Professor G N Devy – The Question of Silence

Profile Professor Ganesh N Devy Live Encounters Magazine July 2017

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Excerpts from his forthcoming work – The Question of Silence, Part Three One Space, Many Times – Recollections
by Professor G. N. Devy, Chair, People’s Linguistic Survey of India


The question of silence, despite the obvious mutual negation of the two terms, needs consideration now as never before. The question is no longer limited to any particular ethnic group, a single nation, gender, language and culture, or a given faith, philosophy, and ideology. It now starkly faces us as our collective destiny on several fronts.

The most widely perceived element of silence is that which the dominated peoples, genders, tongues, cultures and nations have to live with.  The post-colonial and post- industrial societies have had to internalize silence in innumerable ways in all aspects of life including the forms of knowledge imposed on them, the architecture of habitats and urban designs brought to them, the truncated ecologies they are marooned in, the capital-lag and the energy deficits they live with, and finally the dipping of their self-esteem in their own eyes. The silence imposed by the dominant is a fall-out of the many known as well as as-yet-unstated histories of domination. Within these germinate phantasies of subversion, desires of resistance, negation of selfhood and suppression of memory.

There is another substance of silence threatening us. That is built into the almost entirely ethereal social bondage within the ‘networked’ societies of today. As compared to the humans just over half a century ago, individual members of the species today are far more taciturn and incapable of relating with other members of the species. The urbanized and networked habitats created by the preceding generations are currently the sites of silence within which the ease of human-to-human communication is no longer possible without mediation of a vast range of man-made memory and speech devices. It is as if we are getting enveloped on all sides by a sea of silence in which we cannot stay afloat despite having a massive communication gadgetry. Alienation, which marked the initial phase of modernity, has attained a higher pitch and a scale, escape from where requires repeated reminders of the self in the form of ‘selfies’. After spending nearly half a million years in forming human societies, we seem to have struck the mood of a ‘specific’ reversal brought about by an unprecedented isolation of members of the species. Probably, we have arrived at a juncture where being social is possible only in the no-dimensional cyberspace reality, within which signifiers seem to have come off their conventionally associated signification.

Then there is yet another more chilling and at the same time and yet more exciting experience of silence into which we are moving as rapidly as a water-walking strider – a water-bug– caught in a giant waterfall.  It appears that the human communication is getting ready to go beyond, or outside, the verbal language that we have used over the last seventy-thousand years. Natural languages based on verbal icons are dwindling in our time as if a mysterious epidemic has struck them at the root. Whether this is due to the neurological changes affecting the human brain, whether this is an expression of the evolutionary process guiding us through time, or whether this is an inauguration of a new era of knowledge-gathering by the human consciousness, the experience of it all now, in our generation, is simply unsettling.

The three-faced silence, arising out of power dynamics, technology-driven social changes and neurological-evolutionary compulsions have brought back to us the responsibility of reflecting on the nature of silence, our collective negotiation with it, the consequences it entails for the human consciousness— both, what it knows and how it knows—and the very idea of being human. It is therefore that I thought of reflecting on the question of silence. I should add that reflecting on silence through words and sentences is a contradiction in terms. Yet, there is no known method of ‘writing’ without words. Such a method shall no doubt be known to humans and followed widely at some future date; in fact, the pervasive silences surrounding us all point to that imminent possibility. However, at this early stage of the new phase in human existence – which is one of the themes of this volume—I have chosen a form that is significantly different from the conventional forms of written books.


Silence, ‘shanti’, has been an abiding interest for the visionaries and thinkers in all civilizations. Various traditions of aesthetics have devoted significant thought to unravelling the mystery and the beauty that silence holds within it. The tantra tradition of poetics articulated by Abhinavagupta makes ‘shant’ as the summom bonum of aesthetic relish.  Theologists have spoken about the ‘silence’ at the beginning of Creation, and mystics, Sufis and saint-poets have sung paeans to silence. However, the silence one is thinking of in our time has a different and terrifying quality, with its roots in the Nazi  concentration camps and state sponsored genocides. It brings to one’s mind the images of those who had to perish without a word facing nuclear arms assault and the Bhopal- like gas leakages or Chernobyl- like radiation disasters. The idea of silence evokes those millions of faces of food-starved children in Somalia and thousands on the run out of Syria ready for a death by drowning. The women in India’s North-Eastern state facing rapes by armed forces occupying their land, the tribals in central India falling to bullets in the name of either a revolution or the law, followers of diverse faiths burnt and killed in many parts of the world — all of these are the visible imagery of silence in our time. These imageries are at least visible. There are then the invisible losers of their native tongues, only occasionally reported in National Geographic or similar media shows. And, finally, all of us, almost without any exception, the severely alienated, isolated, unable to experience relations in any depth too are marooned in silence in our time. In a way, the question of silence is as important, or perhaps even more important than, the question of violence in our time.


The Space without Time

It is impossible for one to say which is more unreal, Space or Time?  A simple glance around us, at the non-human world of beings, birds, animals, plants, will help show how utterly human is the notion of Time. Perhaps, had there been no language, enabling us to articulate our thoughts and sensations in a temporally dispersed form, there would have been no Time at all. Though the notion of time helps us in managing our lives by simplifying memory, we all know with an acute clarity that Time is an entirely human creation. Having once created it, it then acquires a certain solidity in our thoughts and becomes an un-erasable impulse in our cognitive ranges. Something that did not exist by itself, comes to be at least as real as we want it to be and starts regulating the daily manifestation of Life.

The same cannot be said of Space. Doubting its existence is much more difficult. It is only the most sophisticated scientific mind, or alternately the most profound mystical vision, that will deny Space its substance and autonomy. Of course, if one is pitted against the factual reality of the presence of planets and stars in our view, those bodies that the naked human eye can perceive as being there —even if no proof of their being there is accessible to the non-experts–, one tends to take for granted the realness of the spaces in between.

This is not the case with those who make it their special activity to study the cosmos. They have various theories of the beginning, being, even the banality of what we call the universe.  Given that certain scientific views reduce the idea of space to a perceptual quiz, given that numerous branches of theology speak of space as a ’creation’ rather than a ‘manifestation’, and given that – at the same time—the cognitive processes cannot even make the faintest beginnings without the backdrop of an all-enveloping space, the ordinary mind is forced to proceed in the business of living with a general acceptance of the idea of space as a kind of a reality. Moreover, the interconnectedness of space and time too is accepted in both the scientific and the general view – with varying degree of quantitative abstraction regarding their being ‘real’. ‘How much real?’ is by far the most serious question that the untrained mind may occasionally come up with.  But is it possible to imagine Space without Time, a state of being that has no memory of being?

I have struggled with the question of memory for a long time. The struggle has been tough, but not defeating. I have also struggled with the question of space. With it, the positions that have seemed tenable to me in different phases of my thinking have been somewhat similar to the positions that one takes with relation to God. One is a believer and approves the idea, or an atheist and dismisses it, or else one is an agnostic oscillating between affirmation and denial, not being able to come to any conclusive stand. Space is probably God-like, and in that sense in its most essential form it is beyond Time, not bound by the laws and logic of Time.

This space, imagined, god-like, is believed to have always been there and shall continue to be there long after the observing consciousness is removed from the scene. It is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. It pervades all. All comes out of it and all returns to it again. Space without Time appears to be ‘that’ which most theologies have tried to name, but have retreated from that impossible task. It seems to be the ‘tat’ of the Vedas and ‘the Word’ of the New Testament. Yet, it is much less mysterious than the entirely abstract idea of God, for space is also a part of one’s direct and tangible experience. Space outside Time defies a complete comprehension, but it does not elude sensory experience. It is less intangible than all other abstractions of the basis of existence. Space, therefore, has been the beginning and the end of my engagement with the world. The realization that it is so has taken several decades of looking at it. It has taken those several decades for me to understand that those decades were the endless curtain through which I was looking at space, that Time is not, space is, if one decides to see it.

The Eye Sees, The World Is

Probably my life has been lived through my eyes, not so much through ears, touch and taste. I have so often noticed that my eyes grasp things faster than my mind does.

So very often even before the person before me has started conversation, said what is to be said, concealed what is intended to be concealed, tried the artful deceit or claimed effusively a non-existent momentary kinship, or just plainly placed facts, enquiries, questions before me, my eyes seem to grasp all, or almost all, before words frame those thoughts and convey them to me. So very often my colleagues and friends tell me how greatly intuitive I am, which I am not. It is just that my eyes work a wee bit faster than the rest of the means of my cognition.

When I was younger, I would occasionally look at my eyes in mirrors and try to see what colour they were. It was not easy for me to decide if they were dark, light or some shade in between. I recall that such moments of looking at my eyes, the looking at my looking, made me for those moments somewhat empty. My mind would cease to register anything at all, including the act of my looking at my looking, seen in mirror reflections. But, now I no longer have a very clear memory of the experience, for I am at an age when I hardly can see my eyes in mirror images with any clarity. For over a decade now, when I see my image in mirrors, I am able to get only a vague outline. In place of my eyes, I see some vaguely eye-like spaces.  I no longer have much idea of the colour they have. It is only if I look into the concave mirrors placed in hotel bathrooms or in side mirror of my car when I drive that I sometime notice my eyes in the dimension they really have, or I believe they have.  So, here is a strange paradox: I know for sure that my eyes are far more intelligent, far more perceptive than I am, and yet I do not really know what they are like. I have known the world through a part of me that I used to know uncertainly and no longer know except in very rare moments of narcissistic self- examination.

During the last twenty years, I have visited opthamologists off and on to find out numbers for the spectacles I need to wear. Every time, the doctor asks me to look into a seeing instrument through which I see the eye of the doctor at the other end. The experience is not pleasant; and I do not like the intimidation involved. But, at the end of the examination, I gather the report and get new glasses made. I have with me quite a collection of spectacles that I have used over these years. Rarely have I discarded the old pairs. All of them sit on my study table and I try them out even if my sight has dipped a little and acquired a higher number. All these glasses have been at different times such intimate parts of my knowing, being the material extension of my seeing. These too I have not observed with any much care.

My seeing is one thing that I have not seen with any insight, and yet it is in my seeing that my mind has felt spurred or stalled, spiralled, driven, drawn and illumined or blocked. As if it were, like an octopus, I have been a brainless being, but like a hundred-eyed hydra, my mind has been all eyes. Knowing for me has been seeing, though my seeing has remained largely unknown to me.  Homer, Surdas and Milton, the greatest among the poets, fascinate me for their blindness. Sanjaya of the Mahabharata and Casandra of Troy fascinate me for their ability to see more than their sights would allow them to see. I think, the world can be seen only by those who cannot see at all or by those who can see even when they are not seen seeing. My experience of life has been through such seeing. Therefore, where there is Time, I see space, where there is motion, I see stillness and where there is silence I see voice. All this happens to me as naturally as – to use a contemporary idiom—humans respond to calls on their mobile phones, not aware that the chips inside get to hear your conversation a wee bit faster than your brain cells do.

My earliest memory of my eyes is related to train journeys. In those days, soon after Independence, the tracks were in most cases narrow-gauge and the engines were fuelled by coal. The window shutters were normally left open and children put their heads out of the windows to admire the landscape or, if the windows had any grills,   kept their faces pressed against the iron bars. The speed of the train made the coal dust fly backward, and the particles entered one’s eyes. No matter what you did, washing the eye or blowing moist air against it or rub the eye, helped and the pain continued till you ended the journey. This was exactly how I have passage through life, seeing and feeling hurt.

During my school days, peacock feathers had a special value. One often presented a feather to one’s dearest friend, and if the friendship floundered after a few weeks, one would promptly ask the gift back.  Such feathers were kept in our favourite books with as much care as emperors, I imagine, keep their precious treasures. The peacock feathers collected, kept, brushed a thousand times against one’s cheeks, felt and soothened with one’s palms, were believed to have eyes. I was more than convinced that a feather hidden in the pages of the book would read the page, and the entire book and store the lines in its head – I imagined the eye of the peacock feather having a head of its own. From these feathers, I learnt the art of reading books with rapidity that was uncommon for someone like me with not such a brilliant performance in school examinations.

I had seen elders and my teachers holding the pages of a book they read tightly between their thumbs and the other fingers. I figured out fairly early in school that it is possible to scan a page with the rapidity of a peacock feather’s eye. This soon became a habit for me. There was a small public library in my village created towards the end of the nineteenth century in memory of a lady from the royal family that held the village as its State. The library was not too far off from home. I was introduced to it by one of my elder sisters. I would pick a book from it hold it before my eyes and walk home reading it. By the time, I reached home, I would return to the library having completed reading it. Having invented this method of reading, it became easy for me to remember what was in the books I read, and generally by the page numbers as well. And, once read a book would sit in my head—the head of my eye—for years and decades.

I was not aware that there is a thing called the reading speed till I heard for the first time from someone that there is a skill called typing which is measured in terms of the words typed per minute. This was when I was studying in high school.   I had then not actually seen what a typewriter looks like. I had to take a 8 or 9 minutes bus ride to go to the school, two stops away from home. I remember going over 80 pages of a Marathi book – that was the only language I had learnt till then– during a single journey. This did not require any efforts from my side, nor did such an experience leave me fatigued.

When I entered college, my ability to write, speak or understand the English language was comparable to a new literate person.  The inability to write effectively in English was one of the reasons – among other reasons—for my decision to drop out and start looking for a suitable job. Obviously, there were no jobs suitable for a 16 year old not knowing a language beyond Marathi.

During this phase, I had taken residence in a village in Goa; and there existed a very small public library with Re 1 as the monthly fees. There I chanced upon a copy of The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, an American novelist quite popular in those times.  I had to struggle with it, using an English-Marathi dictionary; but a couple of weeks later, I picked up another book, this time The Guide by R K Narayan.  Having earlier seen a Hindi movie based on the novel, I could make a good progress through its pages. It was then that I decided that I could actually read and understand English fiction. This led to my joining college studies again – this time to study English literature. As was the practice in those years, a fairly large dose of the 19th century writers from Thomas Carlyle to Thomas Hardy had to be studied. I do not quite clearly recall when, but probably a year later, I concluded that I could pour over about 300 printed pages in English on a good day, and decided that I would make that my normal practice. With rare exceptions, I followed this practice till, at 43, my first book in English was given the Sahitya Academy Award in the category of books in English. By 45, I decided that I would give up reading books. This decision was triggered by my resolve to move out of the university and to go to Tejgadh, a tribal village. It is not that since then I have not read any books. That I have done once in a while. Besides, I have been reading newspapers fairly regularly and have read essays, book chapters, reports and things like that; but not kept up my reading habit of the earlier years when on a single day, I would consume a book, two or even several of them every single day.  All of those books I read with my ‘peacock feather eye’,  scanning the pages and avidly stocking everything in the mind of that feather, available to my recall whenever I required anything out of it, but without ever bringing to my mind the awareness that I was well-read.

After completing my doctoral work at Kolhapur and before taking up a teaching job in Gujarat, I spent a year at a British university studying poetry.  Given how little is taught there and how few a lectures one is required to attend, a lot of my time was spent in the large library available there. Generally, I would go to the library as its first visitor and stayed in for as long as I could. In between, if I went out for having a cup of tea, I visited a student cafeteria. In this cafeteria, there was a lot of remarkable range of paintings done by some past student or a local artist. The paintings, all of them, depicted scenes from various films of Charlie Chaplin. What struck me the most about those images was the significantly highlighted eye-shading of the actor. The deep dark corallium lining inside the eyes of this wonderful creator was used in those images as his way of looking at the world.  Here, for the first time, I started thinking of activism.  My early childhood train journeys, with coal-hurt eyes and the deep dark lined Chaplin eyes stood in contrast – in my eyes. I understood that the social problems and the rights issues cannot be seen merely as the bothersome unwanteds of history.   I surmised, they need to be looked at critically, with defiance and even contempt, but not without compassion for the victims as well as the perpetrators. Sitting there, I decided to borrow the Chaplin eye. Subsequently, my chase for Gandhi’s idea of the world, made the meaning of Chaplin’s defiance clearer to me.

When I decided to stop reading books, and as the peacock feather stuck to my eyes from my school days dropped off, I noticed that the Chaplin eye was waiting inside to take position. The activist work that I undertook at this stage was entirely carried through the vision lit up as well as occluded by the Chaplin eye that I had made mine during my days in Britain. Many of my friends have asked me how I could conduct myself as an activist without visibly getting angry. It is not that I have managed to free myself from anger. In fact, in my personal life I have had to regret on numerous occasions for getting violently angry. But, in my eyes through which I approached the tribal communities, there was no space for any flashes of anger.

Ananda K Coomaraswamy’s The Dance of Shiva has been one of the most fascinating books on literary and cultural theory. Coomaraswamy was an outstanding commentator on the ancient Indian iconography. His description of the dancing Shiva makes a compelling reading. Yet, despite my admiration for the depth of his understanding, I have always felt — and this is in an entirely irrational way—a bit distant from Coomarswamy. I have always wished that he had picked up a different focal symbol and a different title for his book, and not that of Shiva in his annihilistic mood. The Shiva with his third eye awakened may be a great symbol. My normal intellect and normal mind accepts and understands the symbolism. But I wish we had a Shiva with his eyes closed — as they normally are through aeons — who intuits the end of the world rather than effecting it though an ‘eyeful dance’. This, I am aware, is only a fantasy related to our mythology.

My acquaintance with the Sanskrit language has been scant and discontinuous. The first time I was made to utter words and sentences in Sanskrit was when I was in the middle school. A teacher decided to get us reciting the Bhagwadgita. He chose the 15th chapter and asked us to cram the first ten verses. All of us did this as told, more out of the fear for punishment rather than any great love for the language. The motion of reciting was entirely mechanical, and we understood hardly any lines or words. Yet, the last line of the 10th couplet startled me a lot. It reads “ vimudha nanu-paschyanti, paschyanti gnan-cakshu-shah “ ( He who knows not does not see, but the one who sees with the ‘ eye of knowledge   knows).  The idea of an ‘eye of knowledge’ caught my imagination and I made what was an easy conclusion for me at that age, namely, know with your eye so that you are less foolish.

Often in my career as a literary scholar, friends and admirers have paid compliments on some of my work. It is a normal practice among the community of scholars to flatter others in a face-to-face conversation. ‘Insightful’, they have said. I know that such praise is to be responded through complete silence, in humility. But, everytime I have heard the epithet, my mind has recoiled.  I clearly know in my heart that I never had any insights, nor will I have any. ‘Sightful’ would have been a more realistic description of whatever I have done. For, all my life I have done nothing at all, except for allowing my eyes to be the superior of my mind and head. Life to me has been seeing, and the life was worth living as I could never see my own seeing.

Once a Maharashtrian lady decided to write my biography. A friend said to me, “won’t it be much better if you do your own story, an autobiography?” I know that I shall never write my autobiography. I just cannot. For I know with utmost clarity that I shall never be able to tell myself  what enabled me to see what I saw and the way I saw.  Even if I try again and again at different times, I end up seeing the same space. It is the same space in different times, the same thought in different minds, the same continuity in different ruptures.

The unblinking gaze stares at life as a perennial witness of the million shifts, transformations and changes, without allowing the mind to know that seeing is knowing. I seem to have lived my life through my eyes; and, therefore, neither knowledge nor action have ever been any burden to my mind.   Almost entirely, the ideas that I can call mine, the flashes of realization that fell in my lap, the strangeness of things that appear in my writings, the actions I planned and executed in my work related to communities and the manner in which I have conducted myself and understood myself – all of these have been a result of my seeing, without seeing how I see.


Professor G. N. Devy, was educated at Shivaji University, Kolhapur and the University of Leeds, UK. He has been professor of English at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, a renowned literary critic, and a cultural activist, as well as founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre at Baroda and the Adivasi  Academy at Tejgadh. Among his many academic assignments, he has held the Commonwealth academic Exchange Fellowship, the Fulbright Fellowship, the T H B Symons Fellowship and the Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for After Amnesia, and the SAARC Writers’ Foundation Award for his work with denotified tribals. His Marathi book Vanaprasth has received six awards including the Durga Bhagwat memorial Award and the Maharashtra Foundation Award. Similarly, his Gujarati book Aadivaasi Jaane Chhe was given the Bhasha Sanman Award. He won the reputed Prince Claus Award (2003) awarded by the Prince Claus Fund for his work for the conservation of craft and the Linguapax Award of UNESCO (2011) for his work on the conservation of threatened languages. In January 2014, he was given the Padmashree  by the Government of India. He has worked as an advisor to UNESCO on Intangible Heritage and the Government of India on Denotified and Nomadic Communities as well as non-scheduled languages. He has been an executive member of the Indian Council for Social science Research (ICSSR), and Board Member of Lalit Kala Akademi and Sahitya Akademi. He is also advisor to several non-governmental organizations in France and India. Recently, he carried out the first comprehensive linguistic survey since Independence, the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, with a team of 3000 volunteers and covering 780 living languages, which is to be published in 50 volumes containing 35000 pages. Devy’s books are published by Oxford University Press, Orient Blackswan, Penguin, Routledge, Sage among other publishers. His works are translated in French, Arabic, Chinese, German, Italian, Marathi, Gujarati, Telugu and Bangla. He lives in Baroda.

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