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The symphony of life...
The sound of the train moving in a set rhythm calmed down my crowded mind which stopped thinking, for a change. The occasional change in the train’s rhythm denoted a passing bridge and the cautious footsteps of sundry vendors hesitating to give that shrill cry normally reserved for crowded bogies. Whoever has missed to appreciate the unique sound of a train’s movements, crossing river gorges, changing tracks, taking speed and generally moving in a rhythm, has missed the beauty of life.
Sounds can have a huge impact on our minds, moods and memories. Sounds define our lives, the daily humdrum of our routines. Sounds surround us all the time, though we register most, we record few and react only to some. It is amazing how we react to different sounds all in one day.
Some people love waking up to the sounds of chirping birds and rustling trees, while others prefer the clatter of utensils in the kitchen made by someone preparing steaming cups of tea. Unfortunate are those whose day breaks with the chaotic sounds of vehicles or trains or clanging elevator doors or passers-by chattering relentlessly.
My childhood is dotted with memories of sounds in a huge stone and wood house full of uncles, aunts and cousins. We would accurately guess who’s coming up the wooden staircase with the sound of the footsteps. While the kids skipped alternate steps, climbing in a perpetual hurry, the elders often stepped softly. Its amusing how each person’s step on the wooden boards sounded different, allowing us to even know how far a person has reached on their way up.
Our day began very early with the loud tingling of the bell that my grandfather rang during his morning pooja in the prayer room and his crisp chanting of the mantras. The melodious brass bell sounded so sweet in the quiet morning that it pushed us out of bed with positive vibes all around. No child dared to disturb the serene morning with cries, no adult chattered loudly either.
Sounds of mud courtyards being cleaned with a broom, water splashed, the huge main door flung open, all take me back to my childhood. I still vividly remember the sound of my mother’s voice as she carried me in her hands and I laid my face on her shoulders while she walked briskly. Her voice sounded different as I kept my ear on her shoulder.
When it becomes noise
We are constantly surrounded by so many sounds that it actually blocks our thought process and thinking abilities. People become irritable with the constant sound of a generator or loud chatting around. A relative once sold a beautiful house in the busy market area and bought a modest one in the suburbs only because she suffered daily headaches with the constant sounds.
The loud honking on the roads, being the worst, sucks away one’s energy and patience. Working in crowded places brings with it the hazard of being surrounded by constant talking, doors being shut, furniture being shuffled, shrieks of hawkers, vehicles screeching and people just walking about talking loudly to each other just to be heard.
India is especially known for its boisterous environs, the louder the sound, the better. Sometimes, one wonders if we would not be able to go through the day with minimal sounds, be it while walking, talking, driving or even cooking.
A brilliant Zen story talks of a prince who went to study under a master deep in the forest. The master asked the prince to go wander in the forest and come back after a year. Upon returning, he asks the prince what he heard and the prince talked about all the random sounds of the forest. It is only after being turned away for two years that the prince returns to narrate that he heard the flowers open, the grass move and the still waters. When we silence the mental chatter and listen with our mind, we can hear the faintest of sounds.
It is amazing how we get used to sounds. Scores of houses dot the railway tracks in every city, often making us wonder how the people manage to bear the cacophony of the trains passing by every few minutes. There are anecdotes of people who stay awake till a particular train passed at a fixed time in the night and get uneasy if it were late are all part of amusing lore.
We accept the unpleasant sound of people dragging their feet as they walk on silent corridors, the incessant machines grinding in workshops nearby, the planes taking off and the dogs barking through the night.
People are known to lose sleep over the sound of the neighbour’s leaking taps or kids in the neighborhood bursting loose crackers. Many hotels pride on the claim that their walls do not transfer flushing sounds to the adjacent rooms.
Sounds can be pleasant too, especially those of temple bells, the pitter-patter of the rain, the sudden contact of a freshly made dosa on the griddle, the gurgles of a baby, the soft turning of pages in a reading room, certain cymbals and other percussion instruments eliciting energetic responses.
A day is full of sounds, some pleasant, some not so pleasant, many outright annoying. How much ever we yearn for silence, can we live without sounds? Perhaps not. We are so used to all kinds of sounds around us that we may actually miss sounds if they weren’t there.
In fact, people have experimented with extreme silence. The anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis is just that - 99.9 % soundproof. Founder and president of the lab Steven Orfield says that some individuals find it hard to last in the room for more than a few minutes.
"When it’s quiet, your ears will adapt to the silence. The quieter the room, the more things you hear. You’ll hear your heart beating, sometimes you can hear your lungs, your stomach gurgling loudly. In the anechoic chamber, you become the sound,” he says.
This could definitely be an extremely disorienting experience. So much so that Steven says it makes you collapse when you cannot bear the silence anymore. That goes on, perhaps, to explain the phrase 'deafening silence’!
Just like smells, sounds bring back memories of time passed by. Who can forget the sound of daddy’s scooter entering the compound while you’ve waited for him bleary-eyed all day; or the unforgettable sound of a hall reverberating with claps after your performance; the sound of a foetus’ heartbeat in the first scan, the flurry of the national flag after it’s hoisted on Independence day or the bubbles of a freshly opened bottle of champagne.
Sounds carry meanings the way we want them to. They have a life of their own and bring meaning, resonance and a little drama to life. We can cherish them or just shut them down. It’s just a matter of listening with our heart and absorbing them for every sound to turn to music.