Why I bought 'The Great Gatsby' and why I ought to have bought it just now.

Browsing through the endless racks of books, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, with my friend Jincy at Blossoms in Bangalore, I came upon a tiny, Penguin Books edition of F.Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I have always wanted to read that book. In fact, I had already purchased a copy on Flipkart a few years back but found the first few pages so depressingly boring that I gave up! I do that sometimes! Catch-22, Ullyses and Wolf Hall - all books of staggering repute that I simple could *not* get! 

But I immediately took to this tiny edition of The Great Gatsby! It had that fresh, crisp feel to it that only a newly minted book can possess. Plus, the upcoming release of Di Caprio's film adaptation of the book was an added incentive.For I have this idiosyncrasy where I don't watch a film unless I have read its book beforehand. Lastly the low price tag of Rs.200/- sealed the deal and that night, I started afresh on The Great Gatsby. 

And it changed my life. 

Not really. That was an exaggeration, but it certainly spoke to me in ways that I did not expect it to! 

At its heart The Great Gatsby is a story of thwarted love between an ambitious man and an aristocratic girl. Sound like a 1980s Bollywood film? That was what I first thought. But over time, I began to realize that nothing in this book is really what it seems. Face-value is a mist in this work and when that clears away, you start to scratch the surface of the real book. It is amazing how a small work of ~200 pages manages to touch on so many questions and better yet, raise even more of them. 

Any book worth its salt, will mean different things to different people. A book is a conversation between the writer and the reader, spanning across hundreds of years and thousands of miles and like any conversation, it has its private moments, where unuttered thoughts are planted and unexpressed opinions are shared. 

The Great Gatsby though is a little different. It does not attempt to talk to a single individual - the reader. Instead it tries to talk to an entire generation of individuals who are on the threshold of watching their collective dream of a happy, healthy & prosperous life, crumble into the dust due to excessive, unrelenting pursuit of materialism.

The book portrays many motifs to signify how fast & easy money can erode social and moral frameworks and also how, even those raised with sound values can fall prey to them. 

The Great Gatsby is as much a commentary on today's social hierarchy as it is of the 1920s New York. 1920s was a time of extravagance in New York. The end of WW1 and the ensuing economic surge bumped up an entire generation of people up the economic ladder. Bootlegging of liquor and related criminal activities provided ample options to young men to earn the quick buck. As a result, New York was teeming with people with fat wallets and slim morals. This class of people are symbolized by the 'West Egg' village, a geographic protrusion along Long Island.

The residents of West Egg stand in sharp contrast to the aristocracy of the 'old wealth' who inhabit the identically shaped 'East Egg'.  However, the similarity of the two classes in terms of money does not hide their gaping differences in avarice and sleaziness. 

A particular feature of the book that I found deeply disturbing is its usage of symbols to convey deep thoughts. Such as the ashen heaps outside New York - large lands that had gone barren due to interminable discharges from surrounding industries. It was a chilling reminder that growth and wealth can spoil our moral ecosystem just as much as it can devastate a physical landscape. 

Thee green light, that shone from the end of East Egg's dock, faintly visible across the waters from Gatsby's home in West Egg, is a fundamental symbol of 'The Dream'. The one thing, each and every one of us wants to achieve. Each person may have his/her own version of The Dream, but we all possess one. Gatsby's dream was to be re-united with the love of his life - Daisy who lived in East Egg. He resents the proximity of the light to his Love as much as he longs to be near it; for nearing the light meant nearing Daisy. But when he is finally reunited with Daisy, that light, the very same green column across the waters ceased to be a marvel. It was just a tiny green speck across a dark bed. Do all our dreams lose significance once we achieve them? Or in the pursuit of our dreams, do we attach inordinate importance to them, which they eventually cannot live up to? 

And who can forget the haunting passages involving the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg? A fading advertisement in which only the large, bespectacled eyes of its former star remain - the eyes seem to keep a vigil over the ashen heaps. To me, the eyes seemed to represent God. The all-seeing eyes that are silently watching the devastation we wreak upon ourselves in the name of growth. Even the though the book does not signify the true meaning of the Eyes, they are a potent part of the narrative. 

The Great Gatsby is a masterpiece of a book by any measure. In that sense, I have totally understood the veneration that it commands from legions of historians and literature enthusiasts. But the book had a very personal message to tell me too - the urban young of 21st century India. It seemed to tell me, 'Don't get too easy'. And it made sense! 
My life is ... a little too simple. At 22, I earn a lot more money than my parents did and for work that is hard, but not hard enough to make me feel like I have earned it! I seem to be on a highway towards a financially-secure future and that, unsurprisingly, gives me this sense of freedom, this conviction that I am in-charge of my life and that I can wade through these calm waters  using my moral compass and my intellectual abilities. 

The truth is that anything can happen. The same dream of a secure future could turn toxic and destroy our very identity. The same vision of a happy future could turn into a limbo where we don't recognize ourselves and cannot recollect how we used to be. 

Money is dangerous. Power is dangerous. Fire is dangerous. When we show so much caution with the last, why not with the first two? 
The Great Gatsby. A book I am glad I read at this point in my life. 

 

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