A quote that I use quite often is, “Just when I knew the answers to all of life’s questions, they changed the questions”. The reason is, now and then, the quote comes true for me—especially when I am feeling a little smug and contented with life—shaking me out of a self-induced “all iz well” feeling. One such change in life’s questions happened about two years back, on a cold windy day in January. It disturbed me then, and it disturbs me even today, and will probably disturb me for a long time to come.
I was studying in London at that time. Winter break was nearly over and I was waiting for the second semester classes to resume. I was also looking forward to meeting my classmates, especially Erab, who had gone home to occupied Palestine for the winter break. While she was there, Israel had launched an offensive against Gaza, and though Erab was not a resident of Gaza, I was still concerned about her safety and that of her family and friends. Though I had kept in touch with her through emails and text messages, I wanted to see her and reassure myself that she was fine.
Erab returned safely to London and I met her the day classes resumed. As I hugged her with relief and asked after her family and the situation in Palestine, she started crying. She told me that she had received a text message from a colleague in Gaza that morning about the bombing of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society Hospital leading to several casualties. We couldn’t talk any further as the teacher walked in, and we scrambled to take our seats.
After a round of “hiya” and “how was the vacation”, our class of 32 students from 18 different countries settled down to some serious teaching–learning. Or at least tried to. Erab had retreated to a corner of the room and was crying softly. Though this obvious distress did not go unnoticed, neither the teacher nor the other students intervened. The class continued and after a while Erab composed herself. Even after the class got over, no one went up to Erab and asked her what was the matter or how she was. A week passed, then another, and before we knew it our class settled back into the punishing routine of lectures and assignments, normal for a postgraduate programme. Erab never showed her distress in class again, though the situation in Gaza continued to be grim.
As the days went by, I noticed one very strange thing. Except for about 5 or 6 of my classmates, nobody spoke to Erab or asked after her family and friends in the aftermath of the Israeli offensive in Palestine. Forget about speaking with her, most of my classmates avoided eye contact with her. If at all they had to speak to her, it was polite conversation.
Let me narrate a rather bizarre incident that happened a few weeks later. Erab and I were discussing a rather tricky assignment, during lunch break. There was no one in class apart from the two of us. Just then, a classmate walked in. She smiled rather uncertainly at us and asked us how our assignments were progressing. She then asked Erab if she had a good trip to Pakistan. A puzzled Erab said that she had never been to that country. To which this classmate responded, “Aren’t you from Pakistan? Didn’t you say that you went home for the winter break?” Erab replied, “I am from occupied Palestine, not Pakistan.” “Oh!” said the classmate, carefully blanked her expression, excused herself and then went and sat elsewhere in the room.
Contrast this with the reaction of these very classmates to Mumbai’s 26/11. When our class met after 26/11, every single person came up and asked me and my other Indian classmates, if our families were okay, if we were okay, if our friends were okay… We even got a few extra hugs. The concern was overwhelming.
Why was the reaction different for Erab? It is not as if my classmates were unaware of the Israeli offensive—media coverage on this was far greater than the 26/11 coverage. Besides, our very first class after the winter break was on “war and propaganda”. Why then couldn’t my classmates ask Erab about how she was coping or how she was or how her family was? Initially, I thought that, maybe, this was a cultural thing as enquiring into the reasons for a very public display of distress would be like intruding into someone’s private space. We wouldn’t really go and ask a stranger in a bus as to why he or she was crying, would we? But then Erab was no stranger: she was our classmate, someone we studied with, someone we did assignments with, someone we spent part of the day with …
I feel that, sometimes, unspoken words reveal a lot more than spoken words. In this case, the sounds of silence say so much. It says that the world is a polarised world—a world that is sharply divided between “us” and “them” on the basis of class, religion, ethnicity, race, caste, nationality… The silence reveals that we are so caught up in our own beliefs that we cannot connect with anybody outside those beliefs. The silence also says that prejudices and biases exist under carefully cultivated, politically correct exteriors. The silence reveals that globalisation is economic and not humanitarian. The silence reveals that empathy for fellow human beings depends on their religion.
I never thought that silence could reveal so much and hide so little.