Nations of noise and silence

If too much noise prevents thinking in India, too great a silence indicates a refusal to think in Denmark

Updated - January 06, 2019 09:05 am IST

Published - January 06, 2019 12:15 am IST

It is strange that I should be writing this piece. I have highlighted how the language of literature goes beyond the expectation of ‘communication’ in other language usages, such as medical literature or business writing. Literature explores, along with ‘communication’, those aspects of language that might be considered ‘non-communicative’ in other fields: paradox, contradiction, aporia, silence, gap, noise. In other words, I have stressed the role of ‘noise’ in the language of literature, just as I have underlined the role of ‘silence’ in it. But this piece, written on a train from Copenhagen to Aarhus, is about the dangers of noise. And, inevitably, silence.

No two countries offer a greater contrast in this regard. India is the subcontinent of noise; Denmark is a land of silence. Partly, this is because Denmark is sparsely populated: my train is half-empty. Can we even imagine a half-empty train between, say, Delhi and Kolkata? Or, Patna and Gaya?

A matter of national character

But part of the difference is also a matter of national character. People talk softly here and seldom interrupt each other, cars do not honk, even political processions almost never indulge in shouting and loud sloganeering. This might well be because, politically, Denmark has been built on compromise: on the negative side, it compromised with Nazi Germany; on the positive side, it has been run with a general degree of success by various political coalitions for close to a century now. It is impossible to imagine any single party coming to power in Denmark, and even though the party coalitions change, the nation seems to steer a steady course with regard to citizen’s rights, internal well-being, and the national economy.

India is a nation of noise. It strikes me every time I go to India, and even more forcibly when I return to Denmark. I recall the first question about Denmark that my mother asked when she visited me: “Is there a holiday today? Why is it so quiet?” And in those days I was living in Copenhagen, arguably a metropolis, while my mother had only known the taluk towns of Bihar!

Noise, within limits, is not necessarily bad. Amartya Sen says as much in his book, The Argumentative Indian . While I put greater stress on conversation than argument, perhaps because I have lived for many years in Denmark now, Professor Sen sees arguments as an essential part of ongoing conversations.

Noise curtails thinking

Yet, a point comes when noise reduces and even prevents thinking — and hence, the exploration of meanings and the exchange of understanding. I find this point being exceeded more often than not in contemporary India. This happens not just on the roads, with their deafening cacophony, and in many ordinary conversations, with their loud interruptions and tendency towards overlapping monologues, but also in the media, especially TV, and political debates of all kinds.

The medium of thinking, as the German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han constantly reminds us, is quiet. That is why our sages are depicted as meditating in forests and on remote peaks. That is why Moses returned from a lonely trek up a mountain with his commandments; Buddha attained enlightenment under a tree; Mohammad had his first revelation alone in a cave.

It is sadly in the nature of once-colonised and now desperately ‘developing’ nations to suffer from the worst effects of environmental degradation. We can see this happening to our rivers and mountains. We can see this happening to our towns and cities: the pollution level in Delhi is ‘severe’ this winter. But perhaps the worst kind of pollution that we suffer from is noise pollution, for it curtails thinking, understanding and working out the best solutions. Even arguments only work as long as they do not end a conversation.

But, as an Indian, I do not just relish the quietness that this Scandinavian country affords me. I also sometimes question the extent of its silence. Because quietness, like noise, has its uses and its excesses. Maybe one can even distinguish between quietness and silence, and it is a pity that we do not have a similar qualification of signifiers when it comes to ‘noise’. (Maybe I should switch to Hindustani here in order to distinguish between necessary noise and destructive noise: awaaz and bakwaas might work!)

Quietness and silence

Anyway, a distinction can be made between quietness and silence in the social context. Quietness is necessary for thinking and communicating, and literature, when it uses silence, does exactly this: it halts the easy flow of words to suggest what the words cannot encapsulate. But quietness, when it insists on gagging all social and political noise, turns into a dangerous and absolute silence. All countries have versions of it. In Denmark, it largely consists of a refusal to discuss First World privileges in the context of the global neoliberal economy. If too much noise prevents thinking, too great a silence indicates a refusal to think.

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