off the cuff

A question of mistaken identity

It’s safe to presume — with a modicum of exaggeration — that the question may even have died out with us

Kevin Martin,Special to Gulf News
17:15 August 30, 2017

Questions have been around since ... well, since time immemorial, as they say. There’s never been a case of ‘chicken and egg’ as far as the question and answer is concerned. Everybody knows it was the question that came first. There is, alas, no record of what was the first ever question asked.

It is possible that it even predated speech because we also know that people — well, since time immemorial — have possessed the power of posing a question without uttering a word. Even today, a raised eyebrow is the language the body uses to frame a question mark. Some of my early education was conducted via this silent form of communication. And some of my teachers — who engaged in such an educational technique — can be cut some slack. They themselves were products of the ‘silent era’ films. Charlie Chaplin was still a mega star (with them) — a man who, without script and words, could out-act any of the 1970s heart throbs — Charles Bronson in Guns for San Sebastian or Kerwin Mathews in OSS 117.

We pupils, of course, begged to differ, only to encounter the raised eyebrow. Implying, ‘What do you know?’ Or, if truth must be told, ‘Are you seriously questioning my judgement?’

We were raised to believe that the teacher was also a ‘judge supreme’ whose judgement, therefore, shouldn’t (and couldn’t) be questioned. At least certainly not within the confines of the classroom.

These early methods of not questioning things too much have left a generation (my generation, as The Who defined us) rather wary of posing too many questions ourselves. It’s safe to presume — with a modicum of exaggeration — that the question may even have died out with us. But that it didn’t is testimony not to us but to the power of the question itself. It did not and will not go away. Of that I am now convinced. It was man’s first form of expression and it will, in all likelihood be his last.

All of which brings me (rather un-neatly) to the tap on my shoulder that I received just the other day. Not that tap on the shoulder, alas. Apparently, I still have some time on hand to eke out on earth. No, it was a literal tap. Right there on my shoulder. Which, in this day and age, can be worrying. Especially if you cannot see the face behind the hand doing the tapping. It forced me to turn, holding a scalding hot cup of coffee, in front of a host of other coffee drinkers. And that is not something I do with a great degree of elegance, I confess. But in my defence, jumpiness is excusable when anyone is given a tap on the shoulder.

Anyhow, despite scalding my wrist mildly with a sip-ful of coffee that leapt over the rim of the coffee cup, I put on a brave face and ... turned. Right into the full force of a question: “Shouldn’t I know you?”

I assured the person — a little old lady with a pair of spectacles balancing on the tip of her nose — that she shouldn’t. Because I didn’t know her. Which, come to think of it, is a silly way of thinking. Just because you don’t know someone doesn’t mean they don’t know you. I mean, I’d recognise Vikram Seth anywhere, but that doesn’t mean he’d know me from Adam. “You’re Khalid, aren’t you?”

Another question. I assured her I wasn’t but she pulled up a chair anyway, excited to be running into one of her pupils from way back. And that’s how I spent an amazing half hour in the company of a total stranger who told me half a dozen things she remembered about me that I couldn’t ever have done. All good things, I hasten to add. Including the time my good fictitious father, a physician, helped her through a debilitating bout of jaundice. How does one wriggle out of a situation like that? It’s a question I’m still wrestling with.

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.