Friday, February 19, 2010

The Other Side of Silence

Silence is a historical phenomenon. Those who do not post opinions publicly, or have not in the past done so, become historical accidents of speech - presumed inarticulate and unrecorded.

However, there is another more incipient silence that mars us. This is the silence that sits predominantly in most academic classes, across ages, batches and years of teaching. This silence is a disconcerting silence. The professor is left discombobulated, unaware of the thoughts and feelings of those who sit in front of him or her. The students are uncomfortable speaking. After class, they burst into disjointed conversations.

It is this silence that seeps into our notebooks, either untouched, or cluttered with names and dates and titles. The notebook is also a record of silence. Even as you messily scribble notes and opinions and dates of publication, you are acutely aware of how incomplete it is. You reluctantly ascribe opinions to names. You masquerade, hide behind published critiques, quietly chiding yourself for the inadequacy of your personal store of knowledge, this too a body of knowledge populated by people who have already thought and written before you.

In this transience, you are a passive curator, a receptacle for others' intellectual accomplishments. You are their reader. They are footnotes to your notes.

As a student of Literature, I feel aligned with those others who study what are broadly called the Social Sciences. Our methodologies differ, but our ways and means share a remarkable affinity. Our forms of learning, our lectures are transactions in public discourse, repetitions of ideas that have already been thought and passed down the ages. It is impossible, indeed undesirable, to escape the cyclical gyre. It is in the nature of formalized information – opinions and matters of disputation largely – to be passed down the ages. This is our canon, our indomitable canon writ large over aeons of syllabus-making soirees. It is this canon that rules the lines of our textbooks, rendering all that is beyond its inestimable good judgment mute and inconsequential.

The silence in class, I have come to believe, is not a silence that betrays a lack of understanding. In fact, it is quite the opposite. All that is transacted in class is understood not only sufficiently, but understood well. We amass our armoury of critics and critical statements, puncturing a deep hole in the abyss of incomprehension we otherwise believe we are surrounded by. In fact, our methods are so well programmed, one would be hard-pressed to not have any such critical clusters in their essays and examination answers. If you asked me, I could promptly rattle off a liturgy of names allocated for each text, systematized into a neat array of famous critics and their even-more-famous opinions: for Woolf, I have Gilbert & Gubar, Jeremy Tambling; for Conrad, I have Edward Said, Raymond Williams and Chinua Achebe; for Beckett, I have Vivian Mercier, Eva Metman, Martin Eslin et al. For every text, for every question that shoots like an arrow into my fortress of critical material, I apparently have names and shields so daunting that the arrows must bend and succumb to mass repetition.

The silence that is generated by this armoury is an overwhelmed silence. It is silence that says, ‘Too much,’ a silence of resignation. It is not a silence of indifference, which it is so often misinterpreted as. Professors unfamiliar with your class return to the staff room with bitter recriminations about the dull-ness of her previous class. The silence is stifling. But she doesn’t know that it is a silence of overfed children, who are always at the ready to regurgitate everything so far swotted, always tired and despondent in between periods of mass repetition.

The silence is one of self-inflicted damage, in which every student and academic in the world is complicit. It is the silence that you surrender to in order to be acknowledged, to be heard later on. When you scream incoherently your own notions, you antagonize everyone in class. But when you repeat the programmed armoury of critics and reading-lists stuck in your throat, you are heard without reservation. You are finally accepted into the echelons of intellectual goings-on. You are finally one of us, a sentinel to our vanguard of canonical writers.

It is in the nature of our lives and forms of knowledge to study others’ thoughts. It cannot change. When we study what we study, it is necessarily with our considered and consented subservience.

We are servants to our textbooks, servants to our reams of knowledge, servants to our syllabi. We are all servants of history - the history of everything that has already been said.

We walk in the corridors of academia, brimming with texts and more texts, carrying them around on our backs like heavy loads. And yet, there are no other means of academic interaction, or at least none that are credible.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

It Cannot Be Done

The most important thing is perhaps the moment. It is difficult to distinguish the moment from those preceding it. I don't know if this is a good thing. It can make you hesitate, think over a decision a number of times. It can make you inhibited.

But most of all, the moment is ephemeral. Once it is gone, it is difficult to retrieve. It passes, and you are left unsatisfied, drained, worried, encumbered. Thinking back to the moment, you feel like you couldn't express yourself adequately then. Thoughts remained unsaid. Principles remained unspoken.

If you plunge into the moment, you may be left with a bitter after-taste, reconsiderations, recriminations, re-checks, resurgent feelings of stupidity. Either way, the moment is dangerous. It can take you anywhere. It can change you all of a sudden.

Had such a moment today. An assignment. I said I had finished it satisfactorily. Had done my utmost to complete and present things when done. He said that he needed details. I provided them, to the best of my memory. He said he needed more details.

More details.

It isn't sufficient to do one's work - the panopticon has too many peep-holes. Each one of them must be satisfied with a daily report of happenings and goings-on.

Everyday you assuage the bulging horror of angry, unhappy eyes. Everyday you are reminded of the inadequacy of pulling them, the eyes, to you.

So, ulltimately, when the moment comes, you must learn to gracefully leave and say it cannot be done.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Amitabh Bacchan

When you protest, you can protest on someone's behalf by actively defending him. This would include defending his stand/opinion in public or in private, or simply defending the fact that so-and-so has the right to express it, regardless of the repercussions it may have. You defend the fact that expressing your sentiments ought not to jeopardize the security of an individual. On the other hand, you can also defend someone by recognizing the shortcomings of the diffident's points of view. When cars and buses and taxis are ransacked by mobs in Mumbai, you stand up and say that this course of action is illegitimate.

When you do not make any statement at all, it is either because you are undecided, or you are indifferent to the problem, or you passively accept the fact that what has happened is justified. If, however, in addition to this, you write about the prowess of an individual associated with the problem, i.e., the head of Shiv Sena, at a time of distress and violence, you condone his actions. Timing is never incidental. To play the fool by making side-comments is irresponsible and, frankly, even more devious.

Interview with Raj Thackeray

One of the most disturbing interviews this week. I don't know what Raj Thackeray means to say when he begins almost on a prescient note of threat and retribution - people should watch what they say about Mumbai. This unsettles the mind. It's impossible to reconcile the two extremes. One is a contradiction in terms. How are you expected to respond to the comment made by you if we, the viewer, or the interviewer, must feel threatened by the force of your dire warnings - if we are to watch what we say about Mumbai? It is pointless to argue then, the interview itself is pointless. If questions aren't forthcoming, then the discussion is unilateral. We are not here to hear you speak, Mr. T, we want to ask you questions, so that you may retract the riots that you have instigated. It is next to impossible to watch our words. The next few questions anticipate some sort of response - something to go on, something to indicate to the viewer what might be his party-motivations. But they disappoint drastically. He says that every state must have the right to preserve its own language. That doesn't respond to the question. The question is, why can't you engage those you disagree with in debate, why is the first and instinctive response always mob violence unleashed in the streets? It is hard to listen and absorb it, every contradiction grates the mind. He sways back and forth in the black arm-chair. The movement distracts and makes listening unnecessary. The body speaks clearly already, far more articulately than his words. The interviewer asks another question, Why do presume to deny the fact that you instigate violence on the streets, there are so many examples, like when you attacked the IBN Lokmat office. T grins contentedly and laps up the opportunity, So that's what you're after, why don't you come straight to the point? The interviewer retracts like a child upbraided, foolishly told off to not pursue matters of self-interest. But is it self-interest? Why must the interviewer feel ashamed for having brought up the attack on his institution? How can T presume to dismiss the question, insinuating that we are wrong to even bring it up. That it is justified for him to dismiss questions that are personally-relevant. The grin on his mouth widens into an ever-seeping petulance. A quarrel between two children. T marvels at the expose - Look, he says, look at him trying to demand answers for what he's suffered. The questions now dwindle to an end. There is nothing more that one can say when you're stonewalled. Accusations remain dangling in the air. Nothing more to be had. No more answers. No rationale. No motives. Only one long petulant glare of defiance and disregard.