Monday, October 4, 2010

Some noise on the subject of silence

One evening, I was led to think seriously about silence when I had to put up with some dreadful music that was blaring out the entire evening in my neighbourhood.

Not that I hate music: I can't, of course, sing, but I can tolerate other people's singing.  Neither am I intolerant of noise.  I work in an environment which is rather noisy, and my own contribution to it is quite substantial.  It's just that the music in the neighbourhood was deafening and unbearable.  I guess most people are like me in this respect.

Paradoxically, though most of us are annoyed when the noise levels are high, we are not comfortable with the total absence of sound either.  If noise can be deafening, so indeed can silence: silence becomes "loud" when it is total.  If noise can be annoying, absolute silence can be frightening.  Not many people are votaries of graveyard silence; even those who observe mouna vratam may not be its adherents.

Silence reminds me of the three legendary Cartesian monks who climbed to the top of a hill to live in splendid isolation, observing rigorous silence.  After a year, one of them broke his silence and said, "It's nice, isn't it?" and relapsed into silence.  Two years later, another monk replied, "Yes", and became silent again.  Three years later, the third monk scribbled on the sand in front of him: "You both are talking endlessly, and the hill echoes with your garrulous chatter.  I am going away from this place."

We, in India, have our own Cartesian monk in the late P V Narasimha Rao, who, in his heyday as the prime minister of India, was the cartoonist's delight.  A typical cartoon representing PV's taciturnity had both his lips tightly held together by a fastener zip. It is said – it used to be said, rather – that PV opened his mouth (1) to brush, (2) to eat and drink, (3) to yawn, and (4) to cough, and for nothing else!  PV was not only silent but the cause of silence in others: his scowling face with its celebrated pout rarely failed to intimidate one into silence.

There is something more to PV's silence.  PV was not just a practitioner of silence; he was an aficionado.  I'll tell you how.  PV was a polyglot: he knew 17 languages.  So indeed do several others.  But PV was unique: he knew how to be silent in 17 languages!  Avvaiyar, a second century Tamil poet, said that silence is a mark of gnana.  If it is so, PV was a gnani, indeed!

But, for us, agnanis, silent moments are awkward moments, especially during a conversation.  If your listener maintains long silences, confining his responses to monosyllables, you become uncomfortable.  You begin to wonder whether he finds you uninteresting, boring, stupid… There is another side to it, too: if you want a conversation to end, you have an effective tool in silence – sullen, studied silence.

To end this piece on a serious note, some people know the art of graceful silence.  Shout at them or speak to them rudely, but they won't react impulsively.  They do say what they want to say, but they let silence play a vital part in their reaction.  That earns them the respect even of their adversaries.

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