It is a truth universally acknowledged that no one should ask the parents of a recently-married desi bride their impression of their new son-in-law. I made this egregious error once, failing to realize that I did not have a few hours to kill in an excruciating manner similar to waterboarding. I was immediately subjected to a long, well-prepared speech on the son-in-law’s virtues. Had I not know the individual in question, I would have been excused for assuming that he was sole inheritor of Kuber’s treasure, taught general physics by Igor Irodov, with mores of King Harishchandra, the visage of Adonis, and the cricketing technique of Sir Don Bradman. The fact that I actually knew the poor old chap or that I could just as easily have discovered his credentials had been embellished lavishly by conducting a simple web-search did not have any effect on the force of the conversation. Desi parents and in-laws are happily oblivious of Google.
In my error-prone, inquisitive ways, I recently made a similar mistake in asking an acquaintance what he thought of his newly-purchased headphones. I was informed in gory detail not only about the various merits of his own headphones, but also how he made the decision to purchase that particular pair. The gusto with which he outlined this life-changing event is usually reserved for justifying wars. I could not help but get the sense that there had been a gaping void in his life which was waiting to be filled by the mass-produced pair of headphones which were “just right for him”.
Nowadays, you can buy a fascinating variety of headphones (or svelte earphones). That was not the case in India when I was growing up. We put cassettes into tape-recorders and listened in our rooms keeping the volume down, whenever our parents were at home. When we listened to disco tracks composed by Bapi Lahiri, we kept out fingers near the volume knob, ever poised to turn the music down at the slightest sound of anyone else. Of course it didn’t matter during festival-time: everyone suffered through the same songs screeching distorted on the highest volume-settings of rented loudspeakers. The mic-walas in turn were catholic in their playlists: Hindi filmi, followed by Bhojpuri or Oriya folk-songs, Marathi dance-numbers, and Bangla khemta. If there was a pounding beat, they played it and you listened. You’ve heard about noise-canceling? You shut the windows and put the pillows over your ears. Music was communal, or so you told yourself as you tossed and turned in bed all night.
Around that time, I got my first Walkman. The headphones had a flimsy plastic and metal band which went over my hair and ruined the Salman Khan style desperately needed to be a dashing school-student. The sound was tolerable or maybe it wasn’t: I wasn’t an audiophile back then and Kumar Sanu isn’t particularly improved by 5.1 surround sound. I broke the band of my headphone from use and had to tape it back together again. The sound in one ear faded and would drop unless I held the wire at a particular angle. The chug-chug crescendo of the Howrah local train pierced occasionally by the “Oy, salted nuts!” shriek of the hawker added to the ambient effect of Nadeem-Shravan’s Aashiqui.
From that to noise-canceling headphones, which drown out roaring airplane jets and wailing infants at 30,000 feet – we have all come a long way. There has been an explosion of headphones and earphones- in-ear, behind-ear, clip-on-ear, ear-covering , and covering-half-of-face-in-case-of-dipping-temperature models. Despite the innovations, the concept remains the same: we are essentially bringing a couple of vibrating wires very close to our electricity-conducting brain-boxes.
Still, I must admit that headphones are indispensable. Some days, on the Metro train I distinctly hear thumping beats coming from in-ear phones of passengers standing three meters away. Jay-Z at any volume is toxic: at those decibels it must turn the brain to mush. These innocuous-looking devices are weapons of mass destruction.
Everyone has a favorite pair of headphones. I own a a number of headphones including a pair of noise-canceling ones which fully cover the ears. They drown out pesky external noises as I listen to Lisa Kelly croon “Now we are free” from Gladiator, while slavishly preparing quarter-end business reports. Unfortunately, because they work so well, they also deprive me of one vital function – the ability to listen to what is going on outside. Just as a secondary function of sunglasses is to allow the wearer to lech in a socially-acceptable manner, headphones assist in casually listening to conversations without fear of being ostracized as a habitual eavesdropper.
I have older headphones for that purposes, because to eavesdrop, you need ones that allow you to listen clearly when the sound is kept at low or no volume. Of course, you will initially be tested by those around you who suspect that you’re not listening to music. As a kid, I used to keep my eyes shut and feign that I was sleeping. When I would be called out, I’d screw my eyelids tighter together and get caught in the act of overacting. As divine punishment for my treachery, these days I sometimes get asked, “are you sleeping?” when I am in fact sleeping. Lesson learned. The key is acting normal.
Years of practice have made me an expert at headphone-enabled eavesdropping. From my vacant stare you have absolutely no way of knowing that I can hear every word you’re saying about me.