A noise-free Kerala? An Utopian dream?
‘All well between the two of you?’ A friend from the U.S asked me as he handed a packet to my husband. ‘Excuse me?’ I responded, startled. With a wink and a puckish smile he remarked, ‘Well, your husband wanted ear plugs. Set me wondering about the state of your marriage.’ My husband, who was looking at the ear plugs as if they were the keys to heaven, heard this and laughed. ‘Nothing wrong with the state of our marriage. It is the noise-ridden state of Kerala that’s the problem. Cacophony everywhere! Discord’s Own Country.’
How we live amidst noise! It begins, like charity, at home. Take household gadgets and the variety of sounds they produce - the whistle of the pressure or milk cookers, the churning of the blenders and grinders, the hum of vacuum cleaners and fridges, the ‘ping’ and the ‘ting’ of microwave ovens, the whirring of fans... Add the din of vehicles passing by to the sound blasts from neighbours’ televisions and music systems, and you have home delivered assault on your ears.
Of course, no celebration or function is complete without loud music that has scant respect for your ear drums. And escapism just doesn’t work, as we found out to our dismay when we set off one day to the beach in a vain effort to beat the noise of the loud speaker the organisers of a function in the neighbourhood had so thoughtfully placed on our wall. What if we missed a single beat of the frenetic numbers belted out at a decibel level of well over 200? Or a Kolaveri from the flush of Kolaveris?
Hankering after peace and quiet, we upped and dived into a passing auto. ‘To the beach!’ we said in a breathless chorus. The driver sensed the urgency and nodded furiously to indicate he was well up to the task. He revved up the throttle and honked.
The horn gave out a dreadful sound that began as the sharp yelp of an angry cat whose tail had been stepped upon and ended as the death rattle of a banshee choking over a fish bone.
Horrified, we jumped in our seats. The auto jumped too, over a big bump on the road, making it two jumps in all. And this was just the start. The driver turned to grin at us. ‘Good sound, no? ’Pecial,’ he said proudly. ‘All vehicle gives me way.’ They would, for he kept his hands glued to the horn and the throttle whether we were on the road or at the traffic lights. An ambulance could not have commanded greater respect and swifter obedience.
Four and three wheelers, using their own horns to little effect, swerved, two wheelers wobbled dangerously, jittery cyclists fell off their cles, pedestrians leapt nervously to the safer side of the pavement. ‘Why honk when there’s no vehicle ahead?’ my husband roared. At his third attempt the driver heard and yelled back, ‘So that no one from behind overtakes us.’ Weird logic, that, but it kept my husband quiet for the rest of the journey as he mulled over it. A train chugged past and a plane flew loud and low over us as we reached the silence of the beach only to find there was no silence and no beach. I gazed aghast as my husband paid off the auto driver whose services were immediately hired by two poor unsuspecting souls. Where was our lovely beach? The sea had eaten greedily into it and only a small strip of dirty sand lined it.
The city’s population seemed to have congregated there, jostling for space and talking loudly. Hawkers shouted for attention, children screamed, youngsters hooted and howled, the old groaned... And sacrilege, loud speakers were blaring out songs. We couldn’t hear the surging sea, the crashing waves or the blowing wind. My son said Kolaveri was better and we returned home.
I was heartened to read a recent report that the Indian Medical Association and the Association of Otolaryngologists (just a tongue twister meaning ENT specialists) have launched a campaign, ‘Noise- free Kerala’, and pleasantly surprised too. After all, professionally they stood to gain the most from noise pollution. But obviously these dedicated doctors believe in the Hippocratic Oath. ‘No free noise in Kerala any more’, I announced gleefully to my husband, but he didn’t respond. He had his ear plugs on.
(A weekly column by the city-based writer, academician and author of the Butterfingers series)