Robert Lush was born in the UK but went to school in the United States. He then returned to the UK and followed a career in information technology, finding time also to complete postgraduate degrees in translation, in recording endangered languages and in ethnomusicology. He now lives in India, in rural Bengal, a firangi welcomed by local people who have shown him great generosity and admirable tolerance.
India blows her own horn, Firangi starts banging on about the noise
Visit Incredible India! So enthuses the Ministry of Tourism. And, indeed, upon returning home, most visitors are glad they did. Yes, Visit! especially because all things exist in such dizzying varieties: the flora and fauna, the landscapes of mountain, water and forest; the political points of view, beliefs, practices, and ways of life; the arts, literatures, and musics—ancient and modern; the races, languages and cultures, all celebrating their own unique identities. The modern world presses people everywhere to integrate and, by doing so, homogenise, for reasons related to efficiency. But here this pressure is weaker than the wish and need to bond with one’s own, with extended family, village, caste or tribe, and faith. Differences here manage to coexist, if not in complete harmony, then without undue discord. India is indeed incredible.
Similarly, the sounds of India are incredible. But it is the noise of traffic that I find particularly unbelievable, insufferable even, particularly in the towns and cities.
In urban India, in the past, you could still hear the natural sounds of rural India mixing in counterpoint with the bustle of the city. But nowadays you might only occasionally notice the tread of feet, the clomp of cows and horses, the barking from pariah dogs asserting their claim to food, territory or a mate, the caw of black feathered scavengers, the buskers chanting and strumming, plucking, beating, or blowing on their instruments, neighbours calling to neighbours, vendors plying their goods, passengers and drivers disputing the fare. And even, just like in village India, cocks crowing, hens clucking, ducks honking angrily or chanting, grumbling under their breath, cows mooing and grunting, goats bleating, sheep baaing. Animals and their keepers develop their own individual dialect, part human and part animal; we become firangis in their world.
This symphony still plays in modern, urban India, but we rarely hear it anymore, for we are deafened by traffic, by the all-pervading roar and throb of internal combustion engines.This noise differs from, say, the roar of a storm or the sea or even from thunder, which is short and intermittent whereas the rumble of traffic is continuous and unrelenting. The noise of traffic is composed of clashing metal and explosions from within the engines.
Your ears become accustomed to the ambient racket—you may not even be conscious it is there. To become attuned to it in Kolkata, for example, you might place yourself outside the din temporarily, simply by walking into an open area like Victoria Park or by leaning out from a high-rise building. There you appreciate how hostile is that environment where we are trying to survive. Living creatures have come to adapt in how they communicate: people need to shout, or shout even louder into their mobile phones, birds change their songs to penetrate the din, dogs begin whining more often, rather than barking. And, as their growling can’t be heard, dogs mime their willingness to fight by showing their fangs. Sheep never have much to say for themselves anyway, so little is lost there.
The noise from diesel juggernauts preponderates (Outside of India juggernaut is a word we sometimes use for trucks or lorries, one of many we borrowed from India and adapted, that now enrich our English vocabularies).They are fewer in number than cars, and they make less noise than airplanes, but when they enter the scene their rumble and roar dominate everything. Most display signs which exhort other drivers stuck behind to “Obey the Traffic Rules” and to sound their “Horn Please.”
But if everybody is hooting away, nobody communicates anything. “One at a time!” we would admonish a group of people attempting to talk all at once, reduced to shouting over one another.
Each individual blare of a horn mostly collects and dissolves into the ambient din, serving only to exacerbate the difficulty of making oneself heard, another escalation in an arms race of volume, shrillness and dissonance.
Yet for some road users it is vital to be heard. For example, buses and coaches, which now dominate the roads with their size, as did in the old days working or migrating elephant, are at least as fast and large as any other competing vehicles Their drivers need to make their presence and feelings known because they drive to a timetable and are responsible for their passengers’ safety, both those seated within the coach and, especially, those balancing precariously on the roof .The coaches trumpet a dissonant, cacophonous fanfare which is impossible to ignore.
Motorcyclists—who ride on smaller vehicle and soare less visible, and swerve (or don’t swerve) unpredictably—also need to be heard because the drivers and their riders are so vulnerable. They emit a high, piercing, and dissonant (of course) BEEP that will force you inexorably to your knees, so painful is it, like a dentist’s drill.
Ordinary car drivers don’t need to be heard. Their hooting merely adds to the general collective roar and prevailing discomfiture. Car drivers may toot in order to be seen (conforming to the traffic rules), to demand a machine or animals clear the way, to express their dissatisfaction or impatience, to say hello to a friend, to be doing something at times when they don’t know what they are supposed to be doing, or to occupy their hands when they have nothing better to do. Only cows, people on foot and bicycle riders—the most vulnerable—need pay any attention. Dogs sleeping on the road don’t bother or, sulking, shift slightly, slowly and unwillingly a few inches, or less, to one side, sort of.
We deal with the noise as we do the hot, oppressive summer sun: adapting ourselves, avoiding it where possible and learning to accept it. Unsurprisingly, sometimes it does become too much, and it is then that we react. I live in a village, so I know what the gentle stillness of rural India sounds like. But we often drive intoour District Town, Purulia. Our office is upstairs above where three roads intersect, a junction cum obstacle course which has to be navigated through by juggernauts passing through the Town, numerous buses arriving and departing from the nearby terminus, cars, motorcycles, motor scooters (called scooties), and people on foot or pedallinga bicycle. Each contestant must negotiate his own path through the traffic, whether oncoming, overtaking or merging from the side, plus a maze of stationary obstacles such as parked bicycles, motorcycles and scooties, cows minding their own business, dogs sleeping, and bewildered chicken, sheep, and goats.
Inevitably, every five minutes or so, some situation or obstacle will jam the traffic, which prompts a crescendo of shouting, trumpet fanfares from the coaches and juggernauts, and a chorus of beeps from frustrated cars, motorcycles and scooties. Trapped in our office on adebilitatingly hot afternoon in June, the noise and heat had already reduced me to feeling like a boxer who has been beaten into submission. Then, a chorus began anew. A motorcyclist downstairs was feeling particularly aggrieved and inconvenienced, which feelings he expressed with his horn, long and loud:
Motorcycle: “Beeeeeep! Beep, Beep, BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE...”
My head began to lower from the pain—putting fingers, wax or plugs in my ears doesn’t help.
Not able to bear anymore, while at the same time not entirely conscious of what I was doing, I slowly stood up and walked, staggering a little, towards the door.
Shanta: “Where are you going?”
Robert: “Don’t worry, I won’t be long. I’m just going downstairs to kill somebody.”
Chaina: “Yes, all right. But finish your tea first, before it goes cold.”
I always enjoy a cup of tea. And without doubt, on returning I would still have drunk it, even had it gone cold. Nevertheless, I did pause to finish it—I would always do so. After all, in England they sing that “Everything stops for tea!” Even an intended homicide, I now realize.
The motorcyclist’s beeping had stopped, mercifully, while I was finishing my tea. The jam may have cleared (the most likely explanation), the horn may have given out, or perhaps some other bystander had taken matters into his own hands, beating me to the punch.