It was one of those sultry afternoons in school and my English teacher nonchalantly went on about a poem. I do not have the faintest memory of the poem that was being taught or my teacher who was teaching it. I do not even remember who the poet was or anything else about the day except that I was introduced to Topsy. The poet mentioned in his poem that ‘the grasses grew like Topsy’ and I learned that Topsy was an orphaned slave girl who thought she just grow’d and nobody ever made her. And hence the phrase – “grow like Topsy”. I was probably a year or two older than her then and she intrigued me. In my quest to learn more about her, I found myself in the company of the Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Collins Classics), borrowed from the school library that evening. I had only wanted to know what happened of Topsy, but then Ms. Stowe had more than just one story to tell me that evening.
The story starts in the now famous Kentucky where lived Uncle Tom, our protagonist, an honest, pious man and a father of three. Due to certain unfortunate turn of events, despite having promised Uncle Tom his freedom, his kind master, Mr. Shelby sold him out to a slave trader along with little Harris, son of Eliza whom Mrs. Shelby treated as a daughter. And here begins our journey too. With the American society of the 19th century in the backdrop, Ms. Stowe tries to paint a picture of the horrors of the slave trade and the plight of enslaved men, women and children. So we travel with Uncle Tom and Eliza across various states from Kentucky to Canada as a witness to the miseries of life as a slave until they finally find the road to their liberation. During this heart wrenching journey we get to meet a lot of people who make me wonder if Tom is the real protagonist of the story and I presume that probably is why Ms. Stowe gave an alternate title to the book – “Life among the Lowly”.
I still remember that Saturday evening when I as a kid wept secretly, hiding my grief stricken face from my father who was sitting across the room and buried myself into the book while Ms. Stowe went on to tell me about the tragedies of mothers whose babies were snatched away from their arms, children who never saw their parents again, siblings torn apart forever, husbands whose loved wives were forced to marry other men and much more for a kid to understand. That evening I learnt one of the most important lessons of life when Uncle Tom tells his new master “ I’d rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything, and have ’em mine, than have the best, and have ’em any man’s else”. I must say, the very little idea that I as a kid had about equality, humanity and righteousness and the courage with which I guarded my convictions have been nurtured by the experiences of Ms. Stowe’s characters. As I write this I realize that the book has had more effect on me than I believed it did, because I know I have always till date remembered the way Eva loved Topsy and the difference it made to Topsy’s life. She assured me that the world is still a good place despite all its misfortunes, while the strong-willed Miss Cassy had always reminded me to go on when times are tough.
Almost 15 years after that eventful evening I revisited Uncle Tom’s Cabin recently and the book still evokes similar emotions .I sit in the same living room overwhelmed by emotions and this time I blamed my laptop for the tears when my mother enquired. The only difference I noticed was that it was easier for me as a kid to read the conversations in Afro –American English than now. I guess that’s one more thing that was lost or forgotten in the process of growing up.
When I first read Uncle Tom’s Cabin I was too young to understand about its contribution to the outbreak of the American Civil war. Ms. Stowe through her characters condemns the outright humiliation of fellow men and voices for liberation of the enslaved. Now with too many writers and their stories in the public domain laden with details more vivid than what Ms. Stowe presented then, one might want to agree with her critics who maintain that she only painted a dim picture of the horrendous slavery and Tom wasn’t a strong protagonist against slavery. Nevertheless one cannot undermine the role of the book in the Abolition of Slavery. Ms. Stowe held that her characters were indeed inspired from real life and the incidents narrated were authentic to a greater extent. So Uncle Tom’s Cabin was followed by ‘A key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ which presents the original facts upon which the story was written. It’s a legend that President Abraham Lincoln spent time reading Ms. Stowe’s book few days before the famous Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was drafted.
Now that the slave trade had been abolished, declared illegal and almost a century and a half gone by after the book was first published, the question of how relevant is it in the modern time arises. Here is my answer to the question. Despite being based on American Slavery, the book boldly confronts the general evils of a society that is intolerant, unjust and divided in the name of races. The challenges of those times were no different than the challenges of the modern days and one might find in the book few remedies if not all to the maladies that debilitate the human race. I can’t but agree with Ms. Stowe when she says the worst use you can put a man to is to hang him. No; there is another use that a man can be put to that is WORSE! To me, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a reminder of how significant is one’s own freedom and how equally important it is to acknowledge other’s right to freedom. Apart from being the biggest evidence to how amazingly mightier is a pen than the sword, it is also a very engaging read and would not let you rest in peace until you find out what happened to Tom, Eliza, Topsy and a lot many people whom you will come to love. So dear reader, take my words and do visit Uncle Tom’s Cabin when time permits. I’m sure Ms. Stowe might have a story or two to tell you even if they are not same as the one’s she told me.