To the Stratosphere

Part 1/13 of Travel Writings: Listening to Maharashtra and Goa (2017-18). Music & the Earth International, 2022. Available here.

An account of an 8,000 mile journey.

The scale of the world, when it hits you, can make you cry.

It’s been less than six hours since I left Washington, and already I can see that the only way to convey this trip to you is as a series of images — or rather, soundscapes. Perhaps, when read in sequence, they make some sort of cohesive sense. Like life. Or, perhaps, they do not. Like life.

At Washington’s international airport, one is greeted with the muted buzz of dozens of languages. In this evening’s check-in line for Qatar Airways, the languages included (but were not limited to) Arabic, Amharic, English, Hindi, and Urdu. No conversation is particularly clear to me, which makes it possible to also notice the silences. The airport is like a contemporary cathedral, with glass windows that tower to the ceiling, and vaults that seem like they were designed for silence rather than for people. The peace that this architecture produces stands in obvious contrast to the reason why we are here — to move, to leave, and to do so fast. It’s a timeless impulse, and the calm of the airport’s liminal spaces perhaps outlines what we are all about to do.

There are other silences, too. The various silences of waiting. The silence of not speaking with strangers, of quieting the chatter within oneself, of ambling through the terminal with nobody to talk to and plenty to observe. There is the silence of the security staff, who are not permitted to get to know you, and there is the silence of the person (or rather, of many many people) who have urgent questions but lack the language required to ask them.

And there is another silence that I noticed tonight. A family of three — a young South Asian couple, headed for the same flight as me, and their infant child. Amidst the totally forgettable hum of conveyor belts, and the occasional beep of an x-ray, I watched the baby lie, clad in a heavy coat, breathing steadily and not uttering a single sound. The parents were silent too. They maneuvered their items off the conveyor belt with steady hands. They did not exchange a word, and looked around them with reserved expressions and tired eyes.

I wondered if they were like hundreds of thousands of people in Washington, DC, for whom “home” is fragmented, or else separated by miles and miles of deep ocean. Were they headed all the way to Mumbai, like myself, or would they stop in Doha? Were they diaspores from Bangladesh, perhaps, or Sri Lanka, or India itself? How old are these parents? How old was this baby? How many infants are going to be in the air tonight? Will this one be scared? Will she, or he, break the silence and cry once we’re in flight? The questions, and answers, that can spin from any encounter in the international terminal of an airport are dizzying.

Airports are paradoxical that way: While they may constitute the world’s most bustling crossroads, they are also places in which you can see some of poignant scenes of everyday human life. Side-by-side, these snapshots and soundscapes may not weave together elegantly. But perhaps they are not meant to. Perhaps that is the point, of this dizzying concept we call “airport.”

On the plane, the soundscape remains that puzzling combination of neutral silence and an overwhelming array of new sounds. Twelve hours remain before we reach Doha, Qatar, and a personal entertainment system is available to fill all those hours. Music and film from all over the world is offered here. And, of course, there is also the constant drone of the plane, and the occasional sound from a fellow passenger — a snore, or a sneeze, or, perhaps, a cry. Far from being inconveniences, these are necessary reminders of what we are doing right now: We, hundreds of us, with our diversities and our (in)consistencies, are traveling in a big bus together. Thirty three thousand feet above the ground, at a speed of 550 miles per hour. The temperature outside is 50 below, Celsius. Our voyage will come to an end, but only after we have crossed the Atlantic Ocean, traversed the entirety of Europe, from Portugal to Turkey, and reached the Arabian peninsula. With our sounds and our silences, everything that is said and unsaid between us, we are experiencing a most singular life experience together.

The adhan signals sunset to us all. The call to prayer reverberates through the sound system at Hamad International Airport, reminding those of us who are unaccustomed to it that even in airports, diversity can be heard. And at times such as this, sound can link us to the Earth’s cycles. When in transit, it is easy to forget whether it is morning or night. But the adhan reminds us that night approaches, and it creates a sense of rootedness in one of the most liminal spaces in the world.

The adhan at this airport soars over the international transit lounge. This landscape is now common, but in the sweep of human history it is completely unprecedented. The same can perhaps be said of Doha itself. In the international transit lounge, travelers, Qatari residents, foreign guest workers, and people in between weave in and out of glitzy duty free shops, where everything from hijabs to watches to perfume to pure gold are sold. The adhan is linked closely to the values of Islam, and perhaps this connection reveals itself in the science of sound. Tonight, the juxtaposition of religion and extreme wealth moves me.

Many men here are dressed in loose white robes, and don headscarves that represent their belonging to one of many tribes on the Arabian Peninsula. Many women wear black burqas, their eyes visible and the rest kept from view. In between, there is a vast spectrum of colors and styles and sounds. Linguistic diversity in this airport sounds to me like a familiar piece of music, rather than a mix of ideas. I do not understand Arabic; my comprehension in Hindi is limited; and I therefore find myself experiencing this blend of languages in an impressionistic way. Sometimes, when sound is unfamiliar, we receive it in ways that differ from their original intention.

Whether we are Arab or Indian or Filipino or Australian, whether we are very rich or not, we are linked by the fact that we are all here. And this, perhaps, is among the most ancient drivers of change in both society and music. The world’s creole societies, be they in the Caribbean or South Asia or the Middle East, often developed out of happenstance. Whether due to trade or slavery or displacement or opportunity, people from a diverse variety of backgrounds simply ended up in the same place. In encounter, we forge new lifeways, and have the chance to pivot them towards sustainable horizons.

At Hamad International Airport, you can see where the desert meets the Persian Gulf. You can see where sand and sea find themselves, every time the sun rises and sets.

Ever since I knew what the word “feminism” meant, my mum and I have spent many hours per week lamenting its demise.

“Women say that they are free,” Amma observes in the sunny silence where we usually have our talks, “but they are as imprisoned as ever by the expectations of men.” For years, I have heard my mother compare the West’s oft-inadequate definitions of female empowerment with the feminism she grew up with in India. India’s feminism, she would say, did not hedge around the most important issues. It looked patriarchy squarely in the face, and proposed forms of empowerment that did not end with giving men exactly what they wanted to begin with. This was a feminism that affirmed the power of women in the most fundamental sense, that demonstrated what women and girls were capable of in ways that extended far, far beyond the pages of Allure or InStyle.

Through my friends in India, I have lately been introduced to bits and pieces of this kind of feminism. And on the flight, I saw two Bollywood movies (with beautiful soundtracks) that affirmed the power of women and girls in resounding ways.

The first film was titled Poorna, and it tells the true story of a young girl’s ascent to Mount Everest. The sounds of vast landscapes (including the peaks of the Himalayas) and of Poorna’s own body (her heartbeat, her breath, as she climbs) comprise much of the film’s soundtrack. The story revolves around three characters: a school administrator who establishes the program which allows her to make this extraordinary ascent; Poorna herself, aged 13 and full of eager talent; and her beloved cousin Priya — who, by Poorna’s own admission, is superior to Poorna in every way. Priya is married off young, and dies in childbirth shortly before Poorna is scheduled to climb Mount Everest. The story thus turns into a pursuit not only of distinction as a mountain climber, but also of respect for young girls, and a reverence for all that they are capable of.

The second film was titled Dangal, and it tackles (so to speak) the same threats to women’s well being. I had seen Dangal once before, on the eve of Hurricane María’s landfall in Puerto Rico. I remember that the story, and the music it was paired with, made me feel as though, as a young woman, I could handle anything — including, and perhaps especially, this storm. Dangal is the story of two village girls in Haryana who, despite the odds, are trained by their father to become championship wrestlers. In the process, these girls fall short of virtually all the expectations that would typically be placed upon them. Their appearance and lifestyle make them unsuitable for marriage, but their talent for wrestling gives them national — and international — love and respect. With a soundtrack that is both humorous and unshakably moving, we watch as these two young women totally bypass everything they are told young women “should” be. And, by the miracle of cinema (and of soundtracks), we share with them as they, like Poorna, accomplish goals that empower women everywhere.

As this plane begins its descent into Mumbai, and the key (if you will) of its rumble increases a little, I wonder how many inspiring women and girls reside here. Here, in what has always been described to me as one of the most vibrant, bustling, unstoppable cities on Earth.

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