What a Scream!

(The following article was posted in the “Off Track” column of the Hindustan Times, one of India’s largest English language daily newspapers, on 29 July 2003.) Watching pilgrims’ dandavat parikramas around Govardhan at this time of year is inspirational. Most are elderly and engage in this totally radical form of worship in unforgiving heat. But swelter isn’t the real problem. The biggie here is noise pollution, or NP. You say you don’t want to know what noiseaholics are like in small north Indian villages? Sorry, but I *have* to tell you. Wearing the softest rubber-plastic earplugs available starts to hurt after 24 hours. The voice outside is amplified to 989.99 decibels through a loudspeaker shaped like a Tibetan mountain horn-meets-a-ship’s warning distress signal. Its perched upon a short concrete pole 30 meters from where I sleep in this bucolic hideaway. Life goes on, NP or not. The man sounds like he’s having his entrails ripped out by two Rottweilers, a Doberman pinchers and an Irish wolfhound. That was last night. *All* of last night. This morning Minnie Mouse took the microphone and was never in finer fettle. I thought I liked music. But film “song” can be more excruciating than full throttle jet engines up close. By the way, they have their own generators, so power cuts don’t allow easier breathing. I detest adjectives, so I won’t call it horrific, criminal, foul or agonizing. I won’t declare that I can’t sleep at night, nor will I divulge that I loathe the vibrations that saturate the ether around me. That extreme amplification isn’t necessary is something I won’t dwell on, but I’m convinced people livin nearby have serious hearing problems. Beg them to lower the volume? Just a little? No way! “This is my life, Baba.” Go to the police? They’re too busy catching thieves and murderers. Give them a backhander? Well, right now that’s against my principles. What sometimes passes for dulcet strings or celestial music is ultimately a form of sound. Singsong acappella “poetry” in Vrajbasi (male voice) are common fare. And spirited ‘songs’ (soprano female voices) accompanied by lively wind, string and percussion instruments, should make Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle (or whoever) wretch in agony. But I think they like being broadcast in remote regions, cinema soundtrack or quasi-bhajan. Holy places infected with such brash NP convictions as ‘my way or the highway’ aren’t really that different from the telltale “thump, thump” of the bass guitars that throb through frosted windows of red sporty-looking cars with dangerous hubcaps on busy city streets. Some lovers of the beat don’t even bother to put up their car windows on summer days but they love playing their favorite chart-busters at peak volume. Maybe they prefer oxygen to freon. Maybe they’re right about some things. Well, at least you don’t have to *sleep* next to them.