“Now, just hold still,” said the nurse inserting the nozzle into my right ear, “the water’s warm but it might feel cold because our heads are so hot.”
The slooshing of cold-feeling warm water around the S-bends of the inner ear is a not entirely unpleasant sensation. It feels like your brain is having an out-of-body experience, standing naked and un-skulled, under a waterfall. The nurse seems rather impressed at the amount of ear-gunk the process has dislodged, and invites me to peer into the canister to examine the same.
When I moved to rural England two years ago, after living for two decades in decidedly urban Delhi, my soundscape was radically altered. Gone was the incessant rumble of traffic ploughing along Aurobindo Marg, gone the staccato shrieks of blueline buses applying their hydraulic brakes, the cacophony of honking horns. Gone the background whirr of inverters and a-c’s, coolers and ceiling fans. Gone the cries of subji-walas as they wheeled their rounds around the colony. Gone the furious shouting of non-resident vehicle-owners upbraiding the chowkidaars for not letting them exit via the back gate. No longer does the phrase ‘wedding band’ strike terror into my heart. Instead, I found myself surrounded by English folks who rarely spoke above a wood-pigeon coo, the murmurous haunt of fancy cars sighing along smoothly tarmacked streets, the sharpest sound the disapproving ‘tut’ of a train traveller at the overly-loud bleat of fellow passenger’s cellphone.
Exiting the health centre with freshly sluiced ears, every sound seemed sharper, clearer, somehow more polished. But there was no getting away from it: Wellington High Street on a busy weekday was still awfully quiet. I wondered if I was going deaf. Certainly, the last few years have seen a sharp increase in my use of the word ‘What?’ and a corresponding rise in my ability to tune out of conversations entirely, my sole contribution in lively debates being to nod and smile. All those years of editing out the daily decibellage of Delhi has left my hearing threshold set to permanent high which no amount of sluicing will lower. That and, let’s face it, I ain’t getting any younger.
It was with delight and relief and a sense of wonderful liberation then, that I discovered Sara Maitland’s Book of Silence. It’s not that I long to be deaf – on the contrary – but her deft and entrancing exploration of the positive qualities of silence, opened up possibilities in my head, and heart, that I had not truly appreciated before.
“In our noise-obsessed culture it is very easy to forget just how many of the major physical forces on which we depend are silent – gravity, electricity, light, tides and the unseen and unheard spinning of the whole cosmos.” Approaching middle age, and after a boisterous, sociable and busy life as a successful novelist, Maitland found herself drawn more and more to silent spaces. She retreats from the world to a tiny isolated cottage on the Scottish island of Skye in order to embark on an existential investigation of ‘silence and solitude’ – the two terms being, for her, almost synonymous.
In her cottage on Skye, on the windswept moors surrounding her tiny box-house in Galloway or under the silent stars of the Sinai desert, she approaches each encounter with silence with boundless curiosity, optimism, and enormous pleasure. She describes and investigates all sorts of silences with a scientist’s urge to test and classify; a poet’s ear, alive to its contradictions, surprises and revelations; an artist’s acute powers of observation; and a mystic’s deep longing for the divine. “There is the silence of mystical experience… There is the silent, even ecstatic, euphoria which so frequently precedes psychotic, and indeed epileptic, episodes…There is the silence of listening to music… the silence of death.” Each one of these silences is unique and different, and very hard to pin down using language, because silence itself, according to Maitland, “happens in a different part of the human brain from speaking or hearing or even thinking in a rational and orderly manner.” It is not the lack of language nor even its opposite, but “a whole world in and of itself, alongside of woven within language and culture but independent of it.”
Having fled from the urban cacophony in search of the quiet – or at least a quieter – life, I find myself having to be more attentive. Hearing less, I must listen more. I am ‘hard of hearing’, so I must become softer, more receptive, to the world. I feel myself lowering the threshold, letting down my guard. The rewards – of solitary walks in the countryside, or of silent gardening, or quiet contemplation – are bounteous.
A final word about a particular silent activity close to my heart, and to those of many of this column’s readers: “There is a the particular silence in some sorts of reading where a balanced communication is created and the generous-hearted writer opens the silent space for the attentive reader and the two of them work (or perhaps play) at meaning-making together.” Maitland is herself one such generous-hearted writer, and the Book of Silence is a wonderful place to play.
Published The Hindu Business Line, BLInk Supplement 14.4.17