Coming to terms with silence

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Warning, Spoilers Ahead, Do Not Read, if you haven’t read Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee.

My country is Maycomb county.

I felt restless and disillusioned after finishing Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. But unlike before, I was glad to be unburdened of my illusions and happy for the scales to finally fall from my eyes. After all these years, it turns out that Jean Louise Finch and her father Atticus Finch were casual racists. At first Jean Louise is furious when she finds out her father is a gentleman racist. She goes into a rage and is about to leave Maycomb when she is slapped into submission by her uncle. As if her fury about her father’s truth was just ‘womanly hysterics’.

To Kill A Mockingbird was a library book I discovered as a child and I spent a couple of days in a ratty armchair swaddled  in the warm bearhug of its balmy summers. Atticus became a literary father I wished for in real life. I could not then see what Malcolm Gladwell saw in it in 2009. In The Courthouse Ring that appeared in The New Yorker, Gladwell reads the silences in To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus emerges as the divergent entity that Jean Louise discovers in Go Set A Watchman. She is devastated but finally accepting. Jean Louise is slowly but surely lulled back into the pastel world inhabited by her father and uncle, a world unwilling to let go of the past, where black people are “simple-minded”. Jean Louise for reasons of her own is unwilling to see that a whole race of people had been suppressed for generations and never given a chance to acquire the erudition to which her father, uncle and even she had access.

Silence is always loud, but dog whistle loud. It requires mindful scrutiny to become attuned to its frequencies, of which we are not capable. Most silence, however, is birthed from fear. I am an island in the strange goings-on of my country, strange only to me and very few others. Perhaps on another island somewhere out there, somebody else feels the same. Sometimes even if I do speak up as carefully as I can fearful of giving offence, even those who are educated and know better react defensively telling me that these inequities also take place in other communities. I am silenced by this, and am unwilling to take on the questioner knowing that they will not concede. If I did say more, like Jean Louise in Go Set A Watchman who was called a bigot by her uncle for railing against her father’s presence on a racist town council, I too would be called a reverse “bigot”. Silence is easier, it does not involve messy confrontations.

Many years ago, I was in class and I used to be one of those who used to ask questions. My policy was and still is if you have a doubt, ask. The fear of appearing stupid had not then troubled me. Until one day I overheard one of my male classmates, who was also another of those class-time questioners like me, blackballing me to my friends questioning the very nature of my questions. I was sitting behind a partition that separated the classroom from a bank of computers. My friends had all trooped into the classroom unaware that I was sitting before a computer behind the partition. Mind you, nothing good ever came out of overhearing. Here, I would also like to emphasise the maleness of my classmate, because his gender did have something to do with his criticism.

He announced to my friends that my questions were stupid. I think he even described me as dumb. The empty, big-talking bimbo metaphor hung in the air. He fancied I was asking meaningless questions and opining during class discussions to appear loudly self-important. This description could just as easily have applied to him. Even though this was hurtful, what was more was that my friends were silent, they did not stand up in my defence, almost as if they agreed. And after something that one of these old friends said recently to me, unaware that she was offending me, I am now quite sure that they did indeed agree with him. I left the classroom all those years ago sobbing quietly, sneaking away quickly so they didn’t see me. No one noticed later that I stopped asking questions in class and fell into silence.

A few months after the incident, I got my first writing job, and a piece I had written was published. I remember receiving a phone call or two from a couple of people expressing surprise that they liked my writing. They thought they were being complimentary when one of them said to me: “I didn’t know you could write”. This was my pyrrhic victory. The callers’ surprise only reinforced the derogatory stereotype established by my classmate. I am left today with the pregnant silence of my friends. I realise now they must have felt guilty about agreeing with my male classmate. Still, crucially, they did agree with him, and they were silent as they did not want to contradict him.

News is pouring in about Indian authors returning prestigious literary awards given to them by the Sahitya Akademi of India. Author Shashi Deshpande said in a letter to the Akademi that silence is a form of abetment. She wrote: “Today, I am deeply distressed by the silence of the Akademi on the murder of Professor M M Kalburgi. Professor Kalburgi was a noted scholar, and a good and honest human being; he was also a Sahitya Akademi awardee and a member of its General Council (of the Akademi) until recently.” Professor Kalburgi was allegedly murdered by religious extremists. I hate to use the word allegedly here as I am supposed to, because I am certain that he was murdered by religious extremists. He, like Narendra Dabholkar or Govind Pansare assassinated before him, was a very forthright man who would not mince words when it came to calling a spade a spade. He would not hesitate to describe something ridiculous as “ridiculous”, while the rest of us fearful folk would cower, hem and haw and ponder the nature of the spade, a mere metal blade with a wooden handle used to dig a hole.

I am shamefully silent every day, because I am afraid of not having a roof over my head, or of being slapped or assaulted for my strong beliefs or of being boycotted by the society in which I live. When people around me say the most hateful things because they believe casually that their caste/race is superior, or their region or religion is supreme or they think that eating certain kinds of meat is “dirty”, or they believe a woman choosing to wear a veil is exercising her “choice”, I continue to remain silent. Ms Deshpande is right, I have been abetting them. I had been taught not to offend the people who offend me. Mostly my defence has been to fall into a deep well of agnostic voicelessness. It is my shelter as well as my private hell. This silence does something weird to my brain. I feel depressed, strangely dispossessed and robbed of words. And words mean everything to me. Words were my only comfort, my means to self-fulfilment, they were my currency. Since I choose to remain silent, I feel embittered and beggared. Silence is an inability to express oneself, and if my calling is writing I have failed as a writer.

Like the fictional citizens of Maycomb, the educated people of my country have been lulled into defensive wishful thinking, which to call a spade a spade is nothing but wilful blindness. If To Kill A Mockingbird is the former, Go Set A Watchman represents the latter.

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