When I was eight years old, my dear Aunt Bhanu had given me a birthday present that was a big box full of five illustrated and abridged versions of classic books. Now these weren't your regular books for kids, not Oliver Twist or Treasure Island or The Prince & The Pauper. These were slightly odd books to be giving to an eight year old. They were Jules Verne's Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Journey to the Centre of the Earth, H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and of course, my then least favourite - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
It was reading these books perhaps that ignited my life-long fascination with science-fiction and more-so with morbidity.
I dont think their impact wud have been as great had they been the regular unabridged novels read without illustrations that I acquired in my teens, in my attempt to recapture the sense of wonder I had first felt when reading them.
The illustrations had been singularly excellent, and some scenes just stuck fast in my head. I still remember them as vividly as if I had the pages in front of me, alas, the books are lost to me now. Given away to classmates as grown-up novels took precedence or borrowed by younger cousins and not returned.
My mind's eye returns to me certain images though, and I can imagine them even today, my memory perhaps embellishing on what I had originally seen.
A large tear glistening on the hard brown cheek of the enigmatic Captain Nemo's usually stern, shuttered face as the mysterious young man with a hole in his skull, covered by blood-soaked bandages lay dying on a bunk in the background.
The explorers sailing on makeshift rafts, battling against violent storms, lost in a vast ancient underground sea filled with some magnificent and some monstrous fish.
Count Dracula, his long black cape whipping in the wind as he scared off hungry wolves with a snarl and a wave of a sinewy clawed hand as Jonathan watched wide-eyed from the carriage window.
The Time Traveller, adventurous yet afraid, shrinking from the Morlocks in the dark tunnels, realizing that the menacing creatures are the descendants of the downtrodden working classes of the distant past.
They were all stories that touched something inside my eight-year old heart and moved me to wonder, and sometimes fear.
But Frankenstein perplexed me. I did not know what to make of it. I did not know if I felt sympathetic towards the Creature or repulsed by him. I didnt know if I blamed Viktor Frankenstein or if I pitied him. But the haunting image of the Creature, who having received nothing but beatings and tauntings, longingly looking in through the window at a happy family eating a warm dinner around a simple wooden table, thinking how he would always, always be the outsider, shunned and reviled, lingered uncomfortably in the dark corners of my mind.
Tonight, I watched a screening of Danny Boyle's brilliant new play based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, at the NCPA, and I watched it alone as my erratic schedule and busy weekends wud allow.
I dont really watch movies or plays alone. I enjoy them as the communal experience they were probably meant to be, before home theatre systems and personal computers arrived. I am usually the obnoxious person in the audience who regularly gets shushed by people for whispering too loudly to my friend sitting next to me. So this was my first time watching this play all by myself, in a corner seat at the extreme right of the second row.
And while the staff at NCPA are always and extremely courteous, they seemed to take special care in showing me to my seat, literally walking me to it and asking if I was alright, probably becoz I was a girl who'd showed up all alone. They even seated three delightfully chatty old Parsee ladies next to me!
But perhaps it was appropriate that all my thoughts about this marvellous play were confined to the solitude of my own mind becoz perhaps that's the lesson that I needed to learn from it.
Of course, the play with the fantastic ensemble cast of Jonny Lee Miller as the hard-hearted Frankenstein, Naomi Harris as the compassionate Elizabeth and the always-wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch in a strangely moving performance as Frankenstein's Monster is chock-full of subtle and not-so-subtle messages if you'll look for them.
Everything from the Biblical idea of Original Sin, the onslaught of science in the modern age, the grave consequences of hungering for power without responsibility, the hypocrisy of society, men trying to play God, slavery, love, loneliness, poetry, childhood and its innocence lost to the very nature of the human condition is covered in the sparklingly witty dialogue of the play. And inspite of the frequent ideological heavy-lifting required of it, the lines of dialogue pronounced by the excellent actors crackle with surprising humour and comic whimsy in a way they never did on the page.
The play may be about a lot of things but at its centre lies the relationship between the man and his creation. And how that creation, abandoned by his 'father', is quickly and brutally taught several lessons about humanity and human beings.
We sense every emotion that passes quicksilver-like on the grotesque face of the Creature - his struggle with his newly given life at the beginning of the play, his abandonment by his creator, his pleas for help as he begs for food, his cries of pain as he is mercilessly whipped, his joyful exultation when he watches the first sunrise of his life, his shrinking from a gentle old blind man's touch, his introduction to music and books by this old man who becomes a very obvious father figure, his sonorous recitations of the poetry he comes to adore, his tender longing for a lover, his violent anger at being rejected and taunted by the very people he silently helped, his heart-breaking anguish at being the only one of his kind, and his cynical but truthful observations on mankind are incredibly and brilliantly rendered by Benedict Cumberbatch (whom I loved as Sherlock Holmes on BBC's new series), and it is a bit of a shock when the actor turns up in his natural handsome avatar at the end of the play.
Also in a stunning reversal from the book, the Creature becomes the hero of the story, so much more than the monster that prowled at the shadowy edges of Viktor Frankenstein's rather eventful life. We experience all that happens from the Creature's perspective. And this is probably where the play triumphs most of all. The Creature becomes a mirror that displays all our flaws back to us, ruthlessly and relentlessly. We tell ourselves we're good people and we'd have been better to him had we encountered him, but there's that nagging doubt at the back of our mind.
We realize that we are indeed guilty of all the crimes he accuses mankind of. We are afraid of what we do not understand, we treat with hatred and hostility those who are not like us, we do not keep all our promises, we are cruel, even and especially to those whom we profess to love. We corrupt the innocent, we exploit the weak, we undermine the strong, we despise the truly good.
The Creature, we learn, is born a somewhat gentle soul, a lover of beauty, nature, and poetry, with a tender heart that is capable of kindness to children and love for mankind.
He desires a bride he may love and keep as his own friend and companion. But Frankenstein cannot keep this terrible promise and destroys her. The Creature exacts revenge as he rapes and murders Frankenstein's wife on their wedding night, cynically declaring "Now I am a real man!" to the grief-stricken Frankenstein who chases after him endlessly to finally destroy his creation.
The play ends as the book does at the North Pole, where the Creature admits to Frankenstein that he feels remorse for Elizabeth's death and admits that he always yearned for his creator's love. Frankenstein confesses that he was incapable of loving and that he envied the Creature's ability to feel love, which made him more human than Frankenstein wud ever be.
And I understood the real reason Bhanu Mami had told me it was important that I read this book properly. She had always known that it was Frankenstein who was the real outsider, and not the Creature. But perhaps, this was a lesson I needed to learn in a darkened auditorium, as three hundred other people collectively drew in their breath at the ending. That, in truth, each one of us is all alone, but those of us who can manage to reach out to another person will never really be lonely.