Suroopa Mukherjee teaches English literature at the Hindu College, Delhi. She is also the author of Bhopal Gas Tragedy, a powerful account of the 1984 industrial disaster for young people.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1775-1817)
Of all the famous opening lines, nothing has struck a more genuine chord of empathy with the Indian middle-class, and its philistine and predictable reading public. At the same time, Pride and Prejudice is a novel that has remained a constant favourite with students pursuing an undergraduate degree in English (Hon). I have always wondered why a woman writer in the Victorian Age, continues to make literary as well as popular sense in our postcolonial world?
I think the reason lies in the way Jane Austen writes about issues that are uniquely stereotypical and yet fiercely eccentric. She uses the art of understatement in a way that is feminine and judgemental without being prurient and dogmatic. Love is never proclaimed verbally or physically; two minds meet without the need for the heart to intervene. And yet, love is portrayed tenderly, despite the way characters manipulate and practice love as a business deal.
Darcy is the perennial hero of unheroic times. Elizabeth is Darcy’s prejudiced alter ego. She has her pride that marginalises her gossipy mother, her giddy sisters, the bumbling suitors and the stiff necked aristocratic families that reject her, on the grounds that she is an unfit match for the mother’s eligible sons.
How many Darcy/s and Elizabeth/s are there in our own social circles? Well, Mrs Bennet/s are more in number. But then, popular art form in India is hardly concerned with issues of copyright or artistic freedom to create lookalikes. We thrive on Indian makes of Darcy and Elizabeth. And surprisingly enough, we have Desi versions of Jane Austen as well. Their reality is a pale shadow of the original world occupied by the 19th century British gentry, living in the suburban country side, to which Pride and Prejudice clearly belonged..
Television and Cinema provides the important link between the two worlds. The most popular and trend setting are soap serials that creates characters borrowed from Jane Austen’s collection of stories. Unlike literary studies, cinematic art-forms can ignore footnotes, bibliographies, or disclaimers. However, a Bollywood version of Pride and Prejudice, which becomes an instant hit, is promptly followed by a deluge of cheaply priced paperbacks, brought out by publishers, who are following their commercial instincts. No wonder, Pride and Prejudice is the one of the few novels, which is a best selling birthday or Valentine day’s gift. It does not account for how many actually get to read the book.
One would imagine that Pride and Prejudice calls for a different kind of literary canon-making inside a college classroom. Students are called upon to write term-papers and prepare for the exams. In the process, a novel gets reduced to forms of reference-to-the-context, and long analytical answers. A teacher can teach it like a novel that initiates the students into the rarefied world of literary studies. But very often, a classroom teaching of Jane Austen is curiously far removed from an academic exercise. It does the job of breaking ice, by allowing the students to feel at home with a subject that is too abstract for their liking. And here it is not the familiarity of the soap serials that count. Nor the Bollywood take on Jane Austen.
The students respond to the novel written by Jane Austen in 1813. A good 200 years later, when everything about the world has changed, the readers continue to enjoy reading her novels. What they like best, is her gentle humour, her wise take on love and life, her irony, and her ability to people her world with funny, proud and prejudiced characters.