Sound has taken over our lives in unimaginable and unwelcome ways. If there is a marker of contemporary public life in India, it is the predominance of noise and a loss of silence. It is almost as if we believe that it is only through making noise, and being surrounded by it, that we know we are alive.
Public space in India should come with a statutory warning: harmful to your ears and hence, harmful to your peace of mind. Driving on the roads is as much about the constant sound from all species of horns. Travelling in trains has now become a mental extension of ménage à trois . We are forced to listen to other people’s private conversations, their music preferences and movie tracks. On a recent train trip to Chennai, I was assaulted by multiple sound fronts: an old man in front of me playing Vedic chants on his mobile, a man in my row loudly discussing what I felt were illegal business practices, a girl behind me on the phone given to sudden and loud bursts of giggles, and a woman nearby who loudly played Sai Baba bhajans perhaps in the hope that her co-passengers too would share in her ecstasy. As if this cacophony was not enough, two small children created havoc running around and screaming at the top of their not-so-tiny voices, with their parents watching with an indulgent smile. None of these people thought that there was something unwelcome in this public display of their private preferences.
Only in India?
When I see this, I am tempted to say ‘Only in India’. But perhaps we are not fully to blame. There is something within the intrinsic nature of sound that makes it essentially about the freedom to spread without constraint. But there must be something peculiarly ‘us’ in this tendency to be surrounded by noise.
For instance, when I visit some houses, the soundscape I am in is this: the TV is playing loud film songs, there is a CD player belting out bhajans in the next room, there is the sound of guns and bombs going off in the computer game in another room, and then all of us trying to conduct a conversation above these simultaneous sonic blasts.
After watching IPL matches on TV, I finally got to see one live — the recent final in Bengaluru. The ground was lush, smothered under bright lights. But it was the sound which greeted me when I entered the stadium. Loud, thumping music reverberated all around and it seemed as if the stadium was an open-air pub. I thought the music would stop once the match began. Alas, the final was really about music and dancing in the stands; the cricket was actually incidental. Between balls and between overs there was loud, rhythmic music, and loud comperes screaming into the mike: “Are you having fun?”
Fun, somehow, seemed to be directly proportional to the noise. We all shouted back “Yes” and then were told to whistle, to make odd noises, and wave our flags. We did all that like obedient monkeys. Any time the crowd was comparatively silent, there was the anxious scream — “Are you having fun?” — followed by the thundering noise of screams and snippets of songs. We were as scared as the compere that we were perhaps not having fun. Having paid substantially for the tickets, we would not be denied our ‘fun’.
Except that I suspect most of us had little clue about what fun was. Fun had been reduced to some loud beats, flashing lights, voyeuristic glances at cheerleaders, and not sitting in silence. There was nothing spontaneous about this fun. So many young spectators next to me were tired and jaded. But when the compere shouted into the mike, they jumped up. We danced and waved flags in tune with the music and not the game.
Unfortunately, this malaise has spread deeper. In FM stations, there is as much noise as there is music. We can’t listen to a song without mindless chatter and artificial screams of joy and excitement. We can’t have a radio jockey who is actually not scared of pauses and silence in between. We don’t have a private radio station which can, without apology or in the depths of the night, play classical music of any kind. Most TV serials seem to be a constant auditory assault, where actors don’t speak their lines but instead scream it out to the accompaniment of shrill music.
The art of silence
Noise is the new garbage in our life; verbal, visual and mental noise. It is produced and discarded, both equally effortlessly. We may have lost the art of being in silence, and to appreciate subtle sounds. This constant immersion in noise, this constant anxiety to state ‘we are here’ through loud sounds, this indifference to the effect of ‘our’ sounds on others around us — all these have serious consequences to the health of a society and not just to that of the individual. I think it is reasonable to suggest that our language changes when we constantly speak loudly. The language of aggression is a language of the loud. Certain words can be uttered only when it is loud.
Silence is the price we pay for this immersion in noise. Today silence has negative connotations. Being silent is seen as being in a state of depression or being anti-social. Silence is used as a form of punishment, whether in the school or at home. Aggressively promoting oneself seems to be the new mantra for survival in our society and silence mitigates this ‘virtue’.
If meditation is the search for silence within the individual, what we urgently need is a meditative state for our society. And the first step towards this is to perhaps speak softly and think gently — at least in the public domain.
Sundar Sarukkai is a philosopher based in Bengaluru.