Why do you carry this around if you won’t take any calls?” a friend asked me, holding up my cell phone. I was as embarrassed as a teen being kissed, in front of the whole school, by his fat aunt. I mumbled a reply.
“What? You can’t hear it ring?”

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There, my secret was out.

When we lived in Bozeman, Mt, you could hear the traffic on the freeway two miles away. Transitioning to Mysore, India, was hard in many ways, but it was brutal on the ears. The honking, the air horns, and the ill-treated engines totally saturate the airways. In this racket, how was I supposed to hear my cell phone ring when it was in my purse, inside my bag?

“Don’t keep your purse in your bag,” was the advice. “Keep it on your shoulder … and make sure the phone vibrates also.”  I followed this advice, but once again noticed missed calls. These puzzled me until I realized that I’d been travelling by auto rickshaw at the time of the calls. What with the noise and the vibrations of the vehicle combined, I’d totally missed the calls.

It was not that I was never exposed to street noises in the United States. In Boston, Ma., we lived close to a very busy road, with the “T” trains and buses constantly passing by. Even worse, when we lived in Burlingame, Ca., we had Highway 101 on one side and the BART station on the other. Combined with the proximity to San Francisco airport, it was hard on the ears there too. But nothing was close to what I had to face in India.

Here, the white noise can be so loud that it is practically charcoal-hued. What else can you expect when the local road etiquette requires that you honk? The prevalent motto is “I honk, therefore I am.” Even if you drive an armored fighting vehicle (AFV) complete with artillery gun and rotating turret down Vihara Marg or Kalidasa Road, a puny two-wheeler coming straight at you isn’t required to get back into his lane if you don’t honk. People have become so used to the “horning” as it is called here, that some drivers beep every 250 meters, whether or not there is traffic ahead of them.

These days, all buses and trucks have air horns with which to bully other drivers into letting them pass. While air horns themselves are horrible, musical air horns are much worse. They do small riffs repeatedly, and are so maddening that you’ll willingly go off the road into a ditch, just so they stop.

True story: a bus carrying passengers encountered a herd of wild elephants near an animal sanctuary. The bus driver tried to clear the road by using his air horn endlessly. An enraged pachyderm showed its displeasure by breaking the windshield and threatening more damage, before forest officials finally came on the scene. The driver’s opinion? Stupid elephants, of course!

However, the local populace seems to be unaffected by this commotion. Folks use their cell phones all the time, making and receiving calls and sending SMSs constantly, without the least problem. After a month in India, I, too, got used to the background noise. After all, we live in a “quiet” suburb which is virtually a mausoleum compared to some other places, even though it is close to a moderately busy road. Our neighbors include a granite processing unit, a gas station-cum-workshop, a milk dairy, and an al fresco bar.

In the granite works, a couple of modern-day Fred Flintstones chisel and polish kitchen slabs, graveyard headstones, and everything in between. The service station/workshop sees its share of brake-impaired vehicles and other breakdowns. And the bar is an encroachment of the sidewalk about 15’ x 8’ and consists of nothing more than a couple of benches screened off from the road with a tarpaulin. However, my aim here is not to quibble at the illegal business, but to set the context for something that happened recently.

A month ago, I spent three days in the hospital. It was hard to get a full night’s sleep with nurses tripping in and out, checking my pressure etc., and I couldn’t wait to get home so that I could get my zees in peace and quiet. But once home and ensconced in my own bed, I began wishing myself back in my hospital bed. My room at the hospital had thick glass to keep in the air conditioning, and was quiet and peaceful. However, my bedroom at home had no such arrangement. Lying in bed, I was buffeted by layer after layer of noise. Here is an auditory picture of my surroundings.

When I lay down to nap, the first and loudest sound I heard was the stone-polishing tool at the granite processing unit. Its high-pitched whirr made me try to bury my face in my pillow. Whenever it stopped, I could hear the “tik-tik-tik” of the hammer and chisel on stone. A horn beeped continuously as it was being repaired. Then there was the buzz caused by welding in the workshop. I was just getting used to this noise when I heard an air horn. The driver of the bus must’ve been really irate because my ears could follow the progress of the vehicle down the road for nearly half a kilometer, thanks to the horn. And how can I leave out the autorickshaws? Their distinct toad-like croaks occurred over and over again, running like a red thread mistakenly woven through white cloth. The sing-song wail of an ambulance siren filled the empty spaces.

After a while, the rumbling of the buses became a lullaby of sorts, and I was on the verge of dropping off, when a musical air horn suddenly rent the air. The demented Beethoven at the wheel of the bus gave a quick impromptu concert, presumably trying to get around another vehicle, and then sped away, mission accomplished. I call him a Beethoven because he must have been hearing-impaired

However, I resolved not to complain about the racket. These were the noises of today’s life, indicators of how well India is doing, and how busy and important Indians are. While it remained a miracle to me that people could actually hear themselves speak through the din, who was I to judge?

Just then, I heard some twittering. Now where could the noise have come from, I wondered? Was it some new tool at the garage or the stone polisher’s? Or was it a new kind of vehicle horn? The “cheep-cheep” came again, and I saw a little bird hopping on to the branch of a tree outside my bedroom balcony. I had totally forgotten that we humans share our space, even in cities, with these feathered creatures.

By now there was no way I could sleep, so I sat in bed and amused myself by trying to pick out bird calls amidst the constant traffic of noise. Birds converse through their songs, we are told by scientists, and yes, there were some conversations going on.

As I sat there, my God-given auditory apparatus on overdrive, I began to wonder. Today, birds all around the globe have to compete against sounds of all volumes, amplitudes, and frequencies that saturate the atmosphere. How are they succeeding in maintaining the communication that they need to for the purposes of mating, child-rearing, and finding food? An article I read some time ago indicated that the birds are compensating by becoming louder. Ah, good old evolution at work!

I decided my first visit post-recovery would be to a cardiologist. I needed to know if air horns could give people heart attacks.

Or even bird song.

Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana to Mysore last year and is still having trouble adjusting. She can be reached at lakshmi.palecanda@gmail.com

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