Mridula Nath Chakraborty reviews “To Silence” by Subhash Jaireth

To Silence

by Subhash Jaireth

Puncher and Wattmann





The titular aptness of Subhash Jaireth’s latest offering cannot be overstated. If silence can indeed be voiced, here it is, speaking volumes. The slimness of the book belies its depth of thought and profundity of expression. In three short vignettes, Jaireth manages to bring to us whole universes: worlds as far-flung as fifteenth-century India, seventeenth-century Italy and nineteenth-century Russia. Using the genre of the monologue, Jaireth brings alive for us the milieus of Kabir, the weaver-poet of the Bhakti movement; Maria Chekova, Anton Chekov’s less-known self-effacing younger sister; and Tommaso Campanella, the Calabrian theologian whose heterodox views brought him into conflict with the Inquisition and who intervened in the first trail of Galileo Galilei.

Kabir’s biological son seeks to make a claim to the heritage of his father’s lyrics. In the face of his son’s insistence that the famed words be written down properly for profit and for posterity, Kabir, an illiterate man, finds it impossible to see in the inscribed verses any of the verve or versatility of the spoken and sung language. What flowed with the ease of water now freezes upon the page of the amanuensis. This refusal to be pinned down in conventional inscription becomes a metaphor for the figure of Kabir himself, whose corpse is coveted by both Hindus and Muslims as a religious symbol after his death. Kabir again denies any attempts at memorialisation, leaving behind a resounding silence where the clamouring voices would have claimed him, thereby making his subsumption into the dead of the night as seamless as the fabric of the songs he spun during his lifetime.

Maria is tormented by her own silences as well as by that of her writer brother. Every opportunity that presents itself with the promise of an independent life for Maria is met by the silence, and therefore non-permission, of the brother for whom she keeps house. She herself embraces the silence as the price to be paid for the patronage of a successful sibling. However, the silence which bursts upon her with the clap of thunder is the larger, historical one of the collective silence Europe maintained in the face of atrocities against Jews, a silence in which she herself participates, not by commission, but by convenient omission. Maria’s own experience collides with that of an entire people. In bringing together the personal intimate history with a public one, Maria’s monologue asks whether it is indeed possible to separate the two. Silence here is the ultimate accuser and mute witness of history.

Tommaso’s silence is the most painful one: that of being silent in the face of a forbidden love. His monologue is literally unable to give voice to the longing which possesses him, and for which he undergoes silent suffering. Among the three characters, he is the only one who does not remain entirely silent in the face of historical events: he does write a letter of support to Galileo Galilei, commiserating with him. That letter is never sent, but is left among the relics of his other papers and testimonials. This brief moment of solidarity is contrasted to a much larger silence about a commonplace crime he witnesses. The burden of that silence lies heavily upon him on the nights that he spends wandering about the streets of Rome. No absolution seems possible for his confessional, shrouded as it is within cloak upon cloak of his own spiritual, and all-too fleshly failure. The only thing that remains to haunt him is a catalogue of admissions: about insanity, sentiment, ecstasy, sin, and finally, grace, as if in the utterance of this monologue, some mercy may show its face somewhere. 

What is remarkable about each of these voices is the intimacy with which Jaireth animates them. He seemingly effortlessly slips into the clothing and consciousnesses of all three of his subjects: that of an aging poet-philosopher from an impoverished weaving guild who has to come to terms with the mortality of his legacy; that of a taken-for-granted martyr-like sister who has had to sacrifice her own dreams and desires of a more complete life at the altar of a famous, selfish and extortionate sibling; that of a monk of the Dominican Order, sworn to the cause of truth and godliness who has to encounter the ghosts of his own past transgressions, of the all-too corporeal failings of his own spiritual life.

What apparently unites these three voices is the prospect of imminent, inevitable Death, the Great Silencer. However, the silence pined for and practised by the persona in each case is only an incantation of that ultimate confrontation with truth that all human beings yearn for in their lives and in preparation for their tête-à-tête with the void. These are not confessionals occasioned by any external or material compulsions, any religious or political contingencies. Their sole guiding principle is an undeniable spiritual appeal to understanding, for the peace of mind, and for forgiveness, so that one can, in the dusk of one’s life, go gently into the night of eternity.

Having established the commonality of each partaker of and participant in silence, it also has to be acknowledged that the silences that each voice meditates upon have different meanings in their respective monologues. Jaireth interprets silence to convey, by turns, reconciliation, reckoning and regret. These are the silences which speak of a life well-lived where one must take leave without any concern about the people left behind, of a life taking stock of the historical events one witnessed and shaped, of decisions one might have made and did not, of weighing the terrible consequences of ones actions and non-actions.

Kabir, the song-weaver’s silence rests in “an absence of songs… [His] mind enthralled exclusively by songs without words—no words and hence no anxiety about meaning” (17).  Maria Chekova’s silence, with regards to her own personal decisions and with respect to the curveball of history, comes from the realisation that in life, “the burden of knowing so much is hard to endure” (47). For Tommaso Campanella, silence is “the feeing of being not alive and still remaining conscious of that sensation” (107). Each one of them has to encounter this meaning of silence, in the sense of both ‘facing’ and ‘countering’ the ways in which knowledge comes to them, and the way in which they have to live with it. They have to embrace, with full consciousness, not only the bodily weight they will carry into their graves, but the unspeakable knowledge of human life in all its enticements and entrapments, its ravishment and ravages.

This is a writer who knows his medium. He knows how to construct a monologue of a bygone past and place that transports us away from the here and the now, but at the same time makes us utterly aware of the contemporaneity of the human condition. He can softly, and yet with steely craft, weave language in all its felicity and fragility, in order to make the poignant palpable, and the hush of the sands of life trickling away hum louder than words. It is not possible to convey the subtlety of the skein of silk with which Jaireth spins his tales; one has to resort to giving an example from one of his stories: “The wings the words span isn’t limitless; often they fail to fly and it would be prudent to remain cognisant of their failure; if they cause infliction, the cure for it resides in close proximity to them, and the cure, my dear friend, is silence.” 

Jaireth is not interested in silence only as a metaphor or as philosophy. He literally performs silence as a trope of writing by thematically emphasizing it in the form of his chosen genre of historical fiction. Instead of being chronologically linked narratives that propagate official history, his spatially and temporally distant imaginative recreations disrupt the Eurocentric notion of time as linear. The monologues are sequentially interrupted and intentionally complicate the idea of authoritative story-telling. The characters are figures whose perspectives have been occluded and ignored by conventional hierarchical privileges of speech. The monologues intervene in the verbosity of official, received history and reveal the silences implicit in them. As such, they may be seen an examples of revisionist, or even redemptive, history. A must read for anyone interested in the long march of history and the frailty of the human condition itself.