04 June 2023

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Years ago, a friend, in love, was impatiently waiting for some signal from the ‘beloved’ indicating requited love. I can’t remember whether or not he had declared to her his feelings or if he had asked her a question and was awaiting a response. He wanted a word. One word.

Vachanayak denna kiyapang,’ he told me, essentially appointing me as a go-between. Vachanayak would translate as ‘a word,’ but this did not rule out a more-than-a-word answer. A yes or no and, if no, some more words that explained or in one way or another offered consolaton to enable my friend to live through life carrying the unhealed and incurable wound of rejection. ‘Vachanayak’ in this instance, in Sinhala, simply means ‘response.’

Vachanayak denna kiyapang,’ he said and immediately added, in English: ‘I need a thousand pictures!’ We both laughed because we had heard this many times: ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’  Even though tormented by anticipation of the worst, he did not let slip an opportunity to twist a phrase, knowing it would make me laugh. Laugh and then back to sorrow. That’s how we survived the scandalous griefs of our youth. And now, old age.

How do we measure the worth of a word or an image? Do we defer to the arbiters appointed to assess, critique and pass judgment? A simple ‘yes’ would have unfettered my friend from the tyranny of gravity. A simple ‘no’ would have been too heavy a stone for the heart and he would have felt himself drawn into the depths of the earth. Attach a number to ‘yes’ and one to ‘no’ and they might be roughly equal, but equal for him. Her ‘yes’ and her ‘no’ would have had zero value to someone else. It’s the same with a photograph.  

But let’s not allow ourselves to get tripped by the immemorial traps of relativism. Let the business of valuation be left for those fascinated by demand and supply, those naughty creatures who we are told to believe are immune to manipulation.  Let them name the price of a photograph. Let them name the price of a book.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez used to think that the visual impact of cinema can be greater than that of literature. However, in an interview in 1971 (‘Seven Voices: Seven Latin American Writers Talk to Rita Guibert’) he confessed that he was wrong:

‘That very visual aspect puts [cinema] at a disadvantage. It’s so immediate, so forceful, that it’s difficult for the viewer to go beyond it. In literature one can go much further and at the same time create an impact that is visual, auditory, or of any other sort.’

Even though cinema is made of sequenced images accompanied at time with the auditory, a single image, he acknowledged, had an interpretive edge over the word (in an interview with Susana Cato in 1987 for the English-language edition of Granma titled, ‘Soap operas are wonderful. I’ve always wanted to write one.’):

‘If you think about it, the written word is a very primitive medium. You know what it is to have to put one letter after another and [what it is] to read it to have to decipher one sound after another without knowing what it means. The image, on the other hand, produces an immediate and much deeper emotion on impact and you don’t have to decipher anything, it goes straight to the heart.’

Of course if you don’t have a camera or an easel, brush and colours, you would need words to create an image. Also, even an image-artist would have to be quite skilled to capture emotions. The word has an edge there.

And yet there are landscapes that just cannot be completely described. They are photographs that go straight to the heart. Even if a skilled wordsmith captured such things, the deciphering would be more laborious.

We take pictures and write stories because that’s all about transcription and a process of self-reflection; it’s a way of clarifying things to ourselves. We take pictures and write stories to share with others something we think deserves the attention of others, because it delights or it offers a slice of the human condition that may enlighten or empower.

I’ve often been trumped by what meets the eye when it comes to ‘sharing.’ I can’t capture well and sometimes things pass too swiftly for the camera or the battery is dead. This is why I am in awe of friends who understand’ the visual.’ Photography inspires me. And landscapes or cityscapes or any 'scape' for that matter goes so fast to the heart that understands but cannot share.

So I plod on, from one letter to another, frequently asking myself ‘isn’t silence more eloquent?’ And something that my friend Kanishka Goonewardena (the one who was impatient for a vachanaya) said in a different country and century underlines this question: ‘The sky: infinite poetry.’

Tomorrow, someone sitting on the parapet wall outside the Arts Theatre of the Peradeniya University might look towards the WUS Canteen and notice a cloud formation at dusk and come to the same conclusion. Tonight, as I took a stroll outside a friend’s house in a small village called Palugama, I looked up at the sky. Infinite ways to join the star-dots into innumerable images. That’s what I saw. That’s what came to mind.

I just cannot write it down. But I have a word. ‘Stop.’ Interpret it as you will.

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart