In search of silence

February 24, 2019

There are times when your senses are assailed by voices that are shrill and largely incomprehensible. It becomes difficult to keep your cool – and think straight. In some ways it also casts a...

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There are times when your senses are assailed by voices that are shrill and largely incomprehensible. It becomes difficult to keep your cool – and think straight. In some ways it also casts a shadow on your everyday existence, on your mood and your mental disposition.

We are, at this time, living through one such phase in our national affairs. The massive Valentine’s Day terror attack in Pulwama in Indian-occupied Kashmir has triggered another round of high tension between India and Pakistan. Tempers are high. Dark clouds of the shape of some kind of an armed conflict are drifting across the horizon.

In both countries, popular media has whipped up the passions of the ordinary citizens. This is further exacerbated by the hate and abuse that is spread via social media. This is a new territory for virtual confrontation and was not there during past similar conflicts. In India, acts of violence have been committed in a number of places against Kashmiris.

Obviously, we need some tranquillising thoughts to be able to think more objectively and reassure ourselves about future possibilities of peace and reconciliation in this unfortunate region. Losing hope is an easy option in our circumstances.

So, is it possible to disengage ourselves from this emotional turmoil for a short period and shut out the sounds of thunder to experience an interlude of silence? This is obviously a very unlikely prospect because we just cannot put the reality out of our sight. There is no doubt that we are now in a deep crisis, fearful of what might happen.

Another problem is that even without this Pulwama interruption, the noise of political hostilities at the domestic level has constantly stayed at a high pitch. The name of the game is accountability and the arrest of Agha Siraj Durrani, speaker of the Sindh Assembly, has raised a storm in Sindh, with consequences for national politics.

The confrontation building up in this arena is bound to stay somewhat in the background for the time being because the focus remains on fears that, as one published report said on Friday, “India may undertake military action to deflect public attention from internal problems”.

On this front, the latest headline in our media is that of Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa warning India against aggression. He visited the Line of Control on Friday. Also on Friday, DG ISPR Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor addressed a press conference and had a message for Indian military leaders: “ assured, should you initiate any aggression. First, you shall never be able to surprise us. We are ready. In response, we shall for sure surprise you”.

Without any doubt, this conflict is getting very serious. There is an entire background to how we have arrived at this point. But since both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, there are definite limitations on where we can go from here. Against this backdrop, the scope that India has for any ‘misadventure’ is not unlimited.

One more headline that I want to mention is from ‘Dawn’ on Saturday: “War is not a picnic, former chief warns Indian govt”. A S Dulat has asked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to weigh his widely speculated options against Pakistan with preference for an aggressive diplomacy.

These noises, pregnant with terrifying prospects, will continue to be heard. Hence, my desire to totally shut them off is patently unrealistic. Still, I think we do need a brief respite from this emotional pain. We need a pause to collect our thoughts and regain our poise. After all, we have our lives to live and our own joys and sorrows to contend with.

Incidentally, I found a reference to this thought in a composite review of two books published this week in ‘The New York Times’. It’s title: ‘The case for covering your ears in noisy times’. Let me quote its intro: “Ours is a noisy country. We’ve been rebellious, insolent shouters since the beginning. We invent freak shows and circuses and casinos. Talk too loud. Our public spaces honk and whistle at us. We believe ourselves stars just awaiting a stage”.

This, of course, is a portrayal of the American society. We are a different people. But ours also is a society that makes too much noise – and often in a vicious manner. However, every culture has its own traits, including ones that are contradictory to each other.

Here, in any case, are the two books that are jointly reviewed. There is the one by Jane Brox: ‘Silence: A social history of one of the least understood elements of our lives’. The other is a collection of essays by Akiko Busch: ‘How to disappear: Notes on invisibility in an age of transparency’. There is a photograph with the review of a man trudging in a snow-clad landscape with the caption: “Silence is a force of nature”.

Perhaps, the thought of turning your head away from the flaming headlines would be termed as escapism or a refusal to accept the reality. At the same time, there is this concept that meditation and a pause for serious reflection would make you more capable, mentally and emotionally, of dealing with the problems of the real world.

Be that as it may, the overall environment that is defined by our news channels is feeding our anxieties and our discontents. As it is, our people lead very dismal lives and suffer from a host of mental illnesses. This is not the occasion to look at the mental health situation, and I can only say that my psychiatrist friends find it very alarming. The point here is that we deserve some kind of a refuge from the storm that is raging in the media.

Besides, it is not for everyone to raise slogans and get irrationally worked up against any real or imagined enemy. We may pacify our emotions by going on a retreat, even in a figurative sense. I would recommend, invoking Omar Khayyam, a book of verses underneath a bough.

And this reminds me of Yeats. When he was asked to write a war poem in the initial phase of World War I, he replied in verse: “I think it better that in times like these / A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth / We have no gift to set a statesman right; / He has had enough of meddling who can please / A young girl in the indolence of her youth, / Or an old man upon a winter’s night”.

The writer is a senior journalist.



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