The Invisible Man.

My friends and I sit together in a cluster of benches for our evening chats at the local park. Recently, one walker passed us by while on his walk and greeted everyone there except me. While I will certainly be writing about why he did not greet me at some future post, when I was asked by my friends as to why he did not greet me, I spontaneously replied that I was invisible to him. I immediately remembered some other things by association and two of those are remarkable for this post as well as for something else that will follow.

The first was the book “The Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. In that the protagonist is an unnamed African American man who considers himself socially invisible. It is a moving and powerful story of a black man in the USA.

Just about the time that I was reading the novel, a lot of news and information was coming out of South Africa too. One of the pieces of information that registered and has stayed with me all these years is the Tribal greeting system in Africa.

Among the tribes in Northern Natal in South Africa, the tribes greet each other with “Sawu bona” which in the English language is equivalent to saying “hello”

The phrase “Sawu bona” literally is defined as “I see you.”

If you are a member of the tribe you would reply, “Sikhona” Which in English language is equivalent to saying “I am here”

The order of the greeting of this exchange is important. And what it is saying…in literal translation.


Which means: when you see me you bring me into existence.

There is of course the philosophical approach that unless there is a perceiver there is no perceived, which is not the purpose of this post. The purpose is to use this background to look at two stories that came to the fore recently in India. Despite being very much visible, these two men experienced non existence!

The first one is from the BBC, brought to my attention by my brother Barath. If this story sounds incredible, one may give allowance for Mr. Rai’s rural background and ignorance to gain some credibility to the story.

The second one however is amusing yet generates a lot of identification and anger at the bureaucracy of India.

It may be a good idea to become totally invisible. One could have a lot of fun. For instance, one could visit the bureaucrats and take away their proof of existence documents. One could create documents without anyone noticing it being done. Limitless possibilities.

Another interesting view on invisibility is this old Sufi story.

“A well-known Sufi was asked, ‘What is invisibility?’
He said: “I shall answer that when an opportunity for a demonstration of it occurs.’
Some time later that man and the one who had asked him the question were stopped by a band of soldiers.
The soldiers said: ‘We have orders to take all dervishes into custody, for the king of this country says that they will not obey his commands, and say things which are not welcome to the tranquility of thought of the populace.’
The Sufi said: ‘And so you should, for you must do your duty.’
‘But are you not Sufis?’ asked the solders.
‘Test us,’ said the Sufi.
The officer took out a Sufi book. ‘What is this?’ he said.
The Sufi looked at the title page. ‘Something which I will burn in front of you, since you have not already done so,’ he said.
He set light to the book, and the soldiers rode away, satisfied.
The Sufi’s companion asked: ‘What was the purpose of that action?’
‘To make us invisible,’ said the Sufi, ‘for to the man of the world, ‘visibility’ means that you are looking like something or someone he expects you to resemble. If you look different your true nature becomes invisible to him.'”

~ Idries Shah, The Dermis Probe

The best yet on invisibility is Plato’s Ring of Gyges which brings to the fore the question whether an intelligent person would be moral if he did not have to fear being caught and punished. The story’s best part for some of my fellow musers is the seduction of the queen by the shepherd, but that begs the question of the power of invisibility!

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