The 'no reply' syndrome

No dialogue is possible unless there are at least two receptive speakers.

‘Man is a social animal,’ said Aristotle. Even as children we begin to rely on an endless sequence of query and response. 

Birds of a feather and dogs also understand this in their circles. Around 6 am, I awake to a dialogue between two bulbuls on a tree nearby. Louis, the Labrador in the house opposite ours, barks his reply to his friendly morning caller. No dialogue is possible unless there are at least two receptive speakers. How downcast is the child when his or her need meets with no reply.  Grown-ups use silence as a punishment for disobedience or supposed misconduct. In ancient Athens, the democratic city-state used ‘ostracism’ or banishment as a penalty for alleged crimes by troublesome citizens. They become outsiders beyond the pale, losing all connectivity with the insiders.

From childhood on we respect those who reply to our enquiries and resent those who ignore us as nuisances at best. ‘Mummy, what is for tiffin?’ is answered with a meaningful reply. But the ‘No reply syndrome’ soon begins to bedevil us. Success or failure in seeking entry into a posh kindergarten reach the child by instinct. Early on in life, we get acquainted with the ‘No reply’ rejection when we deal with bureaucracy in public places like a post office, hospital, railway station or shop.

I was a teenager ambitious to excel as an author. I wrote verse in English and won esteem in class when a submission was printed by the college magazine, though the headmaster wanted me to swear that it was my own work. I sent my next poem to the ‘Illustrated Weekly of India’ with a stamped, self-addressed envelope and got a printed, unsigned ‘regret’ slip with my manuscript. But I persisted; and the editors did print a few of my juvenile offerings in the 1950’s and 60’s, though I got the curt rejection slip from several journals.

The ‘regret slip’ is outmoded since editors are overwhelmed with unwanted and unprintable amateur stuff. They adopt the policy of “No reply is our reply.” The persistent amateur may be consoled that his or her offering is not rejected out of hand and consigned to the waste basket of ‘cybernity’, but only put on hold.

The dialogue involves speakers and listeners, but the exchange often becomes a series of monologues unless both sides are on the same wavelength.  Imagine ‘Hamlet’ as a dialogue between the Danish prince and pedantic Polonius. Or Karl Marx’s ‘Das Kapital’ as his dialogue with Stalin or Mao or a latter-day terrorist. Still, sages like Socrates and J Krishnamurthy did not spurn this mode. Our Upanishads have memorable dialogues too, like those of Nachiketas and Yama.

In our time, cell phones, SMS and the Internet have propagated new courtesies of response. I am disheartened on mornings when I find my Inbox bereft of replies and instead there are dubious emails announcing that I have won many thousands of dollars or sterling if only I could convey my bank account details. I send them to ‘Spam’ and get no reply.

In ‘Alice in Wonderland’, Alice, glancing through her elder sister’s book, feels cheated because it had neither pictures nor conversation. I still treasure my paperback ‘Alice’ with its prints of the original drawings by Sir John Tenniel and the conversations of Alice with Humpty Dumpty, the Red Queen and White Queen, the White Knight, an old man sitting on a gate and inventing a way to dye his whiskers green, the nonsense verses and creatures like the Cheshire Cat. They somehow suggest new views of reality and dream. The Alice tales close with the line: ‘Life, what is it but a dream?’

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