White Noise

How do you feel?” asked the voice on the phone. Feel? Who wants to feel any more? Instead, I want to occupy myself with the constant hum. Steady rain, fluctuating anger and hopelessness. Stomach-churning weariness. White noise. Déjà vu. Same old routine, on replay. TV anchors cackle shrilly. Man on the street makes anti-Kasab anti-Pakistan anti-government statements. The spirit of the city is invoked. The common man is praised for dealing with body parts and mangled steel efficiently. A list of names, dead, in hospitals. A list of numbers to call. Human interest angles, to be returned to, but for now: “How did you feel?” a reporter asks an old, bearded, dazed gentleman, while urging him to turn his back to the camera so it captures the blood stain.

Anna Hazare, athletes doping, Adarsh scam, Kalka Mail. All forgotten. Twitter has a new trending topic with 40 new tweets every second. Online maps are made. Apps modified. Numbers exchanged. Help offered and taken. The cell phone continues to buzz. “No, we’re okay, really, thanks for calling,” is repeated to every fresh call, from Australia, America, Patiala. Let’s talk about it. In the streets, on the train, in the office. Collective catharsis needs to be achieved. P. Chidambaram is calling a press conference. PM will be here any minute. Things are under control this time.

Meanwhile, a small box on an inside page: three more minors raped in UP. What is this emotion? Can it be extricated and examined in a forensic lab? This impetus that causes violence to be plotted and executed against another human being? The recent blasts are faithfully plotted on a timeline next to other bomb blasts. 1993. 2003. 2006. Etc. How do we classify other acts of violence that are committed in this nation, every day? What dates do they sit next to? Who sends out Facebook petitions for their perpetrators to be hung? How do they make us feel?

There are multiple narratives of India. In one, India is a country that is almost a global power. Its financial markets boom, it has rich people who build high towers, its educated workers buzz with energy, and while misery exists, economic progress is bound to ensure a better life for millions, soon enough. Bombay is the crucible for this narrative. The maximumest city of dreams — come here, and make your own destiny.

It is a flawed narrative. We residents know this, each time we encounter a builder, a politician, a policeman, a criminal, or worse of all, each other. Each time we become or are at the receiving end of pothole-filled road rage, each time we hang out from the overworked trains, and manage to avoid death, each time we look out of our windows and see the vast expanse of a garbage dump, or each time we read about a J. Dey killed and then forget about it, we are reminded that this is a harsh and cruel city. It is not a melting pot but a cauldron of ferocity, fuelled not by ambition and the brotherhood of citizenry, but by cruelty, hatred and exploitation.

Why then do we feign outrage when bombs rip through our innards? Is it because we like our middle-class fantasies — rather, we need these fantasies — and each bomb blast is a loud reminder that there are other narratives too? Narratives of conflict and inequality. Narratives that question other narratives. Narratives within which, a crowd of innocents, in a city’s throbbing heart, must lose their lives on a rainy Wednesday evening, as collateral damage.

What remains? Pointlessness. Emptiness. A failed attempt at meaning-making. Breaking up is really hard, whether with a person, or with a city. So, finger gets entwined in finger. Stomach pushes against hipbone. Somewhere in this narrative, body parts are strewn across a slick bloodstained floor. But others continue to function. Limb is still attached to limb. It needs to be caressed. Touched. Loved. There is a kitchen that is crying for the aroma of ghee. There are vegetables that need to be cut, and served for tomorrow’s lunch. There is a maid that needs to be bantered with. The trashman didn’t come.

No one likes loud reminders. But I fear the silence that follows even more. Silence is scary, it forces you to reflect, to look inwards. It must be filled up with white noise.

* This was an editorial written for Indian Express and published on July 15, 2011. It can be found on the Express website at: https://www.indianexpress.com/news/the-sounds-then-the-silence/817601/0