Flowers for Algernon: A Book Experience

One may have read a number of poems and articles by Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Yet on that fateful day when Mr. Vajpayee passed away, there was one poem which was widely shared by people from all walks of life, and it’s title was “ऊंचाई”. The poem is something that awakens you. It is so simple, yet so profound. It largely discusses that only success is not what makes your life wholesome. You need to also have depth, empathy and humanity to enjoy the happiness of your success. I share the memories of the poem here because that is what came to mind again and again while reading the book “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.

This book revolves around two characters, Charlie Gordon and Algernon. Charlie is a “retard”, i.e. a man with limited mental abilities. Yet he is exceptional. He cannot understand the jokes and pranks people play on him for pathetic laughs, but he doesn’t understand this too, and hence joins them in laughing at himself. He works as a cleaning staff in a bakery. Despite all his challenges, Charlie wants to learn and become a genius. He thus signs himself up for a first of its kind trial on humans, that would increase his IQ. In the lab where the operation is going to take place, is also a mouse named Algernon. Algernon too has undergone the same operation as Charlie would go through. Eventually Charlie is operated, and his IQ soon starts to grow exponentially. He learns more than 20 new languages, spends most of his time in library, and overtime becomes even more intelligent than the very scientist who operated on him. But with all new learnings, Charlie also now learns that almost everyone around him has been very unfair with him.

"Even a feeble-minded man wants to be like other men. A child may not know how to feed itself, or what to eat, yet it knows hunger."

With all this knowledge and awareness, the behaviour of Charlie changes. He becomes egoistic, ridicules people on their face, and finally becomes lonely with no friends. People are scared to talk to him as he will either start lecturing or will prove the other person wrong with his facts.

"Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to mental and moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can only lead to violence and pain."

All this time, he also observes that Algernon’s behaviour has become erratic. Afraid that he may follow the same trajectory of a downhill of mental abilities after the pinnacle, he starts studying Algernon, and realises that his high IQ days have a very small shelf life. By the end of the book, Algernon dies, Charlie becomes like his same old self he naturally was, and leaves for an institution for people with low mental capacity.

The book is one of its kind. It has been written in first person by Charlie, in the form of a diary entry. As the book starts, because Charlie still has to learn spellings, the chapters are written with misspelled words. As the operation starts to show its magic, his language, spellings and use of punctuations improve. It all changes gradually, and by the end of the book, fades gradually too. It shows how much well versed was the author with his craft. No wonder a reader is bound to get engrossed into the story. Despite of the fact that I have written a lot regarding the book so far, I am still feeling tounge-tied regarding how I felt while reading the book. It is unique, creative, humane, and fuelled with hard hitting truth. You must read this book. It should be read by all.

सच्चाई यह है कि
केवल ऊंचाई ही काफी नहीं होती,
सबसे अलग-थलग
परिवेश से पृथक,
अपनों से कटा-बंटा,
शून्य में अकेला खड़ा होना,
पहाड़ की महानता नहीं,
मजबूरी है।
ऊंचाई और गहराई में
आकाश-पाताल की दूरी है।

– ऊंचाई, कवि श्री अटल बिहारी वाजपेई


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