Mar 6, 2013

A constant cacophony

One of the things Vivek prizes about life in the States, as compared with India, is the relative quiet. He especially enjoys the porch of my parents' house in Pennsylvania, where you can sit and hear the crickets chirp or the corn stalks rustling at night -- but hardly anything else.

I've certainly noticed the contrast, too, on returning home from trips here: The 101 from SFO can seem eerily quiet after the constant shouting and honking of streets in Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi.

Often on my trips, I've had a big break from the noise each day -- inside an office, high on the floor of an apartment building or simply being out far away from a major city. On this trip, however, the noise has been a constant companion -- more of a closer approximation to what it would have been like for Vivek growing up, I imagine.

Sound has a fair bit of routine where I am in Calcutta, not too far from Park Street (apparently no one calls it by its new name, Mother Teresa Sarani). The day starts early, with the sun. India shares one time zone across its thousands of miles of horizontal space on the planet, which means that the sun begins to rise somewhere around 5 a.m. in Calcutta but doesn’t begin to waken anyone in Bombay until 7 a.m.

Birds, having no boundary but the sun for their sleep, begin chirping, cawing and tweeting in a fury at 5:30 a.m. Around the same time, heavy metal parking gates begin to open and close, creaking on their hinges as if the weight of the country’s constant change is bearing down on them, day in and day out. As gates open, engines rev. Car locks beep closed or unclosed, and as the narrow alleyway outside begins to fill with traffic, the air begins to fill with car horns.

Before too long comes the swoosh, swoosh, swoosh of floors -- tiled, marble, earthen, cement -- being swept. The sweeps mingle with the conversations of students heading to class and deliverymen explaining their appointments to guardsmen.

At lunch, the talking, car horns and car engines become a cacophony, as Calcutta’s streets, unchanged and unwidened in many neighborhoods, try to funnel many more cars than they used to. Beeps to warn, beeps to yell, beeps to accuse, ring out.

After lunch, a hush settles in. Morning cooking and cleaning are over, cars are back at rest, and everyone’s tired from the heat and a too-big lunch. But the peace lasts only a while, as school and work begin to empty out at 4 p.m., filling the streets again with chatter, diesel engines idling and, yes, honk, honk-honk, honk!

As the din ebbs and flows outside, it picks up in the kitchen: chopping, frying, the swift hissing of a pressure cooker’s whistle. Birds make a last forage, landing on balconies, rooftops, trees. TVs snap on as home-goers check in on the news or a soap opera; either way, dramatic, swelling music and hurried, excited Hindi fill the air.

As I post this, we're somewhere between dinner preparations and what Kate and I deemed "beer o'clock." In fact, my chai -- the drink before the pre-dinner drink -- just landed on the desk with a tiny, soft thud, after it was carried here on softly padding feet by a kind soul. (As a pure generalization, Indians walk much more softly than Americans.)

As the evening approaches, a cap might snap off a chilled bottle, or ice might chip into a well-formed glass, as the before-dinner routine begins. Perhaps friends have gathered at a club or bar to pass the hours. As laughter and stories fill the air, the wait for dinner drags on.

Unbelievably, 9 p.m. has arrived. Table settings, which had been silently waiting, come to life as plates are flipped over and serving spoons begin to clink against bowls. Even the stove comes back to life as rotis are flip-flopped on the pan.

At 10 p.m., curtains are pulled shut, dragging their rings along the way. Fans are turned into high, whirring gear and lights are switched off with satisfying clicks. There is still noise outside -- the occasional car rumbling past, a faraway horn, a yell of a vendor with his last wares of the day -- for it is still India after all. But there is mostly quiet, for there are only seven hours left before the dawn.


  1. Loved this entry! Everything came to life...such a greater writer you are Mrs. Bowman-Shanker.

  2. Favourite entry so far - wonderful imagery xx

  3. What a vivid description Becky. Very well written. God Bless you.