Solitary women and kids, in war torn areas, the theme seem to be recurring in the books that come my way these days. ‘Kamchatka,’ the Argentinian civil war from the eyes of a 10 year old boy and a board game in the background, ‘An Unnecessary Woman,‘ from Lebanon, ‘Harraga,’ the path burners from Algeria and now ‘Mister Pip’ from the fictitious tropical island of Bougainville.
Stories through the eyes of children are bittersweet. There is always a silver lining that peeps through the deep, dark clouds. Lloyd Jones’s ‘Mister Pip’ is one such. The protagonist is named Matilda, no other name would have suited her better. War has closed off this tiny island from the rest of the world, last of the teachers have left. That is when Mr. Watts, the lone white man in the island, appoints himself as their teacher, the only textbook they have is Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations.’ And the book opens out a totally new world to her, Pip becomes her closest friend.
“The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another. Or travel to another place with marshes, and where, to our ears bad people spoke like pirates.”
In the background is the daily life of a mother and a teenaged daughter, the unspoken tensions between them, the memories of a father who had left to make a living. To get on with the story, Mr. Watts acknowledges that he is no authority on anything. So he invites the elders, one by one to come and talk to the kids. Oh, the beauty of what they say,
“Blue is the colour of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. Blue is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for blue we would not see the fruit bats. Thank you, God, for giving us the colour blue.
‘It is surprising where the colour blue pops up,’ continued Daniel’s grandmother. ‘Look and ye shall find. You can find blue squinting up in the cracks of the wharf at Kieta. And you know what it is trying to do? It is trying to get at the stinking fish guts, to take them back home. If blue was an animal or bird, it would be a seagull. It gets its sticky beak into everything.
‘Blue also has magical powers,’ she said. ‘You watch a reef and tell me if I am lying. Blue crashes onto a reef and what colour does it release? It releases white! Now how does it do that?’ “
Matilda’s mother resents the growing closeness between her daughter and the White teacher. Added to it is the fact that Mr. Watts’ wife is her childhood friend Grace, who is there, but lost to her old family and friends.
The whole village lives in fear of the soldiers or the Rambos as they are called, and the rebels who are better known as the red skins.A visit from either faction leaves behind some devastating effects. And they lose the book ‘Great Expectations’ in one of these skirmishes. What comes next is beautiful. As Mr. Watts prods the kids to remember and recreate Dickens from what they remember of their readings in the class, he is in fact teaching them to recreate a world that might otherwise have been lost, he pushes each of them to find their own voice and to take pride in it.
Books by themselves are beautiful. And when it tells us stories of books and the magical world of reading, told so well, it is as if you have found the elixir to losing one’s self to the rest of the world. There is a part in the story where a group of ‘rambos’ captures Mr.Watts. The villages turn away frightened. When they are asked to return in the middle of the night, what they find is unbelievable – a group of kids who were insufferable a few hours ago, hanging on to every word of the teacher.
“Those rambos had not heard a storytelling voice for years. The boys sat there, with their mouths and ears open to catch every word, their weapons resting on the ground in front of their bare feet like useless relics…….Three years in the jungle setting death traps for the redskins had made them dangerous, but when I saw the soft focus of their eyes by the fire, I saw faces that missed the classroom. They were practically kids themselves.”
I don’t believe in coincidences anymore, I’d rather call them connections. And it has to be one of these connections that led me to this TED talk, where the speaker mentions a similar experience with the boys of Taliban. They have held nothing but guns in their hands for as long as they could remember. But, they too long for something better, things far greater than themselves.
The story takes its twists and turns, like Matilda you try to throw the unpleasant parts into a closed space in your memory and think of the good things alone. I could go on and on about the thoughts that are spread throughout the book, the beauty of the writing and how almost each sentence brings out a smile on to your face. They say, to be a good writer, you have to be an excellent reader as well. The passionate book lover in you instantly recognizes the kindred soul in the author. As when you listen to Mr. Watts,
“But you know, Matilda, you cannot pretend to read a book. Your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames.”
The narrative sometimes catches you by your soul, it is almost as if you are lying on the white sands, staring up at the stars twinkling far above, lost in the magical voice of Mr.Watts,
“If you watched closely you saw Mr.Watts sink into himself. You saw his eyes close, as if reaching for faraway words, faint as distant stars. He never raised his voice. He didn’t have to. The only other noises came from the fire, the sea murmuring, and the nightlife in the trees waking from their daytime slumber. But on hearing Mr.Watts’ voice the creatures shut up as well. Even the trees listened. “
You turn the last page with a sigh. Why is it that certain books leave you with such a deep yearning, striking that perfect chord with the strings of your heart? Is it the innate goodness of the characters, is it the feeling that you are left with in the end, that in spite of all the pain, you can still find hope , happiness and peace in this world? Or as in the case of this one, the ultimate conviction that a book can really change your life?
To be fair to the reader let me admit that I lost the thread somewhat as the story moved out of the island. Isn’t that the tough reality of life as well? We all find cocoons of solitude in an island that we create for ourselves. We might not get along with some of the inhabitants there, but that is alright. It is our very special magical land. And then we are forced out, sometimes catapulted out without as much as a slight warning. That is when we find our true mettle. Whether we are able to find our voice in the cacophony , whether we are strong enough to listen to it.
Verdict: Read it. A five star one, in spite of flipping through a few passages towards the end. The other parts make it totally worth it.