Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Silence Makers

This was taken on a winter morning in Sundarbans

Raise your hand if you, like me, associate silence with sound. How many times have you noticed the silence in a room because you heard a clock ticking? Or because you heard your own breath – in, out; in, out?

My grandma’s home had one of those old pendulum clocks. It had a black frame with a round, cobalt blue dial if I remember correctly. The pendulum was metallic and had little flowers etched on the shiny circular bob. It gave out a basic ding ding every hour, and one note for the half hour. It had to be wound everyday – the key was kept on a small shelf provided near the dial.

When we cousins stayed at grandma’s for hols, my uncle made a big deal of the clock-winding. The clock was high up on the wall, and he’d stand on a foldable aluminium chair. We kids would gather around, looking up, mouth open, eyes like dinner plates. With every turn of the clock key, uncle would huff and puff and wipe his brow and tell us, ‘You need a lot of strength to do this. Now drink up your milk.’

The clock had an unusually loud tick-tock. On those summer afternoons, with lunch done, straw mats would be rolled out on the red-oxide floor, cotton-filled pillows in home-stitched covers would be thrown around and we’d settle down for siesta. Within a few minutes, the tick-tock would grow louder, louder. Folded news papers and bamboo fans (beesanige) would rustle and whisper as the elders fanned us and fanned themselves. Thumbs would find way into mouths, eyes would droop and the world would cease to exist.

On days when I missed school due to flu, the silence of the mornings was different. Although it is unimaginable now, those days our street rarely had traffic. We did have the occasional cyclist, or an auto rickshaw, or a bullock cart or even a tonga. But those were fleeting sounds – the clip-clop of a weary horse, or the janjan of jingles tied to the horns of the oxen. By ten in the morning, the sun would turn from golden to white and the road would lay deserted, the tar baking in silence - children at school, fathers at work and mothers going about their chores. There was no T.V. and the All India Radio morning programs ended by nine-thirty.

On such mornings as I lay burning up with a fever, I’d hear the silence caused by sparrows. In front of our verandah, Amma or Appa would throw a handful of rice and lentils. The sparrows would descend cheep-cheeping over the grains. Occasionally I would hear the roll of a neighbour’s grinding stone, as the dosa or idli batter was prepared. By eleven, there would be the whistle of pressure cookers, and the repeated clap of wet cloth against stone as someone somewhere washed their clothes. When I think about it now, except for the pressure cooker, all the other silence-makers are gone.

But these silences I so love are still found in the folds of India where the cancer of malls and supermarkets has not spread yet. Years ago, on a visit to Barrackpore near Kolkata, I had to accompany my family to Serampore. Serampore and Barrackpore lie on the opposite banks of the Hooghly.

We set off early in the morning, me in a severely starched cotton saree that stood like a tent, rustling like a plastic sheet. Our cycle rickshaw weaved through streets where the gulmohars stood lush and tall spotted in red and green, sprinkling the flaming flowers all over the road. I could hear mynahs and cuckoos and the clang of woks and ladles as street-side food vendors got ready to fry shingaras and jilebis.

We were taking a boat to Serampore – a row boat converted to a motorised one, with the capacity to take fifteen passengers across. The early passengers had squatted on a thin plank running along the perimeter of the boat, facing the late-comers who sat cross-legged in the middle. I was afraid of sitting on the plank, lest I forget I’m on a boat and do something stupid and tip over. So I sat cross-legged amidst the late-comers. The industrious women, resplendent with vermilion streaks on their hair parting and beautiful in their simple cotton sarees, knitted sweaters and stitched garlands from loose flowers; while the men poured over newspapers. They were all on their way to work in Serampore – the women mainly as house maids and cooks, the men factory employees, teachers, shopkeepers or accountants.

The engine droned and the boat inched ahead. The river was still orange, by noon it would be impossible to look at it without hurting one’s eyes. One of the men unpacked a harmonium and started singing one of Tagore’s poems. His voice was gruff, but he held a good tune, and his heart was in every word which made the song so poignant, and he was the silence-maker that morning.

We docked at Serampore and walked the rest of the way. The interior of this town is a grid of narrow lanes flanked by two or three storied houses with green doors and windows with painted wooden shutters, painted gates with intricate grill designs and moss growing on the outer walls. Bengali women are most vociferous while cooking and I could hear so many voices humming, singing,yelling, commanding as cleavers chopped meat and crushed garlic, mixers blended ginger paste or mustard paste and the pungent mustard oil hissed and sizzled as chopped onions danced in it. The aroma and the cooking noises completed the silence of those streets.

I came across the peak of silence, if there is any such thing, when I passed a cycle-rickshaw. The rickshaw wallah was dressed in the traditional dhoti and a vest, a towel tied around his head like a bandana. He was reclining on his rickshaw seat, legs jutting out, feet tapping rhythmically. His hands were crossed behind his head, his leathered face upturned to the unforgiving sun. A rusty transistor radio in a tattered leather jacket was hanging on the rickshaw handle by means of a frayed belt. A favourite song of mine – Rampur ka Lakshman’s ‘ghum hai kisi ke pyaar mein’ was playing - the sound was tinny, but in the humid silence, it sounded wonderful. The rickshaw wallah was far away behind his closed eyes, maybe in a cool monsoon-drenched place making love to his beloved. A squirrel chirped nearby as it tried to steal lentil cakes that were being sundried in someone’s patio. And perhaps that was the moment, as the music and the squirrel-talk rose and fell, I came about to associate the noon sun with silence.

Now, in this place I stay, the silence that is pressed down by steel-gray skies and trembling naked trees is completed by the unknown man who works for the supermarket next door. Come rain or sunshine, this man who comes in for the morning shift unloading deliveries to the warehouse, whistles a happy tune or two, bringing a cheerful twist to the sombre silence of stormy skies – and he is then accompanied by the chuck-chuck-chuck of the few remaining magpies.

But I also bought myself a couple of cheap wall-clocks and table clocks, their imperfect mechanisms ensure a loud tick-tock; and be it blue noons or a red night sky promising snow - those clocks make the silence for me :)

© Sumana Khan - 2012


  1. That was an excellent word painting :)

  2. Beautiful! Tightly written but is like a painting. You have made that clock worthy of a million. And remember the uproar when they forgot to wind the clock!
    I will dream of ooru tonight- barking of street dogs and a village lady singing folk songs and Amma humming those tunes... Here though I hear only the sound of boiler and pray it keeps making that sound.

    1. haha yes...the clock, i can never forget. Where is it now? Oh I'll bet the ooru sounds are even more exotic. Did you not have parrots fly by in the evenings?

  3. I have experienced silence in hills, when they were not as bustling as they are nowadays. All you could hear was the wood creak when someone walked, the clock's tic-tock and the sound of thousand of insects chatting in the valley below.
    Thank you for bringing back those memories.

    1. I'm reminded of one of my trips...we were in a valley surrounded by mudhumalai forest range, and all i heard was the soulful cry of peacocks that echoed all around:)

  4. Silence has its own personality, it seems.
    You've made the silence speak. :)

    1. it does have quite a personality, does it not? :)

  5. So beautifully written ...coming to think of it even I imagine silence as something rural...untouched and pristine ...perhaps silence is tinkle of the milkman's cycle bell ...or a whoosh of white wings as a cluster of doves take off to the unknown skies ...I always thought silence was mysterious...yet you make it sound so familiar like a long lost friend .

    Ok I will stop my rambling and try to make a graceful exit :)

    1. Please ramble more Sridevi :) It was so nice to see your comment.

  6. A beautiful essay yet again. How is it that you succeed in taking us back in time and make us grown in nostalgia, every time you write posts like this? For me silence is still the burning afternoon sun, after lunch siestas on jokali or ajji's lap. And of course the unforgettable clock. Sadly no more silences in the hustle bustle of Bengalooru.
    Such lovely warm memories. I can close my eyes right now and go back to that time.

  7. The more I read your posts, I realise how much we share the same frequencies. Living in a University campus, one can still relish those silences, I reckon. I pick up lot of sounds that way. And, no, I don't have a clock in place yet. Should buy one.

    Joy always,

    P. S: Please write more often.