Mumbai: City of ‘dins’

A honking, twanging, whistling firecracker of a city is a fine way to describe Mumbai. But while the city’s daily cacophonies may appear beyond method, the acoustical madness is not totally without form.

Here’s my auditory guide to India’s City of Sound, researched during my stint as a managing editor in a small publishing company in the city.

The honk, the beep and the tootle

Not an invitation for 'fun on the back seat.'

Not an invitation for ‘fun on the back seat.’

Common across most of Asia, vehicular sound is the overriding ear-drum basher in Mumbai. In various forms and volumes, they mean one thing – get out the way.

While the constant noise may be up there with screaming children and nails on a blackboard for its acoustical pleasure quotient, the message is worth listening to. India’s traffic follows the rules of flowing water before any highway code.

It takes the path of least resistance, even if it means tearing up the sidewalk or hanging a u-turn in the middle of a highway. So the honks could just save your life, even if they turn you insane in the process.

The whistle

Pheeeeeep! Pheeep pheeeeeeeeeeeeeep!

Pheeeeeep! Pheeep pheeeeeeeeeeeeeep!

For some reason the whistle has been adopted around the globe as the auditory weapon of choice by anyone with any form of authority.

Sports referees, policemen, security personnel, life guards; take away their whistles and you are left with nothing but a person in some well cut clothes, frantically waving their arms to get your attention as their puny yells can’t be heard above the honks, beeps and tootles.

If you hear a whistle, it means Stop What You Are Doing! The security guards of residential blocks are particularly keen whistlers, to drive away anything from stray dogs, to beggars, to inharmoniously parked rickshaws.

The happy jingle

Once you pop, it's actually pretty easy to stop. Just close your mouth.

Once you pop, it’s actually pretty easy to stop. Just close your mouth.

More common in the North, but if you hear a cheerful melody come seeping through your walls, it doesn’t mean the ice cream van is outside, as it does in so many Western movies, but it does mean the popcorn wallah is outside.

Dragging his portable popcorn cart through the lanes of the city’s residential blocks, the popcorn wallah is one for the Easy Listening fans out there, more aligned with Simon & Garfunkel than Rage Against The Machine.

You may even want to buy a bag of the popped stuff just because you like his tune.

The firecracker

Safety not a huge concern then.

Safety not a huge concern then.

During the festival period, which are scattered throughout the year but take place mainly in the last few months, troops of joyous, painted, celebrating dancers can be seen behind trucks filled with color and light, carrying statues of various Hindu Gods and blaring uplifting tunes from huge speakers.

These crawl their way up the main arterial roads in the city, blocking traffic and causing general mayhem for anyone trying to travel.

But just in case you didn’t notice them, they will make sure you do by setting off firecrackers every few minutes. The firecracker; it means let’s party.

The bell

Aww what a sweetie.

Aww what a sweetie.

In direct competition with the popcorn wallah’s happy jingle, the candyfloss wallah had to come up with a far more direct sales call. His answer – a small bell.

With bags of the fluffy, pink, spun sugar attached to a pole, candyfloss wallah will wander the paths trod earlier by popcorn wallah, hoping to entice you with his simplistic, but admittedly sweeter-sounding signature.

Perhaps after all that salty popcorn a touch of the sweet stuff would go down well.

The yell

Tomatoes, lettuce and weird red carrots, oh my.

Tomatoes, lettuce and weird red carrots, oh my.

The vegetable wallahs meanwhile have no time for fancy gimmicks.

Often appearing early every morning with cartloads of gourds, carrots, broccoli and whatever other in-season delicacies they have picked up from the wholesaler, these stalwarts of the door-to-door sale will call out “sabsiiiiii” (“vegetables”) stopping only to transact or discuss the day’s fare with other sabsi wallahs.

Finally: The strange twang

If anything highlights the need Mumbaikers have to create noise, it is the man with the big pole with a string attached, which he twangs as he wanders the roads. I’ve never worked out what his call is for.

I heard he’ll collect old newspapers to recycle, or will come and do odd jobs.

But how that involves a long wooden pole-plus-string, I have no idea.

In time we’re sure it will become clear. As the above examples show, Mumbai may be a maddening mix of un-muffled mayhem, but each noise has its roots in a very deliberate quest to communicate.

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