First Person The unforgettable meeting with celebrated playwright Samuel Beckett was marked by just a few words that have lasted a lifetime. SUKRITA PAUL KUMAR
Samuel Beckett sat in absolute silence beside me — a full, tense silence. He sat right next to my seat in the hall at a University of London college, nearly three decades ago! The evening pulsates in my mind as a vibrant “now”. A lean and an almost lanky man — steadfast in silence — had an acute alertness atop his high cheekbones under his deep-set light eyes, below a sprawling forehead that receded into the black streak in his silver hair. His silence was louder than the torrent of words from Lucky (of “Waiting for Godot”) unleashing in my head specially with the author’s proximity to me.
The character is a mouth
The hall slowly slipped into darkness and on the screen emerged a big grotesque image of a mouth as a dark deep cave framed by lips, the tongue twisting and rotating… studded with pale white teeth, frantically spewing streams of words. This was a screening of Beckett’s play ‘Not I’, with the mouth (not the whole face) — that of Billie Whitelaw — as the only character/object in the play.
When the voice rose higher or when too many words tumbled out of the mouth one upon the other, Beckett whispered “Too much colour!”— a strange comment when all I could see on the screen was just black and white. And yet, what he said did seem to make sense, may be because his remark came whenever the harmony of the “black and white” atmosphere got disturbed, with anything “extra”…an extraneous word, a bit more silence, or even a bit less of it! He did not want the pitch of the speech a notch higher or lower than what was needed.
Even in that dark hall, I could see tension filling the deep crevices on the skin of his face whenever the words became muffled or unintelligible. But then, what seemed to be a long epic story of despair toppling and storming out of the mouth in that play, lasted for only about 7-8 minutes… and the play was over, leaving behind, as it were, a moving experience of someone’s inner scream lying suppressed over a long period!
Samuel Beckett had promised to give me some exclusive time after the screening of ‘Not I’. I had approached him nervously for an interview, knowing quite well that he preferred not to talk about his work. As we walked to the cafeteria to sit over a cup of coffee and chat, I started to formulate my questions for him in my head, highly self-conscious and feeling rather reticent.
“I write to comprehend silence,” said he as we sat down with our cups of coffee. Not wanting to miss any words from him, I quickly fumbled for my pen and notebook in my bag. But of what use were these implements when most of what I was to experience was a series of silences, long and short ones, interspersed by merely monosyllabic short words and sounds. An attentive silence, an intimate one — now oppressive, now liberating! What made this communication so intense? What did it say to me? What did it do to me? How would I write or translate those silences into my writing? Somebody had said that an interview with him was really a process of de-articulation. I can’t forget what he said between two strips of silences that day: “There’s always something to listen to.” I have been trying to listen to that “something” ever since!
(Sukrita Paul Kumar is an author and poet. She is a professor at the University of Delhi.)