If silence could speak, a thousand words would listen

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Words are a great tool to help understand and convey the multiplicity of the world we live in and, perhaps, even beyond. But, does a world built of opaque words also shroud the self-evidence of truth and reality?

Venkataraman Iyer, a.k.a. Ramana Maharshi, communicated the deepest truths with millions of individuals using fewer words than any writer. | Wikipedia

Writers are worshippers of the self. For them the self, with its experiences and aspirations is precious. And it is not right to expect them to talk or write about self-abnegation. In fact , the very idea of erasing the self can induce anger in writers. In writers such as V.S. Naipaul, the idea can produce great rage. Let's say an interviewer who's grounded in Western or Eastern philosophy asks Naipaul what he thinks about the Indian idea of resigning oneself to Fate and accepting life without any resistance, or about the Ecclesiastes which says, All is vain. One shouldn't be surprised if, in a fit of repulsed anger, the Nobel laureate flings whatever he has in his hand onto the floor or at the interviewer.

Naipaul's rage at inaction — or to be more generous: passive observation — is understandable. He lived in Trinidad and didn't want to be confined to the shrunken existence of a small and limited world, cut off from the larger world that promised him a great multitude of experieces. He had the ambition to taste the experiences of the world beyond the horizons of Trinidad. Moreover, his father too projected his own writerly ambitions on his son. Naipaul failed neither his father nor his own self. He won a scholarship in Trinidad, left for Oxford, struggled for story themes, found them in his own childhood backyard, wrote and wrote about his childhood and adulthood experiences in Trinidad and London, squeezed the juice out of them, and rose to great heights to eventually win the Nobel prize.


The experiences of his self stood him in good stead, gave him name, fame and money. He took each experience seriously, stored it in his memory, and breathed life to them by pondering over them and distilling them into words. All his eyes saw mattered to him. That's where common folks and great ones differ. For common people, experiences — unless they are extraordinary — do not matter much; but, for the exceptional ones like Naipaul, ordinary experiences are not ordinary at all — they are charged with great significance if only one has the eyes and vitality to perceive it. The eyes and hands of artists work ceaselessly until the elusive Reality is captured.

Why would Naipaul relinquish his precious personal self and be a nobody, tossed here and there by forces unknown to him when he could be the master of his life? Somewhere in an interview, Naipaul says he didn't want to work under anybody. To achieve that desire he must have worked exceptionally hard under all favourable and unfavourable circumstances.

So Naipaul wanted to be a somebody and became a somebody. That's why he cannot tolerate any philosophy which advocates inaction. At the start of his novel A Bend in the River he writes: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”


Naipaul easily sees through the game of pseudo-spirituality. But that's no excuse or reason to throw the truly spiritual baby out with the bathwater.

The Indian philosophy of inaction or an 'argumentative Indian' is anathema to Naipaul, for whom life means action, ambition, adventure, taking a plunge and not seeking refuge in worn-out philosophies and meaningless customs and traditions.

In his book Half a Life, which is based on Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, Naipaul mercilessly attacks and ridicules the protagonist's father, Chandran, who takes a vow of silence such as practised by sanyasis to attain liberation from the worldly life. In Chandran's case, according to the novel, he withdraws from life only to escape persecution for an act of misdemeanor at his workplace.

Maugham's book is based on his meeting with Ramana Maharshi who, as a 16-old Venkataraman, experiences the fear of death at his home in Madurai one day and dares to meet the fear then and there without taking counsel from elders. During those intense moments of fear, he comes to the conclusion that he is not the body and that he is something beyond it — an imperishable spirit.

After that, the Maharshi becomes the teacher of the art of self-abnegation without using words, the chief tools of a writer. To him, “silence is ever speaking. It is the perennial flow of language.” It is a philosophy which can stop the mental chatter, and all that derives its existence from the mind, in its tracks. Outwardly, it may appear to be the cessation of all life, but inwardly a new and truly creative being arises, according to those who have seriously taken the inward journey.

A writer like Naipaul too undertook a great journey. His journey leaves a trace through millions of words of dried ink within books. It is visible, but whereas the journey of people like Maharshi leaves no trace. And that's why their philosophy of withdrawal from the material world becomes suspect in the eyes of those who have a sharp intellect. A writer can proudly talk of his or calling, saying, “When I was 10 years old I knew I would become a writer.” When writers can know their calling at such a young age why can't people like Ramana Maharshi get the hint of their mysterious and intangible calling in their teens?


In Naipaul's Half a Life, the faux ascetic character Chandran does make a laughing stock of himself and the arduous path of inaction in that book. And Naipaul easily sees through the game of pseudo-spirituality. But that's no excuse or reason to throw the truly spiritual baby out with the bathwater. Of course, the inevitable question will arise: How do we know whether someone is ‘truly spiritual’? I think it's difficult to know. The individuals may perhaps have to go on a quest themselves to find the truth. At any rate, one need not require a certificate authenticating other individuals as ‘truly spiritual’ in order to justify embarking on an inward expedition.

Full disclosure: though Naipaul doesn't mention Ramana Maharshi by name in Half a Life, J. M. Coetzee makes the connection between Chandran and the Maharshi in a review of the book.

But one thing is certain: Naipaul has no sympathy for those who take refuge in meditative inaction. As I said earlier, for Naipaul life means action as opposed to the Indian scripture-derived emphasis on “surrender” which he thinks was responsible for the Mughal and British invasions. Had Indians not been stuck in their karma theories and philosophies of inaction such calamitous invasions wouldn't have happened, he feels. He could be partly right but not wholly right.

There may have existed and may still exist charlatans who leech onto their gullible disciples seeking spiritual progress or solace but that doesn't make the inner search or Ramana Maharshi's famous question Who Am I irrelevant and ridiculous. On the contrary the question ‘Who Am I’ has the potential to transform a human being’s entire way of life. The question can bring about a throbbing stillness of the ever-chaotic, ever-anxious, ever-frightened mind. Action, be it any action, has meaning only when it issues from the still mind, according to another radical philosopher who said, 'Highest action is inaction'.


Moreover, such stillness of mind is not so easy to achieve. It demands extraordinary self observation, questioning and patience. Someone who subscribes blindly to Naipaul's or Coetzee's abhorrence of inaction could have no clue to that state of mind. Merely to ridicule inaction which the serious philosophers advocate is easy but staying with inner emptiness without running away requires a great courage. It is a lonely job, lonelier even than the job of a writer faced with the terror of a blank page.

To a writer, words give meaning to life. For a serious philosopher, though, words are a hindrance. They distort reality and divide man from his self. Not only the writer, but every human being can be said to be trapped by the world of words, from which we all are trying to escape.

I think man's fundamental quest must be to attain that state of mind where the miasma of words dissipates into a silence that descends on us like a night full of brilliant far-off stars that illumine the true nature of Reality.

Until then human life is only half a life. No writer can fill the void of the other half.

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