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Open Mouths, Closed Ears

Open Mouths, Closed Ears

April 28, 2011

Thoughts on an everyday part of Kerala life, the one-way conversation.

One guy talks, the other guy listens. (Is he really listening?)

You see this all the time in Kerala. You also hear it all the time, but in the constant buzz of car engines, temple music, mobile ringtones, chirping birds, rustling coconut palms, barking dogs and a thousand other raised human voices, one vocal strand can be hard to tune to.

The visual is something I'll probably never forget, banal though it may seem to most. Two men walking down a village road pushing bicycles. Both in their 50s or 60s. Nothing particularly compelling about that, but it's the nature of their conversation that piques my interest. While the man on the left is talking talking talking in Malayalam, his head turned and fixed on his friend, the man on the right looks straight ahead and barely says a word. He occasionally mutters something or other, but not often. It's pretty much all one-way traffic.

Down the road at the chai shop, a customer sits on a stool with tea glass gripped in hand and talks to the proprietor, who peers out with a tired expression from behind the cigarette packets and plastic barrels of chocolate eclairs on the counter. The customer talks, and talks, and the proprietor doesn't say a thing. He barely even looks at the man. But the man sipping chai every fourth or fifth sentence doesn't seem bothered. He just keeps on talking.

It's all in Malayalam, of course, so I don't understand what's being said except for a few words. Sometimes one of those words is saip, white man, so if I follow their body language and pick out the words I do know, I can get an idea for what's being said. Usually I interact as soon as I hear saip spoken, just to show that I'm wise to the situation. Other times, I just let the person point out as many of my idiosyncrasies as they like, rattling off lines about my choice of footwear, the creases on my shirt, the paleness of my skin, the colour of my hair, etc... all to the guy next to them who, whether they know each other or not, generally remains silent. In the West, we like to make jokes and share statistics about how women talk so much more than men do. In Kerala, in public at least, the trend appears to be reversed: women keep their thoughts to themselves, whereas men express whatever they wish. It goes too far sometimes, some friendly banter from a man to a woman crossing over into 'eve-teasing' territory. From man to man, however, Mallu culture seems to be one in which one can say just about anything to another. (I have a feeling India's metros – Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai – are heading in the opposite direction towards a more Western set of speech patterns.)

I find it hard to fathom what is happening when I see one man chattering endlessly to another, with barely a nod of acknowledgement in return. Perhaps he is gossiping about someone in the neighbourhood. Perhaps he is espousing a political ideal. Perhaps he's just talking for his own sake, and doesn't care if anyone's actually listening. And what about the other guy? Does he long for the tables to be turned, to be allowed his turn to speak? Does he feel frustration at his companion? Does he appreciate and agree with the words being spoken to him? Based on appearances, the answer to each of these questions would be 'no'.

It is a land of open expression, after all. Pretty much everybody here has something to say. When I consider my closest friends here, and how we all get after a drink or two, it's quite common for one man to talk for some time about something and present an entire set of beliefs. Perhaps the chief factor here is an atmosphere of respect: where one is respected, whether on account of knowing someone for a long time or simply because one wears dress pants on the train rather than a mundu, one can expect to be listened to.

But is he really listening? 


  • JaaliEngineer
    30.04.11 10:49 AM
    well it is true, people in India like to talk and it is not restricted to gender, of course there are exceptions but more often than not, we talk a lot..Listening however is not ore forte..

    Trying to develop patience so that i can listen as mush as i talk for quite a while now..
  • amritha
    29.04.11 10:57 PM
    I'm from Kerala; a true blue Mallu who has been around the sights, smells and conversations for years. So I can completely connect to the images that you talk about; the man at the chai shop talking, tea dripping down the side of the glass, the owner sitting peacefully behind the jars of chocolates looking up occasionally, with a dont care attitude about him; but you feel homely in his shop, because it's taken for granted that you are welcome. It's a funny sweet culture and doesn't work anywhere else, and not surprisingly, surprises the visitor :) Loved reading this.
  • Barnaby Haszard Morris
    Barnaby Haszard Morris
    28.04.11 03:40 PM
    Hole in the mouth is a new one - I like that. The kind of speechifying I'm talking about is much more consciously directed and (seemingly) repetitive, though, like someone on talkback radio.
  • ravi swami
    ravi swami
    28.04.11 02:05 PM
    ...there's an expression in Tamil which, crudely translated, is "has a hole in the mouth". by which it's implied that the talker is giving away too much information - which might suggest why the listener is listening - ie picking up tidbits of useful information.

    On another level, men don't usually get to talk to their wives / have confidantes because it's considered unmanly to chatter, hence the constant stream of one-sided "conversation"...

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