Hereabouts

By Catherine Clover

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(i)

Three cows stand together in the street, near the entrance to the Ramakrishna ashram and close to the metro station of the same name. There is one black, one white and a smaller dark brown cow. Animals and people live in close proximity. This is the busy Main Bazar of Pahar Ganj, northern Delhi, not far from the main Delhi railway station, and the air smells of burning incense and charcoal. The market streets are busy and noisy all the time, day and night, selling everything that’s needed for locals and visitors alike – everything can be bought new, fixed, mended or replaced. Street vendors and shops sell fruit and veg, eggs, cooked food (‘pure veg’ masala dosa, idli sambar, dahi wada), clothes (saree, salwar kameez, sarong), motorbike parts and service, cables, wiring, mattresses, hotel rooms for tourists, tours, jewellery, suitcases, mobile phones, fridge magnets, religious texts, cement powder, incense. The soundscape is loud and full of conversation, exchange, dogs (kutta) barking, hooded crows (daakoo kaua) calling, tuk tuk moped and car horns blasting, snatches of traditional Indian music and Bollywood musicals. Amongst all this, the three cows are quiet and almost still. The black cow faces me and gazes in my direction as the white cow nuzzles and licks just below her right ear and along her neck, grooming attentively. The black cow does not move. The smaller brown cow stands just behind the white cow, a few steps back from the scene but standing close and swishing her tail, watching the larger cows interacting. A man squats to the right and watches the three cows attentively. The white cow has front legs together while the black cow stands with legs wide, supporting her weight. Both larger cows have short almost horizontal light-coloured horns, underneath which protrude their ears, also horizontal. They stand in front of a brick wall covered in plaster painted pink, now faded, and the rain has left dark vertical marks and smudges where it falls. Behind the wall is a large tree, an evergreen tree, perhaps a bakul. Sometimes there are six cows here and often they meander through the busy market streets at night.

Pigeon (kabootar) fanciers house their flocks on the roofs of buildings and the birds are exercised regularly, flying in groups of forty or more, in ever decreasing circles above their home. Only the flapping of their wings is audible as they swoop and climb. Higher in the sky the black kites (kaalee patang) soar in large numbers on the urban thermals, feeding well as scavengers in the city. The kites are numerous and easily visible at all times of day. They cover the skies. The fourth floor of the Hari Piorko hotel has a view over the rooftops looking north across Delhi. On the opposite building is a rooftop mosque, Puliya Wali Masjid (puliya valee masjid) where the call to prayer is faintly heard. On the two small minarets of the mosque twigs and branches poke out of enclosed platforms and on one of these a black kite perches, watching, listening, preening. Perhaps it’s a regular nesting site for the bird, as their breeding season starts this month – January – in Delhi. Despite their hunting ferocity, the voices of birds of prey are not loud and black kites are no exception. Their voices are low volume, high pitched whistles. On the busy streets of Pahar Ganj their voices go unheard and it is only in the quiet gardens of the ashram or the Christian cemetery that their whirr and whistle is audible.

eeeeee trrrr
eeeeee trrrr                

eeeeee trrrr
eeeeee trrrr                

eeeeee trrrr                

eeeeee trrrr

It’s impossible to avoid religion in India. Even on the visa application form a religion must be stated as there is no box to tick for agnostic, let alone atheist. The Ramakrishna ashram has a set of spiritual beliefs based on Sri Ramakrishna’s insights from the mid to late 1800s. His teachings seem open and inclusive and while he preached that God is the goal of all human life he underlined that there are many pathways, including many different religious routes, to God. In the Indian Christian cemetery that backs on to the ashram, visitors wash the dust away from graves, fill the cracks and gaps with cement, light incense and candles and cover the graves in fresh flowers. The colour of the soil in Delhi is a very light brown, similar to the natural earth pigment raw sienna, which contains a large amount of iron oxide and a small amount of manganese oxide. It is easily visible in the cemetery where some graves are in a state of decay. It is a diluted beige, very dry in this season, and the buildings, streets, trees, leaves are covered in a thin light-coloured dusting.

As tourists we can’t meander or wander through the streets. Men benignly harass us continually and women push their young children towards us. I am addressed as sir but my son corrects me saying it is he who is being addressed, not me. Women dressed in bright saris labour on busy six lane roads alongside the men, and with their small children in tow. They are petite, the work is backbreaking and relentless, the traffic heavy, continual and loud. The children carry small loads to help their mothers. From the metro it is difficult to find our way through the streets to locate the smaller galleries. Gallery Espace in the New Friends Colony is hard to find even for our tuk tuk driver who drops us at a large hotel instead. Asking the way includes engaging a group of playful young dogs who join us on our search. We find the gallery next door to Nathu’s Sweets, a large emporium-like café where we eat chana bhatura, a masala chickpea curry with luchi (deep-fried flatbread), onion and pickles, and we drink hot masala tea.

In the artworks I have seen here, I can recognise contemporary concerns that mix with an ancient cultural thread that is both unfamiliar and compelling. Nandini Bagla Chirimar’s works on paper engage with the concept of home from an ex-pat’s point of view (originally from Jaipur, she now lives in New York). Using print making, drawing and collage the two-dimensional works on paper are fragmented in form using what seem to be architectural blue prints, graphite sketches, swatches of fabric and wallpaper, botanical illustration, watercolour, sari fabric, gold leaf, and Hindi lettering on semi-transparent paper. Collaged fragments overlay each other and combine to evoke the fallibility of memory via the uncertainty of recalling the past, combined with the uncertainty of ever knowing a place. Rubbings out, re-writes, drawn additions and subtractions are not just visible but somehow audible too. This place that I don’t know and from where I view these works is Chirimar’s original home.

(ii)

I dream about the house I was brought up in, the house as it was when I was a child. I have visited this house in the last few years but it has changed a lot since I lived there. Extensions and additions have been made that are hefty and cumbersome, enlarging the house in a way that seems to dwarf its original self. That’s not to say my own parents didn’t add extensions – they did. The house that I knew is still there, the one I remember, the one I grew up in, unremarkable as it was but sustaining in its 1930s semi-detached utility. I could see some very familiar parts of my childhood as I recalled the corners where walls met floors and ceilings and cupboards, the top of the stairs where I spent time sitting, watching and listening, and up four more steps round to the left the landing where our dog slept on his bed at night. The garden had been important then but the extension across the back of the house has reduced its size to a token of outdoor space. When my parents moved there in the early sixties the area had a dowdy reputation, an ageing population and was affordable. My mother did not want to move there and recently told me that she never grew to like it. Now the area is very expensive and highly sought-after, even though it is on the direct flight path for landing and take-off at Heathrow. When Concorde made its descent during its final years, around five in the afternoon, its sonic boom was a deafening and astonishing regular event.

“Collaged fragments overlay each other and combine to evoke the fallibility of memory via the uncertainty of recalling the past, combined with the uncertainty of ever knowing a place.”

Lyme Regis, named after the River Lim (‘lim’ is the word for ‘river’ in the old local Dorset dialect) is a part of the Jurassic Coast on the south coast of England. If you walk along the beach at Lyme you can still find fossils, even today, even though each time you walk along the beach you hear the tap tap tap of fossil hunters. The cliffs of Lyme are unstable and regularly reveal new geologies of the coast. Ammonites are the most easily visible and recognisable of the fossils, numerous and of many sizes, some very large. Particularly impressive is the limestone bed of ammonites (the ammonite pavement or graveyard) that is revealed at each low tide and covered again when the water rises. Here there are so many ammonites it is hard to believe. Many of the fossils Mary Anning discovered are now in the Natural History Museum in London and that first complete fossil she found of the ichthyosaur (circa 1811) is riveting to see and return to, hung on a long wall of fossils in the museum. But there is nothing as enthralling as finding fossils in rock close to the sea, with the sun and the breeze, where they have lain for millennia, offering a kind of material connection to an ancient past. As I look and look and trace shapes with my fingers, I imagine all the fossils that lie unseen, set back into those unwieldy crumbling low cliffs of Lyme, fossils that may not be revealed for many years, perhaps never. I imagine the ammonites’ calls, folded into the rock, encased by limestone and cast in limestone. Ammonites became extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs, around 66 million years ago. As marine molluscs, they are most closely related to octopus, squid and cuttlefish. I imagine their calls as voiceless breathy sounds with very low volume staccato squeaks and squeals when the air they used for buoyancy exited their shells.

A sound fossil refers to an ancient record of an acoustic activity: a sound trapped or indexed in material form. The notion is central to the field of archeoacoustics and has also cropped up in the emergent discourse around paleosonics. Archeoacoustics is primarily dedicated to reconstructing aural and audible histories of ancient sites, focusing on, for example, the acoustics of ancient rock art sites or the influence of sound in the architectural design of tombs or burial sites.1

Many years ago I was dozing late at night and could hear the radio playing in the next door flat. This was central London, Soho, in the late eighties. I can’t remember where but it was near Silver Place, W1. It was late, dark and cold outside but I was warm indoors, alone. As I listened through the wall, I imagined the other person listening too. I don’t remember what was playing. I found myself more interested in listening to someone listening, listening to a listener, listening unintentionally but attentively, unexpectedly. It gave me a curious and gripping sense of extension, expansion and connection to a network of things greater than myself; to something that, until that moment, had been not just unrecognised or unrealised but incomprehensible, completely outside my understanding of the world up until that point. This was not a connection to humanity but something greater, a vast connecting network of things and events, of which humans were just one small component. The radio sounds were muffled and distorted through the brick and no other sound got through. This was a significant listening experience though I did not realise it at the time nor for many years afterwards. The flats were small and dark with little light, no bathroom, no lift only stairs. They were let on a short-term basis by our housing association and were not available for long term use because they were earmarked for upgrade or demolition, I can’t remember which. I never saw the neighbour as the flat belonged to a friend and he only lived there for about two months.

Sound casts doubt on whether a town, an architectural site, a room, a spatial landmark and border actually exists as a solid (spatial) fact, however firmly it is established on a map, or evidenced in a slide collection, or a photographic tourist brochure. The sonic sensibility understands place through the uncertainty of its dynamic, and assesses belonging through the doubt of perception. It focuses on the inhabitant and his production of a place for him, rather than on the symbolic weight of a collective place or the possibility of visiting it.

 (iii)

Now I am along the banks of the Sungai Klang (the Klang river) in central Kuala Lumpur. I see a Komodo dragon, in broad daylight, in the centre of the city, standing by the river’s edge. As I photograph it, it turns its head to watch, forked tongue flitting in and out, in and out, watching me watching it. Later I find out that Komodo dragons only live on five islands in Indonesia, so this creature was not a dragon but another relative of the monitor lizard (memantau cicak) family. It is large at over a metre long, an olive greeny brown with lighter creamy dots which form small circles that horizontally line its back. Its feet are like hands, with four digits and a thumb. Long sharp claws are at the end of each finger. Its face is also long with sharp black eyes. Its gait is paced and deliberate as it starts to move across the cement embankment and disappear down a gaping hole.

The river bares all in its filthy dystopianism, and there is graffiti in both Malay and English. Policr, fuck you, corrupt, sabotage, hoker are the words I can read, but there are many more. The river is a thick light brown colour, a similar colour to the soil of Delhi, and floating plastic debris is carried along on a visible current that increases in strength and speed with the rain. Some parts of the concrete embankment have collapsed into the water. Homeless people sleep along here, although they stay less than visible. At Pasar Seni metro station the river is surrounded by the elevated train and numerous interlocking roads. A thunderstorm brews via a strong wind and breaks, with lightning followed by thunder then heavy brief rain. The call to prayer begins from the nearby Masjid Negara (National Mosque of Malaysia). The short prayer emerges in the sonic landscape as the train passes and the storm rumbles, with the amplified human voice muted by the breathy sound of the overhead train and the sudden expansion of air above. The voice of the muezzin is silvery, melodious, modulated, and even audible above the brontide. The volume and clarity of the spoken words alter as the wind and rain affect the reception of sound through the air. Low growls of thunder come from the north as the lightning storm moves overhead. As I listen the pitch and timbre of sounds blur their origins. I have come here to listen to the hooded crows (burung gagak berkerut), starlings (starling) and mynas (saya na) settle for the night in the trees by the station but they are quietened by the thunderstorm. Swallows (menelan) flit over the water, seemingly silent, and sparrows (burung pipit) flutter along the banks in small groups.

(iv)

Dozing, half awake. The fan turns and turns, moving the hot still air in the room. The old motor thudders through its cycle. Perhaps thunners is a better word as the sounding of the word is more accurate. The wire and plastic resonate together at several points, trilling softly when they almost touch. The light is heavy outside and I drift to the present, looking out of the window: the trees (blackwoods, bottlebrushes, a silver princess), the birds (blackbirds, wattlebirds, little ravens, sparrows, honeyeaters, currawongs), the traffic (cars, buses, mopeds, cyclists trucks, utes, the sound of a tram on its tracks), people solo, people with other people, people and dogs, dogs solo. The branches of the trees move for a moment in a brief blistering breeze. When I first experienced this heat I could not comprehend it because it was so far outside my experience. I would open the windows for the breeze, but the breeze was scorching and carried the heat further indoors. Coming as I did from the cold north, a hot breeze was an oxymoron; it just didn’t have a meaning.

“But there is nothing as enthralling as finding fossils in rock close to the sea, with the sun and the breeze, where they have lain for millennia, offering a kind of material connection to an ancient past.”

The old cat climbs up on to this high bed. She feels her way over me, pauses, moves again, settles on my stomach, pinprick claws softly kneed my skin through thin cotton. She stares into the middle distance, at other worlds, worlds that overlap this one and cause her to regularly stop, as if listening intently. Perhaps she can hear things in these other worlds that she cannot hear in this one: she is almost totally deaf. At times she yowls very loudly, like she used to when she was young and had caught a mouse, but now it’s hard to know what the yowl means or what prompts it but it’s a common characteristic of old deaf cats like her. Day or night she can yowl. When I was away the neighbours told me they could hear her and were concerned that she was lonely. I’m not sure if she was lonely but I worried about her anyway. She also purrs loudly now, more loudly than she used to. She moves again, over me, settles on the pillow beside me, close, purring. Born in this house, I expect she will also die here, like her sister, lives lived in this place.

I imagine a cross-section of life beneath me: uppermost is a mint green cotton duvet cover and duvet, then a fading ultramarine blue cotton sheet (Marks and Spencer), pink and green woollen blanket (100% Pure Lambswool Waverley Blanket Best for Rest Made in Australia), mattress (Dunlop Enduro Commercial Range Platinum Edition Royal Chiropedic Bed), wooden splintery slats of the high hand-made bed, luggage covered in dust (secondhand suitcases, my maternal grandmother’s suitcase filled with towels), my maternal grandfather’s small doctor’s case filled with childhood photos and the initials JMR, a copy of Birds and People, oatmeal carpet, wooden floorboards; cool and dark beneath the house where the ground slopes westwards down towards the Merri Creek. More dust and webs, some fleas perhaps, a fly, daddy long legs, white tail spiders, redbacks, ants, insects nestling, cats sleeping, discarded petrol cans, old paint tins, various lengths of wooden planks, scraggly grass in the shadows, dusty soil. Here the cats spent most of their time when they were young. A blue tongue lizard might pass nearby, a praying mantis, worms, dragon flies, moths, butterflies, mosquitoes, house flies, bush flies, bees, wasps. The heavy brick-like clay of the Merri Creek valley, the soil is thick and it is tough for plants other than natives to grow.

The Merri Creek stretches from Wallan, north of Melbourne, through the northern suburbs and joins the River Yarra at Dights Falls. The original inhabitants of this northern suburb are the Wurundjeri people. Pre-settlement the creek had been a rich resource for the Wurundjeri for thousands of years. Merri Merri means ‘very rocky’ in the Woi wurrung language of the Wurundjeri and it would have been an important travelling route. Stone artefacts can still be found along its banks made from quartz and silcrete. It is a sacred area for the Wurundjeri people.3

In 2014, the Nobel Prize for Medicine established how closely memory and spatial awareness are intertwined in the hippocampus. The finding confirmed the pairing of place and memory seen in many of the world’s indigenous cultures. ‘Songlines link positions in landscape. Each location in the landscape acts as a memory aid to a particular part of the information system, so the knowledge is literally grounded in the landscape,’ says Kelly. 

During spring, well before sunrise, the wattlebirds sing loudly in the front garden from around four thirty. A member of the honeyeater family, they are attracted to the flowering bottlebrushes and hang upside down from the long red blooms, drinking the nectar. Their voices sound harsh and rasping, like rusting metal, mechanical. They are grey brown birds with a primrose yellow belly and are sleek and streamlined in shape. They have a red wattle hanging from where you might imagine a bird’s ear to be. They have three distinct calls which form differing lengths of song that blur as variations on a theme. The papapa start of each call is a kind of voiceless beak clicking. A single bird calls before first light. 

papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak

papapapapa prrra      rraak rraa rraak
papapapapa prrra      rraak rraa rraak

papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak

papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak

papapapapa prrra      rraak rraa rraak
papapapapa prrra      rraak rraa rraak

papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa prrra      rraak rraa rraak
papapapapa prrra      rraak rraa rraak

papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa prrra      rraak rraa rraak
papapapapa prrra      rraak rraa rraak

papapapapa rrra prrra-rraak
papapapapa prrra      rraak rraa rraak
papapapapa prrra      rraak rraa rraaka

REFERENCES:

1. Amelia Barikin ‘Sound Fossils and Speaking Stones: Towards a Mineral Ontology of Contemporary Art’ in Braddock, C, (ed) Animism in Art and Performance Palgrave Macmillan, London 2017. Accessed online: http://www.academia.edu/35423638/Sound_Fossils_and_Speaking_Stones_Towards_a_Mineral_Ontology_of_Contemporary_Art

2. Salomé Voegelin Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, Continuum New York and London, 2010 (p 144)

3. Wurundjeri Tribe Ancestors and Past viewed 26 January 2019. Accessed online: https://www.wurundjeri.com.au/our-story/ancestors-past/

4. Lynne Malcolm and Olivia Willis Songlines: The Indigenous Memory Code on Radio National’s ‘All in the Mind’ Australia, 8 July 2016, viewed 25 January 2019. Interviewees: Karen Adams Associate Professor, Medicine and Health Sciences, Monash University and Wiradjeri woman and Lynne Kelly Monash University researcher and science writer. https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/songlines-indigenous-memory-code/7581788

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