Kal, Kaku and Kalankini: Time, Tone and Taint

Does ‘tone’ change the meaning of things, somewhere between utterance and silence?

Not long ago, a self-proclaimed ‘Sanatani Hindu, Bhartiya Naari’ from Jaipur declared to the twitter universe how offended she was by a song – ‘কলঙ্কিনী রাধা’ / ‘Kalankini Radha’ (‘Tainted Radha’) that features in the Netflix original horror film, ‘Bulbbul’ (2020). She liked neither words, nor tune, nor tone in what she heard. 

The song features in the film as a fragment, and that fragment is heard, sort of half-sung in a very casual tone, by two of the film’s characters. The second time we hear it, the person who invokes the song makes it clear that it is the kind of song that a Baul, a wandering minstrel, would sing. 

The Bauls of Bengal are famous for their eccentric, whimsical declarations of love, longing and loathing, which can all address the same figure – whether it be a god, or a wayward lover, or both. Bauls speak in riddles, in metaphors of factories where salvation is produced by machines, of mints where the currency of deeds is coined, of golden cages that hold the soul in custody, of broken boats that cross storm-tossed waters, and of lurking strangers who are more intimate than the jugular vein. They deploy figures of speech that claim that the ‘monér manush’ – the man of the heart – is a thief but also a teacher; a companion on a trip to heaven that is best undertaken through the gates of hell. Here, knowing hell from heaven can be a matter of discerning a tone struck fleetingly in the notes of a melody, somewhere between utterance and its faithful companion, silence. It’s always all about tone. 

A discussion of tone sounds appropriate in a debate on acoustics, semantics and aesthetics, or in a deliberation on music, acting, or the recitation of poetry. But most often, the matter of ‘tone’ becomes a dispute when a confrontation arises between the speech and silences that mark the distance between those who make rules and those who live them, either in obedience, or in breach. Some songs, like the one about ‘Tainted Radha’ that so angered the righteous tweeter of Jaipur, walk the tightrope of that dispute, almost casually, as if it hardly mattered. 

Consider the ‘don’t make those eyes at me’ statement we’ve all heard in childhood from affronted people in authority. They are offended, let us remember, not by how we’ve said something, but even by how we’ve not said something – just by the silence of how we have looked at them, or looked away from them. There is a tone, not just to speech, but also to silence, to the angle of a direct or averted gaze.

The analytical philosopher Michael Dummett, reading critically Mathematician Gottfried Frege’s attempts to cure language (of what Frege thought were its defects), came up with ‘tone’. He suggested that an attempt to purge language of its nuances (which are conveyed more in ‘tone’, rather than in the ‘sense’ or a statement) robs meaning of most of its wealth because truth, invariably, comes dressed in hues and shades. In a philosophical football match, I would read the score for this particular game as – Dummet : 1, Frege : 0 – even though Frege gave us the free kick of illumination and colour, that was deftly parried by Dummet. 

The sense that some tones are incendiary is implicit in the way that those most likely to take offense easily take offense to a snatch of song. What might these forbidden tones be? How is one to know which tone to abjure, which to adopt, and under what circumstances? Is a tone locked into the utterance of a word, or does the word ride the curve of a tone’s inflection? What is the relationship between meaning and tone? Can a tone of voice be a crime that needs to be investigated? Is there a guilty or innocent tone? 

The 17th chapter of Bharata’s aesthetic manual for the theatre, The Natyasastra, is a taxonomy of tones. Tone, called kāku in Sanskrit, is divided into expectant, anticipatory, resigned, surprised and other categories based on an affective relationship to time. Intonation is ‘heard’ as being produced by vocal variations. Slesa, or paronomasia, the play of words, punning, is observed in the distance between utterance and meaning. The bridge that spans that distance is built of tone. 

Thinking about tone, in turn, can lead us into discussions of sarcasm, satire, taunt, admiration, contrariness, affirmation, emphasis, confidence, doubt, suspicion, belief, under-statement and exaggeration – each of which signifies a different disposition and distance in the relation between utterance and comprehension. We can think about the emotional states of the speaker, and of the listener, and understand that the question of ‘tone’ lies always at the intersection of how something is said, or expressed and how it is heard, or absorbed. 

Unlike meaning, which can operate without reference to a listener or a reader, existing only as a relation between a sign and a signified, a tone, like an arrow racing to meet a target, is an arc that begins with the speaker and must always end with the listener. And just as an arrow let loose from a bow can misfire, an utterance too can miss, or exceed, its target – deliberately, if so intended by the speaker, or inadvertently, if misheard by the listener – through the operation of tone. 

We can’t always say what we mean, and we don’t always mean what we say. It is possible to curse, as if a curse-word were a term of endearment, and utter words of respect while lacing them with an audible contempt. Even the most truthful of men, like Yuddhisthir, can lie, not by speaking untruth, but by the barely audible murmur of truth in a deliberate undertone, when saying Ashwatthama (the elephant) is dead. A good actor or a fine speaker can twist and turn a word this way and that, in a hundred possible ways, and a few impossible ones, just with tone. On some days, merely hearing a particularly nasal intonation of the word ‘mitron’, meaning friends in Hindi, can cause one to wish to abjure friendship altogether. That’s how crucial tone is to meaning. 

But even more than Bharata, it is his commentator Abhinavgupta, who offers us the most sophisticated exposition of kāku, tone. He sees, or maybe hears, all sound as arising from a primordial sound, sharing in its substance, and returning to it. A sound, once it arises from the primordial sound, says Abhinavagupta, cannot be modified. It constitutes a ‘knot in the string of vocality’, and may emanate quite independently from preceding, and following knots. Which means the sound that precedes (flowing into), or follows (flowing out of) the utterance of a word may change the meaning or emotional colour of the utterance, quite independently of the lexical sense of the word that has been spoken. Even a sharp intake of breath, or a quiet exhalation, can change the meaning. 

What sound, in such instances, gives rise to may range from horripilation, the hair-raising or goose-bumpy sensation that defines an epidermal response, to a sudden blush or a colouring of the cheeks or the eyes, to even arousal, sadness or anger. These responses may be quite independent of the sense of what is being said, even though they are determined by how that something is said. In other words, we are back to tone. 

All kinds of complaints about ‘offensive speech’ beset our milieux. Somewhere a comedian had not yet made his joke, yet in dispute was the tone of his silence. Elsewhere an actor had read his lines, but had not paid attention to the unspoken contract that his lines should not offend anyone, least of all the gods.

At a time when it appears as if any new work of art that features performance is being scrutinized for meaning and source without understanding the nuances of the tone, it becomes necessary to inquire whether or not we are gradually becoming the subjects of a ‘tone police state’. If that is indeed the case, then let us at least have our ears wide open to the voice that power speaks in when it shows its teeth. Or, as used to be said in Hindi films once upon a time – ‘Kan Khol Ke Sun Lo’. 

Open your ears and listen. 


In the instance of the song that so enraged the good lady of Jaipur, what stood out as particularly offensive were the words –  ‘কানু হারামজাদা’ / ‘Kanu Haramjada’ and ‘কলঙ্কিনী রাধা’ / ‘Kalankini Radha’. Haramjada means bastard and kalankini means tainted, dirty, of a bad reputation. The problem, as far as the song is concerned, is that the bastard in question is the cowherd god Krishna, and the woman of ill repute, his consort, Radha.  According to the offended party, the words of the song are written by someone identified as Shah Abdul Karim. They had, according to her, the wrong tone, not just because of what was being said, but also because of who allegedly said them. 

To the Hindu Tone Police, any Muslim talking about any Hindu figure would probably sound wrong. Which means Rahim and Raskhan, renowned poets and devotees of Krishna from the 16th century, would sound wrong. And the Vaishnav Padavali, that anthology of devotional Bengali vaishnavite poetry which is a standard feature in the libraries of many Bengali homes, including mine, would definitely sound wrong since it includes poems by people with names like Nasir Mahmud, Syed Murtaza and Akbar in praise of Krishna. Were the matter to come to court, I am not sure about what tone the judge would hear, or speak in, while dealing with songs for Hindu gods in Muslim voices.

Is ‘Kalankini Radha’ a song to a Hindu figure, sung in a Muslim voice? 

I know the Kalankini Radha song well, as do many people raised in Bengali homes. It is a beloved part of a repertoire of Vaishnav songs sung in the Baul-folk traditions of undivided Bengal, Sylhet and in the Kamrup region (borderlands between Bengal and Assam). It also sometimes features in the form known as ‘জলভরা গান’ / ‘Jol-Bhora Gaan’ (‘Water-Filling Songs’, but also punning as ‘liquid songs’) songs that are sung, especially by women, riffing off the trope of Radha going to fill water from the river Yamuna as a ‘cover’ for assignations with her lover, Krishna. In performance, what matters always is Radha’s tone. Her words are angry, her tone, sweet, and full of love. 

These songs, which echo the material of Jayadeva’s ‘Gita-Govinda’ in a popular idiom, are of intense and explicit erotic longing. They are a living, breathing element of the very ‘sanatani’ Vaishnav devotional traditions of Bengal and its borderlands. Perhaps the different versions of these songs, claimed by different languages and dialects of the fluid terrain of Eastern India (and parts of present-day Bangladesh) devolve back to some ur-source in the Magadhi Apabhramsha from which Maithili, Oriya, Kamrupi, Sylheti, Gauriya (which becomes Bengali) and Assamese rise. The layers and complexities of this terrain, which demolish the entire notion of borders and boundaries, is difficult for the exclusionary mind of latter-day Hindutva to grasp. And I really wonder what upcountry Hindutva champions will do if they ever get to know how devout Bengalis and other peoples of Eastern India have addressed Shiva, Kali and Durga to express their affection and intimacy over centuries? 

Ramprasad Sen, a great devotee of the goddess Kali, sang of eating her flesh, seasoned with salt when he said ‘Ebar Kali, Tomaye Khabo’ (‘Now, Kali, I will Eat You’). When most Bengalis hear this song, they hear intimacy. Others, if they are tone deaf, may hear cannibalism.

A calumniated (literally, stained, tainted, Kalankini) Radha, who is addressed as such by the primary voice in the song (presumably Radha’s fellow Gopi) curses Krishna/Kanu and calls him ‘Haramjada’ (bastard). In the universe in which the song is born, lives and breathes, this insult is an indication, not of the singer’s hatred or contempt for Krishna, but of the intensity of Radha’s erotic longing. This is seen as an earthy metaphor for a true devotee’s ecstatic spiritual longing. They do not, to my ears, ‘insult’ Krishna and Radha, but profess instead a deep intimacy with them. Their ‘tone’ overrides their ‘sense’. 

The author of this exact version of the song is unknown but it is certainly not Shah Abdul Karim. The Hindu zealot who objected to the song wanted the author to be Shah Abdul Karim, because to her limited understanding, only a Muslim could call Radha tainted. 

But that is not how most Bengalis have historically seen either Muslims or Radha. The ephemeral breath of a song has not been confined within the rigid boxes of what the words ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ mean. They traverse a deliberately undefined terrain of naming and of being named. They gift a nameless joy to the act of withholding a name. Because ascribing authorship to a song is to merely confine its creation within a name. That is not the way songs are born, or live. 

Sometimes, the song gets credited as the work of a poet-balladeer – রাধারমণ দত্ত (Radharaman Datta, 1833-1915), a well-known Vaishnava bhakta, who was born and lived in Sylhet, undivided Bengal. This attribution is uncertain, and probably incorrect, but it persists, and not without reason. The words of the song carry the sibilant impress of dialects of Bangla and its related languages, especially as they are spoken in Kamrup (Kamrupi dialects of Western Assam and North Bengal) and Sylhet. 

There also exist works in the Radharaman corpus that have similar tropes – Krishna sitting on the branches of the Kadam tree, waiting to waylay Radha; the admonition to Radha, voiced by her friends, not to go down that path to the riverbank; the figure of stain, or কলঙ্ক, etc. An identification of this verse with Radharaman may or may not be accurate, but it’s not entirely unthinkable. This phenomenon of the condensation of claims to authorship of diverse body of material around a single figure and his corpus is not unknown or unfamilar to us. It’s not unlike the phenomenon of the attribution of many verses to say, a notional Kabir, even though the actual Kabir may never have written them. 

I have been able to consult a published collection of Radharaman Datta’s lyrics – বাউল কবি রাধারমণ : গীতি সংগ্রহ (Baul Poet Radharaman : Collected Songs) edited by Bijonkrishna Chaudhuri (Published by Book World, Agartala, 2009). While this collection does not feature this particular version, there are many others like it, with the familiar trope of Krishna on the branch of the Kadamba tree. Radharaman refers to Radha as Kalankini several times, across several songs.

See for instance this one, a ‘dhamail’ song (a popular Sylheti form), definitely by Radharaman Datta – 

ঐ শোন কদম্বতলে বাঁশি বাজায় কে।

বাঁশি বাজায় কে রে সখি, বাঁশি বাজায় কে ॥

এগো নাম ধরিয়া বাজায় বাঁশি, তারে আনিয়া দে।

অষ্ট আঙ্গুল বাঁশের বাঁশি, মধ্যে মধ্যে ছেদা

নাম ধরিয়া বাজায় বাঁশি, কলঙ্কিনী রাধা ॥

কোন বা ঝাড়ের বাঁশের বাঁশি, ঝাড়ের লাগাল পাই।

জড়ে পেড়ে উগরাইয়া, সায়রে ভাসাই ॥

ভাইবে রাধারমণ বলে, শুন গো ধনি রাই।

জলে গেলে হবে দেখা, ঠাকুর কানাই ॥

My inadequate paraphrased translation of this verse would be – 

 O listen, who plays the flute by the Kadamba tree. Who plays the flute, friend, who plays the flute? Who plays the flute calling out her name, calling her. Eight fingers on a bamboo flute, holes in between. Plays the flute and calls her name – ‘Kalankini’ Radha. Which bamboo grove gave that stem, and which stem that flute? Root and branch, I’ll take that bush and float it in the river. Listen, brother Radharaman says, listen lady Radha. Go to the waterside, there you will find Krishna

This verse, as is evident, shares much of the same substance. Radha is clearly ‘কলঙ্কিনী/Kalankini/Tainted/Stained’ and Krishna, while he is not called ‘হারামজাদা/Haramjada/Illegitimate/Bastard’ is referred to as ‘Kulnasha’ (lineage destroyer) more than once; and in at least two places, in two other songs, Krishna is referred to as লম্পট (‘lampat’ – a very strong insult – translates as ‘characterless, licentious, lewd). 

Let’s look at one such instance. This is song no. 477. 

Radharaman’s words are as follows: 

ভরতে গেলাম যমুনাতে শীতল গঙ্গা জল গো 

রূপ নেহারি প্রাণসজনী মন করিল চঞ্চল

নন্দের  সুন্দর চিকন কালা জানে নানা কল 

কাদা করি চিকন কালা ঘাট করিল পিছল 

আলগা থাকিয়া কালায় হাসে খলখল 

ভাবিয়া রাধারমণ বলে শুন গো ধ্বনি রাই 

কুলবধূর কুল মজাইল লম্পট কানাই  

Roughly translated this would be : 

I went to fetch cool pure water from the Yamuna. Sweetheart (Radha addressing her companion, a Gopi) my heart went a-flutter when I saw his beauty there, Nanda’s slippery/gleaming (as in the colloquial Hindi चिकना / chikna), dark pretty boy (Krishna), he knows many tricks. He made the riverbank slippery (I fell) and he stood laughing. 

Imagining this, Radharaman says –  

O Radha, this licentious, ‘lampat’ Kanai (Krishna), made a laughing-stock of your family’s honour’. (in fact, as Radharaman points out in more than one song, Radha is a wife, and the family whose ‘honour’ is compromised by her adultery with Krishna is that of her husband and in-laws, which is a pretty grave matter).

The word লম্পট / ‘lampat’ carries a strong moral judgement – some would say, as strong, or stronger, than ‘haramjada’. It could be argued that without ‘lampats’ breaking the codes of proper sexual relations, there would be no ‘haramjadas’ (illegitimate offspring). Radharaman’s entire corpus points out again and again, like many Vaishnav poets do, the পরকীয়া / transgressive nature of the Radha-Krishna bond. In fact, in Radharaman’s world, it is ‘spiritual’ because it is transgressive. The versions that speak of ‘Kalankini Radha’ and ‘Haramjada Kanu’ know what they are doing. By emphasising – even valuing – transgression, they are placing themselves squarely within the ethos of the kind of Vaishnava Bhakti that was both Radharaman Datta’s inheritance and legacy. 

Incidentally, ‘Baul Samrat’ Shah Abdul Karim, another Sylheti, a famous Bangladeshi folk singer who died in 2009, did write a love/devotional song titled ‘আমি কুলহারা কলঙ্কিনী’ / ‘Ami kul-hara Kalankini’, but that song has no mention of Krishna/Kanu or Radha.) He is not the Abdul Karim that Kirti Goswami needs him to be. 

Names slip. Krishna is Haramjada, Radha is Kalankini, Shiva can be Khepa (crazy), or Nyangta (naked).

The Hindu god Ram can be addressed by the nineteenth century Bengali poet Michael Madhushadn Dutt as a beggar in his magnificent Meghnad-Badh-Kavya (The Killing of Meghnad). In the third canto of the poem, Michael has his female protagonist, Pramila, (the wife of Meghnad, Ravana’s son who has been slain by unfair means deployed by Ram and Lakshman) tell her friend in a fit of contemptuous rage – 

‘আমি কি ডরাই, সখি, ভিখারী রাঘবে?’ – ‘do you think I fear that beggar, Ram’

And then she prepares to do battle with the man she calls a beggar. 

The goddess Kali can be called a Pishachini (an ogress) by Tagore in his drama, Bisarjan. In the fifth and final act of the play, a hitherto devout priest, Raghupati, is horrified by the sacrificial ritual suicide performed to appease the blood thirsty deity of the temple that he himself services. In rage, he berates the goddess’s indifference to human suffering in these words: 

রঘুপতি: দেখো, দেখো, কী করে দাঁড়ায়ে আছে, জড় পাষাণের স্তূপ, মূঢ় নির্বোধের মতো।

মূক, পঙ্গু, অন্ধ ও বধির! তোরি কাছে সমস্ত ব্যথিত বিশ্ব কাঁদিয়া মরিছে! পাষাণ-চরণে তোর, মহৎ হৃদয়

আপনারে ভাঙিছে আছাড়ি। হা হা হা হা! কোন্‌ দানবের এই ক্রূর পরিহাস জগতের মাঝখানে রয়েছে বসিয়া।

মা বলিয়া ডাকে যত জীব, হাসে তত ঘোরতর অট্টহাস্যে নির্দয় বিদ্রূপ। দে ফিরায়ে জয়সিংহে মোর! 

দে ফিরায়ে! দে ফিরায়ে, রাক্ষসী, পিশাচী!

বিসর্জন, পঞ্চম অঙ্ক, চতুর্থ দৃশ্য 

Which can be translated to – 

See, how she stands, that dead heap of stone, uncaring, unknowing, dumb, lame, blind, deaf. And the whole wounded world weeps heartbroken at her stone-cold feet. Only the sound of the monstrous laughter of a demon squats the sense of the world. The more they cry ‘mother’, the more the ogre laughs her cruel laugh.

After saying these words, Raghupati hacks the idol of the goddess and throws it in the river that flows below the temple. 

Would the Hindu zealots so offended by the snatch of a song in a web-series as to demand a strict ban also extend their censorious zeal to the works of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Rabindranath Tagore?

Examples of off-colour banter, curses, angry speech, lamentation, dejection, rejection and laughter aimed at the divine abound in the spoken and written traditions of Eastern India. Sometimes, they can claim a classical heritage as provenance, as for instance in the case of the sage Bhrigu’s sexually explicit curses directed at the god Shiva in the concluding sections of the Padma-Purana, (because Shiva, busy in love-making with his consort, had neglected paying attention to the sage Bhrigu, waiting for an audience with him.) 

Consider then, what happens when another exchange with Shiva happens, in another web-series. A rather lack lustre one, Tandav, that has had its moment in the media sun, again because of a demand for censorship.

A play within a play in the first episode has been at the epicentre of a major cultural upheaval in recent days. The narrative’s action moves from farmers’ protest to student disaffection via a play performed in a university theatre festival. A young man called Shiva, plays Shiva, the god, and delivers punchlines that attempt to provide a sharp commentary on current events. In this case, the actor playing the actor playing Shiva is a man called Muhammad Zeeshan Ayyub. He has already been in the news for his off-screen support to at the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests. It is an opportunity that the protagonists of Hindutva’s cultural politics can ill afford to miss. And so, they lose no time in being offended by the lines spoken by this make-believe mythical god in the play within the play. Arrest warrants are issued. Bail applications are filed.

Anticipatory bail is refused. The refusal spells out an admonition to the actor. He is told that he should think carefully before agreeing to play any part where he may be called upon to portray a burlesque rendition of a deity. Every man playing Ravana in the neighbourhood Ramlila should consult a lawyer. 

What is unspoken in such an interdiction is a terse disapproval of the fact that the actor, Muhammad Zeeshan Ayyub, like the Jaipuri tweeters imagined author of the Kalankini Radha song, just happens to be Muslim. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that Muslims should no longer play with/at being Hindu gods in India today. Men in high places think it doesn’t set the right tone.

One wonders, what would happen if someone were to take it upon themselves to serialise the stories, say, in the Padma-Purana, (as a mythological web series – it could be delightful) perhaps with a Muslim actor playing the part of the sage Bhrigu, one of the characters featured in this Purana.

Let us for a moment consider what the Padma-Purana has by way of an exchange between Bhrigu, and Shiva’s attendant, the bull, Nandi. I quote from the Motilal Banarasidas Edition of the English translation of the Padma Purana by N. A. Deshpande. 

Bhrigu says, “I, the brāhmaa Bhgu, have come to see Hara (Shiva), the best god. Quickly announce me (i.e. my arrival) to the magnanimous Śakara (Shiva).” 

Hearing Bhrigu, Nandin, the lord (Śiva’s) attendant, spoke harsh words to the great sage of unlimited splendour: “The lord is not in the vicinity. Śakara is sporting with goddess (Pārvatī). O best sage, go back if you desire to live.” 

Thus repudiated by him, the (sage) of great penance remained there, at the door of the great lord, for many days.

And then he said, “Since he, arrogant due to the company of a woman, thinks lightly of me, he shall have the form of clitoris. Approached (i.e. overcome) by vice he slights me, a brāhmaa! Reduced to an impious state, he will not be adored by brāhmaas. Therefore, all the food, water, flowers and oblations offered to him will undoubtedly be useless.”

The very lustrous one, having thus cursed Śaṃkara honoured by the world, said to the very fierce spear holding attendant, Nandin: “May Śiva’s devotees, having ash, phallus and bones be impious and out of the Vedic fold.” The sage, having thus cursed Rudra, (Shiva) Tripura’s killer, went to Brahmā’s world. 

How would the makers of a hypothetical series that might want to render this exchange even consider creating a scenario featuring the curses that Bhrigu hurls at Shiva? What tone would they use, or not use, to deflect the inevitable onslaught of litigation that would ensue? 

Were such a thing to actually happen, would it be seen as an instigation, a deliberate act of provocation aimed at hurting the sentiments of an always willing to be offended majority?  Should all the people who play Ravana in neighbourhood Ram-Lilas start calling up their lawyers before cursing Ram, as the script may require them to, just in case? 

Hurt sentiments have been known, after all, to cause riots.


Let’s think a little bit more about tone. 

What zealots have in mind when they insist they have been provoked has very little to do with the content of a message, and a lot to do with its tone. In other words, any valid objection to a statement, as per this view, is not built around what is being said, but about how it is being heard. 

A lot depends on how one chooses to hear the utterance of the words Kalankini or Haramjada, or the exchange between Bhrigu and Nandi in the Padma Purana. 

How can we hear, or infer, contempt, or compassion, in a voice? 

The difference between a statement and its tone has everything to do with the fact that words can mean one set of things, and can be heard entirely differently. That’s what Abhinavagupta told us a very long time ago. 

And that is what irony and sarcasm and satire are all about. That is also what affection and compassion are all about. You might for instance have a poet or jester praise a king’s lengthening beard, and yet it can be instantly heard, and recognised, as scathing ridicule. A lover’s complaint can contain anger laced with desire, and longing. What matters, in the distance between an utterance, and how it is heard, is tone. 

You might have a young activist talk explicitly about love and non-violence, and have the police hear it as a call to arms and violence. Once again, the police have heard a different ‘tone’, a subversive ‘timbre’. No consequences to those seeking violence. Conversely, you might have a young minister demand that ‘traitors be shot’ (‘Goli Maaro Saalon Ko’) with no consequences whatsoever, because, tonally, that sounds like music in a rally, not violence to the ears of those in power, especially when the bullets are invoked in a rally, with a knowing smile.

In other words, if a statement ‘x’ is made, then the judgement about it’s ‘tone’ can only be made by a person who has heard it, and that too subjectively, and then has the authority to make a pronouncement about it. It hardly matters what the ‘traitor’ that the young minister is asking people to ‘shoot’ thinks about his tone. Because those persons deemed ‘traitors’ have no authority to make pronouncements. What matters is what police officers and judges think, and often, they don’t think that ministers asking for people to be shot are disagreeable in any way, especially when it comes to the tone in which such things are said. The tone they are heard in by people in authority is pleasant, and wholesome.

Tones may even change in terms of how they are remembered, and by whom. 

On a good day, an easily offended zealot might find many things pleasant in ‘tone’, but on a bad day, he might take a different opinion. The joke that might have pleased him with its whimsy on Thursday, may annoy him on Friday. What makes the difference between Thursday and Friday is a result of how it was said, on both days, and how it was heard. A judgement about the facticity, or an evaluation of the ‘content’ of a statement, can be verified independently. All we have to ask is – was ‘x’ said, or was it ‘y’? That can be done by anyone, as long as there is a verifiable record of what was said. But the moment we come to ‘tone’, we actually don’t need a verifiable record at all. A person may have ‘inferred’ a ‘tone’ of voice, even by a look, or a pause, or even before something is said. After all, we all know that a comedian did do some time in jail recently because of something he had not yet said. 

He was arrested, not because of what he said (because he hadn’t said anything yet at the time when he was arrested) but because of what some people who were there to listen to him thought he might say, if given the chance. In other words, they were concerned, not with his words, or deeds, but with his ‘tone’. Maybe even with his ‘muscle tone’, with the alertness or laxity of his posture and stance as he addressed them, or addressed those they imagined he addressed, including their gods – who, as we know, are everywhere, even in a stand-up comedy venue. They hear, even when no one speaks. And anyone can be offended on their behalf. 

We live, today, not in a police state, but in a ‘tone-police-state’. We are tainted by the tone of our days and the tone-deaf nature of our time. Our freedom from this limbo of flattened speech and emaciated thinking will consist in being able to reclaim, as far as is possible, the possibility of articulating a generous, and capacious, tonal range of expressivity. A variation as capable of being hospitable to our moods and vagaries as it is encouraging of all our enthusiasms. Between the highs and lows of that spectrum will lie the secret of well struck tone – the echoing timbre of the complexity of lived experiences. Not blind worship. Not simple loyalty. Not even one sided, one size fits all, love, or longing. But a thing of hope and madness, tenderness and rage, reason and beauty, despair and desire – the sacred, that is also always flagrantly profane. 

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