Like any good anecdote changing its backdrop, this one has lately shifted to Finland—and most justifiably: A foreigner, after passing a day in Helsinki, asked a local acquaintance, “Are your speeches rationed?” “Not really,” replied the gentleman, “But we have an understanding that one should not speak unless sure that one could improve upon silence!”
Mildly but candidly Finland had begun selling its silence. It is inviting people to savour this splendid gift with which it is blessed by Nature. People who have experienced Finland observe that silence is an intrinsic element in Finnish culture—thus a secret harmony between the outer and the inner nature.
Once upon a time, not long ago, India contained innumerable citadels of silence.
This was also the country which consciously cultivated the culture of inner silence, through Yoga and meditation. The past half-century has witnessed the fall of these citadels, a thousand dozens a decade. Our culture of silence has not been able to save them. Obviously, we have forsaken that too, despite publicity to the contrary.
Illegitimate factories and legitimate developmental and constructional activities producing noise are only inconveniences. The monster of noise to which we the people, nationwide, have surrendered is collectively nurtured by us. Under the pretext of prayer we scare the neighbourhood through loudspeakers. It has been found that some people ride their bikes after removing the silencers to enjoy the terrific blare. Marital processions made up of drunken and dancing relatives and friends playing music at a high pitch has become common in the towns and bazaars and is now rapidly invading the rural air. Along with unreasonable honking and simultaneous reverse-gear music by several cars if you are situated near a parking zone, they make up the devil’s orchestra. And if you are near a spot marked for public demonstrations, you are on the brink of abyss.
Why don’t we let our immune system match the challenge? We must honour this desperate question. But the outcome of recent research in this regard is utterly disturbing. We are all worried about the symptoms of violence manifesting abominably in the young. It is now established that their consciousness is disoriented, thanks to this devil’s orchestra, right “from conception and not merely from birth. The foetus is capable of perceiving sounds and responding to them by motor activity and cardiac rate change.” (Paper by Dr L W Sontag of the Fels Research Institute in the anthology “Physiological Effects of Noise”.)
It is an irony that while we have become alert to some extent about air pollution, we hardly recognise the menace that is auditory pollution to which we as individuals contribute more directly. Research has repeatedly informed us that our exposure to high levels of noise would instantly affect our nervous system and subsequently causes cardiac problems among several other ailments. Psychologically, its effect, irritation and a sense of helplessness to begin with, irresistibly leads to a mood of violence. In a quieter road two speedy drivers’ zeal may be limited to each trying to outrace the other, but it turns into road rage in a noisy street, for noise stimulates impatience and, in many, dulls any finer sense.
Imagine the phenomenon’s effect on the foetus in the womb, if it could make the grown-up sick and mad. With unobstructed noise creating havoc in our life, imagine the mental culture of the forthcoming generations. The children will be born with a certain disorientation that nothing can set right.
The irony is, unlike the problem of air pollution, this growing malady can easily be eradicated, with some minimum empathy among the clusters of neighbours and application of collective common sense. In the late nineties, Justice Bhagwati Bandopadhyay of Kolkata delivered a judgment limiting the volume of sound discharged by a religious place to 65 decibels.
Though the practice by a particular religious organisation caused the trial, the prohibition embraced all religious faiths. But the judge received threats. Not long ago when the noted singer Sonu Nigam objected to the same practice, he too was threatened and the celebrated lyrist Javed Akhtar alone publicly supported the artiste. It is particularly unkind of us to shock the kids living around religious spaces out of their slumber, causing them a damage that nothing can repair in future. A loud sound is secular in its crime; it does not consider the faith of the kid’s parents.
None of the builders of great religious traditions, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian or Muslim, sent their prayers to the Supreme through loudspeakers. Undoubtedly there are sensible elements in all the communities and, without waiting for national policies to evolve or the judiciary to intervene, they can sit down and decide to check noise running riot on so many occasions, from prayers to electoral victory processions—all manifestation of our collective ego. Sound could become even an addiction!
A sociologist from abroad who travelled across India expressed surprise that open air public meetings were allowed right at the centre of towns, with loudspeakers set not only for the audience, but also aiming outside the venue in four directions, to compel the unwilling to listen to the deliberations. “What about the people’s right to their own quiet family atmosphere, a student’s need to study, someone’s right to practise music or a sick person’s dire need of peace? A song one loved could annoy him when abruptly imposed on him through the loudspeaker, thereby attacking his taste! How do the authorities allow this violence?”
“They are the authorities or the authorities in the making,” answered a friend. Well, we the Indians have been already branded as “talkative” and probably many of us relish the compliment. In the novel And Quiet flows the Dawn a chatterbox would always begin with “A good word is a piece of silver …” till someone reminded him, “But silence is golden; why don’t you exchange your silver for gold?” There is no chance we will fall for that temptation.
Eminent author and recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship