An uncanny and absorbing fictional piece, inspired by Charles Dickens’ phenomenal work ‘The Christmas Carol’ and presented as a homage to the novelist.
I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Their faithful Friend and Servant, (Emphasis added)
There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind. (Emphasis added)
(A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens)
The moment I stepped out of the shower, I felt it.
The room was no longer the same.
Something had changed; it was in the air— a slight disturbance, a subtle alteration somewhere? Some bad vibes?
I stood still and then saw.
It was a book, placed vertically, the cover facing me directly, on the side table, half-open in the middle, very obvious as a reading invitation.
A Christmas Carol.
The famous book was not there earlier.
Somebody, it seems, sneaked in and placed the novel strategically. A craggy visage looks hard, eyes penetrating; a malevolent presence.
An apparition swirling up from the mists of 1843. The cadaver- figure suggesting emptiness, decay and sterility. The chilly glare, across the gulf of time, is still a turn-off. I feel the misanthropic hostility radiating from that leathery face, despite knowing well that it is just a painted face, a mere artistic representation. But the representation becomes real. I involuntarily shiver and avoid the unrelenting gaze. I feel Antarctic winds sweeping down my being.
Who placed this book?
An hour ago, I had checked into the Swan Hotel in Staffordshire and come face-to-face with history. It is a place where past and present are conjoined. Footfalls echoed from the hoary past: The coach- wheels stopping at the former coaching inn, the din of the streets and tired passengers, the neighing of the horses, the bustling halls and stables, the hiss of the wind sweeping the desolate backyard on wintry nights. It is a different era. I am in the remote 1840s.
Bivalved time can be felt in certain contexts. I witness the un- spooling. There are echoes from the past rising up like bubbles on the surface. Staffordshire. The ills of industrialization were seen here in ample by one sensitive and early acute observer—Charles Dickens.
I was in search of this man, Dickens.
He was a father-figure to me, an unsuccessful Indian writer and man. Two quick divorces, a fiery temperament, treating others as garbage, inability to hold any job for a day, excessive smoking indicated a paralysis that was frightening. I was shrinking fast. I wanted deliverance from a system that ensures atrophy of soul. When a caring friend in his early 30s died of a massive cardiac arrest in a New Delhi super-specialty hospital within hours of admission, leaving behind a sobbing wife and two pretty daughters asking their dad on the stretcher to wake up and play with them on the terrace and everybody was crying openly at this tragic sight, I, the only dry-eyed, could feel nothing. No pain or sense of loss. No fellow-feelings. No bereavement for a young life snuffed out cruelly. I felt nothing, only a gaping, widening void inside. A tall wall got erected inside. I felt like becoming concrete and very solid and hard inside. And when the dead body was finally being carried to the burning ghats, followed by loud and terrific commotion, pitiful wailing and crying around, and, amid this universal loud weeping and violent beating of chests, I could feel nothing but stasis of the frigid inner icebergs, I got real scared. In fact, I real panicked. What is happening to me? I do not feel anything. No cold, hot or loss sensation—nothing. Only a developing desert inside. It was frightening!
I was turning into early Scrooge, the selfish Scrooge before his final redemption through the ghosts. I needed ghosts to cleanse my toxic soul. I was searching for identical salvation and moral re-generation. A complete transformation.
Only one man could deliver—Charles Dickens. My relation to the writer runs deep. I read him in my college days and found him captivating. A great narrator with whom I had felt an instant Karmic connection. In my present crisis, he offered hope. Re-reading Dickens was therapeutic and an anti-dote to my fast decay and degeneration. In March, I booked my ticket and flew to England—on a long pilgrimage. The great Victorian was calling me. I wanted to meet him in 2012—his bi-centennial year of birth. Staffordshire and the Swan were good choices of this historic tryst. Dickens had visited the town and stayed in the hotel, then a coaching inn in 1852. I was sure to meet him there.
My intuition was proving correct.
The versatile Master had placed A Christmas Carol as the first beckoning sign; he was ready to speak with a seeking fan…finally.
Let me share with you another sign, an interesting coincidence, my dear reader, that it was the same room where Dickens had slept in 1852 after a visit to Copeland factory in the Potteries, in the Black Country.
I just could not believe my luck. I was staying in the same room. Another positive sign. I was elated. Those who have visited Stratford- upon- Avon, told me of adult tourists coming from four corners of the globe—and there are three million of them annually— crying in his birthplace or other consecrated venues. I can understand their state. If it was a fulfilling pilgrimage for me, then this room was my ultimate shrine.
It was sacred space.
Post-dinner stroll, I retired to bed with the book.
And my journey began.
The first message from the Master: There is a Marley to every Scrooge, and, a Scrooge for every parched soul that does not listen.
As I opened the book, I got pulled in by a magnetic force beyond frail me. My fingers, it seems, had activated the static landscape between the covers of the iconic book with a rare afterlife. The black marks on white pages became alive and dancing and the Victorian Age started becoming real before my startled eyes with lightening speed. And I became a part of that dismal landscape, Unseen by the Scrooge and party but they, seen by me.
And then, I saw DICKENS—the father-figure, creating and immersed in his created world.
His spectral presence floated up from the dim mists of time and overwhelmed me completely. I started crying like a child who gets united with a lost father after years of abuse and social neglect. Although Dickens said nothing, I could feel his compassion for crying me. It was a land of non-verbal communication. You sensed messages being transmitted by that kind-hearted gentleman. I could see materializing all the characters from his writing table—full-bodied round characters, utterly believable, some eccentric, some roguish, some loveable, some hated instantly, making you laugh and cry. It was unbelievable—the phantoms, these fictional creatures, taking an autonomous life and becoming uber-real and cool than their biological counterparts that served models for the observant writer.
Only Dickens could do that—with his master strokes on a very wide canvas.
Real is fiction; Fiction, real. Second message.
Then there is the whirlwind: Dickens sticking the labels in boyhood due to the incarceration of his father in the debtors’ prison; financial upheavals, law clerk; journalist, and, finally the writer. Nothing unusual. There were and are hundreds of thousands of such less-fortunate and ordinary people but only one towering Dickens.
There are more circulating images around me in the space.
The answer comes fast: Dickens’s empathy and haunting memory of those early dark days spent in the labeling factory, turning him into a life-long ally of the Undead of the industrialized England. At the cusp of a historical change and called upon as a true and reliable witness by Life, a sensitive and caring Dickens uplifts above ordinary circumstance by reading the present correctly, giving a correct diagnosis of the malaise afflicting his own robust age and giving a cautionary moral tale for the cynical succeeding ages as well. The clairvoyant writer is seen wandering among the poor quarters of London, visiting factories and prisons, talking to the overworked workers, taking up their causes with the real conviction and passion of a current journalist. And highlighting these social issues through his writings.
His involvement in the community, his immersion in the lives of the underdogs, his questioning the whole narrative of material progress at the cost of human soul—in brief the inversion of the Renaissance ideals by the 1840s and onwards—lays bare the naked motives of capitalist England—sheer wealth-accumulation minus a heart and soul.
After lifting the veil off the face of reality, the residual moral core is art that shows the ugly face beneath the painted one. It shows the wrinkles and warts of the age but also gestures towards the upcoming ages with the same message: Material gains sans any matching morality is like early Scrooge. An empty house.
Then another buried image pops up from the deep abyss: Dickens, successful writer and cult figure, making reading tours in England and America. He is still connected with his reading public, a celeb status notwithstanding.
Any writer divorced from his reading public or host community is unredeemed soul walking the ramparts of the fort in Elsinore.
Finally, Dickens confronts me. He looks directly at me. As shown in some of his pictures. He points to the beginning of the Carol book. I re-read it and get my final answer: There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.
So, it is a story; about hauntings, that have a literary precedent in the haunting of the perplexed Hamlet, the prince, located within the Gothic tradition that Dickens inverts.
Hauntings are important visitations from the other side in ages defunct and will keep on recurring in future also to make us confront the self-manufactured ghosts from the past, and, unless they are laid to rest, we mortals will function as the walking ghosts of our own ideal selves from an earlier age.
Any book that fails to affect a deeper moral transformation of characters due for that cleansing process and a concomitant and parallel purifying process in readers will remain a hoax, a sham, a counterfeit, a minor and largely forgotten product…
As I furiously type out these words on PC, I feel I am being dictated by the spirit of Dickens. It is a desperate struggle to catch the ghostly words of a receding spectral Dickens before he exits completely at the crowing of a crow and start of a fresh dawn…
As I was leaving the Swan Hotel, completely cured of my insomnia and apathy, I asked the porter, “Who placed A Christmas Carol in my room?” He smiled and said, “It was left by a previous guest whose name incidentally was Charles Dickens. It was there. You might have failed to notice it upon your arrival.”
I did not have any answer to this.
The Finale: It is meta-story. Dickens made me write it. I never visited Swan. You can believe it or leave it as another yarn.
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