Article Published in THE HINDUSTAN TIMES

Something to talk about

Navtej Sarna

SOMETIMES when the fading light has put me in a pensive mood, I think that there should be provided, in the manner of telephone directories and Roget’s Thesaurus, a book of conversation pieces for appropriate occasions. Too often one sees people staring into the middle distance like shortsighted sheep, the tea getting cold, waiting for the other person to set the conversation rolling. Embarrassing, not too comfortable and thoroughly disastrous for the nerves.

Of course, there are those blessed times when you run into a chap suffering from chronic verbal diarrhea. He collars you, fixes you with a glittering eye like the Ancient Mariner and lets go. You listen helplessly to how he did what to whom. After about twenty minutes or so, he realizes that he owes you a chance.

“Hey, I didn’t mean to hog the conversation. Besides you are a very quiet sort of person.”

“I….I am..,” comes the stuttered reply.

At which point, with the evident air of one who is fair to all and has done his duty, he launches off again, leaving your no doubt interesting reminiscences for your autobiography.

But then, as I said, one is not so fortunate all the time. It is for those other times when the silence hangs like a wet overcoat that you need that conversational guide. Preferably in alphabetical order and in pocket size, easy-to-carry editions. It should contain some of the old favourites and a few imaginative innovations.

Among the old favourites, the weather is usually a reliable opening gambit. Everybody had some view on it. He either likes it or he doesn’t. Indifference-the sworn enemy of animated conversation-is absent. But sometimes, to stretch the metaphor, you may run into heavy weather.

“It’s raining”, You have just made a cheerful but fatuous statement intended to put your guest at his ease. The guest incidentally has water running in bubbling rivulets down his plastered hair, face and clothes.

“Yes, I have notched,” he replies from between clenched teeth, each word an icicle.

And if that hasn’t tolled the bell for the conversation, you very observant “You are wet” shall do it.

I have not, however, been building this case for the conversation guide out of sheer philanthropy. There are a few ideas of mine which I would like to be included I mention only one sure-fire success in passing. The other person’s health. It just can’t go wrong.

“ How’s the old pain?” (Every body has an old pain).

“It’s been moving a bit because of the rains. Maybe I should sleep on the other side. And yours?”

And there you have a conversation running like a well-tuned engine.