Zen in the city?

Have you been woken up at 1 AM? By the sound of large 100 Kg stone slabs being dropped? Trust me, it’s not nice. First there is denial – “this can’t be happening”. Then there is annoyance – “WTF?!”. Then there is anger. You walk out, confront them. Turns out it’s BBMP this time delivering slabs to cover the storm water drains. But surely, there’s a better time to do that?

“We’ll be done sir, only 20 stones to go” he promises. You call the police. The police control room forwards the call to the local police station. The local police station calls you. “Should we come over?”. You hand over your phone to one of the workers. The police have a chat, and they talk to me. “He says only 10 minutes, what do you want us to do?” I agree to give them 10 more minutes. They finish in 7 and leave, not before giving me a cheeky “Sorry for the disturbance”, in English.

Fun part is, despite so many houses all around, not one even opened a window to as much as check what’s happening. It could’ve been someone stealing stuff, or dumping stones from other places in your area. Would you care? Would you speak up?

A few weeks back, I opened the window to talk to a neighbour who’s car reverse horn just rendered a full version of Vandemataram at 1:15 AM. “Dude, WTF?” He thinks I am referring to some stray dogs shouting near him. “What can I do?”, I ask him to tone down on the vehicle. “Not my car boss, company’s and they’ve installed it.” Well, at least don’t park on reverse when you’re late! “ok” he agreed grudgingly. He followed it for a week, then doesn’t bother. I know I can’t push it too far, people can be touchy about their cars, and being asked to pipe down. The threatening “Ei!” comes out sooner than later.

The fun part is that reverse horns have been banned since 2014. A lot of cars still get sold, brand new, with these horns installed by the showrooms. A complaint with the traffic police got a “Check with RTO” as response. RTO isn’t easy to communicate with. Means, you just suffer idiots taking their cars out early in the morning, or parking it in late in the night.

What is it about people that makes them lose all sense of civic sense when it comes to cars? The number of times I’ve had to hurriedly shield my mother from being knocked down by a speeding car which refuses to slow down, even though we’ve entered a part of the road which is too narrow and can’t get out before he reaches us! I even signal him to slow down as we can’t move anywhere. He doesn’t care. It’s scary! People die. And someone actually complained on Twitter that pedestrians are at fault for coming in front of vehicles. Yes, get killed in 1000s per year and get blamed for it.

I wonder why am the only person who seems to be bothered by this ridiculous noise pollution at odd hours. Surely others would also wake up because of this noise? The answer seems to be a case of “neevoo maadalva?” (don’t you also do this?) The entire city suffers all things thrown at it, in the hope and need that one day they’ll have to do something similar and don’t want to be disturbed at that time. Better not be the first stone thrower.

As more people buy cars, it is unlikely there’ll be any respite from this nonsense. People seem to leave their brains at home, and drive only on ego. The solution might be to train the brain to ignore noises, especially when sleeping. The direction am taking seems to be the opposite. Reverse horns seem to bring out some stress in me, that my brain is recognising as an alarm call to alert me about. This results in me being woken up in the middle of the night even from deep sleep, and in a sense of agitation that makes it harder to get back to sleep. Normal horns sounded as some vehicles pass by don’t seem to have the same effect.

The entire city runs on saying “don’t care”. Got woken up by some noise? Give it a few minutes and you can sleep again. No noise lasts for ever. Maybe there is some Zen in the way people respond to disturbances. Should everyone be emulating this? But when do you take a stand? How much is too much?

Where are the silences?

After weeks of enduring the constant stream of latest B’wood numbers coming from a let-out house a road away, I went up and asked the students living there to pipe down. They were very polite and reduced the volume immediately. They were also well-versed in the art of giving up a few battles for the ultimate war. The volume went right up the next morning. It usually stays up whenever there’s someone at home, so it starts at 8 AM and goes on all the way till 10 PM. Thankfully, during the evenings, the TV volume at home can drown out extraneous noises.

What surprises me is not the noise coming out, but the noise that stays in during all this time.Forget hear each other, how the hell do they even hear themselves think?! I can understand their being young and all, but surely at some point, your brain will scream “FATIGUE!” no? Even I was a teen, a student, and I couldn’t endure so much sound. Of course, living in Srinagar meant that there was always some loudspeaker for some function on, or a front-engine auto running on kerosene would try valiantly to climb up the slope in front of the house, stopping all conversation at home, and spreading the stink of kerosene over a 100ft radius.

But then, students’ music noise is just one of the cacophony of noises filling up the area. We live in a reasonably quiet neighbourhood, mainly because there is a lake behind and roads here lead to houses and not to other areas. There is no pass-through traffic. But even with that, the propensity for noise is just staggering! Anyone who returns home after 11 PM has to cause his share of noise. There are cars with reverse horns, which are banned by the Govt, but no one cares. And then there are just normal front horns, which people nervously press every few seconds, especially two-wheelers. A quiet neighbourhood brings out the need to fill up the quietness with some noise, those trying to sleep be damned.

Come daytime, these noises fade into the background as granite grinding machines fill up the quietness. Sunbirds, tailorbirds and bulbuls fly in, perch on trees and plants, sing for a few minutes, realise the pointlessness of it and fly away. A few brave butterflies flit around, some with wings mutilated by predators or speeding vehicles; their numbers coming down every passing year. Every house needs to have the tree in front of it cut down. I stopped blaming houses though. Whoever planted trees should have put them at the border of sites, not bang in the front of each site. Almost all trees that are in between sites survive. Very few put at the front of sites make it. Gates, parking, cars always take precedence in the anthropocene.

Through all this I try looking for silence. While the last construction was raging on, I grieved over the death of the bulbul chicks by sitting by the lake, listening to Weavers singing. The lake was a respite on bad days. Now the path is overgrown and there is no easy way to walk around. A constable stays put there and has barred the entrance closest to me. He is amicable though and tells me about the kind of people who use public areas that few people go to and for what purpose.

What is left is just cycling. The road is silent, there are few vehicles, some honk, but I tend not to notice, I hear them coming and wave them by, trying to prevent a few honks. But the effort for cycling helps clear out noise. I take Amma walking. She struggles to walk after a few minutes, but we manage. I show her the flitting Mormons and Crimson Roses. Some days at the lake, we see cormorants, egrets and ducks. We still have some commons in the Western part of the city that aren’t polluted as much by noise.

We went to Bhadra a few weeks back. I sat outside listening to the river lapping at the banks, some birds singing, and watching butterflies flit by. Within minutes the sound of people talking came over from neighbouring huts. It wasn’t just in huts, everywhere there was the noise of them talking. Never an immersion into the surroundings. It is almost a fear of silences, the need to fill everything silent with some familiar sound.

During the days of running, those used to be minutes of silence when the lake was still good enough to run around. I never could run with music like many do; after all, it shouldn’t be that difficult to do some activity without having some noise that you control coming into you.

Wonder where we are getting to where we have to go farther and farther to find any sense of silence. At least night times used to guarantee some sense of silence. Now we have to get used to sleeping through sudden horns from vehicles that could not care less. We just might get there, with deep sleep that doesn’t get disturbed by vehicle noises in the middle of the night. But all this noise will exact its consequences, and there are already reports of deafness rising in cities.

There is something assholic about the way people use their cars. Honking in the middle of the night, honking early morning, honking to ask people inside the house to hurry up, honking just for the heck of it! The real tragedy though is that we go to sleep listening to horns, not crickets or cicadas and we wake up very early again to blaring horns and not birdsong.