From Speaking Silence to the Poetry of the Unuttered

March 22, 2021 at 9:15 PMMar (Activism, Friends, Literature, Slice Of Life)

I must begin by confessing I am not an official student of Pattabhirama Somayaji (Pattabhi from here on), meaning I haven’t been his classroom student. Yet, I do consider him my teacher and me his student. I doubt if anyone who comes in contact with Pattabhi can escape being his student, for everyone who crosses paths with him will have their horizon widened.

Pattabhi and silence

It was mid-April of 2006. A solidarity protest held in Udupi, in support of the hunger strike that Medha Pathkar had undertaken in Gujarat. By the time I, still a PG student then, reached the spot- outside of the the then Taluq Office, Udupi- after classes, the solidarity event had already begun. It was the first-ever protest I took part in, and I was not familiar with many of them who had gathered there, except a couple of them. As I joined the gathering, one of the senior activists who I knew, said, “I am glad you came,” and then pointing at a man in a long kurta, seated amidst the protestors, continued, “Pattabhi spoke just before you arrived. You missed it.”

Throughout the solidarity event that evening, I kept seeing how Pattabhi was being respectfully greeted by everyone who joined us eventually, and everyone who greeted him got a wordless charming warm smile in return. The silence, I could sense, wasn’t silent. I found that non-silent silence extremely intriguing. When the solidarity gathering came to an end that evening, someone who I held in respect back then said, “Come let me introduce you to Pattabhi”, and I excitedly followed the man. Pattabhi was standing in a corner and smoking a cigarette. When introduced, Pattabhi just raised his hand, with the burning cigarette between his fingers, exhaled the smoke, and just smiled without uttering a single word.

That is how I got introduced to Pattabhi and his defining non-silent silence and his charming warm smile.

Pattabhi and minimalism of spoken-words

It was a long long evening in Sagara at the residence of Vrinda and PV Subraya. The latter was Pattabhi’s college-mate in Mysore. By this time Pattabhi and I had become friends who exchanged texts occasionally. As soon as a senior friend and I reached PV Subraya and Vrinda’s place, Pattabhi keeping aside his glass of whisky, welcomed us with a warm embrace.

That evening, my senior friend, who was a former colleague of PV Subraya, narrated the story of an unrealized dream. When working in Sagara, our friend, wanted to build a small hut in the backyard of PVS and Vrinda’s house and live a humble life. Prior to the teaching job at Sagara, the friend had worked in Jharkhand with a documentary filmmaker and worked in the midst of the aboriginals there. Expectations and pressure from the family had compelled him to quit the life of an explorer and take up a job in Sagara. There he wished to live a minimalist life, in a hut. But within a year, he had to leave Sagara for a job he got in Manipal. Narrating all of this our friend very emotionally said, “I took up the job unwillingly. But I am happy that I have been able to take arts and ideas into this otherwise corporate setup. I have been trying to churn thoughts and dialogues on issues that matter in this otherwise indifferent setup. I am not satisfied, but I am happy that I am able to do these.”

Listening to all of these patiently with his legs crossed and his index finger on his mouth, Pattabhi, without any hesitation and yet without any condescension, said, “It is good that you are doing this job of sensitizing blindfolded people. But, what is the state of the hut?” He said nothing more. Even we had nothing to say after listening to his minimalistic response.

This conversation has always stood as an example of Pattabhi’s silence and also his quality of not mincing words and not wasting words.

Pattabhi’s speeches & lectures

When I joined The Hindu (Mangalore office) as a reporter, in 2008, one of the initial assignments I had was to cover a protest meet, where Pattabhi was also present. The protest wasn’t held by the organization which Pattabhi identified himself with. The organizers had prioritized speakers from their organization. A reporter who stood next to me, who did not know of my friendship with Pattabhi, getting impatient with the on-going speeches, said in frustration, “Why are they not handing over the mic to Prof Pattabhi?” I looked at the reporter with surprise. A reporter waiting for the speech of a particular person at a protest and getting angry over the delay of the speech, said so much about the street speeches of Pattabhi. Acting naïve, I asked the reporter, why was he waiting for the speech of Prof Pattabhi and I clearly remember him telling me, “At such protests, almost everyone speaks the same stuff and most of them are predictable. But he is someone who brings in a new perspective and brings in fresh thoughts and insights.”

During my tenure with The Hindu, Mangalore, for professional reasons I had to interact closely with the the then students of Pattabhi. This was in 2009, after the infamous attack on women at a pub in Mangalore. Following the attack which brought the national media’s attention to Mangalore, several protests were being held and Pattabhi was making several furious speeches. One of his statements to a TV channel irked the members of ABVP in the college he was teaching and those students went on strike demanding the expulsion of Pattabhi. When I went to report this occurrence, the students of ABVP mistook the name of the newspaper I was working for as a pro-Hindutva paper. They not just told me how they were backed by “higher-ups in the party” to protest against Pattabhi but also confessed to me that most of the times in class they instigate Pattabhi to speak of “controversial subjects” that are “political” in nature. Even the protesting students, backed by the VHP and BJP, considering me a friend (since I worked for HINDU paper) told me that though they would get irked by the statements Pattabhi would make in class and disagree with his politics, they still consider him to be, “a good teacher and an extremely knowledgeable person.” At the same time, I was also speaking with the students who stood in support of Pattabhi and against the ABVP students. These bunch of students who knew me for my political and ideological leanings would tell me at length about the lectures of Pattabhi and I can strongly remember some of them telling me how Pattabhi showed more interest in them getting an education than their family members. “It is not just his affection but also the kind of issues he addresses in class and the way he looks at and analyses literature which instils strength in us, grounds us,” one girl had told me.

On evenings when I would be relieved from the office of The Hindu a bit early, I would go meet Pattabhi at his residence. The nature of daily reporting did not allow me to engage with the kind of reading and writing which stimulated me. The easiest way of compensating for all of it was to spend some time with Pattabhi. It is during these informal sessions where Pattabhi and my bonding strengthened.

On such evenings, I got to hear Pattabhi at length. Those were neither street speeches, nor class lectures. Yet they were both and more. If Pattabhi’s street speeches were filled with insights and interpretations, like a literary class, his literary classes were marked by political consciousness, like street speeches. The same was a part of personal conversations in private spaces too. In strange ways the political, the personal, and professional came together in Pattabhi and not just became one but went beyond all the boundaries.

Pattabhi and anger

You are not a friend to Pattabhi, if you have not been subjected to his anger; anger which is not an outburst but anger which boils like water, with bubbling expressions in language, and then cooling down over time.

“Please bear my cross with you,” once came an SMS from him. Who fights so gracefully and artistically?- I had wondered!

Once Pattabhi and another senior friend of mine had a disagreement and the conflict went on for long. It was a difficult situation for people like me who were younger to both and held both in great respect and affection. Pattabhi those days would repeatedly make obvious his anger towards the other senior friend of mine. Probably it was his child-like notorious way of testing my loyalty. I don’t know. So he would refer to the other senior friend as “dushTa” (evil). Once when I mentioned this to another friend of my age group, he very playfully asked why Pattabhi was being so decent even in his rage. Until he mentioned it in a joking manner it hadn’t occurred to me that even in his anger Pattabhi was maintaining a dignity of language!

The same fight between titans continued for some more time and it angered me more because I had failed to bridge the gap between two senior friends of mine. Also, I felt some of Pattabhi’s anger, triggered by his fight with the other senior friend, was being displaced on me. I was hurt by it to an extent. When I confronted him with this complaint, Pattabhi in his signature style, said, “You are holding him on your head (an expression in Kannada equivalent to ‘putting someone on a pedestal). So when I spit at him (a Kannada expression for verbally expressing anger), a bit of it falls on you too. If you wish to escape it, you must not carry him on your head.” I was floored by the image he brought in! There were metaphors even in angry expressions! For a moment I forgot everything and marveled at the literariness of that expression.

As much as I have respected Pattabhi for always having a space to fight with him, and for him to fight with his dear ones, I have equally respected him for the way he fights with his friends without abusing the language. It only shows how language is such an important tool for Pattabhi and knowing its strength and its power, he doesn’t want to mishandle the tool, even in a fit of anger!

Pattabhi’s poetry

Having tried to map Pattahi through shades of his communication, I must confess, in the end now that I have always struggled to decipher his Avant-guard poems. Jokingly I have said some of my friends that when Pattabhi writes poems in English, I feel I do not know English and when he writes in Kananda, I feel I do not know Kannada. Maybe, along with English and Kannada, I also do not know poetry. Possible. But I have always believed that his poems, which I cannot say I have understood in its entirety, is another extreme of his loaded silences, and I cannot but have my jaws dropped at the poetry that is not just an excellent play of words but also says more through the unsaid than the said.

Pattabhi’s range between speaking silence and poetry of the unuttered is just amazing!

Conclusion

When requested to write for this volume, I initially wanted to write about the loneliness of Pattabhi, drawing the title from Arundhati Roy’s essay on Noam Chomsky. In the intended essay, I wanted to explore the political, literary, and emotional aloneness of Pattabhi. Probably it is the fate of the unconventional and those who are above and beyond the set frame-works to end up being left alone, like an island in an ocean. That was about his political and literary loneliness. But what has always haunted me is his emotional loneliness and have never dared to speak of. When I started to write the intended essay, I found myself trying to explore and understand- through writing- the emotional loneliness of Pattabhi, more than the other- political and literary- loneliness of his. Not just because I wasn’t sure if my understanding is right, but also because of some inexplicable reason, I abandoned that essay and began to write this. But the attempt to write the intended essay made me realize that Pattabhi for me has been more of an emotional connection than being just a comrade of concern or guiding light in literary sensibility. Now, that emotional connection can be best explained only through silence or probably by the unuttered in the spoken.

I have not just admired Pattabhi in all these years, I have also had severe fights with him, disagreed with him and his actions. I have felt he is wrong on some occasions and has seen how he has been wronged on some other occasions. All shades of emotions have colored my relationship with Pattabhi, but the constant undercurrent always has been that of love. Probably it is only love which makes space for togetherness with disagreements, and acceptance of humans with all their flaws and shortcomings.

***

Article written for oDalu: oDanaaDigala oDalaaLa, a festschrift for Prof. Pattabhirama Somayaji ideated and edited by Rajalakshmi Narasajjan with the assistance of Shareef Salethur.

Pattabhi is retiring on the 31st of this month.

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