India celebrates - and debates - relevance of Charles Dickens

New Delhi: He gave us Uriah Heep in ‘David Copperfield’, the Artful Dodger in ‘Oliver Twist’, Ebenezer Scrooge in ‘The Christmas Carol’...characters who live on not just in books but also in the English language itself. As the world celebrates 200 years of Charles Dickens, so does India despite the intense debate on the relevance of Dickensian pedagogy in the 21st century.

The pictures he painted of Victorian England were often bleak, his characters an unfashionable black or white in their evil or goodness and his books sometimes dismissed as too long. But Dickens, born Feb 7, 1812, in Portsmouth, England, is the prolific author whose contribution has seeped into the contemporary -- Uriah Heep, for instance, is the byword for insincerity, Scrooge for miserliness and these are just a few.

Dickens` lasting contribution to modern English literature was a depiction of grim social reality in details, a style many Indo-Anglian writers have emulated in their contemporary, post-colonial and diaspora canvas of the day.

To promote the Dickensian style, the British Council in collaboration with Penguin-India is hosting an all-India creative writing competition, "After Dickens", to encourage young writers between 16-21 years to write a "small creative treatise on Dickens in either poetry, prose, short stories and reportage".

The brood of emerging celebrity writers are also on the radar.

The council has invited contemporary Indian writers in English - "especially those whose writing dwells around cities and urban landscapes" - to contribute pieces on what they feel Dickens would have been writing today. Some who have agreed to contribute include novelists Amit Chaudhuri, Neel Mukherjee and Anita Nair.

There are other programmes planned, including a film programme in major cities offering cinematic milestones like ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Pickwick Papers’, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ and ‘Oliver Twist’, as well as a series of talks by author Craig Taylor discussing creative ways of teaching Dickens.

According to Mitra Mukherjee-Parikh, head of the university department of English, SNDT Women`s University in Mumbai, "Dickens had a fascination for the new idea of the city".

Dickens as a classical literary legacy lives on the Indian campus.

"Dickens remains important to us. The orphan figure and the figures of childhood move every reader. He deals with England getting industrialised and how man gets caught in it the trap which is not of his making. His books marks a shift into the urban world with its unemployment, poverty and wronged women who lose property," Sherina Joshi, associate professor in Delhi University`s Deshbandhu College, said.

Delhi University teaches Dickens` "Hard Times" in its undergraduate module.

But the legacy could be waning.

"We regularly have one or two texts on Dickens. Currently, we have one, which is part of the compulsory course. However, students are getting more attracted to contemporary literature," Coomi Vevaina, head of the Department of English at the University of Mumbai, told reporters.

Simi Malhotra, as associate professor of English at the Jamia Millia Islamia, added that the "Indian understanding of novel writing has changed in the last 10 years with post-colonial novels and feminist novels".

"Students are interested in contemporary novels - let`s say Amitav Ghosh has more relevance here than Dickens. In last 10 years, the volume of research on Dickens has declined sharply," Malhotra said.

Dickens does not inspire publisher Shobit Arya of Wisdom Tree personally, though he concedes Dickens` "power of story-telling".

"We have moved on...we would rather read a novel that speaks of immediate reality - in the Indian milieu," a post-graduate student at the Jamia Millia Islamia told IANS while Alka Bansal, a senior librarian at the Tagore International School in Delhi (Vasant Vihar) said she "virtually forces Dickens on the children, bred on fast-paced Twilght-kind of mass fictions".

But for writer-politician Shashi Tharoor, who played the leader of the gang of child thieves in a stage production of "Oliver Twist" in 1968, "the Artful Dodger" remains his favourite character.

Till five years ago, Dickens` books were in demand at all major book shops in the metros.

"Children read classics then. But with the arrival of the mass fiction, no one wants to read Charles Dickens any more," a spokesperson for the Midland book shop told reporters.

Compared to the Rs.50 edition of the 1970s, economics has taken toll on Dickens too. The prices of the books now range between Rs.150 to Rs.1,500 depending on the nature of binding and the publisher, the spokesperson added.