Of Words, Spoken and Unspoken
When I was about five, I spent an entire year living with my grandparents in Pakistan. I started kindergarten there, learning nursery rhymes, playing hopscotch and reveling in their relaxed parenting style. I loved accompanying them on their social visits to the other retirees in the neighborhood, sitting on stiff sofas draped with crotchet doilies and eating yellow cake served on formal tea-trolleys. Most of all, I loved listening to their stories, specially the ones told in hushed tones, of neglectful offspring and friends who had recently died and the milk-maid who ran away with the fruit-vendor. I loved the way they connected to each other. It was a first-class education of the human condition and the narratives that define our lives and offer a window in to our minds and souls. I believe in the power of the spoken word and the art of conversation. I believe in telling stories. I believe in listening to stories.
That year of my childhood will always hold special meaning, because it was an uncensored induction into the adult world; one that I did not always understand, but one that I enjoyed tremendously. After traipsing in to one particular drawing-room I asked the delighted elderly couple how many children they had. After mulling over their answer, I then casually asked them if they were married! My grandmother took me aside and explained that in order to have a successful conversation, one must listen not only to what is said, but to what is not said. In the days that followed, she told me about her family’s journey from Amritsar to Lahore during the Partition, of her brother who miraculously survived the train ride by pretending to be dead underneath the bloody bodies of slain fellow passengers, of her coming to live in a small village in Punjab after her wedding, and many other tales full of drama, tragedy, grief and joy. It was several years after her death that I finally understood what was left unsaid. That she was so lonely and misunderstood in her life after her marriage, that she found solace reliving her past with her 5-year-old grandchild.
Last year I went to see a much beloved aunt in California. This was a person who had filled my life with countless happy memories and hours of joyous conversation, yet I was dreading this trip to see her. She was dying of cancer and I did not know what I would say to her. So I said nothing. I listened. One last time, she recounted an adventure about a relative back home, in her inimitable style, with detail, perception and wit. It left her physically exhausted, but relieved. Nothing else needed to be said.
This is an age where we communicate electronically and punctuate our thoughts with smilies, and forward emails that resonate with some deep-seated emotion in an attempt to connect. Actual conversation seems to be a lost art. We are too busy to actually talk, it seems so much easier to shoot off cyber one-liners, whether they convey the message or misconstrue it. I pick up the phone and talk to a friend. Moreover, I listen. It may not be an exchange that will broker world peace or cure cancer. But it comforts me to know that there is someone else, who, like me, struggles to make sense of this world everyday. And that we have to listen to not only what is said, but to what is not said. This I believe.
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