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Living Kerala Series: Sounds of India

Every country has its own sounds. The UK has bird song, sirens (in the cities anyway) and the random motorbike that revs by at 3am on a weeknight. Spain has the murmur of voices from the terraza, the morning ‘chssssssss’ of commercial coffee machines dispensing morning pick-me-ups, and the incessancy of dogs barking across the countryside. India in June and July has its own song, whose bassline is the Southwest Monsoon, the first of the two monsoons per year.

Sudden downpour outside a rail station

Young grasshopper hasn't yet learned to carry an umbrella at all times

We are in Kochi (or ‘Cochin’), one of the main cities in Kerala. It is a coastal city whose main areas are buffered from the Indian Ocean by a series of long islands that absorb the waves. Its position on the edge of India, therefore, means that it is the welcoming party to the monsoon. Jumbles of plum clouds fill the western horizon several times a day, pushing strong winds ahead of them. Then a wall of mist touches down and rain sweeps across the ocean, the islands and the backwaters until hitting the city itself. Once the storm arrives, the sounds of the world are filtered through water: the buses and cars and tiny lorries and sputtering auto rickshaws send waves crashing against the shoulder as the roads are filled by water faster than they can drain. By necessity the vehicles become semi-aquatic.

The trees give off a softer noise, with the coconut palms making a higher-pitched swishing while the large mango leaves strike deeper notes. The parks and corridors of vegetation that cross the city are ruffled by the air and create a steady whisper. The wind also keens around the buildings, finding the ant-filled cracks and gaps of every window, balcony and tower block. Our 12th floor flat feels like a lighthouse in the gale.

Monsoon at T-minus 45 seconds, Kochi, Kerala

Arrival of the monsoon (view from our balcony)

The monsoon does not change all sounds, however. The cooing of the dozen pigeons that live on our air con unit remains a startlingly loud constant, though I suppose there is the additional noise of shaking out wet feathers when it is raining. Our pigeons are a ragged bunch that engage in flirtation, raucous mating and feathery duels, all while making their round noises. There are not many pigeons on street level, but there are thriving civilizations just a few storeys up.

A constant sound in India, though more so in Kerala than other more Hindu / less diverse states, is the five-times-daily call to prayer from the mosques stippled around the city. The call is atonal yet predictable; filling the air, even the monsoon does not change it. Some call Kerala the only true secular state in India, with 55% Hindus, 27% Muslims and 18% Christians, not to mention the small Bahá’í and Jewish communities. Christianity arrived in Kerala in 52AD, and Islam was not far behind, arriving in 629AD; religions co-existing (mostly) peacefully has been the rule for almost fourteen hundred years. The 93% state literacy rate is the highest in India and it is the first state to have 100% primary education. With its more recent Communist government, the gap between rich and poor is much narrower than elsewhere and the impact of the caste system is muted. Most significantly, education is a right for all and people are Keralite first, religious second (or third). All of this explains why the call to prayer is welcome: although it is not a song, it is a reminder of the tolerance here and so has a rich part in the larger melody.

One sound that is slightly lessened during the monsoon is that of the fan. Most offices and shops and homes do not have air-con, but everywhere has a ceiling fan. This flow is so constant that paperweights (actual or improvised) are as common as rice. In the main auditorium of a nearby school here, we observed three rows of angled fans affixed to the walls arranged to keep 500 students cool during daily assembly. The first fan was a standard swivelling fan, the second was on a short arm extending past the first, and the third was on the end of an even longer arm, suspended ten feet away from the wall and pointing out across the crowd to cool them.

Even before electricity was common, fans were here. When I first visited India in 2014, we paid a visit to a church in Fort Kochi to see where Vasca de Gama is buried. The church was completely still, an airy old hall that hadn’t been touched by renovation. Running along the room, twenty feet above the pews, were long panels of very thin wood suspended perpendicular to the seats below; huge fan blades twenty feet long. Cords were tied to the bottom of these planks, and we were told that during a service, altar boys or other young acolytes would stand in the balconies along the lengths of the church and pull these enormous blades back and forth, offering relief to the sweating worshipers below. This solution was common, and I can only imagine the relief of countless children when electricity arrived to give their arms a break.

A less-steady but syncopated sound that fills daily life is the horns of all vehicles. Horn honking is a language and art and an essential to avoiding accident or death. In the UK, we are taught ‘Mirror-Signal-Manoeuvre’ in driving school. In India, the phrase is clearly ‘Horn-Mirror-Signal-Horn-Manoeuvre-Horn’. One beep to announce one’s presence, two to say you’re coming over, a long anxious blast to say, “I’m already here, don’t merge into me!”. There are many more pieces of horny vocabulary we have yet to learn though. The best horn is that of the lorry: trucks are only allowed to drive at night, thereby keeping the roads free of big lorries by day, and for some reason they appear to only be allowed a musical horn. Honking a lorry horn starts a four-second-long ditty with tinny notes that wouldn’t be out of place in a fairground and the melody of highways at night can verge on discordant.

And then there is the best sound, which is also the rarest and only comes out in the sun: that of the party boat sailing by, packed with revellers, and everyone dancing dancing dancing to glorious Bollywood music and Natalie Imbruglia. The lyrics ripple across to shore, serenading the families promenading the docks, the autos honking along Marine Drive and the pigeons chatting away on our air conditioner. And then another storm arrives, and the world’s sounds are blended again.

Monsoon pigeon

Portrait of a post-monsoon pigeon

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