On a very rainy day, when I’m trying to make my way along a muddy, broken road, a little stretch of tar or concrete comes as relief. Not because I don’t like walking in the rain, but that undisturbed section of the road gives me something definite. It helps me stay the course without getting totally messy in the uncertainty of slush-clogged paths.

In some ways, writing and reading provide this sense of the definite, especially when the mind is indefinite, clogged; when days are obscure and when afflictions of various sorts plague us. For centuries, people have turned to the wonders, the imaginative liberation and the simple yet universal appeal of emotions that only literature can provide. As humans, we seek connection. And literature – be it fiction, prose or poetry – is that grand ballroom where we all end up meeting versions of ourselves and feel at peace because we are not alone.

Reading and empathy

We already know there’s a well-established relationship between the therapeutic nature of literature and wellness. And we don’t need to revisit this paradigm just because it’s World Mental Health Day. But the pandemic has brought to light certain inherent truths. We have all experienced ambiguity in its most cruel form. We have witnessed in utter helplessness loss, fear, pain and angst. Yes, none of these are new to our species.

But in my experience, the overpowering nature of the pandemic has forced us to reflect even more deeply on life, on health and how the latter informs the former. The need to stay well has become paramount. So much so that this is reflected in the words we use now: In phrases like “stay well”, “take care” and “be kind to yourself”.

We now use the term, “mental health” with a little less hesitation than we did earlier, perhaps because the stigma associated with it has dissipated a bit. It is in this context that I feel literature has never been more present than now – how reading it can lead to overall wellness because literature helps us understand ourselves better.

Novelist Shashi Deshpande, in “A writer’s look at literature, fiction and mental health”, published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, acknowledges the cathartic aspect of writing and how it can help in our overall wellness. She observes: “As I write, I learn more and more about people, about human nature, I understand people the way I never did before… In telling other people’s stories, you sometimes find your own self.”

The reader goes through the same journey of self-discovery when they read an extraordinary piece of writing, unearthing new perspectives on empathy and understanding. There are insights we can draw from fictional or poetic personas that could help us care more meaningfully for someone.

For instance, reading about characters who suffer from dementia, and about characters who experience the trauma of seeing their loved ones go through it, could help us gain a better hold of the earth that suddenly slips from under our feet in such circumstances. Some research even recommends literary fiction for nursing professionals, particularly those in dementia care.

Literature and loss

A book that comes to mind in this context is A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind edited by Jerry Pinto. The stories chronicle mostly real-life accounts of those who have seen how their loved ones have suffered. I do not know how they felt writing them. But as a reader and as someone who reviewed the book, I can only say that those authentic tales were (and are) necessary.

They moved me beyond belief and brought in great respect for everyone who has been coping with “a different mind”. Now, in the context of the pandemic, books such as this have become all the more relevant. We need more.

All of us know what it’s like to lose a loved one. Grief and loss come with overbearing and exhausting emotions that take the toll on us. I’ve always found poetry as my go-to place in such times. WS Merwin’s poem, “Separation” to me is one of the most poignant portrayals of what death or someone’s absence can do to our minds: “Your absence has gone through me / like thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its colour.”

Some years ago, I was perplexed when an old friend told me how one of my poems had helped when she was grieving the passing of a loved one. She was perhaps being excessively generous and a tad biased – after all, I was a friend. But that moment crystallised for me what I could perhaps do as a writer. If the words I write are authentic and can help a fellow human being, I would consider myself successful. And I know I’m a long way off from realising that responsibility.

Empathy and compassion are not easy to understand or demonstrate in our day-to-day lives. It takes a great deal of courage, patience and strength. If a voice we hear through a poem or a novel can show us the way there and help us stay well, we should perhaps listen. Stay well, read, write. And not just on World Mental Health Day.

Anupama Raju is the author of Nine. A poet, literary journalist, communications professional and translator, she was a Charles Wallace Fellow at the University of Kent and a Writer-in-Residence at Centres Intermondes, La Rochelle.