The silent equivalent of a thousand words | Daily News

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 consolation 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 judgement? 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.

[email protected].

Add new comment