I came upon To Kill a Mockingbird in my junior college days. A lone reader friend had praised it like no other and I picked it up that day because it was in my range of sight and not because I had gone looking for it. Those days Harry Potter was still the “sought after” series.
I read To Kill a Mocking in a slow languid manner, quite in the same manner in which the plot flows, that ‘summer vacation’ lull which is full of creative exciting material for school kids but at the same time has a distinct drag. Maycomb county and Parle east of that time were eerily similar in spirit and especially my own summer holiday’ days were still fresh in the recesses of mind and hence I could instantly become a part of Jem and Scout’s days, worries, thoughts, concerns… I saw it and felt only as much of it as they did. And that’s possibly why I could see Calpurnia, Dill, Boo Radley, most of Maycomb and most importantly Atticus Finch from the limited spectrum of Scout’s eyes. Atticus was special but what was the extra-ordinary aspect I did not delve into; I was busy being Scout. 11 years, a series of tumultuous experiences, harsh realities and rocky teenage later I stood once again with another of Harper Lee’s masterpieces ‘Go Set a Watchman’ in hand this time in Shakespeare and Co. in the autumnal evening in Paris. This book is a sequel to ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ and astonishingly I encountered a grown up Scout in this one; Scout who was exactly my age at that point in time. It remained and resonated more with me, there was much more to read at than read through and this time it was not me going all Scout, this time it was a sudden encounter with a bizarre greatness called Atticus Finch!
To say that I fell in love with Atticus would be an understatement, let’s just say this time over life had made me more equipped to understand him. Beauty of Atticus Finch as a character lies in his other-worldly realness. Any obsessed fiction reader will tell you that books leave us with a lot of characters that are motivational, aspirational, abhorrent, quirky, strange, enigmatic etc. but the problem with all these is that they seem distanced/divorced to a significant extent from your reality. So they end up staying with you but in abstract forms and hence when you find a character that is all of above but seems at the same time very real; that becomes a final decisive tick mark on the uniqueness of that character. And this uniqueness is born in the fact that abstractions lay away with such souls, they become accessible, they are endearing and most importantly they can become a tangible part of your routine, a bridge between two sides of your own soul, one that sits with its leg dangling in the “here and now” and the other that has its other leg resolutely in the mire of ink and of all people who are born in it.
Atticus, a white, southern American lawyer, a widower and father to Jem and Jean Louise (Scout), a simple church going Christian man, seems like a type set character we have all met till we see it closely. He is a man who lives by his rules, his unique take on morality and more over his informal yet studied fashion of raising his children. He seems to do the routine mundane things with a small but hugely impactful turn that comes from his approach to such things and mainly from his way of expressing/showing them. To use the over-run cliché, he doesn’t do different things; he does the same things differently.
Like any father he read to Jem and Scout, but he read anything that he happened to be reading at that point in time; right from legal tracts, to Bible, to American war history. What must have his children learnt from it apart from a scarily advanced vocabulary is the question answered by a look at their now evolved characters as adults. When a renowned pastor that Atticus had invited to dinner witnessed his children do a vulgar imitation of his sermons, one can only imagine what any other father would have done and felt. Scout and Jem also expect the same embarrassment, outrage and utter mortification followed by strict disciplinary action that we do, but just when things seem to be going in that direction; Atticus rises high above the situation and chooses to see and forgive the children for their age appropriate behaviour and in concealed self-owned jest shows the aggrieved pastor that “insulting” situations can be seen through a holistic and wholesome objective assessment; he merely laughs at all the veiled insults that pastor aims at him for poor parenting.
Atticus is special because he can walk in the skin of another man for long and he can do that with any person; may he/she be of any age, gender, race etc. this gives him unique perspective and ability to avoid stereotypical reactions to commonly experienced situations. He can stand tall and fight all in name of a principle he believes in. He has the courage to face the consequences of the same. His lessons last long with his children and his readers because they come as a part of (and verbally) after he has practiced what others only preach! After his own beloved child insults him in the most uncouth fashion, his reaction to her later deep apology is that of not having been affected by anything she said at all and that’s because he says he feels offended only by those statements that are true. It was a whiplash for me as a reader. How many times have I reacted like a raged bull when someone wrongly accused me! But didn’t my reaction to a false accusation actually sanctify it! This is very hard to practice when you are in the moment but Atticus being the hands on person he is can SHOW you what that principle means before he tells. In the truest sense Atticus lives up to this description of his: “Integrity, Humour and Patience were the three words for Atticus Finch”
The complexity of Atticus as a person lies in his simplicity. He lives by a simple moral code of life and that he lives it with such ease that it makes one want to live it too but we know that we wouldn’t be able to do it because such stripped down simplicity of thoughts and actions is much more complex to implement than the chaotic complexity of our thoughts and constant inconsistencies of our actions. He becomes his children’s moral compass without giving long sermons, their contemporary in each age and their father and a model citizen through a life lived and then told. Atticus Finch is special because he plays a bridge not just between fiction and reality but also between two other poles ‘a philosopher’ and ‘a man of the world’. He makes his philosophy a matter of practice and leaves the reader with a warm glow of comforting knowledge that you don’t need to retire to forests to develop a moral code to abide by, you can have one and live one as a normal everyday man and that itself makes you otherworldly.
What other reassurance does a generation split between the polars of simple and complex, rebel and conformist, lay man and spiritually evolved need other than the knowledge that some hundred years ago possibly in a Maycomb County lived one Atticus Finch as if of flesh and blood, as if on my here and now and as if a father figure I would have not just aspired to have but to eventually become. I love you Atticus Finch; let’s keep such complex emotions as simple as you keep them; I love you.