I've been racking my brains for the English equivalent of 'sannaata'. More precisely, to try and translate the idea of 'sannaata' on the sadak, or the streets.
Silence and solitude do not convey the same meaning. Nor does emptiness. Nor does desolation. Some dictionaries define the word as a 'lull', or a place lacking in sound, or lacking in people. This last, or perhaps a combination of these definitions, serves to explain the emotional meaning carried by 'sannaata'.
It can be a silent moment in a place devoid of people. Or a sannaata can descend upon a roomful of people. In either case, it is a hush burdened by the sense of a lull, a pause before something else happens. It is the sort of silence that's uncanny rather than peaceful. It makes you nervous. If you are walking, you feel an unreasonable urge to quicken your step. If you are in a car, you glance about right and left, looking for — what?
This sannaata is what defines certain streets at night. Think of sannaata in an urban context and you can imagine yourself on a dark street. Perhaps there is a lamp or two, but the light spills down the road, leaving either side untouched. In the crevices of the pavements, between the shadows cast by narrow lanes is — what?
You can hear your own feet, either tick-tocking or flop-flopping. You can hear the faint rurr of a distant engine and you try to gauge whether it it coming your way or moving further. You aren't sure which you prefer. Sometimes you hear shuffling steps around the corner. That those feet keep moving is your safest bet. If they pause, the lull deepens. If the silence is broken now — what?
In every small and big town, such a sannaata routinely falls upon dozens of wide and narrow streets. Some places, it arrives as early as nine. All windows are shut, all blinds are down and cars locked.
Sometimes it waits as late as 2 o' clock in the night before it shows up and it slinks away before dawn. Mumbai is perhaps the only city in India where this is evident, and not just in the heart of town but even in its most distant suburbs. There is a reason it is called 'the city that never sleeps'. People sleep, of course. But trains, auto-rickshaws and cabs keep at least a handful of people on the move until nearly 2 in the night. There are a couple of hours after, nothing and nobody seems to move. At this time, every movement seems fraught. At this time, you aren't sure you want to be out on the streets on your own.
Then, there's one golden hour before dawn. A cycle bell starts tinkling. Some animal — dog or cow or goat — responds to the shift of time. Some woman with her head covered, barefoot, walks somewhere with purpose. You hear a temple bell or the azaan from a mosque. The sannaata lifts.
There are also certain towns and suburbs where it never seems to lift. Even in bright daylight, in the middle of a weekday, with dozens of people in sight and car-wheels crunching past at regular intervals, you feel it — the silence, the lull. The very air seems stretched, as if waiting for something to go wrong. You can't wait to get off the streets and into a safe room, and then fill up that room with sound — television, music, or the ping-ping-ping of back and forth texts. There are few places like this in India, but if you've visited a gated community, you might know what I'm talking about.
Annie Zaidi is a writer of essays, stories, poems, and scripts for stage and screen.