Our obsession with noise

Published: May 11, 2019, 06:02 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

It is very hard to overestimate the importance of silence. Unfortunately for us, we rarely get a chance to experience it

We dance to music at 170 decibels because that is how we are told we must celebrate
We dance to music at 170 decibels because that is how we are told we must celebrate

Lindsay PereiraI spent a decade or so in a building located next to a small colony of enthusiastic people who felt a desperate need to celebrate everything under the sun. They did this the only way millions of us are taught to — by playing awful film songs really loud for approximately 17 hours without a break. It was amusing at first until I began dreading the days when lights would be strung up and makeshift pandals would start to appear. I imagine it must have been a nightmare for residents in the colony too but wonder if they were ever given a choice.

So much of what we do in Bombay indulges our obsession with noise. Millions of us wake to the sound of traffic, a steady hum that only increases in volume as the day progresses, never fully subsiding even as we lay ourselves down to sleep. Millions of children, animals, and senior citizens cower under their pillows once or twice every month, as our festivals wreak havoc on their eardrums and sanity for years without a pause. Millions of us live our entire lives without ever experiencing the sheer bliss that silence has to offer, simply because we happen to live in the wrong corner of our city. There are hundreds of construction projects currently underway, and the sound of jackhammers will not subside anytime soon.

Friends of mine who occupy expensive homes at crowded intersections talk about how they haven't opened their windows in years, and their feeble attempts at keeping the city at bay with the hum of air-conditioners. They don't think of this as unnatural, just as few of us blink when confronted with the spectacle of loudspeakers propped on street corners blaring music at ear-splitting levels. We simply accept this as the norm and move on. We can't imagine a city of silence because we have never been given an opportunity to experience it.

In 2011, the World Health Organization released a report on environmental noise based on a 10-year study in Western Europe. The report examined noise from planes, vehicles and other city sources, and linked this to everything from sleep disturbances and annoyance to cardiovascular disease, tinnitus, and even cognitive impairment in children.

It also declared that exposure to prolonged or excessive noise led to the loss of one million healthy years of life in Europe, and ranked traffic noise second after air pollution among environmental threats to public health. That was eight years ago, in Europe. It boggles the mind that we have yet to consider the damage we do to ourselves and our children each year, simply by not putting legislation in place to tackle what ought to be declared a national emergency. Air pollution has already claimed millions of lives in India and continues unchecked. When will we even acknowledge that noise pollution is equally dangerous?

It is only when the noise disappears that I start to question why we subject ourselves to it for no apparent reason. We shout into phones because we don't have a choice, dance to music at 170 decibels because that is how we are told we must celebrate, set off fireworks until 2 am during festivals even though none of our religious texts ask us to, and fail to consider the price we eventually pay for this relentless exposure.

This is one of the first things I notice the minute I step outside our city — the loud silence, followed by the twitter of birds. It saddens me that we are increasingly moving towards a culture that devalues the importance of silence and promotes the idea of a cacophony. This may explain the radical difference between debates on television a decade ago and the screaming matches that occupy all prime time slots these days.

I try, in my way, to introduce a sense of calm in the way I go about my business. I play my music softer, try and lower my voice while speaking into my phone, and shut my windows more often than I used to in an effort to create a bubble in the midst of the clamour outside. It sometimes feels like a losing battle, as those annual reports from the Awaaz Foundation inform any of us willing to pay attention, but I like to hope that we will all tire of this need to shout at some point. We may one day decide that we have had enough and choose to turn down the volume for the benefit of Bombay.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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