Conversations, those that remain, are of three kinds, I used to think.
First, the ones you have sitting by flowing water. Think of Benaras conversations on October afternoons, when the buffaloes come to bathe in the river. The langots and linen drying on the ghat blow about in the breeze, and Manikarnika seems to have burnt itself down to a few well-done whiffs. As you half-gaze at the water and talk, you begin to notice that it does not quite flow in a single direction. At different places on the river, there are pools of fine chaos making complicated weaves as depths and surfaces pull in different directions. And if you gaze long enough, and wide enough, at these patterns, it is possible to think that the river is not moving at all, but the ghat is — in tiny, barely perceptible shifts that make you feel slightly, ever so slightly, dizzy. It is as if with each such movement, you sense for a split second the Earth’s rotation. It is at such moments that the flow of talk, its deeps and shallows, twists and spirals, start becoming indistinguishable from the movement of light on the face of the person you are talking to, and from that dim half-sense of time passing yet not passing, the river flowing yet not flowing.
Then, there are conversations by still water. I remember one at sunset, sitting by an immense reservoir of stone filled to the brim with water in the vast, ruined compound of a great temple. There was a half-submerged minaret in the middle of the water, which looked as unreal as it was unreachable. There were giant boulders all around us, their power to destroy kept indefinitely suspended. There is something immeasurably ancient, almost pre-temporal, about the combination of still water, rocks and stone, especially if the water happens to be clear. It has to do with being able to see straight down to the bottom, but through the reflection of the sky on the surface. This is a visual realization of depth, of height held inside depth, which lends itself to comparisons with the way we imagine the human mind — with reflection, in the other sense.
But here, too, if we look long enough, and close enough, we realize, as we begin to make out the little ripples on the surface of the water, that what we are looking at is not stillness, but a ‘moving still’. And the words spoken beside the still waters, as the psalm in the Bible puts it, have to make room for distance and silence, which are the gifts of trust.
Once, during a particularly irritating junket tour, rattled by my fellow travellers and exhausted by continual sightseeing, I found myself inside a 50,000-year-old limestone cave. Walking about listlessly in its echoing dankness, and trying to tell the stalactites from the stalagmites, I turned a corner and, all of a sudden, opening up in front of me was an enchanted world that took my tiredness away in a trice. I was in an eerily lit grotto of strange rock-forms and clear spaces that came together to create a magical effect of two-tiered replication. Then, in that subterranean stillness, one of the stalactites let fall a single drop of water, and the widening ripples on the surface of where it fell suddenly made me realize that one half of that miraculously symmetrical structure was a reflection in water, the illusion now shattered by the droplet, but already beginning to form again. I had lost the others by then, and as I lingered in the slow time of this glimmering cavern, I watched that mirror being made, unmade and remade over and over again. I stood mesmerized while another memory began to rise up in me: I had seen this pool and these rocks before — this dreamed-up world of precarious doubles. “Dalí, of course!” I must have exclaimed to myself when it came to me at last — the Metamorphosis of Narcissus.
Finally, there is the sea — which is about the impossibility of conversation. The person who understood best the sea’s sublime indifference to human laments or chatter was, of course, Fellini. Only three of his creatures manage to resist being reduced to nothing by the sea; none of them speaks, and only one of them is human. Saraghina, with her thunder thighs and flashing eyes, dances her wordless, immortal rumba on the beach for the truant schoolboys of 8½. But she is more force of nature than woman — like one of those Big Bang giantesses in the Cosmicomics by Fellini’s countryman, contemporary and kindred soul, Calvino. Yet, as the children are chased back by their killjoy masters against the shimmering backdrop of the sea, the roaring of the waves drowns that Siren-music and the children’s cries; and the only creature to survive the sea-changed funeral party in E la Nave Va — And the Ship Sails On — is a mute, lovesick rhino in a lifeboat.
But the greatest conversation-stopper in Fellini is the monstrous jellyfish, with its deathly, one-eyed stare, that is heaved out of the sea at the end of La Dolce Vita. All the desperate talk in the film, serious and unserious, must end up at the edge of this sea, where, suddenly, an angelic young waitress from an earlier scene returns, like a promise of redemption, only to give up on trying to say what she wanted to say to Marcello across the endless watery flats of the beach. They are too far away from each other, and the sea too loud, for her to be heard. Marcello’s gesture to her — somewhere between a wave, a shrug and a sigh — is like a last toast raised in mock-helpless exasperation to the grand futility of human attempts at communication.
I thought I had worked out my own taxonomy of conversations, which would take care of the spirit of even those ones that were not conducted anywhere near water, until, a few months ago, I met up with a loquacious and long-lost friend in that exquisite old city of the nawabs. The Gomti is too smelly for conversation. So we climbed up to one of the upper storeys of the Bara Imambara, and sat in an arched alcove on the terrace all day, looking out on the city with the Bhulbhulayah behind us. And it occurred to me then, surrounded by the austerely errant Islamic-Rococo, that I would have to invent yet another category for a conversation that fitted none of the other kinds — the conversation beside a labyrinth.
We are so used to thinking of a labyrinth as metaphor, or as a fictional device or setting, that it is unsettling to be actually confronted with one. So, as we sat in front of a real labyrinth and did our catching-up, the genius of that elaborate folie began to control our sense of what we called, rather grandiosely, “the intrigue of life”. Like the maze of passages and stairways behind us, everything began to connect with everything else in a treacherous half-light that prevented us from knowing for sure whether the patterns we saw, and helped each other see, were real or just figments of talk. We gazed, as we spoke, at Lucknow’s many domes, each a little different from the other, and one of them changing from ivory to grey and back to ivory again as the sun went in and out among the swiftly moving cloud-forms. It was as if all of Calvino’s Invisible Cities were gathered in a single, semi-substantial skyline.
What made us descend from those heights to the streets below was hunger. As we made our way towards the heady aroma of burning flesh — which I tried not to connect with those autumnal whiffs from Manikarnika — we came upon a scene that flashes upon the inward eye, and tortures the inward ear, as I try to order my thoughts today on the afterlife of conversations. First, we heard the unbearable sound of metal being sharpened against metal — possibly the most inhuman noise that human beings can produce, antithesis of the voice. Then, as we turned into an alley, we saw an emaciated man pedalling away intently on what looked like an antique but stationary bicycle. The pedalling caused a large wheel fixed to the front of the contraption to rotate. He held a long knife to the edge of the wheel, and even when it gave off a constant shower of sparks in the direction of his eyes, together with that high metallic hiss, his gaunt, almost cruel, face remained perfectly still, and the knife in his hands began to glint more visibly in the failing light.
“A sharpener of knives,” I said to my friend. And the man’s unmoving concentration on his task began to turn him into another kind of figure in my eyes. “What if you put yourself in his hands every time you feel blunted by the world, so that he might give you back your edge?” I asked my friend, with a quickening pulse, “Don’t you need someone like this in your life from time to time?” “You mean a sharpener of souls?” he caught on at once, “I wonder if there’s enough steel in me.”