29 hours of silence
As I wake up and realize my silent vow has begun, I can already overhear a conversation in my head. About what this woman said to me last night, just before going to bed. I showed a painting to my friends. She sat next to them. How come a few words can set my anger on fire so easily?
I hear her French accent again, adding a bit more acidity to her words: “It is naïve. But good. Yes, continue with painting.” And I can hear myself once again: “I’m a writer, not a painter. This is only for distraction.”
And I can feel the anger, rising. My mind comes up with sentences I wanted to say. Not directly to her face, but to my friends, speaking it out just as loud so she would hear it. “What a stupid thing to say. Naïve. Some people should better think before they talk.”
Now, the reason why this upsets me so much, I guess it is about being judgemental. Putting people, strangers, into drawers, before even having looked into their eyes. I know, I do it as well.
So here I am, still lying in bed, listening to this conversation. I hear it, in different versions, three or four times. Until another voice says: Stop it. This is supposed to be your silent day.
How can I be still when my mind is chatting, nagging, babbling, whispering, complaining all the time?
I try to remember my dream. I was in Mississippi. Because of this book I finished before falling asleep. The Help. And I can’t help but think that the segregation of “races” in the US in the early 1950s reminds me of India. And the mother of the main protagonist reminds me of my own mother. Not that she told me I am ugly. But I can remember this look in her eyes, watching me. Telling her that her own youth had gone, thus making me her competitor in the race for the beauty queen. Not that there was a real competition. Psychology calls it the “snow-white”-complex. Mirror, mirror, on the wall. I read a book about it. Since I was a teenager, I had to deal with the cunning step-mother and the all-loving mother in one person. No wonder there are voices in my head.
Stop it. Today is about being silent. We can think about it another time.
Finally I get up. A note on my door says: Saturday, silent fruit day.
Exactly. I remember. This is not only about being silent. But also eating about eating fruit only, and drinking fruit juices. I have to decide if I will have my morning coffee as usual, or if I will take this pill my friend gave me. It is supposed to keep you on the toilet for two hours. I look at it, sitting on my window shelf. Size of my fingernail, an unpleasant green. Not appealing. What will it do to me? I decide to go for the coffee. At least I know the effects of coffee. I put on a bra, a shirt. I’m sweating already. Birds are chirping, the cry of an eagle, a crow by my window, its continuous sound annoying.
I brush my hair, try to make it look decent. I grin at myself. There is no way I am not going to look like a hamster in the morning. Every day my face seems to remember the time when I was a chubby baby. Cheeks like upholstery, eyes narrow. Even narrower now, because I cried myself to sleep over the last lines of the book.
“You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” If my parents had ever told me this. Stop whining. Above all, my left eye is dealing with that infection, itching and hurting, my view blurred. Alas. I have been standing in front of the mirror for at least ten minutes and I haven’t even seen my own reflection.
I put on trousers, brush my teeth, take a little note saying “I’m having a silent day.”
Downstairs the light is dim. It is quiet, not one sound to be heard. The night seems to withdraw slowly down here. The door to the kitchen is open. How come I cannot recall her name. She smiles at me. Something with an “S”. “Good morning.” I smile back, feeling my hamster cheeks broadening. I show her the paper. She takes it. She doesn’t understand. I make a move in front of my mouth, like a zipper closing. I point at my chest. I make this move of the coffee machine, pushing the sieve down. She nods.
I go back to my room, feeling silly with that note in between my fingers. I feel impolite. I hope she doesn’t think I am impolite. She is the loveliest person, so quiet, carrying this innocent caring smile on her lips. Always giving me the impression of holding herself back, for the good of others. It is only one day. I just have to make sure I have my hands free to make the “Namaste” and bow my head.
By the time I’m drinking coffee on the balcony, my mouth is itching to say something. Anything. During my half an hour sun salutations, I go through an amazing amount of conversations I had in the past two weeks. Words and sentences pop up in my head, like a river at full flood, filled with trunks.
“How do you like travelling with me?” – “It’s not really travelling.” – “I know, but just for this trip?” – “It’s nice.” I hardly notice the sounds around me. Tuk-Tuks, mopeds, birds, peoples’ voices, the wind in the trees. There would be a lot. “You should go to see the doctor for your eye, if it’s getting worse.” “This is the best Chai I’ve ever had.” “I will shut my eyes and pretend not to see you, if you don’t talk.”
That’s what Manu, my host said. Which made perfect sense, last night. Now Ronan Keating sneaks in. “You say it best, when you say nothing at all.”
After Yoga, after lying in the heat of the South Indian mid-February-sun, my body screams for breakfast. Banana and papaya. My legs are trembling. I quickly wash my face, scribble down a note. I am satisfied with the word “please”, as I write it down.
I think of my friends who join me in this. But they only join the fruit-eating. You cannot be silent all day with having children around. I feel like hiding on their porch, to be near someone who doesn’t expect me to talk. Then, all of a sudden, I sense relief.
What else can I concentrate on. All of a sudden I can see the light on the balcony, gleaming white. The crows’ never-ending sounds. An embroidery of different greens in front of my window. A vast space seems to open up, inside me. I remember some lines I read last year. “Be still and go within. If you don’t go within, you will not be able to hear.”
God, how grateful I am to be able to write.
In the bathroom , just as I sit down, I hear a voice. “Marianne?” My neighbour. He wants me to help him with something on the Internet. Before I can even think, I hear my voice. “Je suis ici. Oh merde, il faut que je ne parle pas.” I hear him “shh” me. “Merde.” – “Shh”.
I flush, open the door. He says he’s sorry. Am I ready to go? I nod and shrug my shoulders. Maybe I should prolong my silence until nine o’clock tomorrow morning. We walk over to the place where there is Wi-fi, where I used to stay for the past few months. I don’t know how many times I will have to make that zipper-move. But they know me and they understand. It’s ten thirty. I can’t wait to go back to my room. I’m starving, again. How are you supposed to concentrate on silence, when all you want to do is say “thank you” and have some Muesli in your fruit salad.
At eleven thirty, I ask for a papaya juice. Manu, he seems to have lost his speech just like me. That’s what people do, I notice. They imitate you. He points at the papaya, whispering: “Too hard for juice.” I nod. Smiling is my only help. I smile quite often, but by now I feel like the Cheshire Cat. I shut the door. I get the feeling my thoughts become stronger, more intense, their power increases. Meditation could help me with this. I lie down, the fan blowing hot air around me, not cooling anything, the least my body.
Be still. Don’t dramatize it.
I doze for an hour. The sound of sweeping on the balcony. My Arms and legs are outstretched, so skin cannot meet skin. Every effort has to be taken not to sweat more. After a while I look on my mobile phone. One pm.
I know it’s mad to do so, but I wanted to go to the beach at noon ever since I arrived. Put on my bikini, my beach dress which hasn’t seen soap in three weeks and is stiff by all the salt in it. Take my beach towel and off I go. Through the jungle in the backyard, lush and green on either side, the wind rustling in the trees. I feel contented. Like I can do this.
As I come nearer the end of the jungle, I hear a voice. I guess that wasn’t meant for me. “Marianne!” I don’t know the voice. I turn around. Sara waving at me. I hear my voice: “Hi!” Fuck. Third time today. Why can’t I shut up? I clasp my mouth, stop in front of her, pulling my little note out of the bag. She asks me a few questions. About my trip to Tiruvannamalai. If my heart is ok. I nod and smile. I form a little heart with my fingers. “Glad to hear”, she says and puts her hand on her chest. I take the notebook out of my bag, write down “Tomorrow I talk.” She smiles, says: “And tell me everything.”
I actually do want to say more. I point towards the jungle, onto my chest, towards the jungle again. It takes her about ten seconds. “You moved. To Manu’s place.”
The heat is dense, far from beneath the palm trees, I feel squashed. By the time I reach the first restaurant, my knees are wobbly. My head spins. I set one foot after the other, pull the scarf over my forehead, feel the bag growing towards the ground, taking me with it. Music from every direction. Indian tunes, Abba, to be followed by something like Techno. I nearly run past the Tibetan shops, their flaunting colourful scarves, T-Shirts, Ali-Baba-trousers, bags saying “Free Tibet”. I make it down to the beach. I make it into the waves. I shout: “Watch out!” to the man next to me, with his back to the horizon. A massive wave is just about to crash down on him. Fourth time. Makes it ten o’clock tomorrow.
I walk back, sit down at a table at the juice place. I manage to order a fruit juice with my notebook. After waiting for it for twenty minutes, I am so grateful to see it coming, I throw a big smile and a hearty “thank you” at the waiter. He stares at me. Fifth time. Makes it eleven o’clock.
I write a few notes down, sipping this glorious yellow liquid. Maybe this is about awareness. The more I can stay aware and present, the less likely I am to open my mouth without thinking. Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing. But it saves me from pulling my hair out and banging my head against the walls. I always considered myself as a more quiet person. I’m glad to learn something new about myself. It is about two o’clock. Maybe I will make it one pm tomorrow. Just to get it right.
Back in my room, I text my friends. “This is so hard. I hope you’re not as hungry as me.” I watch the salt water drying on my dress. White lines on pink cotton. After staring at it for a while, I go to the bathroom to take a shower. Put on some black clothes, they feel more appropriate. I am mourning the loss of my speech, I tell an invisible person in my head.
I take a one-hundred rupee note and head for the fruit stand. My mind is filled with the thought of food. But I can enjoy the sun going down. The shadows start giving a little bit of a shelter. I bump into Jake, where the road turns. He says he’s oily from a massage, I give him a hug, nevertheless. After a while the fountain of words, coming out of his mouth, dies off. I make the zip-sign.
“You mustn’t talk?” I shake my head. “Is this a religious thing?” I shake my head again. “Have you taken a vow of silence?” I nod. We stand there, smiling at each other. It becomes slightly uncomfortable. He mumbles something like “take care” and strolls on. I continue down the alley. “Rooms for rent”-signs, colourful worn-down walls, verdant flowers in pink and white. I overhear a woman bargaining with a Tuk-Tuk driver. “One hundred Euros? What about 50 Rupees?” – “60” – “Ok, 60 then.” I am sure they go to town, she and her husband. Pictures of Varkala town in my head. Next thing I see is a hand searching through a pile of mangos. I cannot believe I am actually in South India when mango season begins. I’d nearly do anything for a mango. I take two, put them on the weighing machine, point both my hands at the man. “Ten bananas?” Nodding.
All of a sudden, I feel vulnerable. Three or four men standing in the small, narrow room, the light gloomy. They are watching me. I know two of them by sight. I feel naked without the ability to defend myself with words. As I pay, they have forgotten me already. Just go back home, will you.
I trot back, stuffing those little bananas in my mouth. Four bites each. The skin I throw over the nearby walls.
“Hello-how-are-you.” Moped noise getting louder. I ignore it. My head feels like it was packed into cotton candy. Congested by words. I scoff those bananas. The noise gets louder. As the moped overtakes me, I peel off the last bit of the banana-skin. I hear the voice shouting: “I-wanna-fuck-you.” Laughter, they disappear.
Now that is something new. Should’ve thrown a banana at them. I don’t like to generalize, but the waiters, hanging around in the restaurants, bored to death, they all seem to be quite the same. They are watching every female tourist with eagle’s eyes, it is obvious there is nothing on their minds except for how to get in between those legs. Any legs. And that some of them have reached their goal this season doesn’t make them more respectful towards other women. Not my problem. I sigh. My problem is a silent vow for the rest of the day.
Beach again. I’m busy with my towel, try to put it down in the wind. Next to me there is a female body, covered in nothing but an attitude and a tiny thong. I move a little further away, don’t want Indians staring at me, too. A German couple gets up right behind me. He grasps her waist, she pushes him away. “Hier darf man sich nicht berühren.” I know this line. No touching in India. Exactly. Even if the touch of the other one feels like honey on melting cinnamon-ice-cream. You are in India. And here, men don’t even look at women.
Joseph and Sanjay arrive at the same time. They talk to me for a few minutes, I answer with my notebook. I’m happy to have someone around me, scribbling down words. Then they move on to another subject, about being a teacher in self-development. I drink in their words. Not because the content they discuss is new to me. But it feels like rain pouring down. Their words refresh me. They create new images in my head, stimulate my brain cells. Take my thoughts to different memories, on unexplored paths. Should I be a teacher one day, talking to people. I realize the irony in this.
My mobile says it is past six pm. I feel peaceful. It starts working, slowly. I watch the sky. A stunning orange-pink explosion, the moon’s fragile white line becoming brighter. I want to leave. I wave goodbye, climb the stairs towards the cliff. I stop on the last bit. The sound of the breaking waves, echoed by the cliff. I adore the timbre of the crashing, the pull-back, infinite, back and forth. It reminds me of this raw force, water, that can eradicate you if you don’t go with its flow.
I realize, the slower I walk, the easier it is for me not to set foot in the trap called mindless speech. I walk on, shanty, beneath the black profiles of coconut trees, the rectangular shadowy outlines of the houses. Beneath a sky that is softly turning grey, then blue, dark blue. Still it is burning back there, where the sun has just set.
Twigs crack, stones roll, under my shoes. Dry herbs being crashed as I step into the wilderness, that is hardly to be found in this place. I remember how disgusted I felt by the sight of all the tourists this afternoon. How disgusted by myself, for staying in a place where I naturally wouldn’t go to. Or at least, wouldn’t stay at.
As if I noticed only now what place I am in. A tourist destination.
But this place is home to me, in a way. There are faces I love to see, eyes I adore to meet. Voices I enjoy listening to. There is a family I love to be with, although its members may change every week. And there are those who stay, like me, for weeks or months. Who are so familiar to me and whom I feel so close to. Their smiles have given me the feeling that I am welcomed. Anywhere in the world. And loved.
I pull the backyard door of the resort next to my Sunshine Home and enter. The jungle being too dark now, I tread along the well-trimmed bushes, the neatly cleaned paths, the polished windows. The security man in his uniform nods at me.
And then, on my balcony again, like this morning. It is eight o’clock. I’m having my third fruit salad. Steam rising from the glass in front of me, the smell of honey, lime, ginger. I light a cigarette. An urge to go online to see if something happened. Fifteen minutes later, I give in and check my mails. I pull a card. It says “ripeness”. The fruit is ripe and about to fall. Just let it happen.
Time to go to bed. I am exhausted. My body is tired. A last smoke on the balcony, and one in bed. One song before going to sleep.
There goes another day. Don’t suppose I come out to play, with you. I just sit at home, write another song, about how I wanted to.
Squeaking of a bird. One only. It must be early. It’s chilly in my room. I open my eyes. A pattern of shadowy lines and leaves on the wall, on the dark brown wooden door. The light subtle and soft. I stretch my arms, my legs. Hold the bed-sheet over my chest, feeling its warmth, the warmth of my own body still in the fabric. I roll around, feet on the ground. Put on some clothes, switch on my mobile to see what time it is. Seven am. I brush my teeth, wash my face. Smell of lavender.
All is quiet downstairs. I will have to go to the cliff for my coffee. I hear myself talking to Manu. Shut up. Maybe this is why it is so hard: I imagine having conversations all the time. Like I was preparing myself for talking whenever, wherever I am. I put on proper clothes, the only trousers and T-Shirt that give the impression they have been washed. Scarf over my head, smile at my chubby face in the mirror. I scribble down my silence-note.
The jungle is almost as quiet as me. No wind, no dogs barking, just birds and my footsteps.
“Good morning, beauty”, says the man behind the counter. I show him my note. “You’ve lost your speech”, he says. “She hasn’t lost her look”, says the customer on the chair besides me. “Cappuccino?” I nod, big smile.
I sit on the edge of the porch, the taste of cocoa on milk foam in my mouth. The warmth fills my stomach. Slowly I wake up. The beach is crowded already, as for what I can see from up here. White ladies in their bikinis, they walk around like models on a catwalk. The waves are soft, their distant sound playing in my ears. Indians shouting, playing cricket, walking in groups, stopping near the Westerners. A few loners fully dressed, in lotus seat, meditating. I say goodbye to the cliff in my head, march back, ignore the sound of kisses coming from a rooftop. Of course there is Sara. A huge Danish dog next to her. I wave. “You are still in silence”, she says. I nod. She continues to stroke the dog. I leave her, head for my room. Where I can be silent with myself.
I do Yoga for more than one hour. Time flies by, as I stretch and breathe, staying in different positions longer than usual. The sun is not as hot as yesterday. I should be silent more often. I should be more aware of what I say throughout my days. I understand the strongest desire in me is to say “thank you”. Although it feels comfortable now, not to speak. It is freeing. It releases me. Helps me to detach from the “outer world”. Truth doesn’t need words. It can be found in eyes.
I ask Manu for a fruit salad. I make a bowl with my hands and act as if I pour flakes over it. One fruit day is enough. The slices of mango, mixed with honey and rice flakes, taste like heaven. Literally. Sweet, squashy, scrumptious. I am convinced God lives in a mango tree.
It is about ten am. The street is getting busy. I walk over to my friends, after a quick shower. I knock on the door. “Come in”.
Sanjay still lying in bed, all by himself, laptop on his chest. “Silent?” I nod, show him my computer. He tells me to go on. I sit down, connect to the world, open tabs, enter passwords. He tells me about his fasting the day before. I open “Word” to exchange a few lines with him. It’s going on to eleven. His mobile beeps. “Bo says the waves are beautiful today.” I guess he and his wife are the only ones who continue talking to me while I am in silence. It astonishes me how rapidly people forget you exist, when you don’t talk. They look through you.
“I’m going for a quick swim”, he says. I write down a note, saying I’d join him, if he doesn’t mind.
The ocean is crystal clear. Sparkles of light in turquoise coloured water. Soft big waves leaping, periodic motion. The wind brings French words to my ears, only a few people go to the beach at eleven thirty. I jump over waves, hear bubbles of foam bursting. I can see seashells and a crab the size of my hand on the ground. I swim, breaststrokes, parallel to the shore. A girl screams, she stands precisely where the waves break. They hit her, twirl her around like in a washing machine. I swim back. I splash around for a while. A squeaky voice is singing in my head.
Down by the seashore, waves are bigger than normal. I ask you if I could flick around. You say, don’t think so. I just want you to believe, even though I know it’s impossible, for me.
Eagles circle above, searching for a fish to catch. I walk out with the next big wave, and sit in the sand. The water on my face dries in seconds.
There goes another day. Don’t suppose I come out to play, with you. I just sit at home, write another song, about how I wanted to.
We drive back. It’s twelve thirty. Half an hour. I think about what my first words will be. I take a shower, comb my hair, put my laundry in a box. Twelve fifty. I smoke a cigarette. I put on clothes, very slowly. At one pm I leave the house. The heat is omnipresent. Must be forty degrees. I walk towards the cliff, the Tuk-Tuk drivers “hello” me. One says “Silent day.” How come these people know everything.
The sun feels heavy on my naked shoulders. My hair is still wet, but it doesn’t cool my head. I enter the restaurant. My mobile says it is six minutes past one. Nobody to be seen. Great. I order a lemon soda, in silence. Joseph appears on the stairs. He gives me a big smile. “You’ve done it. Great.” He says it like he means it. I choke. I can’t say anything. I know I am already past it. I don’t want to speak shallow words. I feel like crying, all of a sudden. He sits down next to me. I tap on his shoulder, look at him. His eyes are green, a thin brown line around the iris. I know I don’t have to say anything now. But I say: “God be in my mouth and in my speaking.”
© Marianne Jungmaier, Varkala 2012