Is Literature Useful?

(NOTE: Tezpur University, where I work, has seventeen departments of which five belong to the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Complete lack of comprehension about the nature of the humanities is something I encounter on a daily basis. Some time ago I wrote a piece for our university journal, grandly called Srijan, trying to justify my particular discipline. I might as well have buried it in a hole. So I am now sending it in the opposite direction – cyberspace. Go, little post.)

Is literature useful? This question, which is as old as literature itself, has been answered by philosophers. We know what Plato said about poets (they corrupt and mislead), or how Aristotle justified tragedy (it is truer than history, and therapeutic). In this piece, I will attempt to answer the question about literature’s value from my own experience as a reader and teacher of literature and not philosophically (since I have no talent for that).

It is important to have an answer, especially if you teach literature, as I do, in a university dominated by science and technology. For, unlike the School of Engineering, which produces engineers, or the Department of Food Processing Technology, which has an enviably obvious purpose, the English Department does something that does not seem terribly important or serious: it teaches students how to read novels and poems.

Not that anyone is calling for the abolition of the English Department, certainly not in our university where the power of English as a global language is generally acknowledged. The English Department is expected to equip students with the language skills they need to do well in the job market. Fluency in a language, especially in the global lingua franca, is an asset even (or particularly) in our technological age. Thus the English Department may be asked to ‘correct’ the English in scientific research papers or help with the University prospectus, newsletter, and annual report.  In other words, the English Department is viewed as a service department.

A bigger, more inspiring idea of what literature is or can be motivated the actions of Emile Zola when he risked his career as one of France’s leading novelists to defend Richard Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer who was falsely accused of treason. ‘J’accuse’, Zola’s famous open letter to the French President, which appeared in the newspaper L’Aurore on 13 January 1838, was a challenge to the establishment to undo a grave wrong. A good deal of opposition and bitterness followed but Dreyfus was eventually exonerated.  ‘J’accuse’ is the paradigm of a writer following his individual conscience and refusing to submit to national (and nationalistic) sentiments.  It is also a powerful example of what the public intellectual can accomplish. Closer home, we have the examples of Dr Hiren Gohain, who has been involved in facilitating talks between ULFA and the Government of India,  and Arundhati Roy, who, Zola-like, has championed various causes through her essays and open letters in Outlook magazine. But when a writer becomes an activist, there is the danger that he or she may give up literature. Arundhati Roy has not written a novel after The God of Small Things.

The Progressive Writers Association (PWA), founded at a time when the great struggle against imperialism was on, did not believe in separating literature from politics. Instead, they saw the role of the writer as central in bringing about change and radicalizing consciousness. At its first formal meeting in London in 1934, the PWA’s manifesto (written in English because there were Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi writers present), declared

Radical changes are taking place in India society…We believe that the new literature of India must deal with the basic problems of our existence today – the problems of hunger and poverty, social backwardness, and political subjection. All that drags us down to passivity, inaction and un-reason we reject as reactionary. All that arouses in us the critical spirit, which examines institutions and customs in the light of reason, which helps us to act, to organize ourselves, to transform, we accept as progressive. 

Writers like Mulk Raj Anand (who was largely responsible for the London manifesto) were exposed to western ideas and influenced by international movements (including the resistance to fascism). But the homegrown Premchand too called for a fundamental change in art and society when he delivered the presidential address at the PWA’s 1936 Conference at Lucknow:

We will have to change our standard of beauty. So far this standard has been based on wealth and love of pleasure…Mud huts and ruins were not worthy of his [the writer’s] attention… That they [villagers, the poor] too are human beings and have hearts and aspirations, this was beyond the imagination of art.

Premchand’s Godan (about a poverty-stricken farmer) as well as Anand’s Untouchable (about a latrine cleaner) deal with themes unprecedented in Indian or English literature. That ideology is not injurious to art is evident when we consider the body of work produced by writers who were either PWA members or shared its vision: Saadat Hasan Manto, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ishmat Chughtai, Ahmed Ali, Bhisham Sahni, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Kaifi Azmi, and, in Assam, Jyoti Prasad Agarwalla and Bishnu Rabha (they were active members of the Assam branch of the Indian People’s Theatre Association, a sister organization of the PWA).

Like their Indian counterparts, progressive Chinese writers too dreamt of bringing about a change in their society. In 1906 Lu Xun (later described by Mao as ‘the saint of modern China’) gave up his studies at a Japanese medical school to become a writer. His epiphanic moment had occurred when a teacher showed the class a slide of a Chinese man being beheaded by the Japanese for acting as a spy during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Lu Xun was disgusted by the reaction of his compatriots:

Every face was utterly, stupidly blank . . . I no longer believed in the overwhelming importance of medical science… However rude a nation was in physical health, if its people were intellectually feeble, they would never become anything other than cannon fodder or gawping spectators…The first task was to change their spirit; and I decided that literature and the arts were the best means to this end.

Lu Xun’s famous novella ‘The Real story of Ah-Q’ (Ah Q zheng zhuan) is about the escapades of a Chinese everyman.  Ah-Q’s chief failings have been described as his servility to the rich and powerful, together with cruelty towards the weak, and his turning of ignominious moments into imaginary moral victories. The story is related in mock-biographical style by an educated Chinese narrator. The hapless Ah-Q becomes a scapegoat and is finally executed. But Lu Xun’s sophisticated satiric treatment spares neither the biographer (who has no real empathy with his subject) nor the crowd which comes to enjoy the execution of Ah-Q.

Is literature useful? Lu Xun, China’s ‘self-appointed literary physician’, would have answered in the affirmative, as would have the PWA writers and Zola. But I have found my answer in the reflections of Yiyun Li, a contemporary writer, on the suicide by a young woman in China. As the woman prepared to jump from the roof of a seventeenth-storey building a crowd gathered below: people took out their cell phones, the elderly brought chairs, and a pedlar began hawking binoculars. Yiyun Li wonders how this crowd is different from the crowd that witnessed the beheading of Ah-Q:

Perhaps literature, unlike what Lu Xun… hoped, will not change the world in any grand way; rather, it is what remains unchanged that will make literature live on, and it is perhaps for this reason that Lu Xun’s stories will be still read fifty or a hundred years from now.

Yiyun Li comments help us understand why literature matters, even when – perhaps especially when – it does not change the world. For the unhappy woman on the seventeenth floor, life had no meaning. But between us and the void there is literature.

Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ and Poor Economics

Esther Duflo on May 2, delivering the first of her Tanner lectures. (Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer)

For some days after I went to listen to Esther Duflo’s Tanner lectures, I couldn’t get Premchand’s ‘Kafan’ out of my head.

Duflo’s lectures, organized by the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard, were on May 2 and 3. (A seminar was held on May 4.)  It was the first time in many years that an economist had been invited to deliver the Tanner lectures. For a ‘Nobelisable’ economist, Duflo is astonishingly young (not yet 40). I don’t know how much of a success the lectures were. I don’t think they rose above the level of a classroom PowerPoint presentation (by a by a very bright teacher, of course) for many of the people I saw on the first day (‘Paternalism versus Freedom’) were absent on the second (‘Hope as Capability’).  As for me, my mind segued from development economics to literature. I began to think of Premchand’s classic.

In 2003 Esther Duflo and her MIT colleague Abhijit Banerjee (with Harvard professor Sendhil Mullainathan) founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab ((J-PAL) at MIT. J-PAL conducts micro tests to assess the effectiveness of development programmes and is credited with introducing empiricism to development economics. Some of the work Banerjee and Duflo have done  among the poor in India, Bangladesh, Kenya and other countries can be found in their  bestselling book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty (2011), described as ‘Freakonomics for the billion people on earth who live on less than a dollar a day.’

A few years ago I supervised a doctoral thesis on the representation of domestic servants in Indian English fiction.  My colleague Sanjib Sahoo, who was doing the work, was on to something when he argued that the Indian servant,  so ubiquitous a presence in our upper or middle class lives, is in fact invisible and silent.  One of the many passages he cited was this seemingly innocuous one from Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel English, August:

The Garhwali servant, a cheerful teenager, appeared, said, ‘namaste’ and took away Agastya’s bag. Agastya had spent, off and on, almost six years in that house . . . It was a three-bedroom house, simple . . . The servant cooked well. Simple things, good food, a lawn shaded by neem, jaracanda and gulmohar . . . in Madna his only ambition had grown to be to clutch these simple things.

The passage effaces the ‘cheerful’, (significantly nameless) teenaged Garhwali servant’s daily labour of keeping the house in order – the endless routines of cooking and cleaning – and his years of exploitation (and the many more to come). Watching Sahoo’s thesis develop thorough chapters like ‘Marginalization of Servant’s Labour’, ‘Marginalization of the Servant’s Body’, and ‘Marginalization of the Servant’s Space’ was a way of becoming aware of the inadequacy of one’s responses to the poor.

In Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo relate an anecdote about Oucha Mbarbk, a poor man they met in a remote Moroccan village. They ask him what he would do if he had money. Mbarbk replies that he would buy more food. They ask him what he would do if he had more money. He replies that he would buy better-tasting food. ‘We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed a television, a parabolic antenna, and a DVD player in the room we were sitting. We asked him why he had bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat. He laughed, and said, “Oh, but television is more important than food!” Living in the village, Banerjee and Duflo began to see Mbarbk’s point. Since he (and the other villagers) had worked only for seventy days that year in agriculture and thirty in construction, it made sense to buy things that made life less boring and brutal.

If this sounds irresponsible, like our servants who buy cellphones when they really ought to be saving, reading Poor Economics makes you realize it isn’t. The book shows why development aid based on the belief that the poor will always make the right choices is often ineffective. The poor don’t always make the right choices – not because they are perverse but because they have their reasons. An example Duflo constantly cited in her lectures was that of chlorinated water: poor people neglect to use chlorine tablets even when they are supplied free. This is partly because the poor are less well informed about health hazards. But if, like the poor, people like us (who have access to quality drinking water) too had to daily chlorinate our drinking water, it is possible that we may not do so for the same reason we find it difficult  to stick to our New Year’s resolutions. Poor Economics also makes us realize how the poor live with the knowledge that their lives will not improve. To a poor man like Oucha Mbarbk who knows there is no realistic chance of improving his lot, it makes sense to maximize the moment.  As Banerjee and Duflo put it, the poor ‘have to be sophisticated economists just to survive.’

After the first day’s lecture, I walked over to the Widener to see if I could borrow ‘Kafan’. I had read the story years ago as a college student. The book I found on the shelves was Premchand: The Shroud and 20 Other Stories translated by Madan Gopal (Sagar Publications: New Delhi, 1972).

The story (spoiler alert!) is about two utterly poor and ‘notorious’ village cobblers, Ghisu and his son Madhav. ‘If Ghisu worked for one day, he would rest for three. Madhav was such a shirker that for every half hour of work he would smoke for one hour.’  When the story begins it is a winter night and  Budhia, Madhav’s wife, is in the throes of child-birth. ‘If she must die why doesn’t she hurry?’ asks Madhav. He wonders what he will do if a baby is born. Ghisu replies, ‘Everything will come – let God give the baby first.’ ‘In a society where the lot of the hard-working peasant was not better than theirs’, Premchand comments, ‘and where only those who exploited the poor enjoyed the plums, such an attitude was nothing surprising. We might even say that Ghisu was much wiser than the peasants. Instead of following the herd of unthinking peasants, he had joined the unsavoury ranks of idlers, though he lacked the means to follow the ways and principles of the tribe.’

Sometime in the night, when father and son are asleep, Budhia dies with the child in her womb. In the morning, Madhav and Ghisu go to the zamindar because they have no money to cremate her. ‘The zamindar had a kind heart, but to do a good turn to Ghisu was like dying a black blanket.’ However, he gives them some money. Ghisu and Madhav go to the bazaar to buy a shroud for Budhia. But ‘led by some mysterious power, they found themselves in front of a tavern and, as if the visit was pre-determined, entered it.’  They make merry in the tavern, drinking and feasting until (this is how the story ends) ‘in the end they fell down – dead drunk.’

V.S. Naipaul called Premchand a writer much concerned with middle-class morality. When I read ‘Kafan’ as a college student, it was mostly in a judgmental way. I was following Premchand: his disapproval of Ghisu and Madhav is unmistakable. But Premchand also had real understanding of what brute poverty does to people – and makes the reader feel it. That is why ‘Kafan’ had come back to me like a half remembered song.  Duflo’s lectures and Poor Economics clarified a couple of things for me  but the great writer had always known.