Noise and sound

If a sensitive long-distance microphone were to be dangled in geostationary orbit somewhere over Chattisgarh at the centre of the Subcon on a workday morning, it would pick up one noise from Asansol to Multan, from Shigatse to Matara. And that is the grating sound of metal on metal, of steel shutters being pulled up in a clanging, raspy, bone-shattering noise that sends the heart racing and leaves the brain terror-stricken.

It is a terrible experience that is repeated tens of millions of times at shopfronts and housefronts, in markets and residential neighbourhoods, all over. Only South Asian onomatopoeia can approximate the downing (or upping) of a shutter; it is a frightful ghatghatghat-dhaddhad-dhad-dhyang! An uncultured reverberation that is as remote from modern day sophistication as it is removed from any arena of South Asia's past.

It is yet to be recognised — the mental trauma suffered by the hundreds of millions of South Asia's teeming billion every morning and evening as shutters clang open and bang shut in a continuous line right along the Grand Trunk Road to Peshawar, up its innumerable offshoots and feeder roads and their innumerable offshoots and feeder gullies. How many of us turn into serial killers and/or corrupt contractors as a result of the upping and downing of shutters day in and day out?

The chaste, cultured wooden shutter with louvers or glass panes is a thing of the past in our middle-class neighbourhoods. Your average metal shutter is a binding together of strips of steel that ride metal guides on the two sides. When open, it is rolled up at the top, bundled over a spring mechanism. The contraption is designed to make noise and ensure security, and it does both with efficiency.

What it lacks in aesthetics, the metal shutter provides in near-total protection. But then a bazaar lined with metal shutters is more like an industrial zone, completely bereft of the human touch, as forbidding as a fortress. The life goes out of a marketplace when all is shuttered up – even the scavenging strays look like woebegone ghosts.

There are, of course, other modern day noises that we suffer from, that surely inflict massive psychological damage on the populace in cities, towns and villages. The amplified muezzin's call shatters the dawn, after an all-night bout with the scratchy surround-sound of the jagaran brigade. The high-decibel rendition of the qawalli on the loud speaker does injustice to the wild energy evident in its unaided singing. The nuanced timbre of the tabla has lost out to the whine of the electric guitar and other manufactured sound.

The trucks that blast their highway pneumatic horns in crowded city streets are another way in which modern day noise has banished old world sound. The screech of the circular saw at the wood workshop replaces the soft rasp of the hand-held plane. The whine of the lathe drowns the tappings of the blacksmith's hammer. And the sweet cacophony of the DC-3 Dakota's piston engines have been supplanted by the whining of turbofans. The blast of the musket was first replaced by the report of the .303, and now we have 'graduated' to the rat-tat-tat of magazine-fed SLRs (self-loading rifles).

We are being overtaken by noise, but somehow we have to find a way to recover sound. Let the beat not overwhelm the melody. Let us at least oil the shutters…

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Himal Southasian