31 January 2012

On the voice cuts that make us lose our tongues and the instruments of recovery

Before compact discs, there were cassettes.  They seemed magical when they first hit Sri Lanka, these little things containing neatly rolled brown-coloured tape.  Before cassettes and their micro versions we had larger spools that smelled strange and were played on what seem now to have been gigantic machines. 

Then there were records.  I found them pretty and pretty amazing too.  It was magical, back in the seventies, to watch my uncle Upali Seneviratne place one of those large black discs on his large record playing station (it had a compartment to store the music and I believe another section to store liquor), gently place a needle and have the voice of that man who seemed to be never happy unless he was sad, Jim Reeves, coming out of machine and floating around the living room, telling us how he was accused, convicted and condemned by someone who was judge and jury all in one.  

I’ve seen many records since then and listened to quite a few too, but the one thing I remember most about them is the logo and the brand name: a dog sitting in front of a record player and peering into a trumpet like contraption which probably amplified the sound and the words ‘His Master’s Voice’.

Back then it was a pretty picture which by and by got layered with notions about ‘man’s best friend’, loyalty, affection and so on.  The image still makes for nostalgic re-visitation but the line has other connotations which of course others have played with when talking about lackeys of the powerful. 

My brother, Arjuna, stopped me once when I started saying something, beginning with the words ‘in my opinion’.  ‘Are you sure this is your opinion?’ he asked looking me squarely in the eye.  It tattled me for a moment.  I said ‘yes’ quite confidently.  Then he gave me a lecture about how opinions are formed.  He would have been about 15 at the time and it was a remarkably lucid and insightful set of observations that he shared with me for one so young. 

We are made of everything we encounter. That which we label ‘I’ and use name to refer to is essentially constituted of things that are in movement. They are in us and make us now and the next moment they get scattered into other bodies, other people who also say ‘I’ and have names.  It is the same with thought. Same with words.  We think they are ours and in a sense we are not incorrect but at the end of the day we are but part owners and then only in a very transient sense.      

Most times we are not even conscious that what we assert in the manner of idea-creator was born elsewhere, nurtured somewhere else and coupled with other things from other sources as it enters our minds and sensibilities.  What’s worse, however, is that there are times when we are conscious slaves committed to regurgitating things that others utter.  This is that other side of ‘the master’s voice’ that I talked about.  Parroting, some would call it.  It is an exercise one can engage in only after internalizing, willingly or unwillingly the conditions of slavery.  One has to retire the question mark, the ability to be critical, and all analytical capacities and persuasions before one can aspire to someone’s voice, especially the voice of the powerful. 

It is like playing a part in a play. There’s script and there’s rendering of script.  The margin for deviation is limited to what gesture, facial expression, stage presence, voice projection, inflection and modulation adds to portrayal.  The good actor could stretch the particular lines in ways that the audience obtains several layers of meaning, but he/she would still be constrained by the script.  This is all good for theatre, but in life and politics when you decide to be player you automatically choose slavery to script and therefore script writer.  

There are times I look around and what I hear (including what I myself say) makes me wonder if we are all in a gigantic studio where multiple masters and mistresses get us to speak in their voices, vomit out words well-rehearsed under their direction.  I wonder how many times we all had to say this or that before it was decided that we ‘got it right’.  Life is a studio and articulation about someone thrusting a script and you having to read it out ‘right’ and do it over and over again until some minimal standard line is crossed.  I know, I know, it’s not a one-way street and we are not slaves at all times and in all contexts, but still, I find we are reluctant to admit that there are times when we are pretty servile. 

I asked the following question seven years ago: ‘After how many voice-cuts do you lose your tongue forever, and how many fraudulent elections before you win your franchise?’  There was a question I didn’t think of asking back them and maybe I am asking it now because other voices have crept into my sensibilities and because I’ve become slave to their masters, knowingly or unknowingly.  I am not sure if ‘slave’ is coterminous with ‘adherent’, for example whether a follower of the Buddha Vachana is ‘fettered’ or if the follower of Jesus Christ is a prisoner of the Bible.  What is pertinent to me is the Buddha’s compassionate suggestion that we could benefit from a closer examination of who we are, what ‘I’ is, so to say. 

At some point in this larger incarceration that is of greater magnitude than the fetters employed by political realities and ideological fascination, I believe we need to recover our tongues.  This has nothing to do with elections, fraudulent or otherwise, but a conscious decisions to embark on a journey that could begin with reflection on the notion ‘His master’s voice’ or even, as my brother pointed out, ‘where did your opinions come from?’  We might be surprised by the number of voice cuts that cut our voices to size and we might surprise ourselves by the potentials of recoverability. 
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