Pressure Cookers and Elvis Presley

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Evoking the sights, sounds and smells of India has always caused me anxiety, because as soon as I begin to describe the cocktail of piss and incense, the rattle of rickshaws or the man with the cart sky high with colourful plastic pots, I get the creeping sense of cliche that takes every sensual epiphany I experience and turns it into something hackneyed. I feel as if I’ve read it all before. And I probably have.
So thank God for Whitney Houston. Because in the apartment just opposite us, an eccentric Hindu lady is right now pottering about and belting out that American warblers version of Amazing Grace. And Whitney in India has inspired me – I never thought ‘Whitney Houston’ and ‘inspired’ would sit together in one of my sentences – to write a few words about the very different sounds that make up domestic apartment living in India. This is an India remote from the world of Vedic chants and tablas, but an exotic one in its own peculiar way.
You cannot describe apartment living in India without talking about the pressure cookers. At breakfast, noon and evening, the air is full of abrupt hissing sound like a snake being stepped on by a stiletto heel. I had no idea what this noise was all about at first. I was too busy being happy to see Kaveri. But one day, while I loitered about the kitchen watching Kaveri make khitchree (a rice and dal dish often cooked in the Indian home), I experienced the full force of the pressure cooker letting off steam and jumped away from the pot as if an angry snake were inside. The noise is incredible: from our own kitchen and from our neighbours’. It shoots out from balconies, it rattles down corridors – I thought I would never get used to that wicked, sibilant hiss. And then gradually, as days passed, I began to associate the fragrant smell of rice and stews with that hissing, and it became the reassuring sound of domesticity, the advanced notice that in a few minutes down the corridor will come northern chana masalas with their pungent tomato, ginger and garlic aromas, or southern sambars with the homely (if a little sulphurous) smell of pulses and asfoetida.
If pressure cookers are nerve-rattling, at least at first, another constant in apartment India is simply perplexing. Because everywhere, inside and outside, the air is full of irritating electronic ditties. It seems a nation that in ancient times brought us the stillness of meditation and quietly observing the inner workings of the mind cannot now fill up a water jug from the electric water purifier or turn on the washing machine without a jingle to keep it occupied. As for the vehicles in the car park below, it goes without saying it is criminally dangerous not to reverse without the sound of tweeting birds or jingle bells. I have got to know the tunes intimately. Most are shiny and irritatingly optimistic but one, curiously, is in a minor key, a sad, mawkish affair full of regret at how things might have been. It sails into the apartment like clockwork at 10.30am each morning and reminds me that the world is full of sorrow. If Leonard Cohen wrote car-reversing tunes, he would have written this one.
Some of these tunes go on for longer than is reasonable. I am starting to believe that some of my neighbours drive around the car park backwards for hours on end, so constant are the jingles, so relentless, it seems, is their delight in them. And standing in the shadows, watching them, are another breed of noisemaker, a cousin to the reversing tunesmiths: men who grin with delight as they lock and unlock their cars with electronic keys to a symphony of croaking, farting and strange burping noises.
Later in the evening, when the cars are finally put away after a mini rave of reversing and locking, when the pressure cookers have hissed their final khitchree and the water purifiers have entertained for the final time, our India apartment block becomes quiet. There is a delicious innocence about our complex, about Bangalore as a whole, in fact, in the late evening. A country that is surely louder than any other in the world – where every street is a cacophony of rickshaw and bus horns and engines and shouts – becomes virtually silent and puts itself to bed at a sensible hour.
And so to bed. Perhaps the sound of a pigeon on my ledge, the burble of frogs in the courtyard or the distant scream of a kite high in the sky.
I nod off.
Then wake up with a start to the sound of a brittle, sharp whistle. Yes, a whistle, a proper shiny silver one, blown with the puffed-cheek enthusiasm of a trainee games teacher. Blown again and again.
‘It’s the watchmen,’ said Kaveri, laughing as I sit bolt upright in the bed. ‘He blows the whistle at night to let everyone know it’s safe.’
‘But he woke me up’
‘When we were kids we were told they were scaring away evil spirits.’
I listened to the watchman, whistling everyone awake to tell them it was safe to go to sleep.
‘We thought they were very brave,’ said Kaveri.
He might be brave. But one day soon someone will go downstairs in their pajamas and chase him around the complex.

*

And yet there is that other Indian too, tantalisingly close, just beyond the gates of the complex. (A complex, incidentally, which by Indian standards is remarkably subdued and quiet.) All through the day, we hear the gentle beep and rattle of rickshaws, the sound of the train coming through town, its haunting, mournful horn evoking long journeys across an immense, mythic landscape: the deserts, the plains, the Western Ghats, the palmy coast. Up high in the sky, circling, its wings spread like outstretched fingers, a kite screeches; somewhere on a distant street a pack of dogs howl.
And just over the way, on the opposite balcony, Elvis wants to be your teddy bear.
Yes, thank the Lord for my neighbour with her Whitney and her Elvis, her Jim Reeves and her Cliff Richard. She saves me from waxing too lyrical about India, of falling – too deep, at least – into cliche.
But what in God’s name will save me from her?

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