Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the September 2016 issue

Listening to Silence

Indian–born writer Laila Wadia writes a letter to her newborn son.

I love draping myself in words, wearing metaphors, allegory, irony—but since you entered my life, my love, my favorite outfit is a silk cloak, the color of a fiery sunset, made entirely of silence. The soft folds make room for my thoughts, thoughts of a woman, a migrant, a mother, to flow through the warm, liquid womb, where language melts and becomes a primordial soup, and the only sound is the smile of the Creator as he unfurls his preliminary contract with humanity.

In this silence I can shed the heavy armor that words don to protect their knight: identity, appearance, alliance. In this silence, words are apsara—divine creatures from Hindu mythology—that dance for the god of love. Sound turns them into heavy-footed, feeble courtesans. Yet, I know I will have to enlist the service of that noisy army, so rarely faithful to its king. And, like every sovereign trying to survive a mutiny, I must learn to use wisdom, caution, insecurity, hypocrisy, and cruelty as I transform it all to sound.

Before you arrived, I never pondered the question of language. In my motherland, India, linguistic polyphony is the norm. Even the least educated chew on two or three languages, and many mix it all in one mouthful, burping up a spicy masala in which scholastic English is mashed up, depriving it of its colonial accent, and slowly, it is transformed through added handfuls of Hindi, Punjab, and Urdu . . . That combination of sounds carries my scent. Translating myself into a single flavor makes me incomplete.

In the first two years in Italy my English was enough because I only saw other foreigners. Modern life has eliminated the need for dialogue. From the supermarket to the coin-operated laundromat, from the parking meter to the automated medicine dispenser, modern people can go through an entire life without ever opening their mouths.

It was in the wake of the attacks in Mumbai that my husband, Prakash, decided to extend his contract with SISSA, the School of Advanced Mathematics in Trieste. I am Muslim and have been motherless since the age of sixteen; I knew that the horror of November 26, 2008, would also leave me without a motherland. The country of my birth would be plunged into a war of fratricide, destroying the existence of those like Prakash and me: a mixed couple; two people convinced that the only cure for intolerance is love. So we decided to remain abroad, and we found a small apartment in a picturesque neighborhood in the historic part of Trieste. I rolled up my sleeves to clean the furniture of the previous inhabitants’ fingerprints, decorating everything with the shine of my dreams. But the new house also suggested another new task: Italian had to become my new lingua franca, the language of the fruit and vegetable vendors, of bureaucracy, of opinions about the weather exchanged on the bus; it had to become my language, too. English was relegated to the language of work, while my India-masala remained the perfume of the domestic sphere. It was only in this last language that I contemplated my uprooting.

It was obvious from the beginning that my mother-in-law resented me, but for love of her son I pretended to ignore her cruel insinuations about how I, a Muslim and an orphan, was going to snatch Prakash, robbing the Hindu community of a desirable bachelor, and robbing her of an impressive dowry to spend on clothing and jewelry. One day, after a particularly heated argument in which she accused me of being infertile and of having always known it, I cut back, telling her she didn’t know the difference between love and tyranny. By way of answer, that evening she presented her son with a picture of a possible replacement for me, and the phone number of a divorce lawyer. The same evening he saw the face of that young, pale-skinned woman—considered ideal because of her caste, not her heart—Prakash went online and answered the ten questions for the application to study mathematics abroad. SISSA in Trieste answered enthusiastically, and within a week we left for a city that, until the day before, we would not have been able to find on a map.  

We all cried as we said good-bye. My mother-in-law cried over the lost battle, Prakash cried out of relief, and I cried at this great demonstration of his love. I was sad to leave my position as a journalist with a noted feminist magazine in Delhi, but my editor said I could continue to submit pieces by email and this helped soften the shock of losing my economic independence. But I hadn’t counted on the fact that physical distance is followed by mental and emotional distance. From far away I was able to convey only the facts, no emotions, and so, out of respect for my readers, I ended the correspondence. Prakash noticed my unease and encouraged me to pursue that dream I had tucked away in a drawer: the dream of writing a novel, historical fiction.

Settled in the new apartment, I heeded his advice; the task left me breathless. I was sure I would write in Shakespeare’s tongue, but in the end I wrote in English only when I wrote for work. If I was writing for pleasure I used an Anglo-Indian curry. And if I felt the need to write a poem it would be in Urdu, a language I thought I had completely lost following the death of my maternal grandparents. With time I came to understand that poems can only be composed in the language of happiness. For me it was synonymous with the language of the ancient Persians who know how to transform the human into the divine. My Urdu is the voice of my grandfather reciting Faiz, the image of my grandmother resting her head on his shoulder and repeating the words as though they were a magic spell. It is magic. The magic of evenings filled with soft rain, blanketing our ancestral garden with an emerald liquid, distilling the scent of the roses until the air, saturated with pleasure, and the earth, red and drunk with desire, breathe in unison. I was still a butterfly fluttering in the infinite when my grandparents, sitting on the porch at Julunder, in Punjab, loved each other with glances and, above all, with their voices. My mother was born from the alchemy of poetry. She passed this to me through her breast milk even though no verse crossed her lips from the moment she, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, was forced to make one of humanity’s most traumatic and barbaric choices.         

In 1947 India was ripped in two. My mother was six years old, an age for learning poetry, not forgetting it. My Muslim grandparents decided to stay where they were born, on the land that once belonged to everyone but which now was deemed exclusively the homeland of the Hindu people. They paid the high price of social isolation, of losing their land, of silence. They learned to suffocate their Urdu to appease the new owners. My mother moved to Delhi once she married and never spoke to me in the language in which she was conceived. I learned the secrets of her honeyed tongue only when I went to live with my grandparents for a brief period following my parents’ passing. In that short calm between two storms I reclaimed the language my mother had, perhaps, loved, when humanity was still respectful of God, of a polyglot and polymorphous god. My mother had rejected that language and that god when she realized that there were too few believers in the world. These are old scars I have hidden under the goings-on of daily life. If it is true that poetry is the language of the soul, well then, thanks to a new land, a different life, and a new existence free from the needs of faith and family, I have finally discovered that my soul is a garden of Persian roses.

Prakash and I are here to stay. In the morning we amuse ourselves drinking sweet and frothy cappuccinos, and we have begun to greet each other with a “Ciao.” We also bought two beautiful coats. So long as you think you are just passing through you think it isn’t worth investing in a new language. Nor do you invest in an appropriate wardrobe. Up until now I went around in traditional garb, but not out of nostalgia. I carry the best of my ancient world within me. Anything that doesn’t fit in my heart is superfluous. Strange but true, it is only outside of India that I feel the beat of her heart, that I love her, that I feel she is part of me. Immersed in the reality of daily life, I had begun to hate her. I think I might belong to that anachronistic group of Indians whose heart refuses to enter into those lavish temples built for the love and success of money: the only divinities worshiped today. The India I left seems to have sold her history, sold the battles of Mahatma Gandhi and the teachings of Swami Vivekananda. I left a world full of opportunism, hoping to find a world still rich with opportunity.

It would be wrong to say that we found El Dorado in Italy. Prakash and I found that here, too, the soil is worn, so chemically fertilized that it has become almost barren; the garden of basic rights is overgrown with weeds; and the caretakers, the gardeners of culture, have been forced into early retirement. At first I turned my back on my homeland, on that universe in which I no longer recognized myself; but soon I became aware of the riches of that land. My heart isn’t full of regret. My mouth is not curved with nostalgia. My vocal chords are eager to resonate with new sounds. I gallop in English, I am a towering dervish in Urdu, and Hindi is my Kama Sutra. I am still on all fours in Italian, but soon I will stand up, and one day I will start to run. And for you, only because you are here, I may even grow wings. I planted the first seed of integration nine months ago. You are that seed. You will be my son and your father’s son, but you will also be a son of this land. Deep in my womb my arteries have transformed into sitar strings and they have rocked you with the raga of Tansen. In my breath you heard the qawwali of Fateh Ali Khan and the ghazal of Rumi. Allah, surrounded by angels of every color, blessed every drop of blood that nourished you. And, to complete the task, in becoming your mother I filtered the sounds of love from those sounds of hate that muddy human existence. You waited years before seeking me out. You wanted me to find my independence and my stability before lighting up my womb with your smile. You knew maternity requires serenity and only a serene child can contribute to the construction of a peaceful world.

I was in the prenatal class at the counseling center when the question that had been stirring in my mind since you were first conceived finally became manifest. I was on the floor doing yoga with a dozen other mothers—two were foreign, like me—when the sounds of the rainforest playing on the stereo were overpowered by the voice of the obstetrician: “What language do you use to speak to the child you are carrying within you?”

“The language of love,” I answered, to everyone’s amazement. My classmate, a Romanian woman married to an Italian, said she would use her mother tongue. Our Turkish friend warned her against it; she cautioned us that too many children born abroad grow up feeling ashamed of their parents because they can’t communicate well in the language of the host country. The other women were all native speakers so they never had to pose the question to themselves.

I have read a lot about the topic: essays, studies, novels. I listened to testimonials, attended conferences in England, Italy, and the United States. Children of immigrants grow up among multiple cultures and languages and are, obviously, twice as rich for it; but they are also twice as confused, and at times even unhappy. The hurdles you and I will encounter on our path have been met by millions of people moving with the wind in every direction. This wind of migration is slowly eroding the arrogant solidity of the mountain that thinks it has a right to the land it occupies. The force of the wind crumbles the rock into sand, offering each grain the same opportunity and the same respect.

Some couples have children as a way of overcoming the solitude, to fill the silences. I fill solitude with words, with poetry, with characters I bring to life in my stories. I wanted you because my womb was missing you, because my blood was whispering your name, night and day. But I am aware of being nothing more than a container the Creator has put at your disposal. The Wise Teacher wanted us to be students of the same school of mosaics; we will work side by side, laying tile after tile, to create a design that will not be perfect, but will, without a doubt, be unique. Ours. We will fix our tiles with the glue of unconditional love. I will try to make it stronger with patience. But I know I will also need a linguistic base because, once you arrive in the world, in the busy noise of daily life, you will lose your gift of telepathy.

What language should I choose to love you? To encourage you and respect you, my dear? The irony of life is that this country you are born into is welcoming you in a foreign tongue. Michael Jackson was singing Black or White in the delivery room. This talented man, who was uncomfortable in his own skin, had just passed away. Next up was Mino Reitano singing about his love for Italy. So many signs for a superstitious mind! So much uncertainty. So much fear. I switch between uncontrollable joy, and dark premonitions. Unfortunately, in my crystal ball I can see that the Bel Paese will nourish you with illusions of belonging until you come of age. You will prefer pizza to paratha, Rosi to Ray, and you will know Leopardi better than Tagore. To keep from complicating your life I won’t interfere with your choices. I will be your anchor, but I will stay hidden under the sand of the Adriatic so you don’t feel my weight. To make you happy, I will make sure you never have reason to be ashamed of having a different sort of mother. I will learn to make pizza, I will go to the movies, I will study the classics. Let’s hope it isn’t all in vain. Once you come of age, I hope they won’t take control of your cultural alliances, your identity; because, at that point, if politics begin to challenge your certainties, you might resent your mother for not having immersed you in the culture of your ancestors.

Every mother’s nightmare is to make the wrong choice, my love. Because of too little love. Because of too much love. Because of inexperience, arrogance, frailty. A mother’s instinct should tell her what is right, but a good mother’s instinct is riddled with a thousand doubts. From my placenta you absorbed the song of the Brahmaputra, but I fear that once you enter the world those ancient tunes will sound foreign to you. In my milk you heard the laughter of the snow-capped Kanchenjunga, tickled by the monsoons; but growing up you may not laugh or be moved by these same things. My child, holding you now in my arms, I wonder what language I should use to speak to you. And, above all, I wonder how you will respond.

My bosom is swollen with uncertainty. But you, calm as a lake full of lotus, seem to accept that uncertain nourishment. You crush it and digest it. You expel it. Your existence has not yet been contaminated by the fear of difference.

What must happen will happen, my son, but remember that your father and I blessed you in Sanskrit. The nurses said “Ciao.” Now you have opened your eyes, recognizing me for the first time as the being from which you emerged, and, in a flash, I read, in those eyes, all the books of all the lives you lived before arriving here to write a new volume of poems with me. And I was silent.

I will do my best to learn a new language to communicate my love to you, translated and untranslatable. I will become a Westerner for you, in my appearance and my tastes. I will get used to a sweet breakfast and less fragrant lunches. At the end of a meal I will have a coffee instead of chewing on sweetened fennel seeds. It will not be a sacrifice, it will be an evolution. But know that there is one thing in me you can never change: my silence. My silence is, and will always be, Eastern. It is not a silence of resentment or mistrust. It does not imply the shutting out of a weaker world. Eastern silence is free of judgment and, therefore, free of pain. It is the silence of the swami, an absence that implies a freedom from desire and attachment, an elevation of the spirit, ether in which to transmit pure feelings. It is the only dimension in which, in the name of love, the self can be transcended. Therefore, my son, always remember that when you want to truly hear your mother’s voice you must listen to her silences. 


“Alscoltare il silenzio” © Laila Wadia. By arrangement with Lorenzo Barbera Editore Srl. Translation © Sole Anatrone. All rights reserved.

Read more from the September 2016 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.