“We are not given a short life but we make it short wasteful… Life is long if you know how to use it”.
Seneca, Roman Philosopher circa BC 4 65 AD
Nearing sixty, I am trying to make the most of Seneca’s words, in my own inimitable way. To make the most of silence, to charge it with creativity, reflection and innovation. But then there is just too much noise all around!
New Delhi has changed in the past five years. In the shaded by-lanes of the bureaucratic roads fanning the heart of India Gate, there are unfamiliar sounds, even at six in the morning. On one such lane, I can hear sounds from the domestic quarters across the lane, songs at full blast on a radio or the television. Moments later, there are loud voices, rising in crescendo, as footsteps draw closer, as women exchange comments or shout out to the men sweeping the sides of the lane, with long handled jharus, loud sounds, jarring sounds, but they are now impinged in my brain, tinnitus-sounds that will forever haunt me. How quickly their chores are done and it is only a matter of hours before the road will be full of litter once again. We Indians seem to be oblivious to where we discard garbage. Arre Baba, as long as it is not in our kitchens or rooms. Our streets are fetid litter-stores.
School children pitter-patter down the road, their faces aglow in anticipation of the new day in class and playing with their friends during the short breaks. These are pleasant sounds. The NDMC truck pulls up soon after, with its own churning sounds, as the men battle through putrid garbage, gather branches of trees, lopped off or shorn off by the gusty winds, in prelude to the long-awaited monsoon rains this year. Yet, like everything else that seems to be done here, half-heartedly, so much litter remains, to be marked as property by the strays that reside here too. Their intermittent yelps have also been added to my list of sounds.
It is the sound of screeching tyres and drivers honking loudly, perpetually, in the now dusty by-lane that elicits despair. The stray dogs bark in anger, even chase a car or two, in a brave display of courage against someone who may have rammed into them, causing a limp or shattered toes. The monkeys stroll from the rooftops across the road, along the low walls of our tenement and swing into the school compound. There are many suckling babies, hanging tenaciously to their mothers. They just glance up at me, nonchalantly. Here I am, standing alone on the balcony, reminiscing about years in the past, when the children were with us. The empty-nest syndrome has engulfed me for two decades now, as one by one, the children or young-adults, left to study and work. I am so thankful that one of them now lives twenty-odd km away and drops by whenever she can, despite a hectic work-schedule.
It is no different inside the flat, as here, the sounds of silence are deafening, so I keep the TV on. When reporters and anchors raise their voices beyond the natural decibels of acceptable sounds, sounds that do not lead to hearing-loss, I decide to amble onto the balcony again. It is no different here on the small balcony, but the sounds I hear now are happy squeals of laughter, as the schoolgirls spill into the field at Lunch-time. Chattering away their precious free moments between serious study. The two peacocks that stroll through that garden on holidays and rainy days, have disappeared into the dense shrubs that adorn two adjacent walls of the school compound.
If I am lucky, I catch a glimpse of a grey horn-bill on the tree, barely two feet away. So far from its natural habitat, but I am fortunate to see it. The koel is another regular visitor and their sounds soothe my anxious mind.The woodpecker too, flits and flaunts its dexterity- it is a sight to behold, especially when perched precariously, side-ways, chipping away at the bark. The orange-rust hopoe visits now and then too, adding to the oxymoronic charm of a forest-city, barely within a periphery of twenty feet.
It is not the noise that I really want to shut out, but perhaps the silence that engulfs me in a room full of people. I watch as they move their lips in shapes I could draw blindfolded, hoping the yes-no nod of my Indian head is appropriate to the words being said. I purse my lips into decent smiles, every now and then and then deftly ease myself away to the corner. So many escapes in the past three decades the memories make me smile.
Yet, all the ‘Babel’. Are we really listening to each other? Everyone seems so impatient, cutting in the conversations, imposing views, not allowing the others to have their say. It often feels like time wasted, but we need to adapt to social expectations. What is different on Social Media? It feels good to tweet in 140 characters, but not if the trolls replies are abusive or if the communication has been misunderstood. The silence here too, is often deafening, if no one responds or RTs or retweets. Social Media Anxiety is the new kid on the block of all our 21st century ailments. And carpel-syndrome, for typing too long…
Or does it feel really different, is it really worthwhile to know that perhaps for a minute, a few persons, maybe hundreds, will actually ‘listen’ to your words?