The sadness of silence

India is a society where the poor, the nomad and the abandoned are waiting for someone to discover their silence. Today, silence is the secret untold commons of a forgotten India and our democracy will come alive the day we decode the silence of our majorities. Then, that silence will move from impoverishment to life

March 07, 2015 01:41 am | Updated 02:05 am IST

I find myself at odds with our current society which is ravenous about news, greedy for information, disgruntled about noise, and yet never talks about silence. I think silence needs a storyteller. In fact, silence needs a demography to map its messages. In all the noise about self-conscious selfies, I want to talk about a different world. At one level, it is the same world, but no one talks about it. This world of silence has no representation, no voice, no effort of art that captures its messages, its nuances.

A city’s attitude I still remember this old man who sits near the red light, poised precariously on a pavement. He is prematurely old. He looks beseechingly at you as the car stops. He does not beg, he does not speak. He sits silently, quietly, exploding with questions and still watches sadly as the car passes him by. My driver, a folk authority on Delhi, told me that there are hundreds of old people like this across Delhi. Their families don’t want them. They feel unloved. After a meagre breakfast, they leave home and spend the day sitting on pavements, watching people, tired with expectation and hope. Their eyes speak speechlessly. There are no tears. They watch with innocence. The driver said, “I hate red lights in a city. They remind me of the homeless, the beggars, the old. It is a stop for all the people we abandon and forget.” He uttered an obscenity which described the attitude of the city, a heartlessness which had no place for the defeated.

I probed a bit more. A few days later, a friend and I were driving around Kashmiri Gate bus stop in Delhi. It was night. Men were littered all over the pavements, asleep. They were covered in gunny bags. A few had patched up quilts and were shivering in the cold. My friend said, “Homelessness is a strange world of citizenship. Do you know these people have to pay land sharks to sleep on the road?” Many looked distraught, too tired to speak. Some lay drugged in tiredness. One or two slept with stray dogs which added to the warmth and possibly to the companionship. It was a nightly tableau across the pavements of Delhi enacted in silence. Silence does not merely claim the poor. Its census of untold stories includes the old, the unemployed, the widowed, the defeated in every niche of society. I have seen it even among middle class executives, especially those who retire in their prime. They seem full of ideas, alive with inventions, and in the beginning one senses their anger with an economy that suddenly does not want them. They are angry at first but as their world shrinks, as listeners disappear, I often see them walking alone. Sometimes I feel untimely retirement and unemployment destroys more people than illness. Illness at least produces the speech of suffering and screams of pain. Even death provides the litany of mourning but retirement, retrenchment create fragments of silence. In fact, people disappear. They cease being a part of the social. They belong to what I call the new shadow economy, a society without speech.

Development and promises I know that religion and philosophy speak about the wisdom of silence. Here, silence seems to be its own ecology. It does not need words. I have imagined sages sitting in silence. Gandhi used to keep days of silence. But this silence was voluntary. It was a set of punctuation marks in a life marked by speech. It was a silence which was complementary to speech. I am more worried about a silence that goes beyond muteness to speechlessness. I know this silence can speak, even protest at times, yet that speech of silence is like a dying spark without the fire.

Silence and history I still remember a picture that haunts me. It appeared recently in all the national newspapers. It was a protest by a group of Narmada dam oustees, a whole group lying submerged in silence. They sat silently in the water for over a fortnight before the media even took cognisance of them. The silence of the protesters spoke of the amnesia of development, of the empty promises of the nation state. The picture disappeared quickly and yet the faces and feet of the protesters haunted. They had discovered the speech of silence and yet it hardly left a trace on the media. The media today seems full of noise and its amnesia about suffering makes it obscene. It is as if our information society has no memory for the defeated and the abandoned. One suspects that our aspirational mobile society is embarrassed by the defeated.

Silence and the muteness of silence seem to be our true history. The history, the real history of Partition, is the history of its silences. When Partition is written about in political terms as a transfer of power, its political history appears to be pomposity. As history, it is a conversation of nation states and a silencing of a people.

I wish I could write a history on the silences of Partition. I realise that it is a silence desperate for speech, and praying for a community of listeners. The absence of memory and a lack of listeners condemn silence to a double ritual of torture. I remember a poignant moment where the journalist, Shefalee Vasudev, telephoned me once to talk of an old man who went to see the movie “Gadar” 52 times. He was a Partition victim, a lone survivor haunted by memories which had no community. He went and sat in the theatre so that his silence could at least find a double, even an idiot double in a Partition film. If Partition was obscene, the silence that followed it was doubly obscene. I remember the psychologist, Ashis Nandy, once mentioning that even husbands and wives who had lived through Partition sometimes never talked about it. Such is the tyranny of pain and silence that haunts Partition.

The official is a form of silencing. The government defined a language as a form of life which needs a script. In one indifferent stroke, it condemned all the oral languages of India to silence.

Sometimes the silencing of a story comes from official definitions. I remember Ganesh Devy, the literary critic, once told me that the official is a form of silencing. The government of India defined a language as a form of life which needs a script. In one indifferent stroke, it condemned all the oral languages of India to silence. The silencing of the tribal was one of the great crimes of modern India. It goes beyond the deafness of mutes. In silencing the tribal we robbed him of his identity, his memory, his myth. It was an imposition of vulnerability leading inevitably to annihilation.

Sometimes as I watched this silence unfolding like a shadow play or a tableau, I feel a sense of desperation. I sense it particularly with old age. I think it takes courage to be old today and I am not sure I have it.

Age and information A friend of mine once exploded in desperation. He told me we have destroyed old age with information. Old age had a beauty before the information revolution. Now, as soon as we hear about Alzheimer’s disease we react mechanically. We rush to the net and analyse every little information. Today, Alzheimer’s is a downloaded disease. It prevents us from reaching out to the old, reaching out to their memories. Instead, we follow the instructions from the Internet. The more literate we are, the more digital we become. We follow abstract instructions instead of conversing with the old. They become objects. We silence them, without listening. My friend mourned that his father died confused, perplexed and silent because the official idea of Alzheimer’s denied him his sensitivity, his experiences of old age. The noise of scientific information reduces old age to helpless silence, a pathetic despair.

I often feel history and modern media is too much noise. When I walk around India, whether it is in its small towns or the little locality where I live, I often felt the act of storytelling will be an attempt to resuscitate the story of its silences. I think of the silence of Muslim women raped in 2002, the silence of the displaced, the silence of old age, of faces on the pavement and I sense the helplessness of my social science. I think India is a society where the poor, the nomad, the abandoned are waiting mute so someone discovers their silence. Silence is today the secret untold commons of a forgotten India. I feel democracy will come alive the day we decode the silence of our majorities. Then, that silence will move from impoverishment to life. Desperately, urgently, a new ecology of life needs to come alive, a story telling which goes beyond the language of rights, and captures the history of the last 100 years. A democracy subject to the sadness of silence is doomed to the most devastating of tyrannies. This is the future that haunts India.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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