I was tapping my fingers rigorously against my steering wheel to the beat of my song of choice, a sense of trepidation had already started to consume me. Though it was relaxing, the music playing throughout my car was no match for the repetitive thoughts going through my mind thinking of what I was about to endure. That Monday afternoon's hectic drive was followed by a walk from the parking lot through the snowy streets of Toronto.
“Hi, Roy, I am Zak, and it is very nice to meet you,” said a young guy with a friendly disposition and a British accent, as he extended his right hand. I shook it. I just walked into Penguin Random House Canada’s studio on Front Street.
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Winter was still going strong in Toronto. I was glad to be inside a building. Happy to stay away from the cold, freezing, frostbite wind that nipped at my nose and fingertips for many blocks during my rushed walk to the studio as the frigid shadows cast from tall buildings that towered above blocked the bright sun. My fingers and toes were numb, but it was a good and uneasy feeling to know that I was about to record my very first audiobook in my own voice.
Zak was my sound engineer and director for the project.
Audiobook? I never listened to one in my entire life. I prefer to read. But even for people who love to read books, finding the opportunity to read can be a challenge sometimes. Many, then, rely on audiobooks, I was told. A convenient alternative to old-fashioned reading. You can listen to the latest bestsellers while commuting or cleaning up the house.
So, I must give voice to this book. To make it come alive. I was given ten sessions, each with four hours in duration. Forty hours in total to get through almost two hundred and fifty pages.
“This way,” said Zak as he led me through a narrow corridor of an empty floor. It was quiet. Eerily quiet. None to be heard, none to be seen.
The hollow floor rang with an abnormal sense of quietude, while my thoughts dangled solemnly in my frontal lobe. There was not a sound of life around me, not the sound of office phones ringing, the sound of voices. It wasn’t any of those, nor was it the norm. The cold tile floor seemed to move beneath me as my eyes drifted toward the recording studio. My head throbbed as flashes hindered my sight, my tortured past struck me like a five-ton mallet. I was about to relive it by reading this book. I was nervously terrified! PTSD!
“Here we go, this is where we will be living for a while,” Zak quipped, followed by a smile.
There I sat, trapped between the desolated atmosphere of winter outside and the thick layer of the soundproof stained dark grey wall as it barricaded me, separating me from my sound engineer. The dark room strangely reminded me of the prison I once inhabited. It was like reliving an old memory.
In front of me on a stand was a newer version of the iPad with a digital copy of my book with chapter five, The Mailroom Boy, flashing on its screen. Headphones hung on the stand. To my left was a side table with a jug full of water, a tall glass—and a box of Kleenex, to soothe those who sniffled between words, I imagine.
I could only hear my heartbeat through the pin-drop silence of the room, nothing but a harmonious melody. Zak's hand gestured to me through the glass window to put my headphones on. I obliged.
“We will start reading from chapter five to the end of the book. And then we will go to chapter one and onwards,” Zak calmly instructed through the headphones.
“Really, why?” I rebutted, with confusion.
“Well,” Zak began, “Since you have never read an audiobook and not a voice actor, we will start in the middle and, once you are seasoned, will go to the beginning of the book. We need to hook the listeners from the beginning. That means we need a very smooth and emotive beginning. This is the best way of achieving that.”
Made total sense to me. And I was determined to produce an amazing audiobook. I wanted to crush it. But I knew full well in this pursuit, that there exists a powerful yet paradoxical notion: getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Courage is defined as the ability to do something that frightens one. Something that is outside your comfort, that is hard for you to do. You must be brave and daring, or in other words, fearless.
As I searched for courage within me, Zak hit the powerful spotlight. Its rays pierced through the dark room, creating a variance in the dark, and shone on the iPad and the surrounding area.
We all know that a little bit of discomfort can go a long way in terms of personal growth. But no one enjoys feeling uncomfortable, and I certainly found out about that firsthand in that room. Although being uncomfortable is something I have always embraced, stepping inside the dimly lit, very tiny, soundproof room made me very apprehensive and way out of my element, despite the talented and supportive sound engineer and the director of the project.
'Recording in progress,' the digital panel’s red letters came on immediately.
My pure and unfettered feelings flowed through the silver-coloured microphone suspended in the air and into the red and green light blinking, imposing-looking sound mixer in the adjacent room. Zak was feverishly focused on it, making sure my tempo, enunciation, clarity, and cadence were up to an acceptable standard.
The basic survival instinct and human tenacity were on display right in front of my eyes. A visual form which can be expressed consists of both resilience and willpower. Reading the book out loud, however, also unearthed some raw emotions, especially during the earlier chapters of the book and reading about my father’s untimely, unjust death.
Those parts were hugely painful, with grief dancing within its spiteful palm as it mocked my very survival and peace which I had struggled with for decades. The roots of my sadness often sprawled out from my chest, its malign claws digging into the walls of my muted, shattered heart. My tears overflowed from my lashes to my chin, streaming as I grovelled at my own beguiling despair, alone in that room. The Kleenex box was the only trusted friend in that room.
Even Zak couldn’t handle it as he got emotional at times. We both had to take some timeouts frequently to regain our composure. Laser focus was in short supply at times.
I think there will always be a piece missing from me for the rest of my life. And although I may try to fill it with people or things, I know I will always feel the void left by my father’s death. I have been trying to fill that void ever since. A void in my heart so big I don’t think it will ever close. I will hold that space for him only because that space will always be his.
There are many situations where we must be uncomfortable to grow and learn. For example, if you want to become stronger, you must lift heavier weights. Resistance makes the muscles grow and resistance in life makes people grow. The first day of my recording was hugely disappointing. I stuttered and stammered over the lines repeatedly, and I couldn’t concentrate. My plan was to get through more than one chapter per day and finish the twelve chapters of the book in ten days. On the first day, I read only ten pages. It was a dismal start, and my confidence was shattered.
Then I remembered that I must do something that I hate and am uncomfortable doing, but nonetheless doing it like I love it. I did my heavy lifting by creating a similar environment at home and every night before going to bed, I forced myself through reading exercises. I paid meticulous attention to my cadence, emotion, and tone. Every word and phrase was carefully considered and treated with the utmost importance.
Passion is like stress—it is not an input, but an output. Soon I found myself hitting my strides in that tiny studio. I didn’t allow my insecurity to offend my confidence. I wanted to be relentless in this pursuit. This must be done. This story needed to be told properly and effectively no matter what. But it took me fifteen days. Five extra days.
After fifteen consecutive days, four-hour recording sessions each and sixty hours of emotional labouring, the audiobook was finally completed to my satisfaction. Especially Zak’s. He was pleased. I hope you like it too!
As I left the Penguin Random House building on the last day of recording, a cold breeze tickled my nose, reminding me that winter was still here. With most of the worries from the last fifteen days now out in the open, leaving me worry-free and ready to continue living my life to the best of my abilities. On my way to my car, I took my usual deep breath of relief, simultaneously feeling a huge weight being lifted from my chest.
The deafening silence of those lives prematurely snuffed out like my father’s during this tragic epoch in Sri Lanka speaks to us with words we will never hear. But somewhere in this mangled memory will always be the life it represents, like an echo you no longer hear but swear you will never forget.
I’m honoured, humbled, and deeply moved to give a voice to the voiceless by telling their and our collective story to the world.
I was brokenhearted and at a crossroads in my life when I lost my father. I learned what grief was. True grief. How it moves through the body. How it inhabits you. How it becomes part of your skin. Your cells. And it makes its home there. A permanent home. But you learn to live with it. And you hope to be happy again.
I have never been the same ever since the tragic incident. There is a melancholy in me that never goes away. The only advice I can give people when you lose someone like that is you won’t ever get over it. The more you know that and you embrace it, the better off you are. It will never be the same again. But you can find new ways to be happy again. We all deserve that.
When he died, part of me died with him and the other part became a relentless fighter. I’m fulfilling a promise. A sign of living. A daily salve for the red and angry wounds.
His death. My life.
In that sense, I found peace in that room of silence.
What is my Identity? It's a question that we all seek to answer in our own ways throughout our lives. Each episode of Identity spotlights a different creative, some from the Tamil community and some from outside it, who will be chatting about how we take ownership of our narratives, art, politics and of course who we are. Catch these episodes of 'Identity'!