Home >Mint-lounge >Mint-on-sunday >Letter from the street... with earplugs

For the past three or four years, I have woken up in the middle of at least one night in September. That’s the night when the neighbouring building’s Ganpati idol comes in, accompanied by the residents with dhols, singing and usually an argument. That this building is opposite a big hospital with hundreds of resting patients is of little consequence to anyone. That it’s usually 2-3am when this happens also matters little.

This memory of disturbed nights came right back on Thursday when the festive season kicked off, in Mumbai and other places, with Janmashtami. There will be other festivities close on its heels: Ganesh Chathurthi (starting 5 September and lasting for 10 days—or starting 2am and lasting the whole night, as I more clearly remember it), Onam, Dussehra, Diwali and Christmas before the end of the year.

Festivals are typically family time, days of excessive eating, new clothes sometimes, gifts maybe and a feeling of light-headedness. In Mumbai, it’s also a time when you begin to lose your hearing or check with the doctor if you are suffering from tinnitus.

Let me explain: Many of these festivals in this city are celebrated on its streets, whether it’s the practice of Dahi Handi for Janmashtami—during which troops of people make human pyramids to crack the pot dangling from a height—or Ganesh Chathurthi, with its massive pandals and processions that accompany the idol to immersion (which are also versions of street parties).

Needless to say, loudspeakers, music, speeches and general bonhomie accompany celebrations, which add to the decibel levels on the streets. (I am happy to report that at a Dahi Handi, I saw fountains of water running for hours, which indicates that Maharashtra’s water problem is over and therefore the IPL can return next year.)

I digress. As a consequence of the street space taken up by the pandals or pyramids, cars have less area to negotiate on the streets, which leads to frustration and therefore more honking. There are more traffic jams, increased travel time and overall cribbing about the state of our cities, etc.

The traffic police, who brave extreme weather and conditions to stand amid the chaos, add to the cacophony with shrill whistles, as do private guards outside buildings. One such whistle-blower told me that it was to shoo away taxi drivers, who love to park in front of the gates.

Mumbai is a noisy city at the best of times, with the noise multiplying during special occasions, which takes some of the joy out of the celebratory feeling. Most residents would agree that, irrespective of where you live or work, there is always someone drilling, hammering and cutting something just next door. For a city that’s a few hundred years old, it’s constantly in a state of construction.

Noise is very much a part of our tradition, culture and religion. Celebrations are incomplete without music—louder equates to happier. Temples have bells to draw the attention of the deity. Ganesh Chathurthi processions play the latest hit item songs on giant speakers because bhajans don’t cut it at those volumes.

Old-fashioned vendors have always walked out our streets calling out their wares. Places of entertainment, restaurants and bars are hipper when the music sufficiently drowns out conversation. In crowded shops, the loudest customer gets the salesperson’s attention first, not the one who came in first. Sunny Deol won a national award for shouting at Amrish Puri in a movie.

But is noise desirable or necessary? That might seem like a silly question, but since it exists in such high volumes, one gets the impression that it is.

Awaaz Foundation, a non-governmental advocacy agency working to create awareness against environmental pollution, carries out frequent studies on noise. One of its reports, in September 2015, concluded that while noise from pandals was comparatively restrained, noise from processions exceeded previous records. Its studies frequently indicate that the decibel levels in our cities are much more than what’s healthy or “permissible".

There has been enough legislation to control noise—by marking out time slots beyond which loudspeakers need to be switched off, for example—with the courts and governments playing an active role. But these come into play only during festivals and special occasions; what slips under the radar is the daily noise, from cars and construction.

General consensus seems to be that we honk because we have been taught to, because we believe the person in front would not move or let us pass unless we honk, because it’s a habit and mostly because of the frustration due to our own impatience and the lack of space to move faster.

Trucks made the “Horn OK Please" sign so kitsch that designers put them on mugs and cushion covers, but they essentially mean “I need to hear you before I let you pass".

On one of the online discussion forums on honking, a user said it has something to do with heat as well—everyone would like to get out of the streets faster. Also, most people do not like using the mirror, which could eliminate the horn, choosing instead to keep the side mirrors folded—they are, anyway, invariably knocked around by passing vehicles.

Additionally, there is no mutually agreed traffic etiquette and laws are not implemented strictly. The hospital I mentioned earlier happens to be in a “Silent Zone", which ranks just above the “No Parking" sign in its uselessness in Mumbai.

There have been intrepid if futile attempts to conquer street noise. For example, The Times of India ran a “No Honking Day" campaign on 22 August, which was barely noticeable on the streets—another sign that nobody reads newspapers these days.

A few years ago, a behavioural company, Briefcase, invented a gadget they called Bleep, which when fitted in a vehicle alerts the driver if she/he honks more than a stipulated number of times. Awaaz is very proactive in its campaigns and petitions.

But things are unlikely to change unless a majority of people sees it as a problem, which they don’t. As Dipankar Gupta, a former sociology professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told AFP in 2010, “In India, as in many developing countries, people think making a noise is their prerogative. With rising affluence, India has become more and more noisy because noise is unfortunately associated with status and power."

If at all there is change, it may take years to come—first, for the realization that noise is not desirable, and then for the effort to eliminate it.

I was in a taxi waiting at a traffic light recently when I asked the trigger-happy driver whether he thought honking was really effective. This was immediately after he had honked at the red light, almost willing it to change. He grinned and said no.

“Then, why do you do it?"

“It’s just habit, I feel like it’s making a difference."

Did he feel like his honking would bother others? No, he said, because it’s a commonly done thing.

“What?" I asked him. “I didn’t hear you."

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.

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