When I met Pip, he was hanging upside down. It was not by choice though; someone held him by his feet against his will and made him face the world, upside down. His real name was Phillip Pirrip, the man who held him like a flittermouse was a convict named Abel Magwitch, the man who created them was Charles Dickens, and the person who introduced me to that upside down world was Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury.
He never took attendance, but no one ever missed his class. We would all sit quietly, waiting for our Dickens man (he was also our Jane Austen man, the Brontë man, and Tolstoy man, for he was the one who introduced us to the glorious world of the Novel). We watched him as he walked in, holding Dickens in his right hand and wearing a warm smile on his calm face. He always came on time and stood there—in front of us—for one short hour, reading from Great Expectations and talking about the socio-politico-historical issues of the Victorian Era. And those issues sounded quite simple—when Professor Choudhury talked about them nonchalantly—trying to bring the Queen's world down to our Pip-level.
“Write in simple words, you always say to me,” Tagore once wrote, “but simple writing is not that easy. If I come up with some writeable thoughts, I might put them in words, with ease. Difficult writing is not hard at all; and useless writing is not as easy as it seems.”
As we sat like a bunch of dumbfounded Pips in that classroom, mesmerized by Stella's beauty, Miss Havisham's cruelty, Joe's honesty, Biddy's modesty, and the convict's tantalizing tales of sufferings and accomplishments, we found it easy to tackle all those grim textual terrors and fictional problems. It was not difficult at all—to understand why Joe was the perfect gentleman, or why most of the people in Pip's world preferred living like a bat, hanging upside down (including Miss Havisham—the clock-stopper, and Stella—the not so unreachable star).
Years later, while going crazy reading books and writing papers and defending a dissertation on everything Victorian, I learned the truth about simple knowledge in the hardest way possible: simplicity is the most complicated thing. Simplicity is not simple. In order to make the most complicated ideas accessible in simple language, one has to have the Herculean strength of clear knowledge and pure vision. Now, when I teach Great Expectations, I still see myself sitting in Professor Choudhury's classroom, frustrated by Pip's apparent naiveté. Back then, I could not understand why it took so long for the upside-down Pip to see the world down-side up, the way he really should have seen in the first place, when the convict held him by the legs. I mean, by flipping him down, the convict actually was straightening him up, wasn't he? It was the convict who showed Pip what love and life and dreams were made of —in a Victorian London that flourished by sucking up the life force of its working class people and its colonial subjects. Pip stayed blinded by Stella's love, but I saw the spark of Joe's forge glowing in front me, in the eyes of my professor, the craftsman of knowledge.
In the beginning of the novel, Magwitch made Pip see the sky over his feet. At the end, Dickens flipped Pip over again, leaving him sandwiched between two possible endings—making him a Victorian Hamlet—stuck in a Frostian yellow woods, where two roads diverged and he had to choose the one… less travelled by! I did not like such Frostian ending of that novel. Fortunately, because Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury was also my tutorial teacher that year, I had the opportunity to use those tutorial sessions to the best of my ability to torture him with my unrelenting flow of questions. Therefore, after Pip met his [unsatisfying] ending, I decided to declare my dissatisfaction:
“Why doesn't the novel have an unquestionably satisfying ending? Why does Dickens have to give two possible endings to one life story? Why was Pip so stupid to have missed his chance with Biddy? Why is it that man always falls for women like Stella—pretty, rich, but cruel? Why does it feel like that Dickens has intentionally left us hanging upside down to make us keep looking at the sky where we will never be able to tread?”
Professor Choudhury smiled in response. Then in his usual calm and soft voice, he said, in Bengali, “Oto gulo proshner uttor jante holey arekti uponyas lkhte hobe je!” One needs to write another fiction in order to find out the answers to all those questions. And then he asked, “Why don't you write?”
Me? Write? Fiction? I was only a female Pip back then, dreaming to build a Satis House of my own great expectations and gorging all the words coming out of every character from every novel of the western world, as if they were my only source of life! Didn't he know that I could have lost my track in that vicious Victorian woods had he not showed me the way to light?
He smiled the same way last February, when I met him after ages and instantly unwound the chain of my uncontrollably whimsical thoughts. He sat with me and listened to my words with utmost patience, occasionally asking me questions about my writing. I told him stories of my strength and dreams. But I could not tell him that I still carry inside me that image of an upside down Pip. With time, I have grown strong, like a weeping willow tree, hanging upside down, touching the ground with my stooping branches. The ground beneath my head and the sky above my feet are solid and unyielding, because I was privileged to have people like Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury as my mentor—my very own 'knowledge-smith.'
Fayeza Hasanat teaches at the University of Central Florida.