My new laptop doesn't hum. It makes no sound but the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard sound loud...almost echoing off the walls. And there is silence outside. Can there be an overload of silence? No people. No cars at this time. No dogs. If I slow down my breathing will the wind roar like a torrent? Silent stillness.
I leave for India in a couple of weeks and almost always before I do I think of silence. Because if there is something India is not it's silent. There are, of course, those silent spaces high up in the Himalayas, and the desolate stretches in the desert. But in place that I tend to live and visit there is almost constant noise.
And like someone stepping out from behind a sound-proofed cell at first I cringe. It seems to go from nothing to no holds barred noises. This starts at the airport. The decibel of sound in the arrivals area at the airport. The clicks, the cries, the taps, the talking, the laughter. India--with its sensory overload assaults you with this wall of noise that follows you home.
And then you stop and listen. And trace the origins of each sound and suddenly it's not so chaotic any more. There is a comforting rhythm to the day. The milkman rings the bell in the morning, followed by the woman who comes to clean, followed by the cook, then the gardner, then the chauffeur. And the house fills with the sounds of their labor and that of their gossip. If you stay still and listen you can find out everything about the cosmos that surrounds our house, from the scandals of the servants' quarters to the goings-on of the neighbors.
And then you can even enter the spaces within which silence rules. They exist but you have to find them by navigating through the tunnels of noise. They are restful and calm mirages that shatter into noise if you spend too much time there. There is silence in the early morning when tendrils bluish-grey smoke rises from the stove of the nearby tea shop. There is no sound as the nightwatchman stretches and twists before making his way to the string cot under the tree where he will sleep the day away. And as night falls, each time he strikes the ground with his staff, a simple percussion to warn no-gooders that this area is under his surveillance, there is silence in between each strike. Between each cry the koel makes, its voice rising to impossible heights, unbelievable in such a small bird, there is absolute silence.
The first days back in the U.S., or now to my quiet Swiss village are always hard. Sometimes the silence makes me wonder if I am the only living soul in a sea of the dead and I want to scream and scream and scream until I wake everyone up into sound. And then the silence grows on me and now as I listen I can make out the gentle swishing of the trees outside my window, the snuffle of a dog as it goes by for its walk, even the distant sound of cars as they drive slowly past the narrow road. My neighbor's door opens and closes. I hear the car start, purr softly as she leaves.
And I realize that silence and sound are hidden siamese twins. Each exists within the other though not always seen. You have to use your ears as magical instruments to coax out first one and then the other. You can never rule either but you can surf between the two at will. Just....listen.