Seeing through Sounds: Musings by Paloma Bhattacharjee



These days I look out of my balcony much more than usual. Moss grows all over its walls like Alzheimer’s disease. Sometimes while standing there, watching the sky change colors I think of a poem my father would frequently recite when drunk (in cannibal mutterings) – ‘If I die……leave the balcony open’. The poem has stayed with me. From our balcony you can see our lane; it makes up for an inability of a visual respite with a bricolage of amusing sounds it offers. My house is where the lane snakes inwards and then returns to bite its own tail.

The mornings here begin indistinctly, with one leg still in a dream. They begin with a hum of birds and those out for morning walk. Though this is abruptly cut short, by men whose days start by sauntering into the lane with toothbrushes stuffed in their mouths. The Assamese men’s’ fractured Bengali, the Bengali one’s caricatured Hindi becomes indistinguishable through the nauseating sound of their toothpaste clogged words. As they arrive one can also hear the stealthily retreating footsteps of those who until then were busy rustling with sticks their neighbour’s spilled over gardens’, ‘stealing’ flowers for their morning offering to god.

Our lane used to be bordered by sloping tin roofs, back when monsoon meant falling asleep to the thumping- pattering sound of rain on the tin. Now my lane is peered over by ever-multiplying balconies. A quarrel roars out of one of them every morning, until it is drowned by a collective cacophony, of chatting, a dog squealing in pain somewhere, screaming vendors and engines refusing to start. The man in the opposite house briefly interrupts all of this when he comes out of his house and caws like crow, louder than ten crows together! Till a flock of crows actually descend for food he offers in his porch. This is a ritual he begins his days with.

The rest of the day till sunset is an audience to the motley of distinct calls and songs of vendors. Their language-a strange concoction of dialects of Assamese, Bengali and Hindi having rubbed onto one another for years.

 The vegetable sellers make multiple rounds of the lane, singing out names of what they have got. The utterance of each vegetable’s name stretches over couple of steps and swings in the rhythm of the baskets on either side of his shoulders. Hearing him a woman from the window of her kitchen screams, ‘ Hey, Brinjol come here!’

Paloma paper image

It is the fish seller’s, whose declarations of arrival have the widest range. Sometimes they are met with louder ‘No No, Not fresh,’ but on most days the tempting echo of names of fish are enough to tickle taste buds and change lunch menus in the last moment. The fish vendor accepts the blame with his certification of quality, “take back your money tomorrow if it tastes anything less than what I say’.

One of the fish-seller’s sing out the names of his fish in such a grief stricken tone, I heard someone ask him the other day ‘why are you mopping like you’re calling out your lost fish?’ Then there are those whose calls are loud enough to be heard from two streets down the road. My old grand-uncle who sits in the balcony and reads the morning newspaper every now and then shouts back at them “Softly! Why can’t you sell your fish softly, my ears will burst?” the old man oblivious to their laugh that follows his audacious antic.

By late morning the iterant seller with a basket of plastic utensils and sundry will call out ‘horekmaal’, a common word for everyone who has lived in my city, Guwahati.  Only recently I’ve realize it’s actually ‘haar ek maal’. It’s strange how continual uttering often beat words into shapes of their sound.

By afternoon it’s usually calmer. All sounds seem to lull the slowness of it—the gurgling of pigeons, a far away echo of crows, the plinking of LPG cylinders rolling down from vans. Even shouting seems softer in afternoons.  Sometimes the confectionaries on wheels peddle around and sometimes it is the ‘ferry-Alla – the one with cosmetics and jewellery in a box that he carries like a suitcase on stick.  

But just like the tin roofs, many familiar sounds have not been heard for long now. The scratchy cry of the muri (puffed rice)-seller. The call of the Dhunkor – the person who refurbishes old pillows and mattresses, whose voice would be indistinguishable from the droning of his stringed instrument. Even the peddler who sharpens knives, scissors and blades hasn’t come for long. Except for today, when I suddenly heard a familiar sound from years ago. It was a flute seller. He walked around the lane with his bunch of flutes, playing his tune to the sweltering afternoon. Except it wasn’t the usual ‘pardesi pardesi jana nahi’ any more.

It was only recently that I read the Poem by Lorca for the first time, one that my father would recite – ‘If I die, leave my Balcony Open’. I realized the world the poet could see from his balcony – The little boy eating oranges or the reaper harvesting wheat – had to be evoked in the daylight, I imagine a sunny day. I was surprised for this was contrary to how I had always pictured the first lines of his poem, the only one I knew. For some reason I had imagined his balcony opening not to a warm lit day, but to the sad silence of an evening that follows after feistiness of a day ends. A dense silence except a distant murmur, a drunken man’s inebriated cuss and fading voices from televisions. A silence with no trace of the contagious sounds the day was marked with, like nostalgia without memory, or how the moss grows on our walls. I imagined so maybe because from my balcony I can see the silence of the evening un-remembering the day’s chaotic sound-scape, even if only until the next day, and that sound is the loudest of all.



Paloma Bhattacharjee is a graduate in history and currently works as a Research Assistant at the National Museum Institute, New Delhi. She has earlier written pieces for magazines such as Raiot, Eleventh Column, café dissensus everyday etc.

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