All Ears

When I tell some people that I’m a writer, they respond with a smile and a raised brow. Then, a second or so later, they let it drop that they too have a book in them. They confide, in a low, serious voice, that they too would have written a book had they only had the time to do so between their endless professional commitments, their family life and their daily chores.

Isn’t it interesting how everyone thinks it’s easy to be a writer? Writing is not about putting words down on a page. It’s about conveying meaning and driving change, one word at a time. The easier something reads, the harder it is to write.

“It’s the same story with my profession,” Gurdeep Kaur Chawla said to me over coffee last evening. “People think they can be interpreters too.”

Gurdeep’s job is to listen. Sometimes, she has the luxury of a pause before a translation. Not always. For 20 years, she has been like a funambulist, testing the tightrope of the limits of language as she crosses between islands called English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu.

Listening is one of the hardest things in the world to do well. I live with a man who always listens with all neurons on fire. He listens to the radio intently even though he isn’t having a conversation with it. He listens to my daughter’s ramble on weekends and overanalyzes her barbs. He listens to the GPS woman with complete attention—and she is not even his wife and her directions are not always more accurate than mine. He has that way of listening, I think, with all of his ears and all of his body. You could say that he listens like a cricket (which, by the way, has ears on its knees).

Most of us listen absently. If we were to analyze our manner of listening, I suspect there would be gaps in hearing, comprehension and analysis. And the juice of every job is in the analysis before a big next step. This is why I don’t dare discount the years people have invested in their careers, or their missteps and failures, often unknown, en route to their minor victories and major triumphs. That is why Gurdeep’s life of sudden interpretation seemed to defy interpretation. Even on deadline, writers had the luxury of sufficient time—to revise, polish and edit again.

“When I’m on the job, I’m all ears,” she said. No one wants to be asked to repeat something that they just said, especially when they’re in what one might call “a flow.”

What if your job depended on listening, analysis and simultaneous translation? What if you were helping broker deals in a lawyer’s office or at the United Nations? What if you had to bring in your experiences with life, your knowledge of world leaders, past and present, and your awareness of the globe you live in, of all the old news and all the new news, of the latest attack on an embassy building, of the crisis in Syria and of the term, in Hindi, for “technology outlook”?

“If I miss just one word, I cannot catch up,” Gurdeep said. The last time she felt that way—even though she didn’t exactly have time to dwell on it—she was seated between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a private chatter at a big white house.

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Who Was I?

A weekend could upend my idea of who I was. It could rock the premise on which I had built my social, professional and literary life as an Indian-American in California.

On Friday evening, someone dismissed, categorically, the quality and approach of an Indian-American magazine I respected and had worked for over the decades. “Why couldn’t the magazine hire better writers?” she asked.

On Saturday afternoon, some people in my writing group offered breathtaking analyses for a story penned by a talented member. I came unhinged. Should I appreciate the story? Or marvel at the succinct and lyrical analyses by fellow writers who had mastered both writing and analysis? How could I improve at both?

Later that evening, at a birthday party, a young Sikh gentleman sang Hindi melodies from the 50s through the 70s. For years, the tunes had pierced my ears and drenched my soul. I went to bed that night wondering if I should distance myself from such music. It weighed me down. It was another reminder that my parents had departed. It was proof that my father, the late but always punctual Daddykins, who read me and made three Xerox copies of every story I had ever published, had really, completely departed.

Early on Sunday, I was in Dublin for a prayer at the new home of a cousin’s son. The young man and his wife were just starting out in life. Their road was not yet locatable on GPS. I thought about my first home in San Jose’s Evergreen area. Our home had been built on new land cleared for starter homes. Now, after four moves and 32 years, I had dropped roots in an old neighborhood of heritage oaks, stately firs and meandering trails. We had raised two children into thinking, mature adults. Yet, in a matter of forty-eight hours, I felt lost, unanchored, somehow.

On Sunday evening, I rose to sing India’s national anthem in unison with 18000 others in this welcoming valley of dreams. Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, was on his first official trip to the Silicon Valley. He was on a mission to enlist CEOs to realize his dream, Digital India, for connecting all the people of India.

Between the rising and falling strains of the anthem, I believe I heard another sound. The soundless swish of Kleenex on cheeks. The sound of sadness that all immigrants must hear in their hearts on some days. The ring of American careening. Of silent hyphens clattering to the floor.

Was I American? Was I Indian?

Who was I?

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