Can literature be a healer in a pandemic?

Hamlet tells Horatio:

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

His words seem all too true today if you substitute science for philosophy. Who ever thought a virus transmitted by a bat could disrupt the whole world?

I remember when Singapore went into lockdown on April 7. The streets were deserted. Public buses plied from dawn till midnight with hardly a passenger on board. The city seemed to have turned into a ghost town. It was a stark reminder that, for all our progress in science and technology, we are still defenceless against the coronavirus.

So, when I came across a book called Life Saving: Why We Need Poetry, it gave me pause. Is poetry life-saving? Or is that claiming too much?

Literature is not a medicine or a vaccine. It cannot cure or prevent cancer, diabetes or Covid-19.

Sleep and the world of literature

But what was it that Macbeth said about sleep?

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Literature also plays a similar role. It is like sleep in that it can make us forget our surroundings and take us to another world. Some will call it escapism. But we need the rest and oblivion that sleep provides. And, escaping to another world in literature, we come across characters and stories we would have never known otherwise. It adds to our knowledge and enriches us.

Let me explain. I have been to places and met people. But many are nodding acquaintances about whom I know less than I do about Macbeth and David Copperfield.

As an autobiographical novel, David Copperfield takes us into the innermost recesses of his mind.

Macbeth is self-revealing, too. The ambition that drives him, the conscience that haunts him and the fatalism with which he resolves to die with his harness on his back are similar to the contradictions that plague troubled minds – but magnified a thousandfold.
Literature, by depicting such complex characters, gives us insights which we might have never had from our limited experience of life. It broadens our horizons.

But, to come back to the main question, is literature life-saving? Can it be a healer in the pandemic? Healing does not only mean curing. According to the Chambers Thesaurus, the word “heal” is also a synonym for “assuage” and “palliate”. And both “assuage” and “palliate” mean “lessen”, “ease” and “alleviate”. In this sense, literature can be a healer in the pandemic.

I am not saying we should thrust a book on someone suffering from Covid-19.

But this crisis is a reminder of our mortality, of the uncertainty of life. As the Covid-19 death toll mounts, I am reminded of Gloucester lamenting in King Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport.

A million people have died of Covid-19. Experts say the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are more at risk. But who will die and who will be spared, we don’t know.

The uncertainty could make us feel helpless and we could turn to religion and spirituality for hope and comfort.

We could also turn to books.

Literature and religion are not mutually exclusive. The Bible has been said to be the greatest book ever written, and the primary meaning of literature, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit”. The Gita, Upanishads and the Hindu epics also have their literary merits.

Holy books have comforted generations of readers through good times and bad.

But can secular literature offer similar comfort?

I think, yes, secular literature can be healing too. Greek tragedies had a cathartic effect on the audience, according to Aristotle. Personally, I find a play like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex shocking.

But I can re-read and re-watch Shakespeare’s tragedies because of their poetry and memorable characters.

And that brings us to the twin attractions of literature: language and story.

Wordsworth’s Lucy

I have always loved this Lucy poem by Wordsworth:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.

A violet by a mossy stone
Half-hidden from the Eye!
—Fair, as a star when only one
Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her Grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

I have always found this poem deeply moving. The last stanza especially where the poet contrasts the obscurity of Lucy with how much she meant to him.

So I was surprised when I learnt that Lucy was probably a fictional character. I was surprised because Wordsworth is an autobiographical poet and this poem in its simplicity seems written from the heart.

It is mournful yet healing. In my view, anything that touches the heart, moves us to tears or laughter, is healing because it releases our emotions. People paralysed with grief are urged to cry and unburden themselves. But we want to be happy, not sad, and laughter is said to be the best medicine.

Sweetest songs, saddest thought

There is a sentimental streak in us which Shelley articulated memorably in To A Skylark:

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Maybe that is why Shakespeare’s great tragedies are more highly regarded than his comedies, why Romeo and Juliet captured the popular imagination.

Many of our best loved songs are sentimental or melancholy. Think of the popular ballad Auld Lang Syne sung on every New Year’s Eve.

Keats’ nightingale

We are attracted to beauty, too, and respond to the sensuous beauty of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale:

O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

One can almost see the sparkling bubbles and the fizz, the mouth stained with drink. And then the poet yearns for oblivion. A strain of melancholy seems to run through the Romantics and the Victorians.

Notice the power of words. We are moved by Wordsworth’s lament and mesmerised by the sensuousness of Keats.

PG Wodehouse

Words can also make us laugh. We laugh ourselves silly over PG Wodehouse. He was the greatest 20th century English humorist and a brilliant wordsmith. For him, “the written word was an intoxicating plaything”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. He is best known for his stories about Bertie Wooster and his butler Jeeves. Popular too are his stories about the absent-minded Lord Emsworth.

Here is an excerpt from a Wodehouse short story called Pig Hoo-o-o-o-ey!

It is a funny story about Lord Emsworth and his pig, the Empress of Blandings. The Empress refuses to eat before a competition where the fattest pig will win a medal. But the story ends happily with a young man emitting a stentorian bellow to persuade the Empress to eat.

Let me quote:

Resting his hands on the rail before him, James Belford swelled before their eyes like a young balloon. The muscles on his cheekbones stood out, his forehead became corrugated, his ears seemed to shimmer. Then, at the very height of the tension, he let it go…


Slowly, fading across hill and dale, the vast bellow died away. And, suddenly as it died, another, softer sound succeeded it. A sort of gulpy, gurgly, plobby, squishy, wofflesome sound, like a thousand eager men drinking soup in a foreign restaurant. And, as he heard it, Lord Emsworth uttered a cry of rapture.
The Empress was feeding.

Note the idiosyncratic images – “young balloon”, “forehead… corrugated”, and the unusual simile: “like a thousand eager men drinking soup in a foreign restaurant”.

This is vintage Wodehouse, whom the poet Hilaire Belloc called the best writer of his time. Wodehouse never won the Nobel or the Booker. He was considered too light, an entertainer. If you go through the list of Booker Prize winners, you will notice they frequently deal in death and loss. Themes that never darken Wodehouse’s comic adventures.

We have discussed the power of language. But, when little children go to bed, what they do say? “Tell me a story.” That’s the other attraction of literature.

Pride and Prejudice with its witty, independent-minded heroine, reticent, misunderstood hero and its gallery of characters good and bad, wise and foolish, affords hours of pleasure.

David Copperfield

David Copperfield is deeply satisfying as an autobiographical novel.
The reader feels for David who has such a chequered life. A posthumous child, he loses his mother in his boyhood and is cruelly abused by his stepfather Mr Murdstone. He is taken in by his aunt Betsey Trotwood, becomes the best of friends with Agnes, grows up, falls in love with Dora and marries her. But Dora falls ill and dies. Grieving, David is drawn to Agnes, who has loved him all along. They marry, have children, and he finds success as a writer.

Summarised thus, the story sounds banal, but it is redeemed by Dickens’ talent as a writer and a memorable cast of characters.

RK Narayan, The English Teacher

RK Narayan is best known for his novel, The Guide, which was made into a film and taught in school. However, my personal favourite is The English Teacher. Set in Malgudi like most of Narayan’s works, it is about a college lecturer who teaches English. He gets married and loves his wife; she gives birth to a daughter, falls ill and dies. Unable to get over his loss, he seeks to communicate with her spirit.

It is an autobiographical novel, said Narayan. He lost his wife when their daughter was only three years old. Narayan, who loved his wife dearly, tried to communicate with her spirit after she died. He never married again.

Dedicated to Narayan’s wife, Rajam, The English Teacher is a tender love story.

The ending is sheer romance. The narrator imagines his wife is still alive and talks to her as he returns home one night with a garland of jasmines, her favourite flowers.

I softly called, ‘Susila! Susila, my wife…’ with all my being. It sounded as if it were a hypnotic melody… I forgot myself and my own existence. I fell into a drowse, whispering, ‘My wife, wife,’ When I opened my eyes again she was sitting on my bed with an extraordinary smile in her eyes.

‘Susila! Susila!’ I cried. ‘You here!’ ‘Yes, I’m here, have always been here.’ I sat up leaning on my pillow. ‘Why do you disturb yourself?’ she asked…

This may seem fanciful or wishful thinking, but this is what enabled Narayan to carry on. This fervent belief in an afterlife and spiritual communion. As Narayan wrote in his memoirs, My Days: “This outlook may be unscientific, but it helped me survive the death of my wife…”

Paul Scott, Staying On

Earlier, I mentioned how the Booker Prize winners’ list is full of books dealing with death and loss. Some of them move us profoundly. For example, Staying On by Paul Scott. It won the Booker in 1977. Like Midnight’s Children, The Siege of Krishnapur, Heat and Dust, The God of Small Things, The Inheritance of Loss and The White Tiger, this is a Booker Prize winner set in India.

It is the story of an elderly British couple who stayed on in India after the country became independent. Leading a shabby genteel life in a hill station, they cut a pathetic figure. Lucy worries about the future. Her husband, Tusker Smalley, a retired army officer, is sick and they are not well off.

Tragedy strikes without warning. Their Punjabi landlady serves them notice to vacate the bungalow which has been their home. She wants to sell the bungalow and her adjoining hotel. Tusker sees the letter and has a fatal heart attack.

Lucy is numb with grief. She can’t sleep at night, helpless, alone and fearful of the future. This is how the book ends with her plaintive lament:

It’s all right, Tusker. I really am not going to cry. I can’t afford to…

All I’m asking, Tusker, is did you mean it when you said I’d been a good woman to you? And if so, why did you leave me? Why did you leave me here? I am frightened to be alone, Tusker, although I know it is wrong and weak to be frightened —

I cannot bear it but mustn’t cry… so with my eyes shut, Tusker, I hold out my hand, and beg you, Tusker, … to take me with you. How can you not, Tusker?… How can you make me stay here by myself while you yourself go home?

These are some of the most moving last words I have ever read in a novel – this cry from the heart of an old memsahib, alone and bereft in a foreign land. It is an eloquent example of the power of literature – how it can touch us to the core.

Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others

I have so far talked about funny, tender and sad stories, but narratives can be dispassionate too and move us all the same. That is the strength of Neel Mukherjee’s novel, The Lives of Others, set in Kolkata.

Largely set in Kolkata between 1967 and 1970, it recalls the tumultuous years when the city was seething with industrial unrest and bombs exploded and bullets flew in the battle between the police and the Naxalites. The story is about a Bengali family whose fortunes are declining, their factory closed, hit by industrial unrest.

A young man from the family becomes a Naxalite. He steals family jewellery to raise money for his cause and makes it appear as if the old family retainer committed the crime. The old man commits suicide when he is released from prison. The young man dies too, tortured and shot dead by the police for his terrorist activities. It is a bleak, pitiless story but rings true. That is how Kolkata was during those troubled years.

The author, Neel Mukheree, studied in Don Bosco, read English literature at Jadavpur University, went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and is now based in London.

Megha Majumdar, A Burning

A young woman from Kolkata is also winning praise abroad as a writer.

Megha Majumdar, who studied at Ashok Hall, went to Harvard and began working for a publisher in New York, has created a sensation with her first novel, A Burning, released in June this year.

Sadly, A Burning is a story of a miscarriage of justice in Kolkata. The three main characters are a Muslim girl named Jivan who is falsely accused of terrorism; PT Sir, a corrupt right-wing politician who was once her teacher; and a transgender named Lovely who wants to be an actor and was being taught English by Jivan. She knows Jivan isn’t a terrorist but doesn’t speak up when told not to by an actress who gives her a chance to act in a film. The actress says it would be bad publicity for the film.

I began by asking if literature can be a healer in a pandemic, and my answer is, yes, it can. It can comfort, entertain and move us, and if that is not healing, what is? Medicine can put us back on our feet, but literature touches the heart.

The pandemic has shown how resilient we are. It’s remarkable how our fear of the coronavirus is wearing off. Though people are dying in their thousands of Covid-19, we have come to accept it as the new normal. But our newfound stoicism does not mean we have become immune to the appeal of stories and poems.

Stressed, Unstressed

If we are too busy to read a novel, maybe we should read a poem. In Stressed, Unstressed, a poetry anthology, its editor Jonathan Bate says people have turned to poetry in dark times. He recalls how Queen Victoria found consolation in Tennyson’s In Memoriam and the Bible after the death of her husband, Prince Albert. He notes that poetry anthologies such as Palgrave’s The Golden Treasury were popular with delicate young Victorian ladies as well as with the soldiers who fought in the First World War.

We respond to the chime of rhyme, says Bate. “The basis of poetry”, he says, “is the alternating rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables that replicates the beating of the human heart.” Especially if read aloud, and slowly, the rhythms of a good poem may be inherently calming and therapeutic, he adds.

Christina Rossetti

I will end with a short poem by Christina Rossetti:

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:

Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.

A beautiful poem inspired by thoughts of mortality, isn’t it strangely moving in its simplicity, its rhyme and rhythm, its acceptance of what will be will be? Yes, literature can be healing anytime, anywhere, including now, in the middle of the pandemic.

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