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Monday, January 24, 2011

(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 22nd January, 2011)


The musician’s voice climbs to a woman’s pitch, and he pauses for a second. Just as he opens his mouth to transcend the scale, the audience fills the silence with applause.

A little lost, the poor man bows and folds his palms. The audience is even more appreciative of his gesture than his pitch.

He bows again, to louder claps.

Finally, he repeats the “a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-aaaaaaaaaaa”, contorts his facial muscles into a grotesque twist and pulls his hands into claws to indicate he is about to go higher.

This time, the silence is broken by the sound of a photographer’s running boots as he captures a ‘close-up’ of the expression to publish as the image of the day.

The singer belatedly composes his features, prompting another burst of applause. Giving up, he touches his heart, encouraging the audience to increase its decibel level.

Something in our genes makes us Indians panic at the onset of silence. In our pursuit of quelling it, we’ve startled many a European string quartet, befuddled many an infant and scared many a bird.

Our idea of mourning a catastrophe is observing a ‘moment’ of silence. We stare at the floor, count to five, beam at each other in the triumph of having achieved the near-impossible, and then begin to talk all at once.

We do admire people who can stay silent, of course. The mystic Meher Baba was possibly the first person to recognise this national trait, and capitalise on it to increase his tribe.

However, we also believe that someone who hasn’t turned to higher pursuits must join the quest for conversation.

The acquired component of our programming begins early. When we’re tumbling about our cradles, every break from wailing induces the appearance of an enormous face into our spheres of vision, making sounds like, “bujeee, bujeee!”, “acheee, acheee!”, “onnnonnnoonnnnoooonooo!”, “ole, ole babyyyyyy?” We learn to interpret that as a signal that our crying is sorely missed, and promptly break into sobs again.

As we grow up, we watch adults gurgle down coffee and talk about rent, the stock market, inflation, petrol, sari shops, jewellery, the relative merits of restaurants, the prospects of marriage for sundry relatives, and draw up a list of irrelevant, incompatible subjects to be used in case of emergency.

Our languages are even equipped with phrases coined to speed up the death of silence.

When we run out of topics, we turn to our interlocutors and say, “apparum?” or “aur batao?”, forcing them to come up with something like, “did you see the paper today? Shocking, no?”

“Oh, yes, shocking, shocking. The murder, no?”

“No, the ATM robbery. What murder?”

When we finally exhaust the list of irrelevant subjects, one of us coughs.

“Oh, are you ill?” the other asks anxiously.

Relieved, the first goes on to list all the ailments currently plaguing him or her, ensuring a lively discussion on the virtues and evils of tablets, doctors, ayurveda, alopathy, pharmacies and scripture.

Worse, we believe the imposition of silence is diabolic. My father’s sternest threat to my five-year-old self was, “if you do that, I’ll stop talking to you.” I would spend the next few hours blissfully biting my nails and spilling food on myself in his presence, as he grappled with his covenant.

We take offence when a car doesn’t honk to herald its approach, or a person doesn’t clear his throat to announce his presence.

We even decide silence is a sign of mental instability. When all prospects of conversation have died out, one of us scrutinises the other, “why so silent? Is something wrong?”

The other usually sniffs thoughtfully, “can you smell something burning?”


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