01 September 2012

Let’s lie a little between ‘absence’ and ‘present’

One of my earliest memories is of register-marking. Grade 1. Mrs. Rajapaksa.  ‘Subash?’ she would call out and Subash Fernando would respond ‘innava’ or ‘present’.  ‘Malinda?’ she would call out next and get my ‘innava miss’ (present, madam).  ‘Rohantha (Abeysuriya)?’ was next.  It was the same until Grade 5, when the classes were mixed up and the register changed. 

Years passed and I find that life can be looked at and understood in terms of ‘present’ and ‘absent’, things that are apparent and those that are not, some because it is in character to be effusive and some because they are deliberately printed into the background.  It is about people who stand out and those who stand in, things we notice, things we take for granted, things we trivialize and things that are invisible to us. 

History is fascinating not because of what it tells us but what it does not.  Archaeology is interesting because it unearths and also leaves earthed things that are reluctant to come out shouting. 

Take a face, the first face you see after reading this. Look at the eyes. That’s the mirror of the soul, we are told. Try figuring out the number of libraries resident within those twin circles.  Try imagining the paintings that could be generated by all the colours those eyes have acquired over the years.  Now try and excavate the unsaid, the will-not-be-painted, and the lines that are smudged so the acreage of hurt and hurting cannot be ascertained.  Multiply the tortured and twisted narratives in these eyes by the number of eyes that you encounter in a day.  Now sit and figure out what kind of story the intersection of these threads could weave. 

You can have so much fun with this.  You can pick and choose which threads to use, which colours to privilege. You can pick and choose notes from all the songs that must play inside those heart-eyes to churn out a music score.  You can make a million melodies.  You can rap it, jazz it, be classical about it, scream it out or do a lullaby.  Now imagine thought as instrument.  You are going to get an orchestra.  What instruments would you privilege? 

 There’s something else you can do. You can flip the script.  You are use heavy paint on thin canvas and see what’s happened to the reverse.  You can view reverse from two inches away or two miles away.  You can let the painted side play with its poor cousin Embroidery Reverse. 

Would you rather give more voice to silence, I wonder.  How would you read the things unsaid, those poignant tales that never get written simply because sentiment cannot find words, words cannot buy voice and voice is an incompetent transliterator? 

What is archaeology and history then if not a collage of carefully picked ‘presents’ and deliberately left out ‘absences’ blushed with the invariable trespasser and un-coloured by the exits of the willing exile?  What is any history, any nation, any community or story if not a mix of these two elements in varying proportions?  Don’t we pick and choose what part of ourselves to ‘present’ and what to ‘absent’ all the time, depending on audience, context, objective and so on? 

Things were simple in Grade 1. Mrs. Rajapaksa called out a name and we answered ‘present’ or, if absent, someone would say ‘absent, madam’.  Now it is complicated. We try to design our preferred present-absent mix and others spice it up or rob it of flavour.  I would like the world to shut up and I would too, except for the fact that there’s nothing more infuriating at times than the cacophony of silence, the deafening presence of absence. 

It is good therefore to revisit that classroom with its short tables and chairs and walls lined with an absent-present mix of information just to hear myself breathe, just to let the incomparable music of silence wrap heart and mind in that moment sandwiched between two screams and clothed in teardrop and soured love.  We need to breathe now and then, I feel, and the only place this is possible sometimes is the space that the intersection of present and absent yields, made up of both and neither.   



SANDIKA said...

'Innawa sir' 'Present sir' .............. :)

teddy said...

Innawaaa Miss...