For some reason, though I stopped reading vigorously after Middle School, I can’t start summer without a book. Perhaps its the soft whisper of the idea that having a book is slightly more productive than just lying around watching tv during hours of boredom, or the comfort of a back up provision for entertainment in the case of heavy traffic or long waiting times in airports. This summer I happened to come across a copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I had the time and I had had a vague desire to read it since high school. So, I picked it up, and turned to the first page.
This book kept me company for a large chunk of summer (pretty embarrassing, I am aware, but in my defense, I would periodically go for a week without finding time to pick it up). When I finally turned to the last page, however, I was almost left in tears.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin provided a glimpse into the horrors of slavery, a showcase of the brave heroism of a poor, old man, and a shaming conviction to the reader.
I don’t think I have to explain elaborately when I say slavery was, and is, cruel. Human beings were treated as property, with absolutely no rights-no right to food, shelter, family, or even expression of emotion. Oh, but I am getting ahead of myself. These slaves’ conditions were justified, of course, since taking care of them was of best interest to the owner. But when the owner found it cheaper to exhaust each human being’s life and buy more, rather than take good care of a few, what could be said in favor of the slaves lives? They were no more than machines, that too the cheap kind that are completely expendable; cheap Chinese products, those that you feel comfortable to mistreat since you know they won’t last longer than a week. And yet, that is only the physical side. Now what of the soul within that cries out for his wife, for his children, for the woman who gave him life? What of the soul that isn’t permitted to grieve? What of the soul that wants to do good, and be good, but is given no chance?
Yet, amongst these desolate creatures, there are a few whose wills are made of iron. Those whose noble characters won’t bend under the disgracing conditions of slavery. Tom is an example of one such slave. He had a small, but warm cabin, kind owners, a loving wife, and happy children. He adored his masters, and aimed to do the best he could to profit his owners; he was content. That is, until it was all snatched from him. Sold, forced to bid goodbye to his entire life, family, and familiarity, he ultimately ended up in a hell where he was beaten and broken; beaten for refusing to whip an old woman and broken for his will to abide by his strong belief system. And here, he was despised by his owner. But, did he garner feelings of hate? No. He only prayed that he is not killed so that his owner’s soul remains intact. Even while he was being tortured to death, his sole concern was that his owner’s soul is saved.
WHO DOES THAT?
At first, this book was just a story based on history. A sort of agglomeration of information and entertainment. But as I read further, themes that transcend time and culture disclosed themselves. At the most personal level is Tom’s inspiring, indefectible character that was always positive, loving, and trusting in God. If someone can be so positive in such extreme conditions of desolation, can we not be happy in our daily lives? Why do we magnify our problems and use them to justify our misery? Maybe your car broke down, you are having a bad hair day, or you stepped into a muddy puddle. Big deal, life is much greater than any of those mishaps. This summer, while being good in certain ways, posed plenty of challenges for me as well. Almost every day there was something that could have let me to say “It is not fair,” and give me the power to ruin my day. And I did that, too, many times. Yet, after reading about human beings who couldn’t call their own bodies their own, who went to bed every night with the fear that the next morning could be the last with their wives and sons, I was forced to reassess my misery, breathe in, and realize that my problems are almost nonexistent. And if not situations, I would complain about people. Not everyone gets me. And I start closing into my shell, while I build a hard exterior that accuses everyone for not understanding me. When someone hurts us to the slightest, or simply doesn’t appeal to us, we so easily start garnering feelings of dislike and aversion. Yet, if Tom could love someone who brought him living hell, why can’t we love our strict bosses, the annoying coworker, that judgmental friend, or the nosy relative? Why can’t I stop being selfish and instead focus on loving and doing what is best for everyone around me?
The novel proceeds to provide a glance into the dirt that is present in every society. While reading, it was so easy to scoff at the ‘refined’ society with their ladies in fancy dresses, sipping tea from dainty teacups, who appear to be so sensitive, yet blind themselves to the horrors they are responsible for. I read the entire book and kept thinking, how could people participate in such injustice? How could they have laws that protect a system in which humans were degraded to nonliving machines? Were they stupid when they said that African Americans don’t ‘feel’ emotion and attachment like the white-skinned do?
Then, some time in the last 100 pages of the book, it hit me; just because I live almost 200 years later and in another continent across the world does not mean I myself am not witnessing similar situations.
To reach the Delhi airport from my house you have to go through a very crowded, village-like area, with tiny alleyways extending from the main road, barely wide enough to pass two walking abreast. Rough dhabas (tiny Indian food stalls or restaurants) line the streets, where minimum (or perhaps even lower)-wage workers are standing around smoking and filling their stomach with whatever they can afford at the end of the day. Open windows and balcony doors bestow a glimpse into the one-room houses that offer the basic necessities of shelter. Life looks cramped, and rough. However, keep driving till the end of the street, and suddenly you find yourself passing a sprawling Radisson with lush gardens and rooms that offer twice the space of the little flats you saw just a hundred meters back.
And no one questions anything.
You see it all, and you see past it and continue to think about what you want to eat for dinner, or what you did that morning, or how your presentation went; never once interrupting your thoughts and asking, how is there such great disparity so sharply juxtaposed? And perhaps more shocking, why is it not affecting anyone?
It is almost like there are two parallel universes. Perhaps the unfortunate ones don’t even bother to imagine themselves experiencing the luxuries of the more fortunate ones. And the ones for whom a house, food, and clothing are all taken for granted, there is no reason to put themselves through the pain of imagining the challenges life poses to others every hour.
But Harriet Beecher Stowe intersects the two parallels. And when eyes are opened to reality, someone fights. Perhaps that’s the reason Abraham Lincoln called her “the little woman who started the great [Civil] war.”