A "Take Off" on Charles Dickens' great novel, "Great Expecations"
College Street: the haunt of students all over the city of Calcutta and the state of West Bengal. Grade 5ers looking on curiously as their mothers choose the books prescribed by their schools; class 10 and 9ers, trying to put on their grown up airs and buying reference books for their projects; college students ruffling through pages and pages, books and books, withered document after document, searching for that collector's item; middle aged book collectors, ancient babus, stroking their white beards or smooth, flabby clean shaven faces, searching for that vintage edition. It is here that I found a packet of yellow papers from a bookseller who, though seedy by looks, could slam Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Camus or Marxian philosophy across your face to prove his argument about the state of global warming and man's inability to cope with the powers of nature and the consequence he would have to face because of his polluting and evil acts. Would you like to buy some ganja?1 No? Very well; he would add to his argument.
I slid the packet into my cotton side-bag and slung it across my shoulder. The traffic was horrid as always, the public buses spewing acrid black smoke, while snailing through the road. The insufferable heat drenching one to the skin by sheer perspiration and yet, I loved it. I was home. I looked up at the college buildings on the other side of the road and smiled as I saw young couples heading into and out of the colleges, tens and fifties of people lining up across the hundreds of bookstores by the university buildings. The colleges were soaked in the dried up juices of colonial antiquity. Founded by Raja Ram Mohun Roy, associated with Edward Hyde East, the Maharaja of Burdwan; birthplace of Nobel Prize winners J.C.Bose and Amartya Sen and the hotbed of politics during Indiaï's freedom struggle: Presidency College. Over a hundred and seventy five years old, the birthplace of geniuses; Calcutta University, there to polish off the brilliance of Presidency College. My father was a product of Calcutta University in the Presidency College campus as had been my uncle and my sister. I had longed to study at Presi (as it was fondly called) and spend hours after hours just rummaging through the precious treasure of books that the booksellers of College Street housed or go for a walk in the large Medical College campus right beside. But that was not to be. I had gone off to the United States of America as soon as I had finished with high school. With a full scholarship and an International Merit Award I had been all proud and haughty. I had worked hard for it, dash it! But my interests did not lie in the New World, nor in being an anglophile, as I had subconsciously wanted, I had discovered. I got my fill at Wabash College with my passion for history and religion. Four years later, I was back, researching in India, more specifically Calcutta, for a project I was doing on colonial India. I had found a diary of a nineteenth century army officer working on Her Majesty's service.
I lit a Charminar. A long drag at the nera2 cigarette. The bus that would head to Victoria Memorial was approaching.
It was late in the night when I returned. It had started raining and the city was almost flooded by now in knee deep water. Things still hadn't changed in the four years that I had been away. I had dinner with my parents and told them about my day. We were all quite excited, as there was a lot to catch up on. I had arrived just a couple of days ago from America. My father opened the bottle of Glennfiddich that I had got him from the duty free liquor store at Singapore and we sat down for some after dinner conversation. I unbuttoned my blue jeans, putting my hand through the long white kurta that I had been wearing all day. I needed to relax. Ma had spoilt me with a fabulous dinner and this after having had a harrowing day at National Medical College. Having politely postponed the shower that she had suggested I take to get the day's grime off me, I sniffed at the glass of whisky my father had pored for me. Ah, lovely - the wonderful aroma of single malt. It was then that I took out the yellowed manuscript and held it out to him for inspection. Ma looked on curiously and went upstairs to her bedroom to get her reading glasses and some churan3. There were 4 different bundles in the yellowed packet. My father carefully untied the worn string of the first bundle and leafed through the old papers. He gave me a long incredulous stare.
'What is it?' I asked.
'I think you should take a look at this,' he said, bending forward from his chair and handing the first bundle of papers to me. Ma had returned.
'What? What is it?'
She asked as she took the papers from my hand and returned it to me after a minute. The unbelieving look in her eyes forced me to plunge straight away into the manuscript and what I found therein' Well, see for yourself.
Of all the damned things in the world, it had to be me. Fifty years later, I still feel like asking, why me? Well he never answered and his oblique remarks, which were an excuse for an answer, has yet to answer my question. The only statement I got out of him regarding the matter was that he had just broken up with Catherine and my story had given him new hope. Given him new hope, my foot! The cranky bastard. Well if my story had given him hope then why did he change the ending? And that wasn't even the way it ended, damn his eyes! I have had a successful career and made a name for myself over the past 50 years. Now, in the twilight of my life, I think it is time that the truth came out. People should know me for the rascal I am. Years of sympathy followed by years and years of adulation and worship. What's the point if I have to live like a hero and die like one, wearing a mask all my life?
If it hadn't been for him, Watson would still be running his slimy little practice, that slimy begging queer would have lived in perfect anonymity, Vivekananda would have died an unknown peaceful man and the bloody Bihari and Bengali Indian niggers could have died for all I cared. But no, he had to write that damned book. What the Dickens!4 I still remember our first meeting. I was sixteen, drinking in some pub at London. I was depressed and thoroughly disillusioned with life. I had come to London with great hopes and expectations, wanting to become a gentleman. What had I ended up with? A broken heart, a convicted felon as my best friend, cheated by those I trusted and made a fool of. The man who loved me the most was a village blacksmith and the village bully wanted me dead. Could things get any worse? I had just returned to London after being nearly crushed to death by a bully by the name of Orlick. I had escaped at the last moment by sheer luck. The fool had got so much liquor into his stomach that he had just collapsed and fainted. All I did was burn the ropes that bound me, using the lantern he had placed on the ground and after kicking Orlick a couple of times in the nether regions, I had fled for my life. My arms hurt as the ropes with which Orlick had bound me had cut in deep. The alcohol was making me forget my pains and the fact that I was about to lose a huge inheritance. I needed someone to talk to; to unburden the heavy weight I was carrying on my shoulders.
I found a middle-aged man joining me at my table. I couldn't make out much of his features as my vision was quite blurred by now.
'Ah, my good man,' I still remember that heavy, polished voice. 'Seems like you carry the world on your shoulders.'
'Yes, I do, and what of it, may I ask?' I shot back, taken aback by this London gentleman's frankness.
'I too have been through a lot recently.'
And then slowly, the swine unarmed me and I told him my story while he simply nodded and sipped on his beer. I told him how I, an orphan, had been mistreated by my sister all my childhood and how fortune had smiled on me one day in the form of Estella and Miss Havisham. I told him everything. I told him about Biddy, Joe, Jaggers, Magwitch and even how I had escaped Orlick's villainy a couple of nights ago. I told him how my beloved Estella had betrayed me and broken my heart.
'Yes, how a loved one's separation breaks the heart,' he said. And at last, he introduced himself as Charles Dickens. It rung a bell for I remembered having read about his success in the Times and even Estella used to sing praises of him. I immediately sat up straight, or however I could in that drunken stupor, and shook his hand. I had read one of his works, the Pickwick Papers, if I remembered correctly and had laughed my head off. Years later when I met him at Vicky's, he was still the same, lamenting about Catherine. Anyway, to make a long story short, we spoke into the wee hours of the night and I remember telling him my story over and over again before we took leave of each other and I headed back to my dirty apartment which I shared with Herbert. Thankfully Herbert had gone away for a few days so I had the apartment all to myself. I had to be returning soon as I didn't have much money to repay my debts and I had run into bankruptcy as well. My benefactor Magwitch had been captured and condemned but had died soon after and I had no wish to go back to the rustic lifestyle led by Joe and the flighty bitch Biddy. Why couldn't Biddy be like Estella? All elegant and charm. Cold, yes, but delicate and regal.
Thankfully I found employment at Jaggers' at a clerical position the next week and though it wasn't much, the money I earned, helped me get back on my feet over the months. Little did I know how my luck was soon going to change forever. 14 months had passed since my meeting with Charles and I had entirely forgotten about him when one fine day, on the December 10th issue, 1860 of All The Year Round5, I noticed my own story come to life. Well, it wasn't exactly I who noticed it but Wemmick who came running into the office one day voicing loud exclamations of joy and showed the issue to me. 'Well,' I thought, 'I'll be damned! Why, the scoundrelï's going to live off my name!'
Guess my surprise when I notice issue after issue of All the Year Round being dedicated to my life story and being warped to god know what end. I was being made out as this innocent young boy who was struck with the beauty and dark glamour of Satis House and its residents; being pulled in two directions. One, in the pursuit of my dream to be a gentleman (yes, that part of it was true, Estella had infused that spirit in me) and the other, my loyalty pulling me toward Joe (which was utter rot. I wanted to have nothing to do with his rustic idiocy). Innocent. Me? Hah! I remember fondling many a young rump even at that silly age at Wopsle's school. What followed was partially true and the rest a figment of Dickens' imagination and I shall not bore you with them. Suffice it to say that he presented me as an innocent young man batting on a sticky wicket (which was really, come to think of it, my own making) and yet whose courage and honesty finally led him to the true path. Rot!
That was not the end of it. A couple of months later I received a simple white envelope and found in it a check of twenty pounds from Dickens and a little note with it. I still have it:
'Dear Mr Philip Pirrip,
I apologize for the inconvenience and distress I must have caused you by borrowing your story. I assure you that I shall stick straight to your story and not deviate the slightest. Do let me know if you have any objections. I promise herewith to send you a sum of twenty pounds as royalty for the credit each episode receives. I do hope you find our arrangement convenient. I take this opportunity to inform you that you can always count on my support and help should you need it.
Well, I was stumped, to say the least. Pretty decent of him. Acknowledgement, I could do with. And so a steady flow of money continued and can you believe it, Dickens even had the nerve to send down the London Times to interview me. It was then that I realized I was not destined to live a shambles of a life; fate had other plans for me. What with my rising popularity (journalists were turning up by the dozens at Jaggers' office) and money, I started moving once more in the upper circles and it wasn't long before one fine day, I came across Palmerstone. Historians will promote his ragged and stiff nature but to me, he was just a nice old man, and all the worse for that. It was a dinner, hosted by Lord Cunningham, and I had been invited by courtesy of Dickens and Jaggers (funny combination, I still maintain).
There he was, that lousy fool Dickens himself. 'What a pleasure it is for all of us to have you with us Philip. Have you met Prime Minister Palmerstone' he asked, gently turning around and introducing me to a regal looking middle aged man with lovely white whiskers.
Now I am not the sort of person to let down an opportunity like this. Fate had presented me with too many opportunities I had made full use of already. I was lucky enough to have Magwitch invest a fortune on me, lucky enough to have Dickens praise me sky high and present me as one of the most redeemed virtuous Christians in England and now, lucky enough to be presented to Lord Palmerstone. Just the opportunity to further, or rather, create my career.
'Ah, so there you are young man, said Lord Palmerstone, extending his hand to me, his blue eyes twinkling in a manner that have now made his smile so famous.
'Yes, sir. It is an honor to meet you,' I replied, all humility and Dickensian6.
'I,' Lord Palmerstone continued, 'Have read all about you. It gives me great pleasure to say, young man, that England still produces honest people of the soil like you.' He was beaming at me by now and had me totally off guard so what came next was like a blow to my stomach.'Tell me, Philip. Have you ever considered joining Her Majesty's service?'
Now I was looking for an opportunity to further my career, not to die. For all I knew, once I joined the army, I would immediately be sent off to some hellish post in deadly India where if the natives didn't kill me first, the mosquitoes or snakes or what have you would. I think the way I reacted does me great credit and that was probably what changed my life forever. Before another word was spoken, I grasped his hand with both hands, beamed back and said,
'Why, my lord, this is a dream come true.' You really couldn't refuse the Prime Minister, could you?
'Philip, I had expected you would accept and took the liberty of fixing an appointment with the Governor General of India. Meet him tomorrow at noon.' That was all he said. He turned around and headed back to the guests and then turned back, gave me another smile and said, 'Welcome to the British Army Lieutenant Pirrip.'
Damn your British Army for all I care! And fifty years down the line, I still maintain my belief. Without Palmerstone's graciousness, I would never have gained so much of glory and fame but then again, I would also have had far fewer gray hair and peace. My stomach still churns like the Indian Ocean during a storm when I think about the death defying escapes I have had. Afghan scums ready to tear me apart, Indian militants on the verge of assassinating me; and my own people, setting on me out of sheer jealousy and insecurity of their own pathetic lives.
It was time for me to leave while I was sober enough. Clearly, I wasn't. My head was swimming with the heady wine I had consumed and I decided walking some of the way home would help. The fresh night air of London, don't you know. How I managed to convey my adieu to Palmerstone, Dickens and Cunnigham in my inebriated state I don't know but I know I did it decently enough for I never heard it spoken that Philip Pirrip was drunk at Lord Cunningham's dinners. And I did attend a whole lot of his dinners later on.
I tripped out of his mansion, declined a hand at calling a cab and, as I had intended, swung merrily and drunkenly along the road. It was a cold, dark night. I remember shivering in my coat, peering ahead despite the burning street lamps. It was a typical London night and the fog had set in thick. Chilling and stifling me. Taking a cab wouldn't have been such a bad idea after all. I had walked for quite some time before I realized I was hopeless lost. I had no idea where I was. I was standing at the end of a dark alley, a blind end. The rain had started and changed from a drizzle to a heavy shower and my umbrella wasn't doing too good a job of keeping my dry.
It must have been midnight as there was no one around the street and I had just started retracing my steps when a figure loomed up ahead. Now when someone appears out of the thin air in the middle of the night in London, rest assured, he is not there to pay you a homely visit. The likelihood decreases even more if you manage to figure out other shadows creeping up towards you, obviously in the company of the original figure.
Dickens had portrayed me as an honest hero who had eventually stood up for good and truth. He had lied. I knew when to cut and run and not to make a fool of myself. I charged straight out of the alley, shooting out like a bullet. My charge surprised them as they obviously expected me to put up a fight for it, not to run with my tail between my legs.
'Where do you think you're going?' was the last I heard as the rain cut into my face and I faintly heard footsteps behind me.
The voice sounded familiar, very familiar and now with the exercise and the water slicing through my skin, I traced it and almost stumbled over. Orlick. I could recognize Orlick's voice anywhere. He had traced me all the way to London yet again. I should have killed him while I had the chance. The streets were long and winding, very much like the alleys of Calcutta, as I would come to know later. Little did I know that I would really be in the streets of Calcutta three years from then, running from Bengali militant nationalists. I can still remember the cries behind me: Thaam shala shuorer bachcha firingee.7 This time there would be no such cries. I had no idea where I was running to but I knew I had to run if I had to survive.
I ran, blinded by fear and the rain and crashed into something. By the time I recovered, I noticed someone rolling on the street in pain. A hand was on my collar and I was being pulled up.
'You thought you could escape, eh?' Orlickï's eyes burnt into mine as he turned me around and stared at me. I could hear the other man groaning in pain.
'You! Get up and come here with the rope,' called Orlick. The man who was down on the street struggled to get up and then came up, stumbling, and handed Orlick a rope. 'You! tie his hands,' ordered Orlick to two other men with him as he was fashioning a noose out of the rope.
'I will make sure this time, Pip.' I received a stunning blow to my groin.
The bastard had kicked me with his boot and the last thing I remember before losing consciousness was seeing Orlick gloating over my pain-wracked features. My luck had finally run out.
'And what, Sir, do you think you are doing, running around in the middle of the night in London, getting kicked in the groin by ruffians?'
I opened my eyes slowly and tried to get up and a searing pain shot through my groin.
'Sit down, Sir,'came the commanding voice again.
The owner of the voice slowly came into view as my head cleared up. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.8
'Where am I?' I asked feebly, trying to look dignified in that painful state.
'You, Sir, are at 221b Baker Street'
'Oh! And who do I have the pleasure of addressing?'
'Sherlock Holmes. Save the introductions for later. Tobacco?' He held out a Persian slipper and a hooked, might odd looking pipe. I slowly took in my surroundings. I was lying on a large, comfortable couch in a big airy sitting-room, cheerfully furnished, and illuminated by two broad windows.
'Yes, please.' I lit the pipe and we started talking. I learnt he had heard sounds of a scuffle outside (though how he did in that heavy rain, I'll never know) and rescued me.
'I wouldn't do that if I were you, Mr. Pirrip,' he said suddenly, taking the wind out of me as I tried to get up again. I looked at him, trying to maintain my composure but looking dreadfully surprised at the same time.
'How did you know?' I blurted out.
'My friend, if a magician told his audience the secret behind his tricks, he wouldn't be a magician, would he? And you were lying on the road, your hands clutched to your groin in your unconscious state. I suggest you relax a bit.' He was smiling now. 'I suggest you rest till evening and then I'll call a cab for you. Let's see, it's nearly noon now. Yes, another four hours of rest will do you good.'
My god, it was nearly noon! I had an appointment with the Governor General.
'My dear sir, thank you so much for helping me but I really need to go,' I said as I struggled to my feet, 'I have a very important appointment at noon.'
'Very well, Mr. Pirrip, if you need to go, I think you should but I suggest you see a doctor before you keep your appointment. When did you say your appointment was? Noon? Good. You have half an hour at hand. A friend of mine tells me about one Dr. Watson. Take the cab down the street and take the first turning right. Here's the address. And yes, I nearly forgot. If you find someone who is interested in sharing my apartment with me, do direct him to 221B Baker Street. I trust your judgement.' He handed me a slip of paper and a walking stick while he helped me up from the sofa and helped me down the stairs to a waiting cab. 'And don't mention it.'
That man had charisma, I had thought then and later learnt how correct I was in my estimation when Watson came out with his first novel. But that was one of the rare occasions he was wrong. Trust my judgement? Ha! Dickens had had him. Anyway, I scrambled out of the cab as it stopped at its destination, paid the cabbie and entered the door in a house on a grimy, dirty street. Where had Holmes sent me? I was already getting that tingling, chilly feeling down my spine when a stout, red-faced man opened the door, answering my persistent knocking.
'Yes?' he enquired.
'Dr.Watson? I was involved in an accident last night and just wanted to make sure I am in good health.'
'Oh, come in. So, sorry to keep you standing.'
I entered the house directly into a living room. All sorts of medical apparatus were scattered over the place and the room was in a mess. Where had Holmes sent me? He asked me a few preliminary questions and I told him what had happened, obviously omitting the discreditable bits. He seemed to be a nice chap after all.
'Do you happen to know anyplace where I can share an apartment with somebody?9 Actually, as you can see, I couldn't get a better place in all of London.'
Why, here was a coincidence if I had ever seen one! I told him about Holmes and he said that would be great and thanked me profusely.
'Does it still pain?' he asked, looking at my damned crotch.
'Yes, slightly. Would you prescribe something to ease the pain?'
I'll have to do a detailed checkup first, Sir. Would you mind taking them off for me.'
A checkup's a checkup and had I known what was to follow, I would have never entered Watson's chamber. I took my trousers off and before I knew it, his ruddy hands were on my balls, and my jolly organ in his mouth.
'Damn, you! You bastard!' I screamed as I kicked at him and brought blood to his face.
I whipped him a couple of times with the walking stick even as I dressed hastily. I wasn't going to stay here a minute. A few more whips and kicks later, I had stormed out of the chamber and called a cab. At last I was heading down to Buckingham Palace where I should have been nearly an hour ago. I threw up by the side of the cab as it drove on.
I returned my parents' incredulous glare with a smile on my lips and started to carefully unwind the string that held the second packet together.
- Literally, bald. Thus, a filter less cigarette.
- Spicy digestive tablets
- This is probably how the term originated, since the later papers quote Philip swearing constantly in this manner.
- Philip seems to have jumbled up his facts a little bit. Great Expectations started appearing in a serialized version in Dickens' All the Year Round on the 6th December issue.
- Philip probably meant the way Dickens had portrayed him and not Dickensian as we know it today.
- Literally means: Stop you son of a pig. Dirty foreigner, I made love to your sister.
- Philip has clearly borrowed Dr. Watson's exact words, and spared himself the trouble of describing his savior in detail. (see Chapter 1 of A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.)
- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gives a different version of Dr. Watson's search for a decent apartment in the book A Study in Scarlet. Apparently, Dr. Watson felt uncomfortable with the truth for reasons we shall see later.