Of birds and cages

Part 2/13 of Travel Writings: Listening to Maharashtra and Goa (2017-18). Music & the Earth International, 2022. Available here.

Colaba, Mumbai

A chorus of crows and mynas wakes me up this morning. Perhaps I am projecting, but they sound bright-eyed. Fresh, you know. Ready to take on the world. Undaunted and unfazed by humanity’s noise and complexity. Perhaps they have practice in this regard. They are, after all, the birds of Mumbai.

Mumbai is one of the world’s largest and most populous cities — home to more than twenty million people. Like Doha, Mumbai was once a fishing village. It exploded in both size and influence as the currents of history shaped it into the city it is today. Something within me aches a little, when I think of what cities like Doha and Mumbai were like before they became celebrated global metropolises. You could probably hear the waves back then, and smell the salt as it lifts off from the sea. Shorelines would not have been crowded, and it would have been possible to know the ecology of these places with an intimacy that is utterly inconceivable now.

I am fortunate to live on an island that has retained a measure of its natural beauty. I know what it feels like to sit by the shore, lose yourself in the rush of the waves, and feel at home. It breaks my heart that so many of the world’s coastlines were once so untrammeled and serene, and have now been displaced by urban landscapes that show no sign of receding.

Sometimes, contemplating the size — let alone the ecological footprint — of major world cities hurts. But today, on my first day in India in three years, my heart also feels restored in certain ways. I have been visiting this country every two or three years since I was a baby. Certain aspects of life here form a baseline (or, since we’re supposed to be talking about music, a bassline) that resonates within me whenever I return.

Listening for familiar sounds this morning, I also listen for what I am unable to hear. Lately it has occurred to me that the art of listening is not only about noticing and describing the sounds that prevail in a space. It is also about considering everything in a landscape that does not audibly speak, or sing. Perhaps in this sort of listening, the fishing villages of times past can still volunteer their wisdom on how to live. And memory can work its magic.

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