Quieter than Hearing

Part 3/13 of Travel Writings: Listening to Maharashtra and Goa (2017-18). Music & the Earth International, 2022. Available here.

This journal of my travels is already taking a different turn than the one I’d anticipated. I had expected to write about the masala of sounds I encounter in various places. In Colaba, for instance: The honking of taxis and the chatter in Hindi and Marathi at street food stalls. The hum of urban life, which in some ways lessens at night, but in other ways remains — much like the dark matter that persists in the world, though it cannot be seen.

I was planning to write a colorful account of the bold soundscapes of Mumbai. I imagined that it would complement, or inadvertently imitate, a narrative that has been written a thousand times before, and is experienced by millions of people every day. This was my intention, and I have been paying attention to what I hear. In some cases I’ve unsuccessfully tried to record it, using a microphone that is far better suited to a band rehearsal than it is to the vast tapestry of sounds that make up this urban landscape. Last night, I stood outside a church and attempted to record the service that was taking place inside. My back was turned to the darkness of the street, and crows cawed overhead. Yet when I played the recording back, this dynamic between birdsong and human recitations could not be heard at all.

But this does not bug me — because, really, I’m finding to my surprise that what I really want to write about is silence. I am, to be quite honest, a little alarmed by how much I wish to write about what I am not hearing.

Walking down a busy thoroughfare this morning, I heard the soft coo of a mourning dove. Yesterday afternoon, here in Colaba, I passed by a number of buildings which struck me as lovely and rather whimsical. They can be described as Indo-Saracenic — an architectural style which was popular among Indian British architects in the nineteenth century, and which combined Indo-Islamic and Victorian sensibilities. These buildings stood silently, as did the trees that lined the streets. Banyan, gulmohar, peepul — these trees provided shade and cast delicate patterns upon the street when touched by the rays of the sun. They, too, were a presence that could not be heard, strictly speaking, but nevertheless seemed to me to be an important part of the soundscape. Inaudible though they were, they invited pause, and is that not part of a soundscape, too?

And then there were the kids — two in particular. In the evening, as I strolled towards Colaba Causeway (a major commercial street), I was startled by a tap on my elbow. Looking down, I saw a young girl and boy looking me in the eye, murmuring their pleas for money. I’ve spent enough time in India to know what one is “supposed” to do — look away, walk ahead, and bark the kids away with a sharp “jao!” if necessary. You are supposed to remind yourself that any money you give these kids will most likely be taken away from them in any case, so it is best not to engage. As I did this, though, it occurred to me that nothing of these kids’ lives was expressed sonically. This may strike some as an obvious point, but it hit me with full force: that here and everywhere, most of the injustices that children (as well as vulnerable plants and animals) experience cannot be heard in public space. They are not heard, and thus they are not noticed. I became aware of the fact that the lives of children who beg on the streets (here, and in practically every major city on Earth) are not a part of the urban soundscapes that we experience, and commit to paper, most frequently.

It now seems to me that Mumbai’s most interesting, wisest, and/or most urgent stories are not the ones that are most easily heard. Just as our most critical environmental concerns are not the ones that are given the most “air time” — so to speak. And just as the world’s most delicate music, which gestures towards peace, is often drowned out, too, by sounds that can very easily be described as “noise” in comparison.

A new thread of observation is emerging within and around me, which puts music, the Earth, and the geography of Mumbai in a different light. If we were to regard “silence” not simply as the absence of noise, but also as a gateway into insights and experiences that quietly yet firmly exist, then… how might that change our sense of what is impressive, what is urgent, what is precious, and what must be heard?

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