A work of fiction is made memorable by the characters populating it. From the abhorrent to the alluring, these protagonists and antagonists, themselves products of an extraordinary breadth of imagination have etched themselves into our memory. Some in a searing manner, yet some others in a soothing way. But despise or deify them, you just cannot evict or excise them from your mind and memory (am I engaging in semantics here? Aren’t they both the same?) While it would be next to impossible to lay out all the characters who have occupied a rent-free accommodation in perpetuity in my imagination, here is a list of the most significant defaulting tenants!
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Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby
Jay Gatsby has to be the most enigmatic, paradoxical and layered character in the annals of literature. Isolated even when surrounded by a perpetual throng of human beings; racked by an intrinsic poverty while wallowing in an ostentatious display of opulence, and craving for peace, as things fall to pieces all around him, Jay Gatsby is both cause and consequence. F. Scott Fitzgerald not just created history with his epochal novel but also brought into every living room the angst and depredation associated with a constant struggle to make it big in an unforgiving world. While Fitzgerald might have written The Great Gatsby as a cock-a-snook to the much vaunted clamour of “The American Dream”, the character of Jay Gatsby itself transcends eras. Whether boom or bust, Gatsby’s relevance would never diminish.
Santiago in The Old Man and The Sea
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Santiago, a geriatric fisherman has gone 84 days without bagging a catch. People start viewing him as “salao”, the worst possible form of ill-luck. On the 85th day, he manages to hook a gigantic marlin. For two whole days and nights the marlin and Santiago play slack and pull as he struggles to haul his catch in. On the third day, an exhausted and by now delirious Santiago kills the marlin and straps it to the side of his boat. However the scent of the marlin’s blood attracts vicious sharks and they almost kill Santiago in an attempt to get at the marlin. Forced to save his life, Santiago accepts the loss of the marlin and returns to land with the biggest catch of his life reduced to a skeleton. However, the formidable courage, undiminishing confidence and unparalleled character of Santiago is what makes Ernest Hemingway’s slim book a magnificent tribute to human resilience.
Big Brother in 1984
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George Orwell is the Nostradamus of literature. Only a man with an uncanny degree of prescience could have penned an immortal dystopia that is 1984. Seemingly outrageous and outlandish terms then, such as ‘thought police’, ‘double think’, ‘memory hole’ etc that appeared in the book are now being played out on a daily basis in the form of mass surveillance, post truths, echo chambers and sock puppets. Big Brother predicted the advent of internet snooping, Edward Snowden, Palantir and Peter Thiel and Xi Jinping. All of this almost six decades before their occurrence. This chilling and disturbing dystopia is then, now and forever.
Zorba in Zorba The Greek
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Alexis Zorba’s soliloquies in Nikos Kazantzakis’ pièce de resistance, celebrate life in an immortally enduring fashion. A foreman by profession but a philosopher par excellence, Zorba waxes eloquent on myriad facets ranging from religion to reconciliation with inner demons. Zorba epitomises the philosophy that formed the very edifice of his inventor’s life. Kazantzakis’ epitaph reads, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” And that, is Zorba, The Greek captured emblematically and epigrammatically.
Buck in Call Of The Wild
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Even though I suffer from a phobia towards canines that gravitates towards paranoia, there was a time when Jack London almost made me buy a dog and name the pet, Buck! Call of The Wild is arguably one of the greatest books to have been penned with an animal as its protagonist. Even now I can view through my minds eye, every straining sinew of the 140 pound St Bernard-Scotch Collie as he pulls a sled. The apogee of Buck’s escapades however is his murderous rivalry with Spitz, a vicious trouble mongering husky, who vies for the position of the lead dog along with Buck. If you have not read Call of the Wild, please do so ASAP. You might find yourself taking a humongous St Bernard for a walk sooner than later!
Kathy H. in Never Let Me Go
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When the gruesome truth that forms the very core of Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s tragic masterpiece Never Let Me Go is revealed to the reader, it strikes with a strength that makes a sledgehammer seem an innocuous rattle. The narrator of the story, Kathy H goes about her business in a matter of fact, surgically prosaic manner that leaves a searing impression on the reader. Eviscerating in its plot and ingenious in its wake, Ishiguro’s brilliance is reflected in Kathy’s phenomenally sangfroid reconciliation with the harshest of realities.
Lenny Small in Of Mice and Men
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A gigantic but mentally challenged migrant labourer, Lenny Small will reduce you to tears with his ‘dangerous’ innocence. In a world bereft of empathy and devoid of understanding, Lenny faces one peril after the other. He only has his trusted and quick witted friend, George Milton as an able ally to lean on in times of need. I challenge anyone to read the adventures of George and Lenny with a dry eye. In my personal opinion, Of Mice and Men is American author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck’s finest work. Yes, better than East of Eden, Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, Grapes of Wrath and every other gem that has flowed from his formidable pen.
The Little Prince in The Little Prince
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The Little Prince reveals the power and influence of humility in a manner that would put even the most vaunted of management Guru-speak and leadership coach talks to absolute shame. French aristocrat, writer, and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in this thinnest of works, takes the reader along with a little prince on a cosmic tour of the various Planets. Every visit is an exposition of a key facet of life and human nature such as friendship, loneliness, deprivation and love. The Price within the confines of a few pages imparts to us a degree of wisdom that is hard to glean from reading philosophical tomes and management theses.
Jude Fawley in Jude The Obscure
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It’s absolutely inconceivable to even imagine the litany of woes that befall Jude Fawley in Thomas Hardy’s gut wrenching book. Connived in sacrificing a stellar academic career by a scheming woman, failing in marriage, falling into and out of love, getting married again but losing his children, falling out of marriage again before falling ill and mercifully dying, Fawley’s life is a synonym for tragedy. You want to put the book out of your memory the moment you close the covers. But it is so very powerful in its scope and influence that Jude Fawley never stops living rent free in your memory and imagination. I personal feel like going back in time, catching Thomas Hardy by the scruff of his neck and demanding a justification. But I would be loathed to make him change even one bit of the story!
Albert Adrian Mole in The Adrian Mole Series
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Adrian Mole is English author Sue Townsend’s indelible gift to the world of literature. Born on the 2nd of April 1987 in Leicester, he more often than not falls on the wrong side of opinions expressed by humanity. Especially opinions proffered by Headmaster “Pop Eye” Scruton. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, Adrian realises that his ability lies in writing. The entire series is a judicious blend of rib-tickling humour and poignant revelations.
Donald Shimoda in The Illusions
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Every time I read The Illusions, the irrepressible Donald Shimoda seems to impart a new piece of wisdom. A messiah and a barn-storming pilot, who gives up his job in exasperation, Richard Bach’s protagonist, Donald William Shimoda meets Richard, who also happens to be in the same profession as Shimoda. Engaging Richard in thought provoking quotes from The Messiah’s Handbook, Shimoda regales his readers in an exhilarating fashion. “You’ve all learned something that someone somewhere needs to remember. How will you let them know?” A book worth reading for this quote alone!
Inspector John Rebus in The Rebus Series of Books
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Reticent, brusque, melancholic and withdrawn, Detective Rebus is a magnificent testimony to the untethered breadth of author Ian Rankin’s imagination. The chain smoking and alcohol guzzling cop is the most gifted as well as most ostracized member of his unit. Employing controversial techniques such as engaging in dalliances with nefarious crooks and undesirable elements, no case is tough to crack for Rebus. An avid reader who also possesses a keen ear for music, Rebus is the owner of an extensive collection of records. Driving a Saab800, Rebus nurses a platonic affection towards another younger detective and one time patrolling partner Siobhan Clarke. When Rebus plays a Muddy Waters, while taking a swig of Bells Whiskey in his sparse apartment, you can feel the mood overtake, overwhelm and overawe you.
While there may have been a plethora of others that I may have left out – making people yell out ‘travesty’ – such as Don Quixote, Atticus Finch, Inspector Maigret, Hercules Poirot, Sherlock Holmes, Kurtz, Quentin Compson, Holden Caulfield, and Augie March, it is this delectable dozen to whom I keep getting drawn towards, time and again!