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.

“I love you”

I love you.

You don’t own me, I let you possess me.
You complete me, but you’re also an agent of my annihilation.
You are what affirms me, and also that which denies me.
You are my anchor, my rock, my support, but you are also the edge of the cliff that I am slipping from.
You are the shore that I sail to, but also the iceberg I will inevitably crash against.
You are my greatest joy, but also my impending doom.
Your vision is my lens of the world, and also what distorts it.
You can make me feel like a million bucks one minute, and then a neglected, forgotten rag doll the next.
You are my sanctuary, but also the cave of my horrors.
You are the other half of the yin-yang, and yet you are all grey.
You are my refuge from the madness of this world, but you are also the madness in my world.
You are clear-cut and straightforward, but you are also a labyrinth with no solution.
You will meet me halfway, but you will also leave me stranded.
You are what I know so well, but you are also unfamiliar territory.
You are a crimson flame, but you may fade to blue anytime.
You tend to my wounds, but you also pour salt on them.
You are my dream-catcher, but you are also a living nightmare.
You break down my resistance, but you also help rebuild my walls of defense.
You are not my master, but your command over me is transcendental.
You are what I stop and turn around to look for, and then you keep walking away.
You form lyrics from my words, but your rhythm is out of sync.
You can make me lower the weapons, but you will never surrender.

You are mine, but I am not yours.
You are not me, but I am your mirror.
Your skin is yours. My skin is mine. But you are still under it.

Photo courtesy of: Wajiha Khuwaja

Carpe diem!

You go through life planning it in segments. Say your first word, learn to walk, learn to read and write, go to school, follow it up with university, graduate with good grades, get a stable job, marry someone respectable, die a peaceful death.

Everything is done just so, and the slightest disruption can have a catastrophic effect. You fail a couple of courses and the graduating with good grades part becomes harder, you fall in love when you’re not supposed to and you’re more resistant towards marriage, you stumble and break a leg and you have to learn to walk all over again. It is said way too frequently that life is full of ups and downs. But that’s only if you’re expecting your life to be one straight, monotonic line where even the smallest of things can catapult it in any direction. If, however, your life is already a colossal jumble of highs and lows, then any trouble that comes your way won’t have such an immense affect on it.

That’s how life is meant to be, not a straight line full of ups and downs, but simply ups and downs with little bits of uninterrupted lines in between. You can’t plan something that may or may not happen 10 years later, it would be delusional to do so. Basing decisions on days and weeks of weighing out the pros and cons may be the ‘practical’ thing to do, but where’s the fun in that? Doing that doesn’t mean you’re living, it just means you exist.

Grab a magic-8 ball and whisper your wishes into it, throw away your day-schedule and drive off somewhere far and unexplored, strike up a conversation with a total stranger and tell them your secrets, sing out loud in public instead of just in the shower, wear wacky shoes without worrying about how odd your feet look. Stop thinking and just be.

What is to be done?

The title of this post comes from a novel written by Nikolai Chernyshevky, a Russian philosopher who idealistically proposed in the 1860’s that educational reforms in Russia driven by the new-fangled intellectual ideas of the Western Europe, which emphasized science and secularism, would help to alleviate the mainly agricultural and Orthodox country’s economic and social problems.  Obviously this triggered the reactions of many conservative Russians, including Dostoyevsky, whose outstanding work Notes fron the Underground, can be seen as a retort to Chernyshevsky.  I love the fact that I know this and I miss being in a classroom or even social environment where I could learn more about this.

There is this dark dejection brewing inside of me.  I am not sure what caused it, but  its effects are not pretty.  Being around people annoys me, and yet I have nothing to do in my room.  There’s nothing to study and I’ll go blind if I watch any more tv shows or movies on my laptop.  I am not being intellectually stimulated at all nowadays, I feel like after the last semester there’s been a lull not only in my mind but in life in general over here.  It is summer after all, and the heat evokes lethargy and disinterest but that’s hardly a good enough excuse for not wanting to do ANYTHING.

I want to write, but nothing is really coming to me.  Before starting this post, I thought I might discuss Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and how his theory is really applicable to expats, specifically Pakistanis living abroad in the States or Europe.  I also thought I might talk about the shortstory I wrote last year and brainstorm on how to develop more characters and subplots so as to expand it into a novella.  I even started Googling stuff related to all this but I just can’t see the point. 

I wish I could take a Creative Writing workshop or something, but unfortunately, this city doesn’t have anything to offer in that department.  It’s a sad state of affairs that I hardly know anyone here who has any interest in creative writing, and it’s sadder still that the university hasn’t bothered yet to pay any attention towards increasing its Literature faculty beyond one or two members so far. 

There are a couple of books I could read but when I open to a page, the words get all muddled up in my head and I become resentful.  The sentences are well-crafted and the plot is intriguinging and it all just reinforces this nagging idea in my head that I will never be able to create something like this.  I have become insecure about my fiction writing, mostly because I haven’t worked on it in almost a year, and this doubt just makes me less inclined towards doing anything to solve this dilemma of mine.  I feel like writing because I miss the adrenaline rush that I would get after typing out page after page of something that had the potential to be something really great but at the same time, I also feel like I don’t have it in me anymore, that all I can produce now is mediocrity.  Such a paradox.

Nature vs Nurture: is a skill acquired or inherent?

It’s an infamously controversial topic that’s been debated upon by a plethora of thinkers, philosophers and just people in general. 

In some way or another, we’ve all thought about this.  How often have you wondered about a certain skill you possess, whether you were born with it or if you acquired it through learning and practice?  For me, I always thought whether writing was something that naturally just came to me or whether I developed a knack for it because of the amount of reading I began to do at a young age.

Although many people claim that geniuses like Mozart or Michaelangelo were born with the innate ability to create musical and artistic masterpieces, it turns out that neither one of them would have been able to do so had they not gone through rigorous training and practice of that specific skill.  I mean, if Michaelangelo had instead been forced to become a clergyman by his father and not allowed to do apprenticeships with established artists, then it is very likely that many of his works would have never come into existence at all.

A skill is acquired, it is developed through the interaction with people and an environment that provides the opportunities for the cultivation of that skill.  It is not innate or contained within the genetic code of man, for if that were the case, there would be no such thing as the downfall or decline of empires and civilizations because progress and development would be neverending.  Certainly, the genetic code of a person may play a partial role, but the dominant position is taken up by that of practice.  It is not simply within the NATURE of man to become accomplished at something, but mostly through the process of NURTURE in a specific environment that enables him to do so.

In that case then, it seems that it could be possible for every single person to become a great singer if given the right amount of vocal training.  There are, of course, exceptions in the form of those who have physical impairments, but every single person definitely possess the potential to become a singer.  Each individual has a unique set of vocal chords and, if developed properly, they can enable a person to become the next Madonna.

I realise that writing was not something I was born to do, it’s not an ability that is inherent in me.  It did not naturally come to me, but it was a skill that I learned through practice.  I used to read A LOT as a kid, whether its a 300-page novel or a magazine or the daily newspaper, and this exposure to words and sentences became embedded in my mind so that when the time came to me form sentences myself, I was able to do so in a manner that surpassed the level I should have been at for my age. 

I remember being really interested in science and specifically chemistry when I was in grade 8, but in grade 9, I had a fantastic English teacher who appreciated my essays and my stories and made sure I knew that I definitely contained the potential to become a great writer.  She made me rethink my choices and made me aware of an alternative path that was available to me.  Had it not been for that, I think I probably would’ve continued on with my interest in chemistry. 

I made my decision then to study Art and Literature rather than the natural sciences and I have never looked back since.  Writing is something I enjoy doing and I definitely love it alot more than learning the chemical compounds of different substances.

‘It will shape up’

Sophomore year is over.  That’s another 2 semesters of trying to learn useful stuff or acquire some sort of skillset that will come in handy when we’re thrown out into the big bad world of corporate ladders and cut-throat competition at the water coolers. 

I can’t say all my courses have really taught me anything like that; I mean, its not like learning about Renoir and Delacroix is going to help me stay ahead in the rat race, right?  In all the philosophy and literature courses I took, there was one theme that was common between them: that in order to find meaning in your life or for it to have any value, you have to subject yourself and become submissive to a cause greater and beyond yourself.  I guess that’s where religion would come in, it’s that sort of faith that’s beyond the yardstick of human reason and its not limited to ratinality.

Everytime I come back home, I make it a point to work on myself and my faith a little more.  In the grind of daily life, living alone in the dorms and without anyone telling me when to pray or what to do, I don’t really keep track of it as much as I should.  That’s not an excuse but it’s all I’ve got.  I know I believe and I know what I believe in, its just the outward demonstrations that Islam require that I fail to fulfill.  And, since the inner and outer dimensions of an individual are intrinsically linked, no matter how strong my inner faith is, it becomes nullified if I don’t express it.  So whenever I come back home, I try to become a little more spiritually stronger.

I’ve dabbled in the idea of not believing at all, and just renouncing it all but the only reason I found to do that was because the demands of religion are too great.  But, whenever I am in a state of distress or something agonizes me to such an extent that I find no comfort on myself or in those around me, I’ve realised that the solace comes only from religious consciousness and appealing a higher authority in whom I have faith. 

Nothing fixes itself, there is no automatic renewal or regeneration.  It all comes from somewhere.  Even if something becaomes okay on its own, it’s because of an inner energy it possesses that ensures that the damage will be repaired, there is something potent that is the cause of the fix, the cause of all causes.  Whenever I am really upset about something that is not in my control or angry about something that I wish was, I’ve found comfort in being able to just talk to God in my own way and ask him for some help and reassurance that it will all be okay.

The next day, when the day dawns bright and my spirits are refreshed, I can feel that invisible pat on the back and I can feel that something is telling me, it will all shape up.