When I was a little girl, one of my favorite things to do during the weekend was sit curled up next to my mom, reading a book. We would spend hours, each engrossed in our favorite stories. I came to expect that days off were spent reading in silence. That was before the time, when, as a teenager, I would find silence boring and would fill it with music. Later, as a college student, reading for pleasure for hours on end was a luxury, as novels were replaced by studying. Then adulthood set in, I got married, television became omnipresent, and silence nowhere to be heard.
So, this afternoon when I realized there was not a sound to be heard in the neighborhood, I literally put my fingers in my ears to check if I had become deaf. This is India after all, and silence simply does not exist. Does Not Exist.
Let me walk you through a typical day from inside our house.
Every morning, there is the Muslim call to prayer. I had been under the impression that the timing would coincide with sunrise, but once again I was wrong. I still have not found where the closest mosque is, but there is no doubt that the prayer comes from a tape recorder. Unfortunately, it does not have the magnificence it has in Falaknuma in Hyderabad when the songs would rise from several minarets around the hill. The prayers only lasts a few minutes, and don’t disrupt my sleep much. Most days, I don’t hear it anymore.
Every morning at 6:30 am, an old woman in a sari spits right under our bedroom window. I have seen her. It’s not a little cough, as in “I have something stuck in my teeth, let me suck it and spit it out”. It’s the full cleaning of the lung pipes, with great gusto and fanfare. I don’t know if she keeps it just for us, but it’s gross. Disgusting. Repulsive. There are enough empty spaces around, there is no need to spit in my flower beds. At the same time. Every day.
I am usually woken up by construction workers at 7am. Bangalore being Bangalore, apartment buildings are mushrooming everywhere, and one of those buildings is about 200 meters from our front door. The workers bang and hit and sand and scream. Oh! they scream. And they sing too! I believe they bring a little radio and sing along. If I am lucky, I can ignore them and get back to sleep. Otherwise, I wear a set of humongous headphones with white noise that rocks me back to sleep for a few hours.
That is until recently. The house right behind us is being renovated, they are building a canopy over the terrace. It should have been done in a few days, but no, it’s been weeks and from what I can see, it will take a few more. This one is particularly unpleasant since they use a tool that reminds me of the sound of teeth being drilled. I guess they’re drilling. In concrete blocks, and marble. The headphones are now useless.
Some time between 9am and noon, the garbage carts comes by, or more precisely, is pushed by a team of two, a man and a woman. I can hear them before the ring their hand bell, because they talk so loud. Why is it that when Indian people talk to each other they scream, yet when they talk to me their voice level drops to that of a mouse. A mini mouse (the same happens at my school). The garbage cart lady rings a bell, signifying that you should bring your garbage outside, neatly divided into “dry”, “food”, “bio hazard” and “household dust”. But they don’t pick up bags of kitty poo.
All throughout the day, there are cars and motorcycles that pass in front of our house. Some park in front of us, since more people own cars, yet garages stay the same size. The neighbor in front of us moved out in May, and the house has been vacant since. Not the garage though, it was quickly taken over by another neighbor’s driver. Talking about drivers, another reason why Sathya is the best, is because he knows the trick of switching off the engine instead of letting it run. It is not unusual to hear cars, parked, yet running, while they are being unloaded of shopping bags, or loaded with little rambunctious kids. A running car’s fumes under your window are always a delight.
Drivers are often bored. They usually work set hours, for instance 7 am to 7pm, and spend a great amount of time waiting for “Madam” or “Sir” to need some place to go (we operate under a different system). They are often on their phones. And they are often loud. Or they hang out together (if “Madam” or “Sir” allows them to walk away from the car) and chat. Loudly.
Let’s not forget the doorbell. We have the loudest doorbell we have ever had in any house we have ever lived in. Everybody and their brother rings our bell. Not a day goes by that we don’t have a stranger at the door. Yesterday, it was the paperboy (who’s about 30 years old) who asked for payment. The day before, a little girl asked if Maggie lives here. Our ex-maid sells us raffle tickets for her church, and rings the bell. Our maid and our cook ring the bell. The DHL guys ring the bell (and yell at you if you were not home when it was convenient for them). The long list of delivery people rings the bell. Sometimes, but not always, the front security office will call us first to make sure we are expecting a delivery. This is supposed to be an ironclad rule, but its application is random. The electrician rings the bell. Today, the plumber (armed with the ubiquitous screw driver) rang the bell.
We are lucky to live next to a young piano prodigy. He’s really good. Once in a while, they have recitals that we get to enjoy without needing an invitation. So he needs to practice. A lot. Like I said, we are lucky he’s good!
That particular family lived in San Jose for several years and still has strong ties in that community. How do I know? Because I hear their phone conversations. There is roughly a 12-hour difference between India and California, so they call their business associates during our evenings, and their school buddies at 3 am. Yes……
Late during the evening, I hear a faint “shhhhh”, which is the sound made by the “mosquito man”. They control mosquito infestations by spraying permethrin on flowerbeds every night, and occasionally they spray the backyards. Yet, people continue to build ponds with stagnant water in their front yards.
This is around the time the above mentioned canopy builders stop their racket. From 7 am until 7 pm with a lunch break. Continuous, never-ending drilling into concrete blocks.
At night, I hear the krritchooo krritchooo of the walkie-talkies, and the krrrssstik krrrssstik of the sentinels on their bicycles. They ride around the property at irregular intervals, looking for riffraff, stray cats, and the occasional stray dog who would have escaped the vigil of the front gate security and dashed onto the compound. Oh the horror! Oh the dogs, how they bark all night! Have you seen “101 Dalmatians”? Their barking is the same, a complete communication system involving at least 5 canines that send messages from one side of the compound to the other. And then, to add fun to my sleepless nights, are the two playful yet untrained Huskies who live close by. Huskies are beautiful creatures. But they sing. Just search YouTube and you’ll have a taste of what we experience 2 to 3 nights a week. AaaaaWoooooWoooooWoooooooaaaaa.
Did you know that birds sing at night? This is a first to me. India has little birds, the size of an American hummingbird, that are as loud as a trumpet! On a bad (for sleep) night, the bird will sit in the tree in front of our house and render the kittens ballistic.
Friday night is party night. We often hear celebrations taking place outside the gates. Music, firecrackers, whistles, sirens, drunk men, you name it, we hear it. If you consider that some people have counted about 140 days of celebration in India, you get a taste of our local nightlife!
But today, there was nothing. Not a doorbell, not a dog, not a drill, not a note. Pure unadulterated silence.
Quietly, “we” read an entire book.