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Whistles in the dark

Oindrila Mukherjee

Updated: June 15, 2012, 3:54 PM IST
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The other day I wrote about a steady stream of service people ringing the doorbell all through the day at my parents' home in Gurgaon. One of the biggest - and loudest - differences between my life in the States and my short spurts of life here is the almost constant presence of people in India. This can be exasperating to anyone who has a basic need for privacy and some solitude. And yet of course, as everyone knows, it is India's most endearing quality, the one trait that every expat has missed at some time or other.

Having help in India means strangers live in your home, often, in cramped flats. They are always around, witness to all the goings on, all the conversations and conflicts within the family. I remember how, growing up, most of our information about neighbours came from the maids who formed a network of information that would put the CNN to shame. Gossip about what was going on in other peoples' homes flowed regularly through this grapevine. I am particularly sensitive about this because on one occasion I got in a lot of trouble when my parents found out what I had been up to from a neighbor who'd heard it from her maid who'd heard it from ours (who'd promised not to tell my parents.) The walls quite literally have ears (pressed to them) in India.

Most people here do not understand a person's need for privacy. That is why relatives, family friends, neighbours, and even casual acquaintances feel quite comfortable asking extremely personal questions. Why aren't you getting married? When do you intend to have babies? Why did your son get divorced? What is your salary? Sometimes, questions or personal remarks (You don't look well at all, are you alright?) are meant to be a show of concern. But most of the time, they are a result of sheer inquisitiveness. Recently, when I was a bit ill, many of my Indian friends showed concern by asking me (some of them rang me in the ICU to ask me!) the exact details of my illness. My American friends showed concern only by asking what they could do to help. I accepted both as genuine signs of kindness, but no points for guessing which was easier to deal with.

This lack of space is intensified when in India by the sheer number of people one comes into contact with daily. I have grown accustomed to shopping in a department store, or any store for that matter, by myself, for as long as I want and no clue what I want, without anyone bothering me. That's why it's a little disconcerting to have eager sales people accosting me and offering to help. Do you want this? Do you want that? Have you seen this ma'am, this one's better? Aaaargh.

And yet, the very thing that exasperates is also comforting. You are never really alone in India, at least not on the surface.

The silence that surrounds me at home in Michigan is a silence of snow, of footsteps swallowed by carpeting, of cars that never honk and of discreet texts for communication. The silence is pretty. But at times, it's like living in limbo, as if you're waiting for something to happen. Maybe that's why the best scary stories are sometimes set in the sleepiest of American towns.

In contrast, in India, the nerves are on edge, the quiet replaced by a never-ending din and a clatter. The sounds made in the kitchen by the help and the honking of cars out on the streets all through the day become white noise. The people scurrying about asking for money or offering to sell you things become invisible. Until they're not there. Then you notice. And when you remember it from somewhere far away, where you're surrounded by silence, then the silence is not always golden. Sometimes it feels like paralysis, as if nothing will ever stir again.

At night in Gurgaon, when the power goes, the backup supply takes a few minutes to start up. In between, when it's very dark and very hot, a strange phenomenon occurs. All the security guards in the highrise where we live start to whistle. I'm not sure if they're trying to scare away potential burglars or simply signaling to whoever's in charge of the backup to start it up. But inevitably, through the night, every time the AC stops humming, the whistling begins, loud and sharp. It sounds like several birds chirping all at once. At first I used to get pretty annoyed at this unnecessary sound to go with the heat. But now, I lie awake at night, waiting for the chorus of whistles. At other times, the tapping of the darwans' sticks on the ground, like a metronome, lulls me to sleep. These are the sounds I will miss when I go back. The sounds that people make, the buzz that never leaves the air, the palpable signs of life.

I keep going back to the airport, that much used and overused symbol of the postcolonial writers. But that much anticipated moment of return - that exact moment, that first glimpse of India and its people - is frozen in this image of hundreds of people lined up at Customs. My first thought was: Oh no, so many people. My second thought: Cool, so many people!

First Published: June 15, 2012, 3:54 PM IST

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