Several people’s world turned upside down when they discovered that their favourite fictional character Atticus Finch was originally conceived as a segregationist. Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, published on Tuesday, is set 20 years after Atticus so bravely defended Tom Robinson in court and right after the real life Supreme court judgement of Brown vs. Board of Education, where the court ordered enforced integration of black students in white schools.

The book was written before To Kill a Mockingbird. Only, here Atticus Finch is against the integration of black and white students, even commenting that the blacks are not ready for full civil rights. Our favourite hero even asks his daughter, “Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?”

Like it or not, prejudice is real

Although Atticus’ new avatar came as a shock to me, it made the issue of racial prejudice even more real. In the earlier book Atticus was this amazing man, so it was natural that he stood for all the right things – for all the things we believe in today. But it doesn’t always work like that with racial prejudice or any other prejudice for that matter.

A good man, an exemplary human being, the most caring individual, could also be a racist, a homophobe, or a religious supremist. Of course, they don’t believe that a black man who committed no crime should be punished for no fault of his own, or that a homosexual should be stoned, or that members of other religious communities should be persecuted or killed, but at the same time they may believe that they are in some way superior to the other group.

In a strange way they may not be wrong. Imagine a society that doesn’t allow blacks to go to school, or even if they do, the education is poorly funded. In that kind of a society, for no fault of their own, blacks will inevitably not be as educated as the white folk.

But of course Atticus’s daughter Jean Louise, whom we knew as Scout, understands the importance of making sure that people of all colours walk together, even if this means that initially, for some time, they may not be equal in every way. The problem with a racist is not that he is unkind; the problem is that he lacks foresight.

"What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved? Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now? Had it always been under her nose for her to see if she had only looked? No, not the last. What turned ordinary men into screaming dirt at the top of their voices, what made her kind of people harden and say “nigger” when the word had never crossed their lips before?"

The Indian parallel

The conflict between Atticus Finch and his daughter on the matter of enforced integration feels very real for another reason. In India I see a huge parallel between this father-daughter conflict and the conflicts that many families and friends encountered in their own homes in the run up to the 2014 election with Narendra Modi as a prime ministerial candidate.

Parents and children, siblings, friends who have known each other for years, suddenly found themselves at one another’s throats, in defence of, or against, Modi. It was impossible for a brother to believe that his own brother whom he grew up with could stand in the way of the only true leader that the country has had in years, and similarly for a son to believe that a parent who had once upon a time preached to him about religious tolerance could actually say that the Gujarat carnage was only one incident.

And so, the Atticus Finch-Jean Louise debate becomes more real for us than ever before. And maybe, as with Finch and his daughter, one side just lacks foresight.
"Why doesn’t their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up? I thought I was a Christian but I’m not. I’m something else and I don’t know what. Everything I have ever taken for right and wrong these people have taught me—these same, these very people. So it’s me, it’s not them. Something has happened to me. They are all trying to tell me in some weird, echoing way that it’s all on account of the Negroes … but it’s no more the Negroes than I can fly and God knows, I might fly out the window any time, now."