It’s the start of a few days of travel in Kerala and I have no idea what I’m supposed to be feeling. I’m making my way around an installation by the Japanese artist Yuko Mohri in a colonial-era, former warehouse called Aspinwall House, the principal venue for the exhibits of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale. The room, white-tiled and spare, looks like a laboratory. There’s a wine glass half-filled with water on one surface. Copper rings are lined up like a set of wheels, catching the light from the arched windows. A gramophone sits on the floor, a cord attaching it to a mechanism on the ceiling.
It’s all a little mystifying. I learn that these are collections of objects that Mohri has found in cities all over the world but still feel none the wiser. I walk past forks set out in straight lines, a scattering of bolts, a glockenspiel.
And then I hear it: a tinkle. I stop. A few seconds later, I hear it again, a little fainter, but unmistakably a tinkle. It’s a moment when everything begins to make sense.
When we visit an art exhibition, we prepare ourselves to be engaged visually, we marshal our concentration and we come prepared to see. It takes a surprising amount of effort to recalibrate our expectations and prepare ourselves to hear.
Mohri’s work uses disparate objects to produce circuits of sound, in ways that draw on the Japanese belief of dead ancestors calling on their descendants. Relying on gravity, wind and magnetic forces, connections are made between the spiritual and material worlds, the lost and the found, the visible and the invisible. As I turn and face away from the windows, a breeze sails through the room and there is a clink from a tiny bell. A steel cog pings against a tile, a set of dangling bars chime.
This metaphysical connection between sound and space is an unexpectedly moving experience—it feels like time travel—and as I leave the exhibition space, I resolve to try and pay more attention to the wealth of sounds that surround us. I’ll be travelling to parts of Kerala that are removed from the hubbub of cities and highways and I feel confident that there will be plenty of reverberations, large and small, for me to catch. On this trip, the listening will take precedence over the seeing. As if on cue, a ship in the harbour sounds its foghorn, transforming the tourist bustle of Fort Kochi into a place of sudden melancholy.
Later, in my hotel, there is a curious absence of sound. It is December, peak season, yet there is little evidence of other guests. The sole staff member is a middle-aged man with a completely impassive face. I slowly begin to suspect that there is never anyone there to assist him.
At breakfast, he rushes to the reception to answer the phone, speaking in something of a low croon. He races back to the kitchen and the door slams shut. I hear the clatter of crockery and then a fat sizzle. He serves the breakfast and I hear his footsteps on the stairs. Could he be on his way to make every bed in this 12-room hotel? The phone rings again and he thunders down the stairs. Then I spot him in the doorway with a stepladder. There is a squall against the windowpane and I would like to ask him if I can borrow an umbrella. But I decide he probably has enough to deal with at the moment.
The next day I’m on a boat in the backwaters, which, in spite of their relative silence, are rich with tones and resonance. A kingfisher’s vibrato pierces the air and is drowned out by the chug of a passing boat. A few minutes later, a cormorant glides past, dropping something into the water with a dull plop. There is a startling smash on the bank. Two men are offloading crates of soft drinks from their canoe, the clink of the bottles abnormally loud in this calm. The sound seems to trail and echo as the men deposit their cargo, and then, just as abruptly, stops. The oars slap into the water as the canoe moves off towards the wider expanse of the lagoon. And the silence returns. It reminds me that it will soon be the end of the year and that it is likely that party boats will cruise through these channels on New Year’s Eve. It seems almost impossible to imagine now, but there will be whoops and cheers and a thudding bass. A bottle will smash, there will be a low gurgle as a catfish retreats into the shallows.
Almost as soon as darkness falls, the night sounds begin. There are some I can identify, like the throaty rasps of frogs. But a much more complicated soundscape—a series of clicks, chirps and whirrs—forms. The best I can do to categorize the noises is to liken them to other sounds: water being gulped, leaves being raked, shells being crunched. From the boat’s depths the woodwork emits a plaintive creak before subsiding into a resigned silence.
Substantial research has been carried out into the way music affects us, how the hemispheres of our brains respond, and whether our reactions are hardwired into our cognitive functions. The science writer Philip Ball, in his book The Music Instinct: How Music Works And Why We Can’t Do Without It, endorses the theory that music engages our brains in a tantalizing process of prediction: What are the patterns of notes that will come next? Whether the process is active or subconscious, and whether we are correct or not, what results is an emotional response, perhaps unintended by the creator of the music. If this is the case, sounds must act in a similar way. The boat drifts and the waters lap against its side. I wait for the next plish, the next plash, expecting a profound calmness to descend—but a sudden extraneous noise intervenes. A mosquito dives past my ear, producing its prolonged whine, and my emotional response is swift and unambiguous: intense annoyance.
My final weekend in Kerala takes me to Chowara Beach, about 30km from Thiruvananthapuram. I expect the usual sounds—crashing waves, the whoosh of the sea breeze—but the first thing I hear is sharp whistles. A lifeguard is keeping a keen watch on swimmers. The waves, although large, do not seem dangerous. But at this time of the year, there is a strong undertow. A pair of arms rise up in the distance. The lifeguard blows his whistle again, this time more insistent.
Further up the beach, tough grass sprouts from the sand, and turns into wide strips of sward where cows graze. Crows wheel in the air, bold and raucous, each caw distinct. The land begins to slope upwards, a narrow path leading past rock formations broken up by the odd flowering cactus. I begin to hear sharper whistles. The lifeguard is barely visible in the distance so it’s certainly not him. At the crest of the hill stands a small temple with walls the colour of coral. Next to the doorway is a stern signboard prohibiting all photography. The shrill blasts come from a security guard taking to his whistle every time he spots someone on the temple premises trying to take a selfie. He throws a suspicious glance at the phone in my hand and then sees a couple with a selfie stick. There is a sharp pre-emptive trill.
What is that sound, we ask. Is it a toot, a honk, a peep? Part of the joy of listening for sounds has been the pleasure of locating an onomatopoeic equivalent. This is a game of language, encompassing mimicry, musicality and rhythm, but something beyond that too: a primal instinct for sound. Maybe it first takes shape in childhood with the joy of hearing funny noises, and, later, the thrill of seeing a “ka-pow” or a “ker-plunk” framed in a cartoon bubble. Wherever it comes from, the satisfaction it offers is overgenerous, the same as finally fitting the right peg into its hole.
On the other side of the hill, there’s a church, the crosses in its graveyard a ghostly white in the evening light. As I pass its gates, the singing starts. Their verses seem to roll down the hillside. A man wheeling his bike pauses to listen, a woman with a child leans against a tree. I don’t understand Malayalam so the words don’t distract me from the harmonies. In that moment, it is simply impossible to analyse any response to the singing, whether cognitive or emotional. All I can really say is that its effect is to collapse the space around us, erase the sights. The hymn continues but it becomes clear that one voice is out of tune, a few beats behind everyone else. In spite of its discordance, it is making every effort, doing its best, struggling on, keeping the faith. It is in one sense ruining the hymn but, in another, lifting it higher. The light around me continues to fade and the listeners continue to stand silently. When the song comes to an end, the straggling voice rushes to a halt with a final breath. Was it a “phew”? Or an “uff”? Or maybe it was a long, slow “aha”.
Mahesh Rao is the author of a collection of short stories, One Point Two Billion, and a novel, The Smoke Is Rising.