“Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. 

“Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

There is a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird? Since it was written before Mockingbird, can it be called a sequel? While scholars determine the chicken-and-egg question, I have been thinking about the new Harper Lee book.

What will Go Set A Watchman mean for those of us who feel we learnt about the politics of race from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Gone with the Wind and To Kill A Mockingbird? Interestingly, we have always known of Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee as novelists who had resounding success with their first novel and never published again.

I wish I could say that every word and every line in Mockingbird shines clear in my memory.

Alas, that is not so. Yet, Scout, Atticus, Boo, Jem and Dill have been there in my life in many different ways. And Tom Robinson? We shall come to him, by and by.

The events in Mockingbird come to us through Scout’s eyes. Scout and Jem, two motherless children, were brought up by their father, Atticus. The children don’t call him Father or Dad. He is Atticus, a good man, who treats his children with respect, like equals, but also points out right from wrong. Calpurnia, the Finchs’ Negro cook, loves the children, but unlike Atticus, her ways of dealing with Scout are more fearsome. As far as Calpurnia was concerned, there was no sparing the rod while dealing with children.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a book about race, it is a book about growing up in the American South. Jem and Scout grow up as their father, a lawyer, decides to defend Tom Robinson, a Black man accused of raping a white woman. In the days when Mockingbird was written, African Americans were unabashedly called Negroes.

Jem and Scout, descendants of white slave owners, face a great deal of derision from other White folk in their town when Atticus decides to “defend a nigger”. Scout learns about Tom Robinson, when Cecil Jacobs, a boy in her school, taunts her about her daddy defending "niggers".

Atticus is a traitor to the cause of white supremacy and privilege.

He is going against his background and the deeply held prejudices of his community as he decides to fight for Tom Robinson and justice. Scout and her brother not only swallow insults from other children but also deal with the contempt that adults feel for their father. They are spat on, literally and figuratively, by the likes of Mrs Dubose.

Repelled by the bigotry of the Whites in Maycomb, I recall being delighted by the warmth of  the Black folk in Calpurnia’s “colored Church”, where she takes Scout and Jem. Reverend Sykes welcomes the Finch children and makes a heartwarming reference to their father. This is followed by a collection for Brother Tom Robinson’s wife, Helen.

The process of growing up becomes very difficult for Jem and Scout, probably much tougher than it is for children of their age group, of their race and class. As they struggle with their private adolescent struggles, they are pushed into learning about rape, as well as the injustice of inequality of race, class and gender in their town.

Scout and Jem, along with their friend, Dill, attend the trial, and though told in Scout’s matter of fact, wry voice, the trauma of it is vivid. Mayella Ewell led a wretched life, abused by her father and neglected by the rest of her family. Tom Robinson had felt sorry for her, and yet, she colluded with her father and the rest of the community in accusing him of a crime he did not commit and bolstering the myth of the rapacious Black man.

During the trial, there is this heartbreaking exchange between Atticus and Tom Robinson where the lawyer asks Robinson why he was scared when he had done nothing wrong.

“Mr. Finch, if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too,” replies Robinson. This remark brings all Mockingbird readers to contemporary times and reminds us of the #blacklivesmatter campaign in the US that started after the acquittal of the killer of Trayvon Martin,  and received fresh impetus from the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown.

The US currently has a male African-American president serving his second term in office. Yet there is much distrust of African-American males within the government system. Activists say that attacks on African-American males at least get discussed but there is silence when African-American females are at the receiving end of the state’s brutality.

While there is no denying that there has been significant improvement in race relations since the time of the trial described in Mockingbird, the fact remains that much more needs to be done . So, in such a scenario, what does a new Harper Lee book chronicling the story of Scout and her family mean?

We know that Mockingbird is the story of an adult Scout looking back on her childhood, but we have a crystal clear picture of Scout as a child. She is a plucky young girl who lives life on her on terms and is reluctant to fit into social expectations of a lady.

What has growing up done to Scout? The book was written before the Civil Rights Movement and the tumult of the late 1960s, so, I am dreading the fact that Scout may have become a prejudiced, refined Southern lady! Scout’s creator, however, is an unconventional woman, who has always lived life on her own terms and therefore, maybe, my fears are misplaced and I can look forward to reading about an unorthodox, courageous, witty Scout. I also hope that she will not be portrayed as a White saviour but a fellow traveller in the struggle for justice and equality.

There is much speculation and discussion and we are all wondering how or why the “new” book made an appearance after the death of Lee’s sister, Alice, and when Harper Lee is very old, living in a nursing home and apparently no longer at her best. Why should a woman, who has stayed away from the limelight for decades, to the extent of not even publishing anything wish to catapult into public view in these days of media frenzy?

Alice Lee practised law till she was 100 years old and assiduously protected her sister’s privacy as well as her business interests. Apparently, she was Atticus to Harper’s Boo Radley, the shadowy person in Mockingbird, whom Harper Lee said she identified with. Reports say that Harper Lee resented being thought of as Scout.

Come July, and we will have a publishing coup and great sales, but dare we also expect good literature? As someone who cannot resist the magic of books, I am rooting for a great second book by Harper Lee.

Anchita Ghatak is a women’s rights activists and a consultant on development issues.