Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Republic of Sound as Distillate of Sensex

It sounds so bizarre to elevate sound to an exalted level but in today’s world of conspicuous consumption and over-the-top exhibitionism it is hardly surprising that this innocent number is indeed a barometer of how the economy is doing. This is not necessarily confined to the national economy alone; it is global in its spread.

Strange as it may sound, the efficacy of sound as a bellwether of global economy dawned on me, alas, not without personal pitfalls. I had moved to Bangalore at the height of a soaring sensex, which like the unremitting tide kept surging day after day. My residence stood betwixt two roads converging at the end of my compound. The traffic thundered along the two roads (both one-ways in reverse directions) round the clock, particularly the one closest to my bedroom that led to the HAL airport. The call centres were peaking with activity and there was no respite even at night. The din and bustle, coupled with constant honking and roar of engines – particularly the auto-rickshaws driven on adulterated fuel and tumbledown silencers – pierced my house. The noise – exaggerated by the quietude of night – was deafening. Always a light sleeper I lay awake in bed, tossing and turning, trying feverishly to string an ersatz sleep. But the roar and hubbub were way too rambunctious for my frail ears. Sleep eluded me.

I tried to do whatever I could to stave off sound. I raised the level of my compound wall on all sides so that they act as a buffer and keep off not only the sound but also the carbon pollutants floating about in the air. Sound-proof glasses on the windows pretended to be another barrier. It worked, but only just. The roar and thunder were now only a tad less. I was as disconsolate as before.

I took refuge in earplugs that I nightly threaded into my ears. But sound kept up its constant tryst with me. Indeed, I was getting used to it! So much so that on visits to other cities I sensed something was missing when I turned in to sleep. The silence, or more fittingly, the absence of the hum and drone of traffic was unnerving. It felt eerily uncanny. I took awhile to get used to the tranquility of these places and, on return, I needed acclimatization to the buzz on my homefront.

But I needn’t have to suffer any further. Within a few months the sensex crashed. The sub-prime crisis blew up in the faces across continents in full fury, and India for all its pretensions of a decoupled economy too was swept off its feet. And within the next few months I seemed to be getting my sleep back. It was not entirely courtesy the earplugs that I never forgot to wear. The sound had abated. The roar, defanged, had become a whisper. The roads on either side of my residence now wore a forlorn look. The traffic trundled along in bursts, few vehicles condescended to stop at the traffic light in front of my house to enable the occupants espy my nameplate jutting out onto the road. I felt bereft. Even neglected and unimportant. Much before midnight the roads had almost emptied out, the earlier clank and sputter of crusading autos now reduced to a mere aesthetic hiss.

The sound seemed to be only getting weak by the day. Apart from the occasional anarchic recrudescence of its fury in sporadic spurts, the roads had ceased to be places of noisy menace. There was a calm that had descended on the nocturnal roads. As days trundled by, the calm seemed to pervade even when the sun kissed the roads. On the road across, I could slide open the windows in my office letting the salubrious weather of Bangalore invade the musty innards of my room up until then propped up by contrived artificial air. The roar was distant and the decibel level civilized.

Quietude had become a defining narrative of the roads I traversed every morning, afternoon, and evening – and lived by the merging road. But I was far from happy, the cultured cacophony of the traffic sounding an anathema. Not only because the global economic tsunami of late-2008 and the subsequent rampaging recession had led to a free fall of economies – the collapse of Lehmann Brothers and the aftermath that connived to lay off bright youngsters – but because the quietude was strangely disquieting to my soul. Was it real or merely a texture of a dream? I asked, pinching myself to wake up to the reality.

Yes, the model of Rational Expectations – that will-o’-the-wisp on which most economists had premised their economic theories – and the Efficient Market Hypothesis – that mirage full of assumptions and phantasmal mathematical models – were found to be so much hot air, rendering the traffic buzz around my ears hors de combat. The End of History was nowhere nigh, the icon of capitalist thinking Fukuyama was being proved wrong right in front of my eyes and eavesdropping Ears.

I should be happy now that it was easy for me to cross the road to and from my office. But I wasn’t. I missed the shrill noise and clatter of the traffic, the monster buses peremptorily kissing the sidewalks as I single-mindedly looked around to find space to jaywalk through the bumper-to-bumper traffic thronging my way to my office. Often the adventurous would bump into me driving nonchalantly up on the hardly-raised sidewalks now melting away and merging with the ever-rising road. Incandescent, I would glare and frown and they would condescend to stop their motorbikes short of knocking me over, billingsgate pouring forth from their mouths.

Slowly the sound took on a different hue, the fury nowhere near the one that had greeted me. The downswing was getting better and the world was recovering from the worst economic crisis after the Great Depression. The roads were now getting busier and livelier. Traffic had begun to hurtle with insouciance, the roar distinct and imperious, smoking a trail in its wake. I didn’t have to read the pink papers to know the healthonomy. I knew it was in its way.

Sitting in my room, the rising decibels in different times of the day sketched for me the intimate map of economy – the distillate of sensex in this Republic of Sound. I knew we were getting past the worst. The economy was looking up. Though I must confess my ears grown complacent with the polite burr of the traffic the past couple of years aren’t particularly sanguine with my sub-bromide good cheer.

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