that Instagram styled pictures and videos (vids, to be sure) , are more popular than blog posts such as the one I am writing. We are constantly told to stick to more pictures, less words formula on the websites. With http://www.satyn.lk and http://www.yahaloo.com which are two of the websites we manage, it is a tough call, managing just the right content and the right pictures.

Call me old fashioned but I still like to believe that there are many out there who still want to read a good story. They could be my generation now on the threshold of a fast approaching half a century, or the millennials but they are definitely there. A photo may always tell a thousand words but the story is even better when it sets the right mood.

Smartphones and tabs are excellent sources to encourage reading too – from The Bible to the magazines and the books, they can be packed with tons of reading material when you are on the move. The optimum mix happens when you can blend technology with writing and reading.

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” – Benjamin Franklin