Only the wise learn how to read between the lines
‘Meaning isn’t always found in the words themselves but rather in the spaces in between the lines,’ writes American writer Michelle Sandlin.
No, I am not referring to reading between the lines as a literary device to decode the text but as an art and activity to be practised in our daily social interactions, and I learned this lesson the hard way.
In the initial years as a college teacher I was staying in the college hostel with a few other faculty members, including the vice-principal, an elderly vivacious lady, who became a guide and guardian for us young faculty members.
Just one month after I joined college I had to go home to Chandigarh for the August 15 Independence Day holiday. After submitting my station-leave in office, I was packing my bags when a peon from the college came with my application in hand asking me to see the principal in her office. The words, ‘Can’t allow, see me’ in green ink on my application stared at me. With great disappointment and trepidation, I left my packing incomplete and went to her office, wondering why she had summoned me and if I had done something wrong by submitting the station leave.
Once in her office I placed the application on her table. Her stoic countenance made it difficult for me to ascertain her mood. “You see, it’s Independence Day tomorrow and there is going to be a flag-hoisting ceremony in college and the presence of the staff is mandatory. So I can’t allow you to leave the station,” she said.
When I responded that I was required at home because of a family function slated for the day, she surprised me by saying: “But I can’t allow you,” and turning her face towards the window added, “You can go without telling me.”
Failing to understand what she meant, I protested that I could not defy the rules and disobey her, to which she smiled, for a moment making me feel as if my naivety and vulnerability as a new entrant were ridiculed.
As I stood there, wondering what to do, she gently pushed the application towards me and repeated, “I can’t give the permission, you can go without telling me,” as her smile grew broader.
Disheartened, I dragged my feet back to the hostel and ran into the vice-principal at the entrance. To her question, “You are still here?” I choked and narrated the whole story to her.
Laughing, she tore my application, and said, “Pick up your bag and run, you fool! What else is she trying to tell you?”
That day I became a little wiser, understanding that one should be smart enough to read beyond the words because everything doesn’t get written down in black and white.
On my return, after two days, I found the principal (who lived in the principal’s house next to the hostel) and the vice principal out for their evening walk.
As I wished them “good evening,” both looked at each other and smiled as I peevishly rushed inside the hostel.
The author is a retired English professor based in Patiala.