Who Needs Literature?
‘Literature is for dreamers. Pragmatists don’t need it.’ I was taken aback by this statement made by a digital-age hippie who moves to the tunes of her laptop and breathes through the techie circuitry. However, I couldn’t ignore the argument - literature isn’t a requisite to be competitive or productive in the present digital economy, the skills such as information research and data analytics are.
Does that mean literature is dying? If yes, then, why do we need to save it? Because in a world that is becoming increasingly dichotomous and cruel, literature provides us with solace and a reason to be better human beings.
Our world view is culturally limited and replete with our personal and moral biases. Literature lends us an ethical power through its narratives that delve into the human condition, human relationships and conflicts. It is through literature that we set our judgements aside and go with the characters on their journeys. We put ourselves in their shoes and strive to understand their motives. We leap beyond the cultural, geographic, racial and generational boundaries and enter a realm of empathy and compassion.
Empathy creates space for self-reflection. Literature stimulates our imagination and challenges established norms through its ambiguity, conflicts and imperfect characters. It enables us to hold space for the other and question our prejudices and judgements. I grew up understanding the world around me through the eyes of the characters brought to life by writers like Rabindranath Tagore, Premchand Munshi and Charles Dickens. They not only told stories about truth and humanity but created characters who were strong yet morally conflicted, who challenged societal conventions and bore the burden of their human weaknesses.
In Premchand’s narratives, the good and the bad are co-dependent and more often than not, feed on each other. He portrayed real situations and dilemmas through his characters. Characters such as the orphan Hamid who buys a pair of iron tongs for his grandmother instead of sweets and toys for himself on Id, the corrupt pandit Alopideen who exhibits unexpected generosity for a defeated opponent, and Dhania who stands for her beliefs and dharma than abide by the traditional principles of the community – these show us the incredible kaleidoscope of human behaviour. In his speech called Sahitya ka Uddeshya (The Aim of Literature), Premchand asserts that literature’s purpose is to critically examine life. He believed that literature expresses truth in a mature and refined manner that evokes emotions in the minds of the readers.
Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Prize winner Bengali writer, created bold characters and set them on their tumultuous journeys. His writings were way ahead of his times. Through his strong female characters like Binodini, Hemnalini and Labanya, he introduced me to the ferocity of women who were expected to be meek and docile. Tagore pulled out from the closet the sexual desires of women and shocked the society where it was considered taboo. In his novel ‘Shesher Kobita’, he questions the institution of marriage through Labanya and Amit’s love affair. Through his writings, Tagore challenged patriarchy and brought the hypocrisy in society to the forefront. His writings resonate in the present times as well.
The complicated and perfect characters in Charles Dickens novels taught me a great deal about human interactions and relationships. His precise and illuminating portrayal of human psyche stimulated me to empathize across the borders of class, nation or sex. Through Pip in Great Expectations, I learnt about values, human consciousness and the effect of social strata on an individual’s life. I have spent days musing over the conflicts that the characters created by these and other writers dealt with - I would feel their pain and get angry at the whimsicalities of the society. They would make me unsettled and force me to look at things differently. Such quality literature taught me to not generalize and pay attention to the subtleties of complicated truths. It deepened my consciousness and encouraged me to live a more thoughtful life by making me more empathetic and generous in outlook.
Through literature, we not only experience the emotions that the characters go through but also understand them. We suspend our judgemental tendencies for a while and let our empathetic imagination take over. It is in those moments that our thinking shifts from the usual course to an unchartered realm. We shed a layer and become someone else, even if for an ephemeral moment. The complex and deviating nature of the literary texts challenges us to move beyond our mental comfort zones and figure out the complicated psychological and ethical schemas that we may not face in our daily lives. It transports us to that quiet, unbiased space where our beliefs and judgements crumble and the way we look at familiar situations alters. And the more we bend our perspectives, the more flexible they become.
Literature also makes us more empathetic by telling us that we aren’t isolated. Our pain, desires and dilemmas are universal. It endows a sense of belonging to us. Reading a story is often akin to a dialogue with the character(s). Moreover, we also become a part of the zeitgeist, cosmos of the tale and we emerge out at the other end with a sense of enrichment and fulfilment. The story may be of someone who lives in another continent in different times than us but it reminds us that our struggles and dreams are shared, that we belong to and are connected with the world.
Literature brings us closer to the humanist truth. This truth and its various facets relieve us of the growing isolation and existential conundrum that pervade our lives in the current times. As the Japanese philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda said, “Literature is the very pulse of life. Those who have learned to appreciate great literature during their youth are always vital and vigorous, because the pulse of literature beats within them. Those who haven’t learned such an appreciation lack that vitality; their lives are spiritually drab and empty. Reading literature gives us an insight into the vast, deep ocean of life existing beneath the countless rolling waves.”
Literature translates life and the human condition with all their conflicts, ethics and challenges into a relatable paradigm. Literature attempts to tackle the perils that vitiate our world – intolerance towards the other, inability to empathize with those outside our tribe, loneliness and boredom. So, the only answer to who needs literature is we all do.