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The soundtrack of India

If you take away that constant culprit, the Indian horn, every city has a different soundtrack

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

Every time I hear you grumble about the volume of the muezzin’s call that begins your day, including Sunday, with Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, la ilahillallah or curse the cacophony of church bells or tweet about how your building society is playing Sukhwinder Singh’s Gajanana (from Bajirao Mastani) on loop, I wonder why you haven’t yet imbibed the soundtrack of India. Those of you who spent your formative years in Zurich and Scandinavia are excused but the rest of you can kindly explain why you shut your ears.

Loud, louder, loudest…I know city slickers log up to 20 decibel loss in hearing just by virtue of where we live, but I feel oddly helpless without the country’s continuous chaotic soundtrack, playing out simultaneously in 780 languages, according to the People’s Linguistic Survey Of India. Seven-year-old Babyjaan goes to bed by 7.30 every night. She does this because when she was around two years old, we spent six months in Berkeley, California, where there was not a single sound after 7pm. No Amazon deliveries, no Arnab Goswami yelling at his studio guests, no Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh ringtones, no thread bombs and thriller bombs, no nosy neighbours or sudden drop-ins and no sudden after-dark processions with accompanying orchestra. In short, zero incentive for a toddler to stay awake. When we came back home, she marked the maghrib azaan as time to start getting ready for bed.

Mumbai and Delhi routinely compete with cities such as Cairo and Guangzhou to make it to the top of the World’s Noisiest list. Yet if you take away that constant culprit, the Indian horn, every city has a different soundtrack.

Two years ago, Tapan Babbar, a user-experience engineer from Delhi who loves the vibe of Mumbai, created Sounds Of Mumbai , an audio project that goes from one iconic city sound to the next—the horns of naval ships and the waves crashing against the shore at the Gateway of India, traffic and braking BEST buses in south Mumbai, the announcement in triplicate (Marathi, Hindi and English) of a Mumbai local, “Next station Mumbai Central", qawwali at Haji Ali Dargah in the Arabian Sea, the sea at Bandstand in Bandra, the squeaky sounds of a balloon seller at Juhu Beach and a performing monkey at Chowpatty Beach, a fierce Mumbai monsoon on the road, hawkers and tourists at Marine Drive, the clip-clop of a horse carriage at Nariman Point; the “Nahin Simran nahin..." dialogue from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which played for more than 1,000 weeks at Maratha Mandir; and aarti at the Siddhivinayak Temple in Prabhadevi.

Even within our cities, we all have our personal soundtracks. The sounds of childhood—satyagraha in my history books, black marketers at every First Day, First Show, knife sharpeners, the sounds of tel maalish and boot polish. The rains and trains I grew up with and which I stopped noticing eventually. The Hare Krishna chants at a 4.30am aarti. The annual Janfest organized by the Indian Music Group at St Xavier’s College and an all-night affair in the years I was a student. Watching a matinee rerun of Dosti in the almost empty, now defunct, theatre Strand in Colaba. The magic of that original Bollywood playlist beamed via transistor every night—Noor Jehan was ours first, y’know, that great Geeta Dutt vs Lata Mangeshkar battle, all those masculine voices—S.D. Burman, Manna Dey, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi—and the lyricists and composers who worked alongside them to make up the golden era of Hindi film music. The vroom of my husband’s Enfield (not modified) and my daughter’s early cry of Amma, until she switched to the more universal Mamma. The shrill ring of the mechanical wind-up alarm that jolts me out of bed every day at 6am. The sizzle of good food, perennially on the flame at home.

Why does this soundtrack matter anyway? Because it places me and helps define who I am and where I come from. These sounds are hard-wired in my memory forever, especially if I move away from the place I have always called home. They are my past and where I belong.

Music and poetry is an integral part of any Indian’s soundtrack. Abhang, baul, qawwali, panchavadyam, Haveli Sangeet, harikatha, protest songs and a hundred different drumming traditions, to name just a fraction. From gramophones and Gauhar Jaan and the great poets of the Mughal era to standout voices such as Amitabh Bachchan and Ameen Sayani. Even a word/phrase repeated often enough—Mitron, Acche Din, Swacch Bharat—becomes an integral part of our soundtrack.

Of course there are many off-key elements in this soundtrack. The couldn’t-care-less tone of a person talking loudly in a movie theatre. The irritated final click of a person exiting a bigoted college WhatsApp group. The methodical construction of toilets that may or may not be used. The sound of disappearing money—hard cash, at least. The splash of spit hitting the road, the trickle of piss on any wall without a god picture drawn on it, the wretchedness of a senior citizen abandoned on the streets and forced to ask for a handout at your car window and the cries of a tourist couple, beaten and asking for help. The silent screams of women and children being abused in their homes.

The sound of change can be ugly too. The shrieking fake news, spread by idiots, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". The deafening reverberation of powerlooms that make the floor shake as they obliterate an older way of weaving. The mind-numbing screech of marble cutters that contribute to our modern-day architectural monstrosities. The brutal cheers of a gang of gau rakshaks as they film the live murder of a helpless man. If you must outrage, at least outrage about the things that are really wrong with our soundtrack.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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