I begin writing this from a cosy little café in London’s Bloomsbury. The café is small enough to bump elbows with people as you navigate your way to a table, smaller still for the eye not to flit from one table to another. Soft indie music plays in the background. The words and music merge into a puddle of incoherence. This is the kind of music every hip little place plays. There is no way to tell if or not I have heard this track before.
Across the table from me, two girls appear to be sharing an emotional story. The narrator of the story is taking a special kind of delight in divulging the details bit-by-bit. Her hands are moving with a dramatic slowness. The listener is enraptured, surrendering to the artistic vision of the storyteller. She lets out a laugh at what appears to be the right time. She shakes her head when it is expected of her. She reaches forward when the situation demands. Alert and responsive, her silence is a verb. A conscious leaning-in, a well-meditated opening-up.
What all is her silence up against? The clamour produced by coffee gushing violently out of a machine. The loud layering of many Englishes — some hissing, some drawling, and some liberated from the ‘r’s and ‘t’s. A man’s periodic kicking of a glass bottle followed each time by surprise and apology.
Her silence shimmers in its eloquence.
I wait for her to interrupt. To say something. Anything.
But it does not happen. She is listening actively.
My friend sits with me at the table. She is working on her laptop; deeply engrossed in synthesising theory. Hers is what Paul Goodman called the “musical silence of absorbed activity.” Even more so as the lazy playlist curated by the café plays on. I can see her making intricate little maps in her mind. Connecting the dots. She scratches her neck absentmindedly from time to time and looks up from her laptop to think of words to suit what she wants to say. Her mind is running as language trails far behind — sometimes failing perhaps in its precision to capture the exactness of her ideas.
When we walk out of the café together, and as it is when we walk together, there are plenty of silences. Our footsteps begin to synchronise, our pace matches up. A sense of communion, of camaraderie emerges. We’re walking together. It is as simple and as complex as that. There is no need to boil this something down to words, to sprint across these moments of quiet with language.
But not all silences are equal.
Silences can be dismissive too. A silence is sometimes enough to deny the other’s reality. At home, my friend and I watch the coverage of a trial as we eat a spicy daal chawal. The camera shows former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré sitting in court with his eyes closed as victims give testimonies against him. During his eight-month trial, Habré did not speak a single word. With his eyes shut, Habré stubbornly attempts to block out reality. His dismissive silence speaks of hubris and delusion.
I’m reading meanings into his silence. I’m using what I can gather from his body language and from his history as a tyrant, a dictator crushing dissent brutally. This is a man convicted of human rights abuses including rape, sexual slavery, the killing of 40,000 people and the torture of 200,000 during the eight-years of his rule. This is the man who was responsible for Chad’s Black September in 1984 when fire was opened on a farm full of people in the south of the country. I try to peer into him. To look for the slightest signs of remorse. For the mask to fall for a second in between camera shots. But, his eyes — and by relation — his thoughts, are inaccessible. It doesn’t happen.
I muse over this comfortable silence that my friend and I are sharing. I map it against an opposite. For this, I go all the way to the end of the spectrum. A passive-aggressive silence, we know, can capsize even the strongest of bonds. It makes islands out of people. Inevitably, both individuals begin to have anxious soliloquies. On stage, and in life, we know that soliloquies are ominous. The next act often constitutes death.
If you have ever been with a loved one during their final days, you begin to notice that they will stop talking first. But, you will also watch this happen slowly. Over the days, you will notice that they have become increasingly withdrawn, choosing to communicate only with their facial expressions — if at all.
My grandparents are no longer alive. They have gone completely silent. I speak more Punjabi now because they spoke Punjabi. I pay attention to my diction and use of quirky sayings and colloquialisms almost as if they are listening. I am provoking them to respond. My attempts are fruitless but they make me feel warm. I like to think of their silence like the negative space in a photograph that allows your eyes to trace the outlines of what is important, and hence, beautiful in the picture. What is beautiful and important in this picture is my memory of them. It becomes unbearably beautiful as I grapple with the negative space that is their silence. But I think about them in more ways now than I would if they could still talk to me. I rewind and replay until I can’t anymore.
As reflective beings, we perhaps, are the only species ill-at-ease on earth, struggling desperately to find a way to reconcile with the negative spaces we often confront. Like the traveller who knocks in Walter de la Mare’s The Listeners, we compulsively seek to overcome our aloneness by establishing a relationship with our surroundings and reading meaning into those relationships.
We find ourselves hankering after the meaning in the silence that surrounds us as one does after an elusive much sought-after beloved that one finds to be familiar and mysterious at once. Projecting and deconstructing; tumbling over the lulls in stimulation despite being able to intuitively appreciate the primal nature of silence: It is humans that knock. Nature has always responded with silence.
For some reason, I am reminded of a ghazal by Ibn-e-Insha. One that, perhaps, can also be looked at as a strikingly flamboyant nudge to sit with the horrors of being creative, emotional beings in a universe that, for all intents and purposes, with its quietude appears to take on the demeanour of an unresponsive and unyielding lover:
Kal chaudhavin ki raat thi, shab bhar raha charcha tera
Kuch ne kaha yeh chand hay, kuch nay kaha chehra tera
Hum bhi wahin mojoud thay, hum say bhi sub poocha kiyay
Hum hans diye, hum chup rahay, manzoor tha, purdah tera