Essay: On yearning for extinct sounds - Hindustan Times
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Essay: On yearning for extinct sounds

BySumana Roy
Aug 02, 2023 09:07 PM IST

Many sounds are disappearing from our lives. A rumination on the necessity to preserve our sonic cultures

As I switch on my phone to record the sound of the wind in the tall salt-reed grass, I think of other sounds around me, some of which the phone will be able to catch and those it wouldn’t. I want to ignore the thought inside my head for some time – the hierarchy that is created automatically, a possible archive that is ignored by the phone’s technology. I am wiping my eyes, not tears of sadness though they might also be that, but of exhaustion, the exhaustion of staring at a computer screen for most of the day. They make no sound. Other sounds of water do, perhaps even dew, but not these tears. The sound of exhaustion is muted by the economy – even in comic books, exhaustion is rarely given a sound, made visible as it is through the expression on the face or a curved back. If given space at all, it’s a monosyllable – ‘Aah’. Even amidst talk – and even noise – of the need for everyone to be given a ‘voice’, there is almost none about listening to them, of them being audible. It is not about speaking, it is about hearing, about listening. We live in a world where many subsonic sounds are being lost from our lives. I say this not from nostalgia but from need – when we mention our heritage, for instance, why do we not speak about the necessity to preserve our sonic cultures?

“The typewriter’s khyat-khyat-khyat and moving the cursor from the line to the next – as if the line could be measured in a sound.” (Akella Srinivas Ramalingaswami / Shutterstock) PREMIUM
“The typewriter’s khyat-khyat-khyat and moving the cursor from the line to the next – as if the line could be measured in a sound.” (Akella Srinivas Ramalingaswami / Shutterstock)

“The twang of the dhunuri on winter afternoons; the cotton carder with what we thought was his cotton-fluffing guitar.” (Wikimedia Commons)
“The twang of the dhunuri on winter afternoons; the cotton carder with what we thought was his cotton-fluffing guitar.” (Wikimedia Commons)

A couple of years ago, when I called my husband’s niece by her nickname, she began crying. It was her wedding day. She said that now only two people remained who called her by that name from her childhood – the rest had died, and, with them, that sound from her life. It was almost a moment of epiphany – this characterisation of loss, the loss of a person as the loss of a sound. As if to compensate for that, a new sound attaches itself immediately to a departed person’s name: ‘Late’. Why this word ‘late’, why this association with delayed arrival when it is they who have departed? It is actually used for those who have died recently, that connotation of ‘late’, and yet, I cannot help wondering for a moment how this new title would be unrecognisable to those were to be called by it.

My writing cannot ferry the sound of the ambulance siren in the background to you. Yes, another ambulance on the street outside – how it became the background sound of our new unfamiliar life. My mother would ask us to pray for the recovery of the person in the ambulance every time we saw one in our childhood. The frequency of such an encounter was extremely low: Not more than one or two a year. There couldn’t have been more than a few ambulances in our small town when we were children. My little brother and I would begin praying for the stranger inside the ambulance immediately, almost in a Pavlovian manner. Our prayer was silent, unlike the ambulance’s siren. The sound – and words – of the prayer are now lost.

Nicknames, the sounds of private prayers, not these alone – so many other sounds are disappearing from our lives.

The twang of the dhunuri on winter afternoons; the cotton carder with what we thought was his cotton-fluffing guitar.

The anklet-like sound of the sugarcane-crushing wheel on summer afternoons; dancing to a shy music as it borrows the sweetness of the sugarcane for a thirsty walker.

The wedding bangle touching the neighbouring one as the hands roll a roti with a rolling pin.

The bell of the candyfloss man during the school holidays.

“The anklet-like sound of the sugarcane-crushing wheel on summer afternoons; dancing to a shy music as it borrows the sweetness of the sugarcane for a thirsty walker.” (Anton Belo / Shutterstock)
“The anklet-like sound of the sugarcane-crushing wheel on summer afternoons; dancing to a shy music as it borrows the sweetness of the sugarcane for a thirsty walker.” (Anton Belo / Shutterstock)

The hawker doing his riyaz, saying ‘loha kagoj plastic’ – iron, paper, plastic – every Saturday morning.

The fishmonger’s pabda-aar-koi/ilish-rui-doi, a catalogue of the Bengali’s favourite fishes, the rhyme even suggesting a recipe: carp with yoghurt.

The hammer missing a nail and the accompanying sounds of a man’s frustration.

The broom scratching and cleaning a mud-plastered courtyard.

The kulo winnowing puffed rice, keeping the grains, releasing the husk to the scavenging wind.

The coconut’s head banged on the ground repeatedly, for it to break – a moment of sadness, delight, and relief, all at once.

The cycle rickshaw’s air horn honking – every rickshaw puller’s honking as distinct and individual to them as a singer’s style of singing.

The lullaby in the grandmother’s voice – not the electronic ‘Old McDonald had a farm’ – humming the infant to sleep.

The ‘har ek maal 2 rupaiya’ man selling everything on his mobile cycle van for two rupees.

“The shil-nora grinding mustard to a paste, the sound of two stones arguing and agreeing.” (Shutterstock)
“The shil-nora grinding mustard to a paste, the sound of two stones arguing and agreeing.” (Shutterstock)

The gamchha beating the drops of water from the long ends of hair.

The typewriter’s khyat-khyat-khyat and moving the cursor from the line to the next – as if the line could be measured in a sound.

The shil-nora grinding mustard to a paste, the sound of two stones arguing and agreeing.

The hamaldista, mortar and pestle, breaking betel nuts for a woman without teeth.

The hand fan hitting a wall when the person fanning it dozes off.

A scooter refusing to start, its ignition plug being coaxed to bring the engine to life.

A radio commentary of a football match, the shock and crescendo of G-o-o-o-a-l-l-l …

How will we preserve these histories, these ruins?

Sumana Roy is a poet and writer.

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