Essay: Discourse in the time of cholera

Jeetu muses on the power of silences and the magic of words

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Why is it that something scrawled on paper works? 

Squiggly marks bravely carrying on the weight of meaning in their curlicues and curves, straights and serifs, wondering and pondering in conventional lines. After all, these are just crafted thoughts–skilfully or otherwise. But nothing so grand as to have us drool over them, be adoring slaves and frowning guardians, swatting away those who do not like them–that is, the barbarians.

Word and meaning are inextricable. In Indian thought, Shiva is said to be the Word and his Shakti, meaning. Shiva takes on the form of all words while Parvati envelops the world of meaning. He is the question, while she is the answer. All of discourse then becomes metaphysical. It does not belong to the literary world alone, but is claimed by the format of a higher paradigm.

That is why words can hold much back, imply more than literalism. It is not just the consciousness of the reader and the context of the text that imbues them with significance. You see, words seem real. Try these out: strawberry; ocean; susurration; vertigo; blanched; ticklish; obsequious; grave; rushed; clipped, high-strung . . . Each has its own savour, maybe even its unique personal connotation for a reader, and each seems to stand for a nominal reality.

What is the ground of this nominal reality? It’s not just etymological, not only the root words of, say, the Indo-European language. Look at Good; Look at Devil. Are they really out there? Would they exist if these words didn’t? Be careful how you answer. Plato thought there was an entire world of infallible ideals to which this world corresponded in flickering shadow. Are words too correspondences? Can there be a Devil without our ability to call him out? Can there be Good without our ability to invoke her?

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Perhaps we can presume that words are not entirely man-made. A word is to the reader as food is to the eater. We consume meaning and it becomes part of us. Words do not exist by themselves in a shining eternal real, but are dynamic and fluid. They are empowered windows in which we see ourselves, constituent meanings and the glue that holds it together.

That is why repression of self-expression is so terrible. It cleaves the heart and brain and gives rise to latent madness. It is terrible to lock down words. A strenuous silence is terrifying. Not because of fear of what it withholds, but because silence is never unnatural. It is the natural bedrock of meaning. All that we hear, a bit more in these in-house days, about a vague practice of quiescence, is fine until the practice stands in for reality. The mind can be made quiescent, but can only ever approximate peace. The methodology can only get us so far.

But words come alive most when they are absorbed in the white spaces, the silences between them.*

So too with words and their practice. Behind all our words is the silent white page. With sufficient art, especially in poetry, readers can be made to feel the foreground of the white page. Or with sufficient resilience and dynamic play in meaning, prose can point to silence—even in the most dense paperback out there. But words come alive most when they are absorbed in the white spaces, the silences between them.*

The bedrock of words and meanings is silence, an unutterable reality. The moment it is voiced it is gone and, therefore, the best of art can only hint at it, refer to it with a sidelong glance, point at it obliquely. Without such a silence in our work, we have the inane democracy of chatter. Of heaps-ful of dishes plated together for vigorous consumption, whose only purpose is to provide for the gratification of mastication. In other words, entertainment. In more critical reflection, the entire dumbing down of taste. Furthermore, the industrial manufacture of bad taste: Blogs and essays, instant and effete espressos of art-shots, which have already thrown good readers off the high table and captured rhetoric.

Are all students of science physicists? No. Why should all those who can write become writers? And should all those who can warble become singers? Well, it’s happening all around you. It is one thing to have an opinion, another to talk about it, but it is quite a different matter to make it a part of an informal register of discourse. What that does is it obliterates the white page, the silence, of our consciousness.

Why should all those who can write become writers?

Then you need the artifice of practice to climb back to a pretended silence, a very fragile and shock-able mentality, that disintegrates at the touch of a discourse that is in opposition to it.

That is why there is intolerance—because there is no large parking space for opposing views. We are so crowded in with the litany of opinion (the media circus, the ceaseless twitter of opinion makers) that we cannot make meaning out of it. Meaning itself is under duress, mangled and distorted. And discourse without meaning takes recourse to aggression. As a Tibetan proverb has it, we pick up anger when we are most helpless.

Therefore, we have the malefic rhetoric of Us Vs. Them, Ism Vs. Ism, People Vs. People, Country Vs. Country, and man at the throat of man. It is as if all of our society, individually and in aggregate, had got a bad haircut, with each pointing to the other, saying how bad it was.

Our recent discourse is not just pointing to the favourite Devil we can blame for this pandemic, but to us. Our discourse, our words, our meanings are mirrors. We may not like what we see and, therefore, one is afraid, we ignore it all together and engage in a vigorous pointing and counterpointing of blame.

We must be silent before we express ourselves. We need to invoke silence before we can express meaning. We must let all our rhetoric, all our words, wait in silence before we utter them. We owe it to our art. We owe it to the pandemic we have caused. We owe it to ourselves. Because without it we are bereft of meaning. That is why texts should end, as the memorable anonymous ones did, with this colophon:

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

*By silence, I do not mean time. You may see this as invitation to slow reading, but to be aware of words and their foreground means to be aware of the flow of thought and the river through which the words are flowing.


Jeetu lives in Gurgaon, India. He has worked in journalism and book publishing and is closely associated with words in his day job at a consultancy. His primary interests are the life of the spirit and the process through which this ignited spark is made to attain its selfless zenith. He has authored a book called Pradakshina: Circumambulations around the Satguru’s path, which is a monograph on the teachings of his Guru.

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