Wole Soyinka’s “Telephone Conversation” is an eloquent exchange of dialogue between a dark West African man and his British landlady that inexorably verges on the question of apartheid. The poet makes use of the most articulate means to air his views, through that of a telephone conversation, where there is instant and natural give-and-take. It exhibits a one-to-one correspondence between the two. The interaction between a coloured and a white individual at once assumes universal overtones.
At the outset, the poet says that the price seemed reasonable and the location ‘indifferent’. Note that as a word, even though the word “indifferent” denotes being ‘unbiased’, it is a word with negative connotations. However, as we come across the Landlady’s biased nature; the word ‘indifferent’ gains positive overtones, as it is better than being impartial. The lady swears that she lived ‘off premises’. Nevertheless, the very aspect of his colour poses a problem to her, far from her promise to remain aloof. Nothing remains for the poet, he says, but confession. It gives a picture of him sitting in a confessional, when he hasn’t committed any crime….his crime is his colour, his remorse is solutionless. He tells the lady that he hates a wasted journey. Perhaps his words connote more than he literally signifies. The poet seems to be tired of his life conditioned by racist prejudices. As he mentions that he is a West African, the lady is crammed with silence, but a silence that speaks volumes. A telephone is an instrument that primarily transmits voices, here it becomes a medium for silence also. The so-called civilized world, has these silent powerful issues that need to be voiced. Here, the silence echoes. It is a silence that is the consequence of her sophisticated upbringing. However, her prejudices transcend her to primitivism, living in the superstitious narrow-mindedness of caste and colour.
When the voice finally came, it was ‘lip-stick coated’,well made-up and diplomatic to suit an affected atmosphere. The inevitable question finally comes cross:” ARE YOU DARK? OR VERY LIGHT?”The poet views it as button B or Button A. The question places two alternatives before him: dark or light; The truth or lies. The first option would obviously shut off all doors to him. The term Button B also is the button in the public telephone box to get the money back. Button A is the one to connect the call. The poet first ponders on Button B to get out of his predicament. He then realizes that escapism is not the solution, and decides to face the situation. The words: “Stench /Of rancid breath of public hide-and-speak” signify the claustrophobic nature of the questions rather than the atmosphere.
The colour ‘red’ in “Red booth. Red pillar box. Red double-tiered” forebode caution. The questions were too naked to be true. The speaker at last brings himself to believe them. His response is very witty: “You mean–like plain or milk chocolate?” This is the most apt response as dark chocolate is certainly more tempting than plain chocolate. Her disinterested approval of the question was like that of a clinical doctor made immune to human emotions through experience. Human pain and misery its own saturation point; after a certain point people tend to joke at their own agony. As the saying goes: Be a God, and laugh at Yourself. The speaker therefore begins enjoying the situation and confuses the lady on the other side. He asserts: “West African sepia”, to further confuse her.
Silence for spectroscopic
Flight of fancy, till truthfulness clanged her accent
Hard on the mouthpiece. “WHAT’S THAT?” conceding
“DON’T KNOW WHAT THAT IS.” “Like brunette.”
“THAT’S DARK, ISN’T IT?” “Not altogether.
Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see
The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet
Are a peroxide blond. Friction, caused–
Foolishly, madam–by sitting down, has turned
My bottom raven black–One moment, madam!”–sensing
Her receiver rearing on the thunderclap
About my ears–“Madam,” I pleaded, “wouldn’t you rather
See for yourself?”
The last lines verge on vulgarity, but simply out of outrage. The mixed feelings, the random and broken sentences, the lack of coherence of speech, the question-answer mode are all typical of a telephone conversation that reverberates more than it sounds.
©Rukhaya MK 2010
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