I read To Kill a Mockingbird in school, by the light that crept in through the half-open door after the hostel warden issued the lights-out order at 9pm every night. I roamed about Maycomb with Scout and Jem, worked hard to win Atticus’s affection and looked forward to what Boo Radley would leave me in the knot-hole of the oak tree. And when the novel ended, I felt a little heavier with the weight of a new world, a shiny sense of loss, an awareness of the small injustices of childhood.
Most novels come to life within the bracket of the time and background in which they are set. Context is so important. Scarlett O’Hara’s story wouldn’t have unfolded in Gone with the Wind if she hadn’t lived in a southern town in America during the civil war. In Pride and Prejudice, the love between Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy blazed in late 18th century rural England; it would probably have got extinguished in the hum and buzz of modern life. To Kill a Mockingbird, too, is a product of its time, redolent as it is of the racial tension of 20th century America. Yet, it doesn’t collapse under the constraint of context. It remains relevant to this day because no matter the age or the setting, our fundamental humanity will never change. Everything that Atticus says and everything that Scout, Jem and Dill discover, holds true.
One of my favourite quotes from the book is when Atticus says: “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.” That’s the best part of climbing into a good book and lying suspended there with a good view of the plot as it unfolds, living the life of the characters. It breeds empathy like nothing else.
Scout’s world is one of dualities, as childhood so often is. You are tossed about in a place of multipolar values. She lives amid the complexities of love and hate, of fitting in and standing out at the same time. She learns that she lives in an unfair place—a place where your skin colour determines your guilt. She chooses to live with it, like most of us do, because we cannot choose the air we breathe and because we believe that the world is programmed a particular way and it takes guts to fight a war you know you are going to lose. As Atticus says, courage is not about not getting licked... it’s about playing the game knowing you are going to get licked. Lee also says something else in the book: “People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.” That epitomised Lee, a sloughing off of pride, a conscious humbling of the mind. At the height of her popularity, she did the unthinkable; she chose to give it up. Today, we live in the age of Twitter and Facebook where every life is a reality show open to the public. In a world in which she no longer lives, she reminds us that true greatness is not measured by a person’s fame, but rather, how she handles it.