Praising Brevity | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 26, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 26, 2011

Praising Brevity

Too Many Words? Photo: Ihtisham Kabir

A French gourmet is invited to Turkey by a Turkish gourmet. Upon his return, his countrymen anxiously surround him. The French, after all, are serious about food. So how does Turkish food compare? “It is fantastic, delicious!” raves our Frenchman, disappointing his friends. “But...,” he pauses. “But what?” they ask hopefully. “But...too many dishes,” he says. The Frenchmen heave a sigh of relief. Their Turkish rivals don't know their own strength.
This story is from the great Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali.
Mujtaba complains that Bengali hosts serve too many items at dinner parties. ”We did not know which dish you would like, so eat the one you like most,” the host counters. But that means the host does not know his or her masterpiece. “Does a novelist offer five different endings and let you choose the one you like?” Mujtaba asks, exasperated.
Indeed, our national assault on brevity starts early. When fewer words will do, students are taught to use more. As adults, these same students deliver speeches whose preambles, which should be “Dear Listeners”, drag on for several minutes (and let's not talk about the substance of the speeches.) As a society we love long-winded language rather than compactness.
If that were not bad enough, some years ago a local mobile phone company started an ad campaign saying “Talk more.” It made the hair on my neck stand up.
I used to think verbosity is a defensive reflex of Bangladeshis. Crammed into the small physical area of this country, do we subconsciously stake out a vast space in the universe of words by talking more?
But now I find wordiness is everywhere. The American writer Jonathan Franzen's much-discussed novel, Freedom, weighs in at 576 pages. Tony Blair's recent autobiography is a whopping 720 pages. Does anyone actually finish these books?
In Amadeus, the movie based on Mozart's life, there is an exchange between Mozart and his patron, Emperor Joseph II. Mozart plays a piece he has composed for the Emperor. The Emperor likes it, but since he is Emperor, he feels he must criticise it. “It is good, but it has too many notes,” he says, “cut a few”. The precocious Mozart quickly retorts, “Then which notes would Your Majesty like me to cut?” For this the Emperor has no answer, for the piece has precisely the number of notes it needs, no more, no less.
Producing something worthwhile may require long hours of hard work but what we cherish is the final result looking effortless, every piece falling into place. Thus, seeing a graceful Olympic diver in action just for seconds uplifts us. He never has to remind us of his years of hard work. Songs by Tagore enchant us because they capture so much in just a few lines. Mujtaba's short essays scintillate with his witty storytelling.
Sure, there are times when length is necessary, but wouldn't the world be a neater place without needless words, dishes, notes - or speeches?

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