Saturday, November 16, 2002
T H I S  A B O V E  A L L

The power of silence
Khushwant Singh

THERE is a Church on the northside of North Block of the Central Secretariat known as the Cathedral of the Church of Redemption, built specially for the British Governor-General, hence commonly known as the Viceroy’s Church. It was designed by Henry Meed and built in 1935. Not many people notice it as it is alongside a little frequented road which takes off from Parliament House. Close by is Gurdwara Rakab Ganj, all in white marble designed and built by one man, Harnam Singh Suri. It has not attracted notice it deserves; in my humble view it has all the elegance of Aurangzeb’s Moti Masjid in the Red Fort. In contrast, the Viceroy’s Church looks like a dowdy matron dressed in brick and beige sand-stone. Ihad passed it many times without ever bothering to go inside. I was invited a few times by Uma Nair who sings in the choir to listen to carols during Christmas but I was never able to make it.

Last week Nirmala Mathan turned up from Bangalore. She had not been to Delhi for 30 years and wanted to see places she had frequented during her stay in the Capital; her top priority was the Cathedral of the Church of Redemption. Her Sikh chauffeur had never heard of it. I asked him to drive us to Gurdwara Rakab Ganj and then turn on the road to the church.

Cultivating the art of conversation
November 9, 2002
Thus spake Sant Kabir
November 2, 2002
What is the strongest thing on earth?
October 26, 2002
Have you seen God?
October 19, 2002
Mocking at one’s own people
October 12, 2002
Keeping Urdu alive
October 5, 2002
How a rapist should be punished
September 28, 2002
Historical research: Punjabi style
September 14, 2002
No one will go hungry
September 7, 2002
Neither blind nor deaf to the beauties of nature
August 24, 2002
More about life after death
August 17, 2002

It was the afternoon of Monday. The main entrance gate was padlocked from either side. Nirmala was determined to go in. "The House of God has to remain open at all times," she said impatiently. We drove round the side entrance leading to the bungalow of the chaplain and a nursery school. There was no one about. Nirmala saw a couple sitting on a bench across a football ground-sized lawn. We went up to them. The lady, evidently a cleaning woman, recognised me as a non-Christian and said, "The church is closed." Nirmala stood her ground. "Open it, I want to go in." The lady asked, "Aap Issai hain (are you a Christian)?" Nirmala nodded her head and replied, both my children were baptised here. I used to sing regularly in the choir." The door was opened and the lights switched on. We went through the vestry into the empty cathedral. Not a sound could be heard. The lady caretaker left us alone. We sat down on a pew facing the altar. "Do you mind if I say my prayers?" Nirmala asked me and went down her knees with her head resting on the desk in front of her.

I saw this frail, little woman lost in prayer in the huge empty cathedral. The silence entered my soul and a strange feeling of being at peace with myself in a turbulent world overcame me. It was more the power of silence than somebody praying beside me that I found overpowering. Words of Thomas Hood’s (1799-1845) sonnet to silence stole back into my mind:

There is silence where hath been no sound

There is silence where no sound may be,

In the cold grave — under the deep, deep sea,

or in wide desert where no life is found.

Which hath been mute, and still must sleep profound;

No voice is hush’d — no life treads silently,

But clouds and cloudy shadows wander free,

That never spoke, over the idle ground

Hood continues to give other instances of the kinds of silences that can be found in different places and ends with its true concept:

But in green ruins, in the desolate walls

of antique palaces, where man hath been,

Though the dun fox, or wild hyena calls,

And owls, that flit continually between,

Shriek to the echo, and the low winds moan,

There the true silence is, self-conscious and alone.

Hood’s words somehow echoed in my mind as I sat in quietly in the vast cathedral which during religious services must have resounded with majestic notes of the organ and a thousand voices singing hallelujah — praised be the Lord.

Remember you must die!

The Latin for it is momento mori. I have written on the subject more than once and have received more letters from readers than I have on any other topic I have written about. So permit me to write one last piece on it. I promise not to bring it up again.

We have to be constantly reminded that it is not only other people who die but our turn will come sooner or later. However much we try to put death out of our minds, other people’s death will remind us of its inevitability. Of all the gods of the pantheon, the one we cannot appease by prayer, bribery or flattery is Yama. Aeschylus, the Greek poet, wrote: "Alone of gods death has no love for gifts/Libations help you nor sacrifice/He has no altar, and he hears no hymns/from him alone persuasion stands apart."

Unless you commit suicide or are hanged, you will not know when death will come to you. The prayer in the Psalms — "Lord let me know mine end, and the number of my days that I be certified how long I have to live" — remains unheard. The older we go, the more we realise that our end is nearing. There is no escape. To wit Kingley Amis: "Death has got something to be said for it / There’s no need to get out of bed for it, / Wherever you may be / They bring it to you, free."

One way to overcome fear of death is to make fun of it. On his 75th birthday, Winston Churchill was asked what he thought about it. "I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter," he replied. Before him was Lord Palmerston who on his deathbed told his physician, "Die my dear doctor? That is the last thing I shall do." The last word goes to Gertrude Stein who put the conundrum of death in two sentences: "What is the answer?" And after a while added, "Then what is the question?"

On a trip

One day in Kolkata, I was waiting for a taxi when a man about 90 years old, looked at my suitcase and asked, "Where are you going?"

"On a short trip," I replied. The old man said, "I’ll be going on a long trip soon." Touched, I said, "Well, we all have to take that long trip one day. If I’m fortunate and live to be your age, I’ll be very happy about it."

His look changed from that of attentive listening to one of impatience. "Young man," he retorted, "I’m going to my grandson in London!"

Protective packing

Though the eggs sent by train from a poultry farm in Andhra Pradesh to Kolkata were packed in wooden boxes and labelled "handle with care", many of them were found broken on arrival. One of the poultry farm employees then suggested that the eggs be packed in earthen pots.

Though the suggestion was greeted with considerable scepticism, a trial consignment was sent by the unorthodox method. It turned out that very few eggs were then broken in transit — for the railway handling staff, afraid of breaking the earthen pots, handled them with special care."

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Tezpur)