essay

57065 exhalation

The evening sounds like the consonant h, an exhalation, an eternal flood of breath. Or a soft friction, an s alternating with a lower pitched š. From somewhere out in this fog of sibilance, a telephone rings eternally, crows caw and dogs bark; babies cry. A moment awake, then a passage through sleep, this is how the depth of the night unravels. Isles of consciousness in a sea of oblivion.

In my dislocation, like a tropical fever, I sleep in fits and each time wake to this atmosphere, this ocean of strange air, altered in distinct phases as if marked by the sweeping hand of time. Late evening, the traffic lessens and the bleat of motorized vehicle horns gradually subsides. By midnight, there is a wash of sound, just the unfocused white noise of the wind in the leaves, blended with the soft chaos of every other thing happening in the neighborhood, the actions of the quick upon the inert. Through the deepest night, this further quiets, becoming almost featureless, broken only by the faraway steel bellow of the occasional horns that sound whenever a train arrives in the station. Then the pre-dawn phase begins, a rustling slowly rising as the ambience seems to heat up according to the angle of the sun.

I am in India and listening at the window of a hotel in Pune and thinking about the bottomless well of sounds that are present here, stirred up by the steady activities of the inhabitants, like dust clouds in hot winds. Sound is exuberant here, it brooks no reticence and resounds without restraint. The train horns I mentioned, loudly announcing their arrival at the station some 4 kilometers distant, are smeared by echoes into persistent resonant tones that pierce the sonic mist like radio beacons from an arctic islet. A dilation of time, wrought by distance, changes these hot, sturdy sounds into cold and frail ones that must be attended to closely or simply not heard.

In their passage, brisk, bright sounds are torn apart by the strut and surface of buildings and other intervening forms, shredded by the mass and matter of the things of the city, and reassembled around my ears as ghostly groans and soothing whispers. They are cast among the rocks, split asunder into their millions of parts, and arrive both in and out of order, deformed and reformed by their passage, assembled into new sounds, each one marked by their journey in ways, small and many, that utterly transform them.

In the early morning, the reedy whine of an electronic instrument plays the tune to “Silent Night” that begins the daily lessons in a children’s school somewhere below me. Then the strong-voiced teacher leads the flock of little voices in endless repetitions of their A-B-C’s. Nearby, a repair shop operates some kind of machine that makes a sort of sad laughter out of something very hard evidently turning against something else made of metal, like the shriek of some great turgid metallic monkey baring its teeth at a passing tourist. It is hidden from my view; I cannot describe it any better.

The great clock that we live on sends the sun up on its greased rail and the next act begins. A million alarm clocks rouse the city into a restless state, an itch to be alleviated only by spilling out into the streets in inexhaustible numbers. The gentler earlier sounds are drowned by the incessant squawking of vehicle horns bursting with the randomness of popping corn. There is a pecking order with the horns. Bikes have toy-like squeaks, motorbikes and rickshaws a kind of tinny insistent bleat that leaves the ears tickling, cars have louder horns still, and trucks and busses bear down with the full shuddering blast of ochestral thunder.

I wander streets with inscrutable signs, the devanagari script keeps its secrets from me. I look at fruits and vegetables that I have never before seen and wonder if they are sweet, bitter or bland. I peer into courtyards and wonder at the organization of life and neighbors within them. I visit temples and stand aside as I watch mysterious rituals of bells, chanting, water and fire, evidently full of a significance that I can only guess at.

I sit in little food stalls, with their open fronts and improvised furniture, and order coffee. In response to this request, they give me a small cup of Nescafé dissolved in hot milk, very sweet, sticky with sugar. The locals sitting there are studying me slyly; perhaps tourists don’t often sit in places like this. But as I, too, am covertly studying them, it is a moment of perfect reciprocity.

This essay has been published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as post no. 6 for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“

The following filecasts are closely connected in time and location:

57049 end of night, field recordings from pune, india
55056 peths of pune, photographs from pune, maharashtra, india