A sobering take on sobbing

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Tears are that versatile vehicle of emotion that find expression across the gamut of human feeling. While crocodiles and actors feign them in public, we mustn’t forget the healing power of a private cry.

Not every crying baby is a crybaby. Not every tear-jerker is a jerk who brings you to tears. Only some.

As a kid in the 1950s, I was often struck by the apparent ease with which film actors (both male and female) broke into tears onscreen when required. To do this, an all-knowing sibling informed me, they kept a few pungent onions handy — to rub their eyes with when the director yelled ‘Action!’ I learnt later that it was glycerine rather than onions that did the trick for those maudlin men and lachrymose lasses who mesmerised us with their emotionally-charged performances.

Crying and its variations are, of course, a normal and natural urge triggered by emotion — a safety valve for the release of pent-up feelings that, we are told, could manifest themselves adversely if kept bottled up for too long.

It was the Roman poet Ovid who observed that “Tears at times have all the weight of speech.” We are told subtly that they are a woman’s most potent weapon (and not so subtly), employed to leverage what they want. Indeed, American wit Wilson Mizner went so far as to term women’s tears “the most effective water power in the world”. And Canadian humorist Thomas Haliburton summarised the power of a woman’s tears with this insightful remark: “Every woman is wrong until she cries — and then she’s right instantly.” We also have English novelist Edward Lytton’s jocular observation that “a good cigar is as great a comfort to a man as a good cry is to a woman.” The equation is apt.

Children also know all too well how to exploit tears to their advantage, somehow figuring out that crying will usually get them what they want. I remember a father chiding his tearful 5-year-old son who was stubbornly demanding a toy car. “There’s no point in crying,” he snapped, “Crocodile tears won’t work with me!” The child’s grandmother — a stickler for preciseness — butted in to defuse the situation. “It’s not really crocodile tears, John,” she smiled indulgently. “It’s more like alligator tears — he’s after all only a child!”

“We need never be ashamed of our tears,” declared Charles Dickens unequivocally. As a 3-year-old in 1947, I stood beside my mother’s open coffin along with my brothers and father, innocently believing that she was in deep slumber despite the snivelling around me. It was only when the lid was placed on the coffin and it was lowered into the grave that the horror of what was happening hit me hard. I am told I let out an anguished wail, “Why are they putting Mummy in that pit?” and wept uncontrollably, leaving not a single mourner dry-eyed.

Then, as a 44-year-old in 1988, I recall trying in vain to fight back the tears welling up in my eyes at my father’s funeral, as memories of the good man that he was surged through my mind. There were quite a few friends and colleagues around and I felt a tad embarrassed to be seen teary-eyed, having always projected an outward image of toughness. However, in reality, the emotional release did me a world of good. For, through the blur of tears, vignettes of Dad’s life flitted vividly before me as I recalled how he had struggled to give his children a standard of living and education that he could ill afford and never had as a youngster. In retrospect, he had selflessly devoted his entire life to the well-being of his family, often at the cost of his frail health and while overcoming several obstacles (financial and others) in the process. He had passed away with the satisfaction of having seen his four children well settled in life. Indeed, to me, it seemed as if memories were spilling out of my eyes and coursing down my cheeks in the form of tears.



In a lighter vein, every June brings an all-too-familiar scene when schools reopen. TV channels invariably make it a point to focus on kindergarten pupils bawling their hearts out on the first day, unable to come to terms with having to go to school and the consequent separation from their parents. The sight of one child crying is enough to trigger a chain reaction and soon the entire classroom is filled with wailing kids while teachers try to mollify them none too successfully. I remember an elder once remarking cynically, “If you want to see the Niagara Falls, you don’t have to go all the way to Canada — it’s right here in miniature!”

In school in the 1950s I had a classmate whose well-stocked tear ducts opened up copiously the moment the prospect of corporal punishment loomed, so much so that teachers often let him go scot-free rather than face his moving ‘histrionics’. When pressed by his classmates, one day he finally admitted that it was all a clever put-on to escape a caning!

Interestingly, while working for a tea major in Munnar in the 1960s, I recall that a primer — aptly titled ‘Tamil Without Tears’ — was issued to every newly-recruited British assistant manager to enable them to pick up the basics of Tamil and communicate with the workforce in the tea gardens. Understandably, many of them baulked at the complexities of Tamil syntax and pronunciation, not to mention the ‘hieroglyphics’ they were required to draw so painstakingly. Evidently, it was a language they feared rather than liked. A few Brits were even known to tear out their hair in sheer frustration as all were required to pass a written as well as oral test (with minimum marks of 60%) at the conclusion of their first and third year of service before they were confirmed as permanent employees — a tough task to say the least that prompted one lad, at the end of his tether, to lament tearfully, “Learning Greek would’ve been far easier!”

Having somehow learnt a smattering of Tamil, one bright spark decided to develop this further by often conversing with the workers. In the process he unwittingly picked up more slang and colloquialisms (liberally laced with expletives) than chaste Tamil, much to the consternation of his venerable tutor who was distressed to see all his painstaking efforts wasted. The horrified elder is said to have wrung his hands in despair and plugged his ears against the verbal onslaught before breaking down in tears — something the author of the Tamil primer could never have foreseen!

Tears, of course, flow under various circumstances but perhaps nowhere does one see them better exemplified (or more melodramatically portrayed) than in our ever popular movies and TV soaps. Tears are an integral part of life; they have no weight, as someone rightly remarked, but convey heavy feelings. Our eyes need to be washed by our tears now and then, another observer philosophised, so that we can view life clearly. Perhaps the best and most poignant definition of tears I have come across so far is: Tears are how the heart speaks when the lips cannot express how much we have been hurt.

On a personal note, if anything melts my heart nowadays it is the sight of my two small grandchildren — on whom I dote — in tears. It’s quite odd, I’m told, for one seldom known to display emotion!

However, for most of us the ultimate tear-jerker is an onion. Who cannot empathise with a housewife doggedly peeling onions with welled-up eyes? A few years back I read of a Japanese company’s initiative to develop tear-free onions. Whether it succeeded is not known but I am certain that the sky-rocketing price of onions today — further aggravated by its non-availability — is bound to generate more tears than the herb’s chemical composition ever did!

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