20 Oct Holy Noise
Wistfulness is the general feeling evoked by the writings of Intizar Hussain but I feel particularly so when I read, from the novella Basti, the following description of the coming of electricity to Rupnagar:
Electricity had now begun to be installed in the mosque as well, but Abba Jan had thrown a spanner into the works. “This is ‘innovation.'” And equipping himself with a cudgel, he stood on guard in the doorway of the mosque. The electricians came, received a reprimand, and went away. Hakim Bande Ali and Musayyab Husain tried very hard to convince him, but he gave only one answer: “This is ‘innovation.'”
On the third day of his guard-duty, Bi Amma fell ill; her breathing became fast and shallow. Abba Jan, giving up the guard-duty, hurried home; but Bi Amma did not wait for his arrival.
The next day when Abba Jan went to the mosque for the dawn prayer, he saw that the electricity had already been installed. When he saw this he came right back, and for the first time in his life offered the dawn prayer at home. From then on he never entered the mosque, and never offered his prayers except at home. [Translation: Frances Pritchett]
I feel nostalgic for quiet times for electricity is like the devil – it does not leave you alone and pursues you into your safe havens. With electricity came the loudspeaker – and all hell broke loose.
I live in a compound enclosed by a circular wall along which I have been able to identify a mosque at around every thirty degrees of rotation. That is the inner circle. About a quarter of a mile further back there is an outer circle nestling in the corridors radiating beyond the inner one.
Five times a day, all hell literally breaks loose as the twelve to fifteen imams of the various mosques initiate the call for prayers – not in unison but with lags of various lengths. Then they proceed to ululate at variable tempos and at quite distinct registers. The one thing that is clear is that none of them have had any voice training whatsoever – to a man they are off-pitch and off-beat.
As a result, all that can be heard is an infernal din that scares even the birds from their resting places. After a good fifteen to twenty minutes of intense pain inflicted by the cacophony, a heavenly peace descends upon the surroundings.
For some of my breaks from work I go to another city to live in a semi-rural suburb. The number of mosques here is about the same – as is the noise. The difference is the greater license enjoyed by the imams on the outskirts of town. One of them practices his sermons at four o’clock in the morning. Another recites endless verses at random times. A third runs a seminary of sorts – his young charges practice their lessons in the middle of the night, their piercing soprano wails a testament to the intensity of their passion.
This last is clearly a violation of the law that governs the use of loudspeakers in places of religious worship. My host informs me that he tried conveying that to the imam of the seminary only to be told that the enforcers in the latter’s control would not take kindly to that kind of message.
I don’t believe the irony has been missed. Not surprisingly, no one has take up the issue or that of exceeding the allowable level of noise emanating from the loudspeakers.
This is a phenomenon that has intrigued me for some time and I have often wondered why each mosque does not content itself with a volume that suffices for the residents in its catchment area – as, I am sure, it was meant to be in Rupnagar. After all, every loudspeaker has a volume control and there is no religious injunction against adjusting it up or down.
I have also wondered why a pre-recorded call to prayers in a mellifluous voice could not be employed since the use of technology is no bar to religious practice. Here is another irony related to the selective use of technology – it is used where it amplifies power not where it dissipates it. This is quite akin to insisting that the Eid moon has to be spied with the naked eye no matter what the ensuing confusion. The call to prayer must continue to be delivered by a living being untainted by any training in diction or elocution.
A heretical thought that occurs to me is that the call to prayers might well have outlived its purpose from a purely utilitarian perspective. Now that everyone has a cell phone with a choice of ring-tones, the faithful could be alerted of the precise timings of prayers simply via their devices. That would also spare the imams the onerous responsibility of a repetitive task and they might be encouraged to allocate their time to more productive uses.
I have enquired from various intrepid travelers if the same cacophony is experienced in other cities, like Istanbul, with many mosques. I have been told, although I have not been able to verify it personally, that most cities that thrive on the largesse of tourists have worked out a way to control the noise and to preserve the dignity of the call to prayer. Only one mosque, in a cluster of mosques within audible range of each other, can issue the call for prayer. The honor is rotated amongst the establishments with the aid of a pre-announced schedule.
In our desire to retain our purity we have done away with tourists. And even if we had tried, I doubt if we would have managed the coordination. As it is, our imams are used to imposing authority not acceding to it – hence the employment of enforcers to keep us on the right path.
On the few occasions that I have dared to voice my thoughts, I have been told to emigrate. It’s not that I am irreligious – it’s just that I wish to decipher what is being said and my threshold for noise pollution is low. Consequently, I am looking at various cities with a good mix of religious places but with more sensitive and dignified ways of making their pronouncements.
Please let me know if you have suggestions.
Frances Pritchett’s translation of Intizar Hussain’s Basti is here.