Every writer nurtures an idle fantasy (some more than one!), a project they toss around from time to time in their minds but never actually get around to putting down on paper. In my case I have long wanted to exact a sort of post-colonial revenge on that arch imperial literary figure, Rudyard Kipling, by subverting his over-praised novel Kim. Kipling’s tale of the 19th-century British boy who grows up for some years as an Indian, wanders the streets picking up the languages, the habits and the insights of the land, is restored to Englishness and then returns years later as a British officer uniquely equipped to play the “Great Game” on behalf of the Raj, seemed to me ripe for reversal. How about a novel, I mused, about an Indian boy — let us call him Mik — who, as a result of an albino birth or advanced leucoderma, is pale enough to pass off as a member of the melanin-deficient race that ruled us for two centuries? Mik might grow up in a British cantonment, be trained to rule at some British institution like Haileybury or Camberley, imbibe the ideas and attitudes (and understand the weaknesses) of the colonials, and then come back to India, rediscover his family and his roots, and turn his intimate knowledge of the oppressors against them as a fiery nationalist. I played with the notion for a while, but never got around to writing it.
But Mik came back to mind the other day when a literary controversy erupted in America over the proposed publication of a novel called “The Wind Done Gone”, which would seek to do to “Gone with the Wind” what I had wanted to do to Kim. The estate of Margaret Mitchell, whose only novel, “Gone with the Wind”, remains one of the most successful books (and movies) of all time, sued to prevent the publication of “The Wind Done Gone”, in which the same events are narrated from the point of view of a slave, the illegitimate half-sister of Scarlett O’Hara. The author of “The Wind Done Gone”, Alice Randall, consciously sought to counter Mitchell’s romanticized white-plantation South with an account from the perspective of the enslaved blacks who made the planters’ prosperity possible. As I write it is not clear if the Mitchell estate will succeed in blocking publication of “The Wind Done Gone”, but the issue it raises is an intriguing one. To the extent that literature captures our imagination with a version of experience that privileges a particular point of view, isn’t it desirable, even essential, that others give voice to those who were voiceless, silent, marginal, even absent in the original narrative?
Tom Stoppard, the brilliantly inventive British playwright, did precisely this in his early play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead”, in which he took two minor characters from “Hamlet” and, in effect, rewrote Shakespeare by imagining the scenes the Bard left out from the confused viewpoint of two hangers-on. Others, more recently, have done similar things. John Updike also reinvented “Hamlet” in his recent novel “Gertrude and Claudius”. In “Mary Reilly”, Valerie Martin retold Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” from the point of view of the transformational doctor’s maid. Herman Melville’s classic “Moby Dick”, with the obsessive Captain Ahab relentlessly pursuing the great white whale, underwent a feminist retelling in Sena Jeter Naslund’s “Ahab’s Wife”.
Shakespeare, Melville and Stevenson are not merely safely dead, but gone so long that copyright on their stories has expired, which, alas for poor Ms Randall, is not yet the case with “Gone with the Wind”. Indeed a hugely controversial European novel called “Lo’s Diary” — which reimagined the tale of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” from the point of view of the 14-year-old nymphet rather than that of the older man, Humbert, who was Nabokov’s principal protagonist — is impossible to find in English. An attempted American edition was successfully killed off by the Nabokov estate, which went to court before the book was released commercially and had every copy pulped before it could be sold. The literary executors of authors usually claim to be acting to preserve the artistic integrity of the original work, which is certainly fair from a writer’s point of view. But in the Mitchell case the argument is more legal than literary. It seems the Mitchell estate wants to assert its exclusive right to market spin-offs of the well-known characters, and might not be averse to licensing its own version of “Gone with the Wind” retold from a slave’s point of view. It just doesn’t want someone else cashing in on the idea.
The lethargy of our own courts aside, Ind
Source: The Hindu