Irwin Allan Sealy writes in his novel Red about an imaginary city: ‘Once upon a time the city, any city meant light: now it means noise.’
Having grown up in an overcrowded metropolis called Kolkata, my immediate reaction to this was: how can a city be quiet? Aren’t cities more sound than sight? Isn’t quiet city an oxymoron?
But then I recalled, once, as I walked alone from a Toronto suburb to the nearest train station four miles away, I heard no sound except cars whooshing past; and I didn’t come across a single soul. But such a conurbation is unthinkable in India.
Light and colours are relatively unimportant in our cites. Many of our houses have faded paint; the shanties that dot our cityscape are invariably in varying shades of dull grey. But we are never short of people or sounds.
A deluge of sounds rushes in as I think of my childhood. …
We lived in a main thoroughfare, where the morning was ushered in not by the Sun God, but the clang of the first tram rolling out unfailingly at 4 AM. The sibilant sound of roads being washed by water jets followed soon. At a street corner nearby, vans would unload newspapers.
Relatives from quieter places found it impossible to sleep in our house. Those who slept doggedly and survived the first tram had to wake up soon: the newspaper vendors would fight noisily to get their quota of papers. And crows kept cawing in the background.
The cinema flash opposite our house was a perennially noisy place. During intervals, vendors sold a variety of small eats, yelling the quality and price of their ware. Not a word of what they said could be figured out, but the place came alive thrice a day.
But not all sound was noise. The tinkle of the bell in the rickshaw puller’s hand had a quaint musical charm.
Lazy afternoons would come alive with lovely street cries. In my childhood, there was a popular barter system in which vendors exchanged old clothes for utensils. Afternoons were their preferred business hours. They would announce their arrival with lovely singsong calls. The barter system survives to this day, but one doesn’t hear them calling out.
Besides, there were men who would offer a range of services like duplicating keys, chipping grinding stones, sharpening knives or engraving names on utensils. Each of these tradesmen had their characteristic cries. The key maker needed no verbal effort: he would clank dozens of keys dangling from a huge key ring to announce his arrival. The men who roughened grinding stones with a chisel shouted: sheeel katta-a-ai. Neither the words nor the tune ever varied. The engravers sang out, basone naam lekhabe-e-e-e-n! Their voice would trail off slowly, only to accentuate the loneliness of the afternoon.
The man I remember most vividly called out mala-a-a-i bara-a-af in a calm, unhurried voice. Punctilious about time, he would pass by exactly at midnight. I never saw him as I was tucked in well before that hour; but whenever I woke up in a dark night hearing his mysterious voice, I would also hear the wall clock gong twelve times before I drifted off to sleep again. In my somnolence, I imagined a slender old man in white dhoti and short kurta trudging along, carrying an earthen pot of kulfi malai on his head.
I often wondered who would buy kulfi at that hour, particularly in rainy nights. One day, when I asked the question to my friend Ravi, he said, ‘Don’t you know? He’s heard, but never seen.’
‘How can you see him? He’s only a spirit!’
Looking back through a prism of fifty years, I think maybe, Ravi was right. Perhaps the frail old man in white was actually not human. Perhaps he was a visitor from the netherworld, who reminded us of the long cold icy night that awaits every one of us.
(4 Feb 2007)