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Rowdies

Part 9/13 of Travel Writings: Listening to Maharashtra and Goa (2017-18). Music & the Earth International, 2022. Available here.

If so far, I have given the impression that India is a “sonic oasis” — far removed from the cacophonies of everyday life in the West — let me pour cold water on that wishful thinking right now.

It began with the monkeys. My first morning in Matheran, I was woken up by loud, crashing noises somewhere above me — in the heavens, perhaps, or on my rooftop. I assumed that this was the sound of construction work — a familiar possibility, having grown up in a place where construction is always in process but rarely finishes. But then I heard a new sound — something large and round being thrown, with full force, on the roof. Like a coconut, or a gallon of water, or a human head. As long as they stop by bedtime, I thought drowsily.

The monkeys where I am staying in Matheran are, to put it elegantly, completely out of control. At sunrise every morning, they reclaim the land that was taken from them with a vengeance, and an unnerving sense of humor. They thrust themselves back and forth on the swings outside, they throw Carrom coins at passers-by, they steal water and soda and food directly from people’s arms and hands, they destroy holiday decorations, and all the while they hoot and chuckle, as though they fully intended to cause all this damage and distress. They kind of remind me of humans in that sense.

For someone who is devoting her life to mitigating the social impacts of climate change, through the social medium of music, I am curiously creeped out by humanity. I do not understand why we do most of the things we do. I find it difficult to reconcile our profound capacities in philosophy, science and the arts with the way we actually live our lives. Humanity seems to be a walking paradox, a jumble of perennial contradictions. At least monkeys are transparent and unapologetic about the mischief they cause. Their mischief is bizarre, to be sure, but at least you know where you stand.

In the evening, I heard a tap on the door. An invitation to a magic show! I put on a sweater, as Matheran’s altitude makes evenings quite cold. A stage had been set up outside, and I was surprised by the attendance. I did not see a single person above the age of seventeen. They sat in groups and giggled together as the magician performed his solo show. I observed, trying to seem like as much of an “elder” as possible. But inside, I felt strange. Had I just crashed a field trip? Good, I thought. I can check this off by bucket list. Teenagers intrigue me — they are not yet homo sapiens sapiens in the strictest sense. Being a monkey forever is still very much a possibility in their minds, and that somehow makes me trust them.

After the show finished, the same space turned into a dance floor. A mix of techno-pop in Tamil, Punjabi, and Hindi played on a large sound system. American chart-toppers were included, too. I watched as the kids danced in a group (no couples, I mean), looking awkward despite their best efforts, as all teenagers do. This is cute, I thought to myself, trying my best not to look too creepy.

Four hours later, the flinging of unidentified flying objects confirmed my “not quite human, not quite monkey” theory. The same teenagers from the magic show and dance party were hurling Bhagwan knows what against the other side of my wall. Not at me per se, I don’t think. Their yells, and crashes and whoops of triumph could have been directed towards anyone.

I listened to the kids in the room adjacent to my own, as they let massive amounts of alcohol into their circulatory systems — possibly for the first time in their lives. I listened to their shouts and hollers and to the things that they were throwing around. Feeling a thousand years old in comparison to them, I thought of the monkeys I’d watched that morning. The likeness was uncanny, and I wasn’t sure if the credit should go to the monkeys, or the kids, or both. But at the risk of sounding like a loooooser, I do have to say that all of the noise — the monkeys, the party, even the music… it was all just too loud. The joy of the birds, the sobriety of the mountains, the assurance that if one wishes to hear or create good music, there is space to do so: I missed all of these things intensely, as though (I thought melodramatically) I would never hear them again.

I pondered: Perhaps rowdiness is a natural tendency in humanity — “natural” insofar as it is shared by people all around the world. It relies upon, and yields, soundscapes that as homo sapiens sapiens, we sometimes defend but also need an escape from. Climate activists, dedicated musicians, students of history and believers in a wiser future cannot help but be concerned by these soundscapes. As I heard the kids last night, I felt overwhelmed by the volume (in multiple senses of the world) of the forces that distract and discourage us from sustainability.

What to do with humanity’s monkey mind(s)? Is there any piece of music, or call to environmental action, that can turn high schoolers around?

It’s an Olympian question. Onwards to Mumbai, a vast and inevitably rowdy city.

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