It was a Victorian novelist, writing well into the Industrial Revolution, who wondered what it would be like to be able to hear the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat. She feared that such a sensitive listener would die of “that roar on the other side of silence”. The sharp-eared Indian is used now to a great deal of roaring — and well on this side of silence. The auditory life of ordinary citizens has been through nothing short of a revolution. The invention of the loudspeaker and then of portable digital sound has meant an irreversible change in a modern person’s relationship with sound and therefore with silence, in the private or solitary as well as the public or collective spheres. In fact, with the ubiquity of headphones today, the private and the public have become impossible to tell apart in the experience of listening . So, it is both quaint and bleakly comical to learn about the enthusiasm and imagination with which piped music for the AC trains of the Calcutta Metro has been chosen and recorded in partnership with a private company, when, to even the most weathered eye, the entire Metro system seems to be falling apart or stalled at every level of maintenance, administration and development.
In godless times, music (or Muzak) has often been the opiate of the tortured masses (think of Beethoven in Bergen-Belsen), and the Girl from Ipanema has often proved more effective in dulling ambient restiveness than UN peacekeepers. Eardrums in Bengal, and especially in Calcutta, are getting rather dangerously used to alternating between the refined and the rousing — Tagore at traffic lights, tantrums at higher places. So, it is worth wondering why the manipulation of hearing — by the amplified and broadcast human voice and by recorded music in public places — has become increasingly important at this particular moment in this part of the world, especially for the State’s designs on its subjects. Why does a certain kind of democracy need to keep breaking its laws in order to raise its decibel level? What does that say about the politics of roaring in contemporary India? Equally, why this ostentatious investment in the making of more cultured noises? Lethal stampedes, regular delays, dripping ventilators, inadequate security, non-existent emergency measures and suspended growth — for how long can air-conditioning and Ali Akbar Khan lull Calcutta’s commuters into putting up with the pains and perils of their daily ride?
For John Cage, the modern composer and philosopher of sound, silence is not an acoustical phenomenon. It is not an absence of sound, but “a change of mind, a turning around”. To have access to silence in the midst of the ordinary is to be able to hear oneself think. It is a state of mindfulness — to the music of what happens, within and without — that insecure makers of noise should rightly fear.