You hear a lot about the intensity and vibrance of India in the West, and you see pretty colourful pictures and shocking filthy ones, and you watch some Bollywood movies and you read excellent novels. But it’s hard to convey what that intensity is actually like in person. In fact, once you come back to the West and India isn’t part of your present moment any more, it fades into memories that just look and sound a lot like the pictures and stories you’ve seen and read. In a series of five blog posts over the next few months, I’m going to give you some more pictures and stories to add to your mental collection. It won’t be the same as the full experience, of course, but it’s the best I can do from here.
India is loud. And by loud, I don’t mean just “vibrant and colourful”. I mean that at times the volume level is so ear-shatteringly loud that it’s astounding that the entire population isn’t deaf from early childhood.
For starters, there is no regulation on the maximum volume of car horns. Which means that when that giant truck comes barreling past you on the road, passing a bus which is passing a rickshaw, and all of them are honking their horns at each other, you will be shaken out of your very skin with the force of it all. And you likely already know about the constant honking on the roads here. In the West, honking is used almost solely to communicate “look out!” or “hey asshole!”. In India, it’s more a form of echolocation. You beep as you’re about to pass someone, maybe keep beeping as you pass just to be careful, beep if you’re coming up to a busy corner, beep to shoo dogs and monkeys and wandering sadhus out of your path. A beep just means “I’m over here”. Trucks often have “horn please” written on the right-hand side of their bumpers to REMIND you to honk at them as you pass. Some of the buses have horns that play little noodly tunes, and when you’re out in the countryside somewhere, you can faintly hear their little melodies on the main road, off in the distance. But up close – it’s a lot of racket that makes New York City sound sedate.
I have also been to public events in India with amplification so loud that even with earplugs in, it was too uncomfortable to sit anywhere near the actual performance. And listen, I’m not a total lightweight here; I played in a rock band for several years and I never had to face audio like this. And these weren’t even high-intensity events like rock concerts- I’m talking about a speaker at the opening of a new school, a traditional singer at a temple. These are sedate, respectful occasions – and the front rows by the speakers were filled with locals, just taking it in, full blast, ears naked to the wind.
After my first trip to India, I arrived home to nice quiet Canada to realize that the very mild tinnitus that I’d had for half my life had gotten much more noticeable. Before, it had been a faint whine alike a muted TV set, which I could only hear in the quietest of environments. After my time there, I now have a steady hiss in one ear and and a low vibration in the other. My actual hearing didn’t sustain any real damage, according to tests, but I grieved the loss of real silence in my life. I’ve habituated to it well enough for now. I’ve come to think of it as the background sound of the universe. Just this month I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by Ajahn Sumedho, and learned that one of his main teachings is about “the sound of silence”:
Somebody referred to the sound of silence as a cosmic hum, a scintillating almost electric background sound. Even though it’s going on all the time we don’t generally notice it but when your mind is open and relaxed you begin to hear it. I found this a very useful reference because in order to hear it, to notice it, you have to be in a relaxed state of awareness. When I describe this people try to find it. They go on a ten-day retreat trying to find the sound of silence and then they say, ‘I can’t hear it, what’s wrong with me?’ They are trying to find this thing. But it’s not a thing you have to find—rather you just open to it: it’s the ability to listen with your mind in a receptive state, which makes it possible to hear the sound of silence. You’re not trying to solve any problems but just listening. You’re putting your mind into a state of receptive awareness. Awareness that is willing to receive whatever is and one of the things you begin to recognize in that is the sound of silence…
We tend to use the word ‘sound’ in terms of how the mind has been perceptually conditioned. We connect sound with the ears. That’s why the sound of silence is heard as if it were a buzzing in the ears, because the impression of sound is always connected with the ears. But you can plug your ears up and you can still hear it. When you’re swimming underwater you can still hear it. So what is it?
Then you start to realize that it’s everywhere and not just in the ears. That perception of the sound of silence as something heard in the ears is the same misperception as thinking that the mind is in the brain. You’re changing from that very conditioned way of experiencing life, which arises through this sense of self and the culturally conditioned attitudes we hold, to a much wider understanding of the way it is.
—Ajahn Sumedho, The Anthology, The Sound of Silence, Volume 4
Whether I reframe my tinnitus as a device for self-inquiry or not, I still don’t want it to get any louder. So I made an investment before coming back: a pair of custom-molded earplugs that reduce sound enough to take the harsh edges off of India, but not so much that I can’t have conversations or hear a scooter flying up behind me on the wrong side of the road. They’re the acoustic filtered plugs shown here, with the 1500 ohm filter. I had them fitted at the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Vancouver. I pop them in when I’m approaching the road, and then when the buses and trucks are blaring away, I can mosey along undisturbed, as calmly as the cows. I use them every time I leave the house, and they’ve been worth every freakin’ penny I paid for them (about $160).
The birds are loud, too; the mournful “meeawww” of a peacock can be heard all over town. The crows here sound like human voices making caw sounds. There’s a bird I sometimes hear in rural areas that I call the “dying giraffe bird” because of its bizarre call. At night, the songs of crickets and frogs fill the air; on more troubled nights, they’re interrupted by barking feral dogs. Oh, and I had never really spent any time around cows before coming here – but damn, I never knew how loud they really are! A moo is more like a bellow from a giant squeezebox, and startlingly resonant.
In the mornings, in some parts of the town, you can hear “om namah shivaya” or Hindu songs or mantras on loop, drifting across the rice fields, or bells ringing from puja ceremonies. Sometimes a nearby house will have music going. If I were in North America, I’d be uptight and furious about someone broadcasting their preferred music loud enough for me to hear it even a little bit at my own home. Here, it fits into the landscape so naturally that it’s not a problem for me, and I couldn’t really do much about it anyway even if it was. (You try changing India.)
As I write, it’s late in the evening, almost bedtime. It’s very quiet in our apartment, but there is still the constant whoosh of the fan overhead, and once in a while a faint tootle of a horn up on the main road. Tomorrow is a big day at the ashram – Ramana Maharshi’s Jayanthi day, or birthday. It’s Jan 3 this year, but because Tamils have their own calendar, it ends up being a different date every year on ours. There’s colourful tents and tarps up, and music and celebrations all day. Lots to see, lots to hear.