The Story of Silences

There is a sound to every kind of silence. This is the story of you learning how to appreciate each one.

When you were younger, silence could be daunting.  It was uncomfortable and uneasy, like a dress that doesn’t sit quite right on the shoulders.  You would want to fill it with gibberish, with talk of the abominable wind chill factor or how choosing ‘C’ as the default option on a multiple-choice test was the way to go.  To get away from silence, you re-played the same Avril Lavigne album until the lyrics were embedded in your mental synapses.  You also figured out how to study aloud.  Even if the only voice you heard was your own, it was still a lot better than no voice at all. You would not even attempt to let silence drop by, let alone linger, because you had not yet grasped the fact that silence could be beautiful.  Back then, you would do all you could to make sure it did not turn up unannounced.  Silence was the visitor you boarded up your doors against.

As you grew older, silence began making cameo appearances.  It took you by surprise, the same way Brad Pitt showed up in that one episode of Friends.  In conversations, silence would creep up and you wouldn’t even realize it because you’d be too busy thinking hard about what to say next.  You began to learn about virtual silences too, the one where you’re chatting on MSN and waiting for the other person to respond and wondering what is taking so long because you can ‘see’ them typing.  It showed up in many a rendezvous as well, perching next to you as your mind frantically wondered, ‘Lean in? Lean back? Quick, do something!’  You soon realized you could use silence to your advantage, practicing it in the car as you looked outside at the city you were about to leave, making the person in the driver’s seat painstakingly wonder what they had done wrong to be deprived of your voice.  Silence even showed up at school, sitting next to your friends on the steps, making its presence known as the five of you daydreamed about the exciting adventures college would bring.  It would linger then, and you began to let it.

Silence took a bit of a backseat when you went to college.  Everything was new, shiny and loud.  Freedom was noisy and you savoured the clamour.  There was a constant buzz the first year, sounds of meeting a new best friend and sharing love’s woes over cold coffee on a sticky table, sounds of new words that you’d only ever heard of but were at last learning about: “Orientalism”, “hegemony”, “post-modernism”, “Foucault”.  You were overwhelmed but exhilarated, and you collected each sound eagerly, using it as fodder for stories you would tell your family on visits back home.  Secretly, you began to crave silence.  There were moments when you knew the sounds but still didn’t understand them, and you would sit on your bed as your roommate slept and you would try to decipher all the new ways you were being taught how to use sin, cos and tan.  The sounds let you down and you failed a couple of courses that year.  You realized then that silence was sometimes necessary.

Life happened with a death and this is when you wholeheartedly embraced silence.  You learnt of new silences: the one that comes with the absence of a familiar voice, the one devoid of thudding footsteps up the stairs, the one that no longer called out “Basmah! Can you please make me some chai?” or “Come listen to my new song!”  You began to seek out silences, blocking out the voices that tut-tutted and solemnly whispered “so young, so tragic.”  You fought against it for a while, the silence of no longer having an older brother, and questioned it endlessly, replacing it with the anguished mental chant of ‘why, why, why’.  This silence did not answer back, and you learned to fill it with distractions.  You went horse-riding at 6 am and took up Zumba.  You developed a love-hate relationship with silence, you both clung to it, and flung it afar.  Sometimes, it was your middle-of-the-night walking companion, and at other times, you would dull your senses enough to not feel it next to you.  You grew accustomed to the silence of waking up out of a nightmare, of struggling to fight away the demons that keep taking you to the same dark place in the past where he is still alive and your joie de vivre is untainted. You learned then that even if someone you love leaves, the void of silence they left would always stay.

A new year brought with it some significant nuances.  You were a senior at college now, a 20-something on the cusp of adulthood.  It was the end of your bildungsroman, and this stunned you into a whole new kind of silence.  You sat with your friends, on rickety chairs in open fields with playful shadows, in a cult-like circle on pavements flecked with twilight, at a communal brunch table laden with not-quite-cooked pasta and pancakes, wedged in a cramped bus on a trip to the mountains, and finally decked in robes and hats on seats specified by majors.  Each time brought with it a bittersweet silence, one in which you would glance at the person on your right and then on your left and pray fervently to a God you didn’t always get along with for remembrance.  There were reassuring silences too, accompanied by embraces so fierce, they left bruises you hoped would not fade.  Hands clasped together in the dark, in cave-like window sills you would later wish you could retreat to.  There was the silence that came with a series of lasts: last walk across campus, last late summer Lahore rain, last trip to Liberty, last night philosophizing at the bleachers, last dawn spent dancing in an unfamiliar living room.  Silence became omnipresent, and on the plane flying out from your home of 4 years to another you would be forced to rediscover, you realized what kind it was.  It was the silence of goodbye.

You are a working professional now, with a full-time job, a bank account and a vague understanding of what ‘savings’ really mean.  These accessories of adulthood come with their own variations of silences; they make you debate the ‘what ifs’ of decisions you have not yet made, they induce guilt trips when you let the on-goings of your daily life reduce the significance of the big picture you have painted for yourself in your mind, they comfort you when the realities of responsibilities overwhelm and cause hair fall.  The silences are a solace now, and you realize there will always be a new one you have yet to learn about.  Right now, for example, you’re figuring out the silence of allowing new people to intersect the trajectory of your life.  You are experiencing the companionable silence that comes in midst of a conversation, as you look away from a screen to trace the patterns on your rug and watch the black thread merge into the grey, and away from the red.  It’s a silence that revolves around dreams of sun-drenched villas on coastal lands that are oceans away from where you are and you both like and dislike the barriers.  It’s a silence that comes with a certain uncertainty, a knowing that even if you may not be where you want to be in a few years, you know that at least you will not be where you were.  Even though this silence is more unsettling than soothing, you are learning to live with it.  It is the silence of moving on.

There are more silences left to explore, of life, loss, and love.  You are now eager and somewhat equipped to experience each one.

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