Reading for empathy involves crossing boundaries of genre and form, and levelling contrived hierarchies.
by Mrs. Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is in the I.A.S. of INDIA and currently based in Bengaluru.
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Reading for empathy involves crossing boundaries of genre and form, and levelling contrived hierarchies.When I was in middle school, I had a teacher who disapproved of what she described as ‘storybooks’. “Read the classics, girls,” she would chide us with pursed lips. “Don’t waste time on this rubbish!” Oh, Mrs. S, if only you knew! I survived the dog days of middle school reading Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer, and Barbara Cartland. During the reign of Mrs. S, in a daring act of civil disobedience, we wrapped the novels in brown paper so that she wouldn’t confiscate them. We read them when the teacher didn’t turn up to class, and in needlework class. Needlework class! If I had to write a memoir about middle school, it would be titled ‘Perry Mason Saved My Life’.
There was a library near our house from where we got the novels. It was the ‘Lending Library’; another place down the road, from where we got our weekly magazines, was the ‘Circulating Library’. Twice a week, Raju, the proprietor, would cycle down the ‘mains and crosses’ laid out in perpendicular lines in our quiet residential block in Jayanagar, Bangalore. He would come in the evenings, ringing his familiar cycle bell, calling “Magazine!” We would gather up the magazines we had read, run out to return them, and accept the new magazines for the week. It was a frugal, environment-friendly system. I’m sure Mrs. S would have called it a waste of time.
I still remember one of the last books I borrowed from the library: Edgar Wallace’s novel The Forger. It is a thrilling summer vacation read, but close to the end I found that someone had torn out the last few pages. I felt a sense of betrayal. From then on, I decided to save up money to buy my own books. Whenever I think back on the incident now, I tell myself that some day I must order myself a copy of the novel and find out how it ends.
I was reminded of Mrs. S’s rebukes when the latest round of the literary versus genre fiction wars broke out recently in the Indian media this past summer over the ideas and biases that essayist Amitav Ghosh has about genre novels being inferior to serious mainstream literary novels, which HE writes, of course.. Every so often, in the world of books — as if it is separate from the real world in which people live — a debate like this breaks out on the merits of literary fiction versus genre fiction. A recent research paper discusses the debate in creating empathy in the reader. It seems literary fiction does better than genre fiction. But is this really so? Or are Mrs. S and her stereotypes at work again?
At the outset, to divide all fiction into artificial categories of ‘literary’ and ‘genre’, as if one doesn’t spill over into the other, seems like an act of murdering to dissect. Right from the beginning of what came to be categorised as genre fiction, there were novels that challenged these conventions and boundaries.
An example of this is detective fiction. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins is one of the earliest detective novels, but as pointed out by T.S. Eliot, who was incidentally a great fan of detective fiction, one of the pleasures of the novel is that the detective is not infallible. If there came to be a literary convention of the perfect, heroic detective, there were at the same time a number of crime novels where the detective was flawed, human, often at a loss to understand what had happened. Over the years, we encounter this figure persistently: in the austere, introspective, even philosophical prose of George Simenon’s Maigret novels; the Martin Beck series of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, going behind the tidy image of Sweden as a welfare state to explore layers of poverty and crime; and the Brunetti novels of Donna Leon set in a Venice fraught with corruption and bureaucratic red tape, to name a few. Most recently, in Anita Nair’s police procedural set in Bengaluru, Inspector Borei Gowda struggles to solve a harrowing child trafficking case involving the 12-year-old daughter of his cook.
I once read an essay by Margaret Atwood where she talks about the only quality by which we should judge a book: whether it is alive or dead. Perhaps this is a more meaningful categorisation than ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ fiction. Is the book alive? Does it speak to our times and concerns?
When Atwood writes a dystopian novel like The Handmaid’s Tale, Philip Roth writes The Plot Against America, or Tolkien writes on the war between good and evil, they are writing about matters that are relevant to contemporary times.
If anything, therefore, I would imagine that reading for empathy involves not more but less of hierarchy; crossing boundaries of genre and form; reading widely, including poetry, memoir, and translation; and reading diverse voices.
Finally, the concept of empathy itself seems to come from another century; I wonder if it is able to encompass the vast need for humanity of our times. When we see pictures of people huddled in small boats, some fated to drown on their way; of little Aylan Kurdi on the beach, Omran Daqneesh in Aleppo, or Dana Majhi in Odisha with the body of his wife on his shoulder, maybe we should ask just what we mean by empathy. When 800 million people in the world cannot read and write, talking about cultivating empathy through the genteel activity of reading novels is itself a reflection of privilege. There are many roads to empathy, and reading diverse books may well be one of them. The point, however, is to act on that empathy.
Uma Mahadevan Dasgupta is in the IAS and currently based in Bengaluru