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Opinion: Indian urban noise produces loud symphony, draws contrasts to daily life in US

(Elaine Guan/Daily Bruin)

By Rakesh Peddibhotla

May 23, 2024 11:20 p.m.

Noise is a part of everyday life. Urban noise is a different animal for the uninitiated.

My first time traveling to San Francisco as a child was overwhelming, to say the least. My young mind absorbed the unintentional symphony of trolleys, seagulls, fog horns and saxophone players.

However, growing up in Fremont, California, a suburban city in the East Bay Area, my average day was quiet and uneventful. Apart from the occasional sounds of construction or a car revving its engine too loud, I felt sonically insulated.

I experienced the exact opposite as a young child when I first visited India, the country my grandparents were born in. Cars honked, street vendors yelled and dogs barked in the late hours of the night.

But it didn’t faze the locals. It was their everyday life.

When my cousin first came to America last year, specifically to suburban Fremont, I realized that she must have felt out of her element, the same way I did as a kid. She missed the traffic, the vendors and the animals. American cities felt so lonely to her. I grew to realize the importance of stepping outside one’s comfort zone.

While the loud sounds of street life may be an annoyance to some, it is a way of life for others. It is hard to comprehend this as an outsider visiting a new place, even with an existing cultural connection.

My cousin’s experience, along with my encounters with many other people from densely populated countries, helped me understand how one person’s peace is another person’s void.

There is a Hindi word “hungama” that translates to “uproar, tumult; upheaval, affray, riotous scene,” according to the Wisdom Library.

As a child, my relatives would speak in a manner that appeared tense to me, even when talking about mundane subjects like food or actors. Arguments seemed to be an accepted part of everyday life. The Indian subcontinent is one of the most densely populated places in the world, with nearly two billion people competing for limited resources.

Many times, we visited my dad’s side of the family in Vijayawada, a city in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. There they speak Telugu, a Dravidian language with over 82 million native speakers. However, their dialect of Telugu sounded rougher than the softer-sounding dialect spoken on my mother’s side.

Growing up, my mom would sing me Telugu lullabies to sleep and I thought that the language was one of the sweetest in the world. But of course, no one has a monopoly on language, and city dialects will always be different from classical dialects.

Once I began attending college, I started listening to and singing Indian songs more regularly. Perhaps at first, this was a response to the loneliness of the pandemic, but I continue this activity today.

I think I enjoy Indian songs so much because they present an idealized version of a deeply chaotic society. The purity, raw emotion and love of Indian songs are in stark contrast to the bustle, danger and poverty of everyday life.

Song is also a way of reconnecting to a country that I largely do not identify with. Unlike many other Indian Americans, I am third-generation. My great-uncle on my mother’s side came to America in 1958, and by the time my dad moved here in 1992, many relatives on my mother’s side had already been living here for decades.

The last time I visited India, I sang a Hindi song for my grandmother. The song was “Rooth Na Jana,” a famous song from the Hindi movie “1942: A Love Story.”

While my grandmother mostly spoke Telugu and my dad translated so we could communicate, she had heard the song before and my singing helped us to foster a deeper emotional connection. Despite my overall lack of familiarity with Indian culture, learning Hindi songs has helped me find common ground with my relatives whenever I visit.

Song has been the best way for me to adjust to urban noise, as it is not so different from other daily sounds. It is more neatly packaged and synchronized.

Once I grew to understand that a symphony in a studio and a symphony of an urban soundscape are really of the same essence, I was able to appreciate the role that noise plays in people’s lives all around the world – no matter how quiet or loud it may be.

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Rakesh Peddibhotla
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