Rohit Brijnath in yesterday’s Straits Times.
In my school perched on a northern India hilltop, the wind at night rushed furiously through the trees and sounded to me like a fleeing cavalry of galloping ghosts. I remember this. I remember reading to the percussive sound of a monsoon rain, the unkind swish of a teacher’s cane, the clinking cans which were the milkman’s xylophone, the beseeching caller from a distant mosque.
Even as we grow older, the music of our youth never dims. Sound, after all, is essential to our personal histories, as if we are connected by a string of strange notes to another time and forgotten places. As children, our ears seemed as open as our minds, but as busy adults caught in a cacophonic planet, we have forgotten how to listen.
People wail online and harangue on Twitter and righteous opinion is hurled at us like tossed confetti. The television debate is often a poor version of the Gunfight at the OK Corral where angry rhetoric is fired from predictable positions. There is a lot of telling, but not much listening.
A wise fellow given to clever anagrams once shuffled the letters in “listen” and came up with “silent”. Sometimes, to do one requires an embrace of the other. To listen is to open up my world to receive from yours, it suggests I can be enriched by what you say, it means I must suspend my belief that I know it all and empty myself of preconceptions. Listening is a quiet and lost humility.
I had no idea till last week who Zeno of Citum was – a Greek thinker, who else – but he wrote: “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” It is simple mathematics that Anton Casey might have applied. If he had read aloud his puerile Facebook posts, the words percolating within, their implication digested, he might have deleted them and stayed happily anonymous.
Casey didn’t listen to himself or his prejudices, neither did some members of the online mob who flayed him. Few of us do these days, despite growing up to Simon and Garfunkel’s 1965 warning about “People hearing without listening”.
On the Net, irate comments to articles often have no connection to the topic at hand, just wild rants about imagined slights. Already amidst the tragedy of a missing plane there is irrelevant innuendo about meteors, aliens and Bermuda triangles. Who knew the human race needed so badly to be heard?
Listening is learning, it is reflection, it is an art worth reacquiring. It is not only about the words we hear, the tone we recognise, but also in the languages of the bodies we read. In a teacher’s still stance and stern face, we have all listened to disapproval.
As Evelyn Glennie, the profoundly deaf percussionist, wrote, listening is linked to sound, yet also feel. She would put her hands on the wall when a teacher played notes on the timpani – it produces a lot of vibrations – and found she could “distinguish the rough pitch of notes by associating where on my body I felt the sound”. Low sounds in the legs, high sounds on face.
Listening is not all seriousness, it is whimsy and pleasure, it is the hoot of laughter, the melancholic whistle of the departing steam engine, the crow cackling out a soliloquy. Perhaps it was easier as a boy for I had no mobile phone, no computer game, no iPod, no TV. So I had to listen to the world, if not my mother.
Now, with headphones on, few care to eavesdrop on the world. It is as if we choose not to experience life. Part of it is understandable for urban sprawls echo with the dull sound of rumbling car and groaning crane. It is why we must flee now and then into nature to listen to the planet.
In thick jungle, over the tranquil sounds of murmuring river and humming insects, it is the monkey’s alarm call and rustle of the panicky deer taking flight that help build a picture of a tiger prowling through his domain.
But even in cities we can find fulfilling music or at least find places to listen to ourselves, order our thoughts and restore our sanity. It can be found in morning runs when we are attentive to every beat of heart and gasp of lung and have conversations with our deepest selves.
It is discovered in kitchens, where a friend tells me sound is integral to his art, for he is attuned to the tales told by every spluttering spice and sizzling seed in his oily pans. It is found by the sea and in the quiet depths of the Botanic Gardens, where if you wait you might hear a leaf fall.
There is much to listen to if we care to and if we also accept that all of us are carriers of tales. Years ago, I found myself captive to three old men – their hearing faulty, their zest enchanting – as they exchanged tales of India’s freedom struggle and spoke compellingly of legendary figures from my schoolboy textbooks whom they had met. We were in a hospital waiting room and escape was impossible. I had to listen and then I was grateful for this was an oral history of my land.
The sentences of old folk can meander like a kite on a windy day, but listening is patience. It is waiting as a grandfather stitches memory together and tells tales of a different Singapore that will be lost with his passing. You cannot appreciate a nation’s present if you haven’t listened attentively to its past.
Yet old folk must pay attention, too, for the young are restless messengers of new ideas. In conservative nations an outdated hierarchy of speech persists, wherein women and children must be the listeners, not the listened to. It is underpinned by conceit for it suggests every voice does not matter, when of course it does.
We need not check our hearing, but only recalibrate our ability to listen. So read aloud a passage from a lyrical book. So remind yourself at parties, as I should, of the writer Russell Baker’s warning:
“When you’re talking up a storm so brilliant, so charming that you can hardly believe how wonderful you are, pause just a moment and listen to yourself. It’s good for the soul to hear yourself as others hear you, and next time maybe… you will not talk so much, so loudly, so brilliantly, so charmingly, so utterly shamefully foolishly.”
I am trying to open my ears. It is why two months ago – to the laughter of my daughter – I pressed a stethoscope against her stomach. My mind closed the door on every distraction and I waited for it, this faint yet frequent sound which a doctor friend had told me about. There… yes… I swear I heard it… did I? Maybe it was just my imagination, but it scarcely mattered. I was listening for my granddaughter’s heartbeat and listening to life.