The Sounds of Silence
Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 24 October 2012
Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 2012. All Rights Reserved.
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Dr. Seshadri Kumar
Dr. Seshadri Kumar
Today is Dussehra, or Vijayadashami, the last day of the Navratri festival in India. This very important Hindu festival is supposed to represent the victory of good over evil. Very specifically, it relates to a few myths of Hinduism: the victory of prince Rama over Ravana, the king who abducted his wife, in the epic poem Ramayana; the killing of the demon Mahishasura by the goddess Durga; and the end of the 13th year of exile of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata epic.
But for me, the main significance of Vijayadashami is that the noise is over.
The Navratri festival, nowadays all over India, but specifically in the western part of the country, and very much so in Mumbai, is associated with the traditional Gujarati practice of garba or dandiya dance, a lovely community dance set to lilting rhythms. It is an opportunity for the whole community to mingle and let their hair down.
Garba and dandiya are nice both to watch and to participate in. However, when this tradition originated, hundreds or thousands of years ago, people did not have high-powered amplifiers and huge speakers at their disposal. It was a nice folk festival. But when tradition meets technology, all hell is let loose. Let me explain.
Folk Tradition Meets Modern Audio
I live in a housing society in Mumbai, and for two days over the weekend they had garba/dandiya for the society members in the open community area in the society. Our society has about 600 families living in about 8 high-rise buildings, each about 17 floors high. I had hoped to participate in the function, mainly to get to know more people, but fell ill and had to rest in bed.
My rest was rudely interrupted at 7 pm on Saturday by the sound of loud drums and a voice screaming to the heavens. The society had hired a powerful music system and huge speakers to broadcast garba and dandiya music to the entire neighbourhood. Seeking to protect myself from the avalanche of noise, I promptly got up, closed all the windows of our 10th floor flat, closed the bathroom doors (because the noise could come from the air vents), turned up the fan to shut off the noise from the outside, even turned up the a/c – all to no avail. The noise was so loud that the windows I had closed were vibrating audibly with each beat.
Everything I tried to forget the insistent noise – play some music on the system, turn the TV on, forget about the noise by talking to a friend on the phone - was futile. I was not feeling well enough to get up, get dressed, go down and complain about the noise levels, but I doubt it would have done much to improve the situation. I wrote an email to the society’s secretary in desperation, but even 4 days later, it hasn’t even been acknowledged. Eventually, 3 hours later, with my temperature rising and with a pulsating headache, the noise thankfully came to an end, only because the society had to abide by the city’s 10 pm shutdown rules. The same routine was repeated the next day.
Noise Pollution During the Ganesh Festival
What is it about Indians that makes them so inconsiderate of their fellowmen (and women)? And why is it that Indians feel impelled to compel everyone else to join in their celebrations? This noisy Navratri celebration is certainly not unique. Growing up as a kid in Mumbai, I was used to 10 days of nonstop noise every year during the Ganpati puja celebrations. Our own street had a big Ganpati idol, and somehow the elephant-headed god cannot be satisfied with offerings of modaks and mantras chanted in his name. Oh no. You have to play the latest Bollywood hit songs at maximum volume nonstop for 10 days from 10 am until midnight to gratify him. We used to have trouble listening to the TV or stereo in our living room because the noise from the street was so loud during Ganpati puja time.
When I was growing up, the South Indian don, Varadaraja Mudaliar, also known as Varadabhai, was the main mafioso in Central Mumbai. He lived in Matunga, where we lived, and so in the huge vegetable market of Mumbai there were decorations and festival lights everywhere (all funded by money extorted from all the shops in the market), in addition to a huge Ganpati pandal near the Matunga station. The station Ganpati was Varadabhai’s showpiece. That, and the decorations in the entire market area, were symbols to remind people who was boss.
We used to walk from our home to the market to get vegetables, provisions, etc. During these ten days of the Ganpati puja, to go to the market meant to suffer the sound of innumerable loudspeakers all over the market blaring out the big Bollywood hits of that year. So certain Bollywood songs are etched in my mind from repeated listening via shopping trips: “Deva ho deva Ganpati deva, tumse badhkar kaun” (from the movie Humse Badhkar Kaun), “Nainon mein sapna, sapnon mein sajna” (from Himmatwala), and “Pyar ka tohfa tera, bana hai Jeevan mera” (from Tohfa). It was an ordeal to get through that. Bad as the noise from our local street Ganpati was, it was nothing compared to the noise in the market, and I was so relieved when I got out of the market and back home. As they say, between the devil and the deep blue sea.
And of course, the worst noise is when the Ganpati idol is on its way to being immersed in the sea – and when the idol procession passes your balcony, the din of the drummers is so loud that you need earplugs to save your hearing. And immersion processions move slowly, so you had to get ready to put up with something like 120 db noise for 15-20 minutes as the procession passed your street.
Air Pollution and Noise Pollution during Diwali
And of course, Dussehra is not the last noisy festival of the year. In a few weeks we will have Diwali, in which everyone will light noisy firecrackers that will cause both air and noise pollution, make life miserable for asthmatics, scare animals and babies, rattle older people, and disturb patients in hospitals. People seem to revel in noise during Diwali – the more the better. The worst are those 10,000 and 20,000 series electric crackers, which create prolonged noise for 5 or 10 minutes at a stretch. And then there is the ear-splitting noise from the “atom bombs” – at 2 or 3 am in the morning. To make things worse, there are those creative geniuses who line up the 20,000 electric crackers along the length of the road and tie the atom bombs to the electric crackers every 10 feet so that the steady noise from the electric crackers gets punctuated with an ear-splitting explosion every 30 seconds.
Indian Wedding Processions
And, as if this is not enough, we have to suffer noise every time someone gets married. Since the time I was a kid, I have had to suffer marriage bands perform “Meri pyaari behaniya banegi dulhaniya” (often besura, or out of tune, which to a musician is even worse than just noise) and other Bollywood-based marriage songs. The Bollywood songs performed by brass bands are interrupted only by the 50,000 electric firecrackers which are a way for the families involved in the wedding to announce to the world how happy they are. But see, I DON”T CARE!!! Why are you forcing your happiness down my ears? You really think I am going to wish your marriage well after you’ve ruined my evening?
A few years ago, I had occasion to visit Jalandhar on business in the month of February. I was staying in a hotel and had to get some rest because I had to go early the next day to the Rail Coach Factory in Kapurthala (about an hour’s drive from Jalandhar) for some work. I had an early dinner and turned on the TV, hoping to get some sleep soon, but was disturbed by a lot of noise from downstairs. I called the reception to ask about the source of the noise and the receptionist informed me that it was a wedding procession – the wedding party had booked the main hall in the hotel. The noise was so disturbing that I couldn’t get any rest. Finally, after several complaints, the hotel reception informed me that the celebration should be over by 10.30 pm. I eagerly waited for it to end, and it finally ended by 11 pm. Thinking that I finally could sleep, I switched off the light and started to doze off. Unfortunately, I was rudely awakened in about 10 minutes by more wedding noise. I immediately called the reception and asked the guy what was going on. He said they were not to blame – the procession noise I was hearing was coming from the hotel in the next street! He was sorry for my trouble – said that unfortunately, this was marriage season in the Punjab, so these kinds of noise sources were unavoidable.
The Good of the Many Outweighs the Good of the Few
There is a different perspective one has when one is involved in the festivities and when one isn’t. So, for instance, the marriage procession is pure noise to me because I have no connection at all with either the bride or the groom. Similarly, when you are down there at the Navratri function, you might be able to hear the music clearly, and if it is a good song, it might even be enjoyable. But even then, such high volumes can affect your hearing. In any case, by the time the sound reaches the 10th floor, the song is sufficiently distorted that you cannot enjoy it – but it is still loud and noisy. And, as in my case, you might be ill – or there might be an elderly person or a baby – both of whom don’t take well to noise.
And lest you think this is only one person who takes umbrage at this, let me tell you that I looked out of the window and did a rough count of how many people were enjoying the festivities. I would say not more than 200 people in all would have participated – and that is out of a total of 2000 residents of the society. So the majority of the people are passive sufferers. Does it make sense to inconvenience 90% of the population for the enjoyment of the remaining 10%?
Attitudes towards Noise in the US and in India
I have probably been spoilt by my long stay in the US. Growing up in India, you get used to noise that you can even sleep soundly through all this. But 16 years of living with concepts like privacy and silence has spoilt me. I am also conscious of the deleterious effects of loud noise on my hearing and on my stress levels, something you don’t worry about as a child. In the US or the UK, you are forced by the law (which is enforced) to care for the effects of your actions on other people. I once had a noisy neighbour in Salt Lake City, Utah, who used to invite friends over for parties every night. He used to have loud music up to 5 am in his parties which would ruin my sleep. I tried talking to him a few times, but every time after he lowered the volume, it would come back up in 15 minutes. In desperation, I once called the police, and they promptly paid him a visit and forced him to shut up.
What is it about our culture that makes Indians so incredibly inconsiderate of others and so insensitive to the effects of their actions on others? And why is there this overwhelming need to have such a public celebration? I am very sure that even if our housing society had used only 20% of the volume they did, everyone down there could have still heard it loud and clear, and we on the 10th floor would have had a little more peace. Why do people have this urge that others should be forced to listen to, and by implication, join their celebration? Is their own happiness not enough?
We, as a nation, need to take issues like this more seriously. One may argue that there are more pressing issues, like poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and unemployment which plague India, but I aver that those issues cannot be addressed as long as Indians cannot think beyond their own personal and hedonistic needs and as long as they cannot think of the needs of their fellow Indians.
Keep your happiness to yourself – and I might even wish you a happy married life.