India is so loud. As a child growing up in New York, I became pretty used to noise. I actually like hearing cars and trucks passing my window at night and find myself feeling confused and isolated whenever we are in the country and it’s silent outside. Which is why I was surprised to find myself struggling with the noise level while we were in India. But in India the noise has a different quality, there is a constant level of noise that we found in all aspects of the culture from the traffic to the marketplace and even religious parts of the wedding services. It was startling at first, but by the end of the trip Jon and I found it to be an endearing part of the culture.
It’s funny because even in New York, there are pockets of the city that can be very quiet. My street happens to be one of them. Of course there are times when garbage trucks interrupt my 3 am movie watching. Or a delivery to the restaurant across the street leads to shouting, honking and the beeping sound of vehicles in reverse. But as I sit now in my living room at 2 pm on a Monday, the only sounds I hear on 12th street between avenue A and B are a few kids shouting after school and the occasional quietly passing car.
In India though, there really is no such thing as a “quietly passing car”. One rule of the road is that there is constant honking. Honking is mandatory, and also necessary for survival. There are several reasons for this. First off, all the drivers use honking as a way to communicate on the road. Most vehicles have inadequate mirrors to see what’s happening on the side and behind so other drivers are constantly honking just to let you know they’re there, or let you know they’re passing. Almost every truck has the words: “Honk OK Please” written on the back for this reason.
Second, there are few traffic laws there, and those that do exist are rarely obeyed. Only major cities like Mumbai and Delhi even have traffic signals, and even there, they only seem to serve as a suggestion. Also, lanes are only divided on the highway and they seemed to be a relatively new concept. Among the safe driving signs that lined the side of the highway there was one that read: “Lane Driving is Safe Driving.” And that sign was necessary, in the cities there were no lanes, it was a free-for-all.
Finally, a third reason that necessitates incessant honking is the proliferation of rickshaws and motorcycles that clog the streets. In India, the number of people driving rickshaws and riding motorcycles combined might be equal to the number of cars and trucks. These little rickshaws are speedy and maneuverable three-wheeled, door-less “cabs” that ferry people around the city at breakneck speeds accompanied by an ear-shattering level of honking. The amount of drivers on the road creates a lot of traffic, which in turn leads to more honking. Traffic jams can last for hours, during which drivers often get out of their cars and sell food and other stuff on the side of the road. This doesn’t make for a speedy resolution of the jam.
Noise in India is not just a result of the cars there however. Noise seems to be an integral part of the culture of hustlers that characterizes the Indian marketplace and business sense. It’s overcrowded and busy everywhere, and to make yourself heard, you sometimes have to shout. If you are a peddler of wares in the street hustling tourists, you yell to be heard over the yammering of your neighbor and competitor, who is also trying to sell their chotchkies to tourists. People in the open markets yell also, even when selling basic produce and food to locals. Everyone is trying to push their own product, and everyone thinks that being the loudest means getting the most business. I found it kind of hard to handle and would often have to walk quickly / run away from people trying to sell me things.
This element of yelling the loudest in order to be heard doesn’t only exist in the marketplace though. It happens socially as well. When we were getting ready for the weddings, the women would all talk and shout at once. Eventually, the person who was loudest would be given the floor. At the weddings, there was never a moment of quiet silence.
The wedding ceremonies highlight how constant sound really is an integral aspect of Indian culture. During one of the ceremonies involving the groom, all the women were loudly singing. At the same time the priest was saying prayers and speaking consistently without even taking a breath, while he was also conducting wedding rituals like pouring water over the grooms feet. As an observer, there was so much going on it was impossible to differentiate between the music from the band, the women singing, the priest chanting, it just sounded like a loud chorus of Indian culture.
Even at night, it was noisy. At around 3 am every night in Baroda, there would be dogs in the street, howling at the moon. At dawn you would hear the noise of roosters crowing and then the wailing of people in prayer. It was hard to even get a good night’s sleep with all that chaos going on outside the window. Then the day would begin and the honking and yelling would start all over again. Strangely enough, despite all of these street noise, the one thing we rarely heard there was sirens. No police car sirens. very few ambulance horns. No fire trucks. It reminded me how little infrastructure there is in India. I realized how little people are able to do to help each other, because they really barely have enough to help themselves and their own families. Yes, there are hospitals and police stations, but we didn’t really see them in action. All things considered, the colors, the lights, the spicy food, and the noise are big, hot, in your face, aggressive, fragrant, crowded and stinky. These qualities definitely encapsulate Indian culture as we experienced it there. For better or worse, India is really loud. Honk, OK, Please.
© 2011 Jonathan Meter and Jessica Hertle