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Mumbai is loud: aggressive shoppers haggle at packed bazaars; drivers of foreign-made cars, scooters and rickshaws incessantly honk their horns (which companies like Audi make even louder for Indian consumers); and religious street festivals add to the calamity with non-stop firecrackers, drums and clanging cymbals. The EPA recommends avoiding exposure to more than 55 decibels of noise in a period of 24 hours. But according to the Awaaz Foundation — which advocates for combating noise pollution and other environmental issues in India — the noise on the streets of Mumbai regularly reaches about 100 decibels. All of this has earned India's largest city a place among the world’s noisiest.

The noise pollution in Mumbai is so pervasive that most people who live there cannot escape it. It is as consistent a force in early afternoon as it is in the middle of the night. Yet, Mumbai is a city where the chasm between the desperately impoverished and the extremely wealthy is clear. An estimated 6 million people live in the slums, while not far away millionaire (and even billionaire) residents reside in lavish high-rise apartment buildings. A small percentage of the city’s 12 million residents — those who are able to retreat to fancy high-rise buildings in a wealthy neighborhoods — are able to find relief from the noise. The difference in lifestyles is stark; the difference in the noise pollution is incredibly apparent. As such, Mumbai is an extreme example of a city where peace of quiet and, by effect, quality sleep, are a privilege — one that goes to the highest bidder.

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Manu Joseph knows the noise of Mumbai first hand. An Indian writer who often comments on the caste system and other social inequities, including in his novels, “Serious Men” and “The Illicit Happiness of Other People,” Joseph moved to Mumbai in 1996 (which was at that point still called Bombay) when he was 21 years old. The neighborhoods he lived in changed as he became more and more successful in his career. He first lived in a type of tenement known as a chawl and later moved into a flat in a poor but slightly better off area. Finally — after living in Mumbai for a decade — he moved into Colaba, one of the city’s most upscale areas. Joseph’s quality of rest and exposure to noise ran parallel to his housing — and tell the story of sleeping in a city where good rest may be for the wealthy.

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Life in the Chawls

When Joseph accepted his first job with a city magazine, he was told that he’d receive “official accommodation.” This turned out to be a chawl, which, as described by Joseph, is “a type of tenement unique to Bombay — a one-room home with no toilets or bathroom.” According to Slate, the living conditions in chawls can stray towards the atrocious. They have crumbling structures and unsanitary running water, and are oftentimes massively overcrowded.

In the chawls, Joseph yearned to escape. Not only because of the unsanitary conditions (including a “slimy” toilet he had to stand in a queue for), but also because of the dense population and the constant lack of peace and quiet they yielded — even after nightfall. The sounds of stray dogs fighting, horns honking, women screaming, children crying, drunkards yelling and televisions blaring permeated the walls of each room.

“You can pretty much gauge the popularity of a serial by the uniformity of its sound,” Joseph said. “As in if it was a hit serial it would be the only sound emanating from all homes. When a cricket match was on I really didn’t need sound on my TV.”

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Music played over loudspeakers was also a chronic disrupter of sleep. As reported by the Awaaz Foundation, religious festivals (which are often sponsored by wealthy Mumbai residents) are a chronic violator of noise pollution laws.

“I heard everything in my room,” Joseph said. “Some mornings I would be woken up by some sacred song played by five loudspeakers in the compound below."

In the chawls, Joseph’s sleep was at the whim of political organizations as well. They would not only blast patriotic and religious songs on the streets, but also the mind-numbing music of the Danish-Norwegian dance-pop group, Aqua.

“The right-wing political and cultural organization, Shiv Sena [...] had a strange love for ‘Barbie Girl,’ which had just been released,” Joseph said. “When they would their street bashes, which was often, they would begin with devotional Marathi songs and patriotic Hindi songs, but as the night progressed they would start playing ‘Barbie Girl.’”

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Overall, the noise was overwhelming and inescapable — to the point of anger and extreme frustration. Domestic fights were a common occurrence. And early in the morning, the chawls often emptied as people hurried to their workplaces as early as possible to escape the conditions of home. 

“I heard everything in my room,” Joseph said. “Some mornings I would be woken up by some sacred song played by five loudspeakers in the compound below. I would try to scream from the window at some caretaker of the loudspeakers, who would be fast asleep right next to the speakers.”

Hard work, a rising writing career and no small amount of luck helped Joseph escape the chawls. Most residents of Mumbai, however, do not experience upward social movement: in fact, income inequality is worsening. Although there are no exact numbers on how many people live in the chawls or much, much worse housing conditions, The Times of India reported in 2010 that an estimated 8.68 million people would be living in the slums by 2011.

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Furthermore, as published in The Guardian in 2013, rising inequality is a byproduct of globalization — and that is visible nowhere more than in Mumbai. Although it's home to some of India’s wealthiest people, “most people survive on less than $2 a day. Visibly malnourished kids who should be in school are collecting metal to sell as scrap. The sanitation is non-existent.”

Less Noise on the Ninth Floor 

Joseph managed to escape the chawls when the multimillionaire owner of the magazine that Joseph worked for asked him to stay for a month in the twentieth-floor flat. While there, Joseph was stunned by the peacefulness to which the wealthier areas of Mumbai were privy. Yes, he gained better living conditions; but the most striking feature, he realized, was peace and quiet.

“All of a sudden I was standing on a green lawn gaping at the Bombay skyline. What struck me was the silence and the stillness and the sheer beauty of Bombay from this height,” Joseph said. “It was an island. It felt like success.”

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The stay in the fancy flat was only temporary, but a couple years later while in his mid-twenties, Joseph was able to transition from a chawl to his one-room flat on the ninth floor of an apartment building after landing a higher-paying writing job. His conditions improved. He had running water and no longer had to go outside to use a bathroom. The street sounds were dampened as he moved higher up. 

“I was saved from a lot of noise,” he said.

That’s not saying he was completely free. The loudspeakers could still reach him, as could others: Joseph describes the sounds of his huge apartment building’s many neighbors, including a neighbor who beat his wife at night, (“His beating would be like a thud. I would know he was beating her only when I would hear her cry,”) and the loud, incoherent conversations, (“There were lots of dying alcoholics here, too.”) 

The lower classes of Mumbai are increasingly feeling the pressure of finding and keeping housing as the city seeks to redevelop poorer neighborhoods. In an effort to clear some of the congestion, the city is building larger and taller apartment buildings, but this means that some residents are dislocated and even middle class buildings are crammed with tenants. Residents also fear that the government won’t build alternative accommodations for those who are relocated due to constructions.

Furthermore, that land continues be allocated for higher value developments, as many residents feel the weight of noise and wish to move to quieter, safer neighborhoods.

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A Quieter Way of Life in a Wealthier Neighborhood

In his early thirties, Joseph was finally making enough money from his writing and editing career to move to a much more modern and amenity-filled apartment building in Colaba, one of the wealthier areas of the city. Located at the southern tip of the city, Colaba is filled with British colonial architecture, art galleries and even a quiet beach.

The new living arrangement brought Joseph many luxuries. He knows he was fortunate, but silence was not one of them.

“[Colaba] was beautiful, but you can never completely shut yourself off,” Joseph said. “Often, in the nights, I would hear construction workers who slept in the next building arguing about some things I could not understand.”

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Joseph isn’t alone in reporting the constant sounds of neighbors, construction, festivals or traffic noise even from well-constructed apartment buildings in higher class areas. As the property market of Mumbai continues to boom, streets in many neighborhoods increasingly become congested, and sidewalks, public transport and markets are massively overcrowded. In fact, Mumbai has an estimated 1.8 million vehicles cloggings its streets — making low noise levels nearly impossible.

“Quiet is a measure of financial and social success in Bombay,” said Joseph. “There is only one way it can come through — by living on the higher floors”

The sound of traffic that can be heard on a “typical weekday evening.”; via Youtube

Must Mumbai's Future Be So Noisy?

With help from activists and organizations such as the Awaaz Foundation — which recently started a campaign called #StopHornFlu — the Indian government has enacted policies to fight back against the noise. Most recently, the Environment Department of Maharashtra (the state where Mumbai is located) posted a formal public notification, warning against the sounds of vehicle horns, sirens and other traffic noises.

In the notification they state:

“[...]high level of noise pollution due to honking is also unsafe for ecologically fragile areas and natural surroundings in the state; [...]high level of noise pollution due to honking causes acute and chronic health impacts on the human population exposed in urban areas.”

Yet, whether the rise of noise-related awareness and policies will affect change is unclear at this point. Although as of 2014, Mumbai’s current rules permit only up to 55 decibels of noise, the Awaaz Foundation continues to measure noise levels that are twice that or more on city streets.

Even with taller buildings, the wealthy may not be able to buy themselves total peace and quiet.

What’s the solution for this? For the wealthy, it may be to build even taller buildings in increasingly modern and inclusive neighborhoods. Even then, however, the wealthy may not be able to buy themselves total peace and quiet and the poor will still be left to suffer through the decibels. 

“The beauty and curse of Bombay,” Joseph said, “is that you cannot completely escape the city.”

Yet, depending on your economic status, the word “escape” can have a very different meaning.