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Tuesday June 28, 2022

The Elemental Silence That Screams

This is the longest I have stayed away from my parents. I am a 35-year-old independent woman and have lived a very eventful life. Till a year ago, I always had a toothbrush in my bag. I was the one in the office to travel at the shortest notice. I am more at home when I am traveling, but I have always returned to my parents. When I am away, I still call them up. “It’s okay if you are busy. Just text us you are okay if you cannot call,” they always insist. I oblige. Especially my father. I save the minutes I will spend texting in calling. My voice is like oxygen for my father, my mom says.

The pandemic has imprisoned me to a city that has failed to enrapture me. I work here, but I live where my parents are. The phone calls were never short, but now they are even longer. The average is one-hour daily. At 9:30 pm every night, my father texts me, “Soma, any news? Here all okay” or “Soma, 4 days no call,” even when I had called just the day before. I have to drop everything and call him. My voice is like oxygen for my father, I know. We talk for hours. Often twice a day. We talk about my friends, colleagues, husband, dog, neighbour, news, plants, weather, everything. We never fall of short words. We often end up repeating stories we have told each other. We hear each other out patiently, even when we know we are repeating the same information. But before these repetitions, there are often a few moments of silence.

The silence would often be broken by the cries of children or people calling out to each other, but mostly, the walkers were quiet, careful not to wake up the rich in their apartments or be apprehended by policemen.

Of late, silence has been talking to me in strange ways, and it makes me wonder if the vast space between my father and me, mediated by the cellphone’s low hum, is silence at all. The more I try to decipher this universal language of the machine on a post-human world, the clearer it becomes. This voice of the machine has been reaching out to us for quite some time. As we recognise it in a non-mediatized world, silence is not an antonym of sound and voice. Instead, it complements sounds, voice, noise, and all things that have always sought our attention and acknowledgment. We dismissively generalized it as white noise.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced me to realise and recognise its embodiment. Silence, I now think, has been the reclusive Boo Radley of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. When the pandemic isolated us, silence became the voice of the machine that has now become an extension of our bodies and manifested itself by punctuating the techno-human voice, comforting us in an ‘aural embrace.’ The silence, this techno-voice devoid of words, is a being, and it has agency.

The Vox-ex-Machina that I am referring to is not white noise, but they are also not binaries. They exist in differences more than in similarities, and they live their rhizomatic existence on the ‘plane of immanence’ that Gilles Deleuze spoke of. The plane of immanence has no beginning, no end, no centrality, no fringes. Silence and white noise refuse to be trapped by representations. What is silence anyway? Is silence bereft of meaning? Is silence ever truly silent?

I live in a city that came into being to accommodate the country’s capital’s burgeoning population. My physical existence is layered, like concentric circles, by my apartment, a narrow byway with a few tired trees, a drain broader than the byway and then a multi-lane highway that is beaten by the routine of vehicles commuting between office and home. I have become immune to the constant drone of cars.

When I lived in a smaller apartment, the babble of loud neighbours was swallowed into what I thought silence was. Cities can never be quiet, I agree. But even when I am out into the mountains trekking, my heart thumps loud against my eardrums, yet I call it silence. How we perceive silence is always dependent on the ambient noise. We always seek a point of reference to determine silence. Silence is never absolute, not even inside padded walls of recording studios where silence is a guest. It speaks relentlessly.

The highway went unusually quiet just after the nation-wide lockdown. Instead of honking vehicles, I could only hear sirens of police patrol van or ambulances. The boundaries of silence got renegotiated. At night, as I stood in the balcony, I closed my eyes to imagine how different the feeling was from being in a forest rest-house. But I was pulled back into reality as I saw hundreds of men, women, and children walk in groups of 10, 20, 30, 50…

The COVID-19 pandemic forced me to realise and recognise its embodiment. Silence, I now think, has been the reclusive Boo Radley of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird.

They crept with their heavy feet grazing the ground in the middle of the night. It is better to walk in the night than during the day when the sun beats down its anvil. The silence would often be broken by the cries of children or people calling out to each other, but mostly, the walkers were quiet, careful not to wake up the rich in their apartments or be apprehended by policemen. Their silence was deafening. It raised aches in strange corners inside my heart. This silence screamed like a hungry toddler.

Desire targets loss itself, said Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher. So, is silence the loss of voice or sound? I think there is a lot to be read and written about silence, not as an absence of noise but a language in its own merit. Mladen Dolar, another Slovenian philosopher, has been digging into the meaning of voice. He says languages are bound to the body by voice, but voice itself is a floating phenomenon and becomes disembodied when it becomes sound.

I am stressing on the texture of silence. This ephemeral texture has a context. It has meanings beyond ordinary meanings, like my father’s pause in a phone call rich with the hum of the network, which scares me that time is eating away father’s memory faster than usual.

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