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Hear This! The Silence Of Sounds.

We have deadened our sense of hearing and created walls of sound to overcome the fright of singularity that we had never known in the land of our birth.

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The season is finally over and with it its sounds. The chaotic, annoying mall or elevator music that at once praises the birth of baby Jesus and the inextricable bond with Santa Claus and the implied consumer culture is gone for the next 10 months or so. There is no quiet of the season, really. Unless of course you are one of those courageous recluses with the nerve to shut out what is considered normal and habitual.

Our own seasons are no exceptions. Every religious holiday, and we have many of them, is marked by a continuous, louder by the block, cacophony of noises that we call music. We have the capability of blanketing social consciousness with sounds as much as anyone else. Ours are as distinguished as anyone else's. We also add the noises we make at weddings on large loudspeakers and even larger sound systems to the yearly progression of manufactured sentiments. There is no shortage for the celebration of seasons with a senseless barrage of noise, music or sound, whatever you call it.

Is this what they call modernity?

Our age is marked by the assault on the senses. In every possible sense. The current machinery of consciousness aims to numb our senses, slowly and deliberately. We have already recognized and glorified the visual in everything. From knowledge to experience, everything is transformed into one form of the image of another. In fact, it so overloads our capacity of perception that it is possible to believe it has deadened our other senses. Hence the observation that the culture that overuses the visual, ends up with tasteless food, uncomplicated musical structures, cold and distant social encounters, and flavorless and scentless edibles and touchables. What is left? A hapless effort at inventing everything artificial so as to compensate for what we have lost.

And émigrés should know better, wouldn't you think! We transport ourselves from one place to another, with a privilege of benefiting from the best of both cultures. True, we leave behind the noise of our environment, with its programmatic production all around us, and arrive here. That journey itself says a lot about what our world is and what we have not made of it.

One of the marked experiences we remember is just how "quiet" things are in America. Not just during festivals, seasons and celebrations, but generally, in quotidian life. Just as passing by a Burger King reminds us of the smell of a crematorium, our first days in the suburbs bring to us deeper reminders of a cemetery.

It is that quiet here.

Nothing moves, no one shouts, there are no neighbors screaming or talking to each other, no animals leaping into the sound barrier, and except for occasional vehicles on the front street, there is nothing moving anyplace near or beyond the horizon. We realize that people pay more for this quiet. The co-called city is nothing, but a dead zone now. There are exceptions only in neighborhoods or in unseemly representations of this civilization, like New York City. Sounds in that city are another story altogether. It requires a separate meditation, because the entire city is making every effort to run away from the sound of its immediate inhabitant, permanent or transient. They have invented technologies to cut oneself away from the sound of the environment. IPods and walkmans are connected to people who do not wish to talk to another. It is now a territory of eccentrics holding a willing re-union. Every day, on each corner and street!

The general mark of life in America is that it is without any character in sound or noise. Even visitors who wake up the first morning after their jet-lag, wake up because it is so quiet in the neighborhood. They slept better in the constant cacophony of their own surroundings, but the dead of the block awakens them. It takes a while to get used to.

But you get used to it, to the silence of life here. Everything is carefully constructed to leave each person in his or her zone of sound. It is hard to describe the character of an American neighborhood with its sounds. Not the manufactured sounds, but the sounds produced by human beings in their affairs as social beings. And you find yourself in the position of an outside observer trying to figure out what it is that you are experiencing while you are here. And one of the precious dimensions of that experience is exactly that, just how odd it feels here. Until you become one of them.

One distinct feature of life here, or what we call the "American" experience, is the road trip. The broad highways that are so Eisenhower like, expansive and without any character, provide an indelible experience to a traveler. The natives are absorbed in it. Watching how that occurs is the charm of life. Before we contemplate that, let us remember how to be outsiders, by being very self-conscious about ourselves.

An imminent desire among immigrants is to recreate their own culture wherever they go. It is such a common impulse that many of us may be tempted to call it "natural." Theories and perspectives abound to explain this phenomenon. Whatever the defenses of this tendency, there is no doubt that it shields you from the primary privilege of being an outsider anywhere outside your own home. That is to see a culture, a people and a world other than your own.

We learn from this, perhaps more than from any other source. So it is thrilling indeed to turn up the car speakers to listen to the same film songs you have listened to a million times, and turn and tune in your ears to other sounds coming from that easily available wonder. The walls of security come in sound and music as well. But there is a world to be peered at and we must do it if we want to stick to the ethics of being somewhere else. And, once you do, a whole new world unfolds in your ears as your eyes take in the road, which has the same iconography for hundreds of miles and the characteristic monotony of American highways.

It is not an aurally attractive world, but it is new. If you listened to it during the past two decades, you heard the shrieking high pitch of talk radio, so mastered by the Right Wing. After a while, it is not the content that matters, but the experience of joining in a festive carnival of verbal abuses, racist remarks, empty platitudes, and entirely unreliable attacks on what we used to call truth or facts. But it is an enduring sound. It does not disappear from one exit to another. It simply reemerges in another avatar. From one state to another, from one town to another, there is a singular ghost of Right Wing talk radio that simply reproduces itself, like a monster in the road movies.

Across the dial, there is of course the radio of popular choice, commercial radio. This is where the models of commercial exploitation of radio was pioneered and this is where radio became an instrument of consumer society and sound took a back seat (if that at all!). You realize before too long that music is simply an excuse to bring goods to you, directly and without any inhibition. It is one giant plugging machine too. It plugs everything, from car dealers to politicians to up and coming places in musical charts. You ask yourself, where is music that makes this place tick. It is there somewhere, in the beats and rhythms and melodies of its history, in all genres that have given unending gifts to world culture. But it is not easily found. Even in a long road trip from one end of the country to another, it is very hard to figure out where the soul of music lies. It is certainly not on radio, certainly not evident in its unmasked attempts at hiding it and selling you everything except the audible, the aural, and the musical dimension of what this land offers.

Let us not speak of public radio. If you are used to short wave radio, the sounds coming from this source are so poor and flat that one wonders if this is the best that the greatest practitioners of freedom of speech can offer. Is this what the riches of resources can produce? It is not just that public radio has become mimicry of the news networks, a slightly better one at that in a given frame of hreference, but it has become a voice of helplessness.

Beneath its pretensions of fairness and giving you more news than others on radio, public radio personalities sound more pitiful than the beggars in the ghettoes anywhere, as they plead for money every ten weeks or so. Still, they lack the grace or the need of beggars. Their funding depends on listeners - an idea that is impalpable if you realize where you come from. And yet, in amateurish voices and the pathos of untrained radio speakers, they beg for money with untried jokes, veiled and explicit threats of deprivation of public radio, and with treats like umbrellas, totes, and free CDs, none of which you would need if you were listening to good radio in the first place.

With all this programmatic noise installed in the car, you realize that the road trip, is not just a feature of travel between long distances, it is what happens between places where people live and where they work. The so called commute is less about communing with anything, but living with two technologies, one of private transportation and the other connecting your ears to a continuous source of sound.

Students of broadcasting know that radio enjoyed a re-birth because the Detroit car companies decided to install one in every car. With all the quiet between the neighbors and houses and friends, every American knows the impossibility of being alone in the car.

This is not a loneliness that longs for another human being, but for envelopes of sound. It is virtually impossible for most people to get in the car and not listen to anything. It may be radio, CDs or other pod-like source. People get restless if the auditory technologies are broken or missing in their cars. It is almost like the restlessness of a person who has lost his limbs, for he hasn't gotten used to living without them. Citizens, who have gotten so comfortable with the absence of sound between human beings, cannot fight the loneliness of being alone without sound. That solitude is frightening for them. Industry realized this well and designed the entire broadcasting system to address the lonely traveler without sound in the car.

All this appears strange until we become one of them. Until we have also deadened our sense of hearing, longed for impoverished silence outside our dwellings and created walls of sound around our ears and in our cars to overcome the fright of singularity that we had never known in the land of our birth.

We leave this legacy to the generations that follow us. There is very little else that we listen to, except our own, which we should have absorbed and moved beyond until this moment. How many of us have explored the frontiers of gospel music, or buried ourselves in the blues, or touched the greatness of soul or jazz? Or the ingeniousness of folk music or rock and roll? It is the music that comes from the people that still sings of traditions, some borrowed and some homegrown, but genuine nonetheless.  To be somewhere else is to learn from that place. It is not to re-create the world in our likeness. That denotes extreme insecurity and an unwillingness to really cross  boundaries when we leave home.

The continuing fascination we have with manufactured sounds, the music of our times, is still with what we brought with us. The Hindi film music, for all its greatness and its Guinness Book wonders, is not the music of our traditions. It shrieks and often clouds the once great poetry as it assumes a pop form, in its repetitive modes, recycling the same tired sounds. It has become our wallpaper music, as worthy of being ridiculed as any other form.

Some cling to classical Indian music, but their numbers are shrinking. It requires learning, attention and commitment, none of which were allowed to flourish here as we tuned in to film songs with a vengeance. We had to get what was once ours and cling on to the greatness that we think we had discovered. It is fine to hang on to some ropes from the world we left behind, but the ropes begin to lose their meaning and they leave nothing else to hang on to.

Once a British friend listened to a classical music cassette tape only to remark that he thought the tape player was running too fast! The impatience in that comment demonstrates as much a lack of engagement in other cultures as the need to overcome it. When Westerners go to India, the lasting imprint it makes on them is the level of "noise." There are sounds everywhere. Hotel rooms in five star establishments are sought because they are so out of limits of street noise. It is not the view that is precious now; it is the isolation from unwanted noise. This may not be the noise of loudspeakers, but the noise from everything that moves, breathes and lives. What an abomination! Their ears are awakened and senses engaged, but without an apparatus in place for appreciating that, the travelers are lost.
That is the signature of the environment. If India offers anything to those who visit, it is the immersion in the senses. All of them! As natives we take it for granted and as travelers they take notice. Such are the pleasures of being someplace else!

There is something lyrical and melodic and rhythmic in the sounds of India. Varied as the country is, so are its sounds. As it embraces modernity with a speed faster than most can say "globalization," it engulfs all that is alien and loses all that is genuine. There is innocence in un-adulterated environment. Where there was a broad diversity of sounds and noises when we woke up, when we slept and when we worked, there is now an imposing uniformity of traffic, segregated housing "colonies" (as we appropriately call them), artificial urbanity, and a general vacuum created by emptying that breathed life for years.

There was music in that environment, an aura that is inexplicable. It was hard to fathom the reasons why All India Radio began the day with news in Sanskrit, but it sounded as if waking up had to be fully precious. If form was more important than content, this was the case. Radio was slow, but it was also not cacophonic and certainly not chaotic, programmatically or otherwise. There was no spicing up of channels, except Amin Sayani came every Wednesday evening and gave us enough dose of film songs to last us for another week. For die hard fans, Radio Ceylon filled the void.  Each radio set had a short wave band and all propagandists were within reach. So were the sounds beyond the borders. Generations learned to speak English listening to short wave and ended up speaking it better than the English speakers themselves. Cricket commentators were stalwarts of broadcasting, not producers of idle talk.
Waking up in India has always been a sensory experience. It did not matter if you woke up with radio or without it. The environment worked as radio, a real tribal drum. It brought messages from around. The rattle of the bullock cart or the milkman's canister, or the knock on the door, the neighbor's loud shouts and the noise of the people waking up and moving on with the day's chores. There was something in each neighborhood. An audio post that was distinctly Indian and it spoke of the times as much as of its people and traditions. This is what people meant when they said India wakes up your senses. Culture came alive in sound and it spoke many languages, many more than those spoken by the tongue.

The muezzin's call to prayer announced the morning, a signature of our collective strength. One day in our neighborhood, some lunatics woke up on the wrong side of the bed and destroyed that tradition with their glaring loudspeakers. Now there were Hindu prayers on the loudest of loudspeakers, aimed solely to drown out the Muslim call to prayer. Instead of tradition, hatred filled the mornings. It was a rare gift to be an Indian, to be sensitive to the senses and enjoy solitude among the otherwise noisy surroundings. With the religious conflict, we began to lose all that.

Each life brings its own paradoxes. Modernity exacerbated these paradoxes. The struggle for security and silence in this environment, the one we have chosen to live in and the increasing contradictions and conflicts in the life left behind, all speak to our collective state of being. But we need to listen carefully, hear diligently and be tuned in, either as émigrés or as natives, because going through life with numbed senses is not really an option.  

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Commentary | Magazine | February 2007

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