There is only one music cassette in use on the buses in India, and I hear it everywhere; the result is that despite several months of inserting my ear plugs whenever the bus boys crank the latest Hindi pop hits up to eleven, I still know the songs backwards (which, incidentally, improves them).
It isn't confined to the buses, either. I hear it in shops, I hear it in buses, I hear it in rickshaws, I hear it in restaurants, and on bad nights I hear it in my sleep. It's a compilation of Hindi pop hits of 1998 and I'm almost tempted to buy a copy simply so I can glare at it.
The Hindi pop you get on Indian buses isn't unique in being irritating; every country in the world has some kind of music that's designed to make the ears ache. For example, the majority of the music in Australia and New Zealand is western, and as such has good bits and appalling bits, while the tribal music of the Aborigines and Maoris is highly emotive and well worth investigating; Polynesian music is also tribal, and it's pretty interesting until the ukulele kicks in, which it unfortunately does all too often; Indonesian music is either abysmal pop from fat Elvis clones, or intriguing traditional gamelan music that sounds like the introduction to Peter Gabriel's San Jacinto played on an out-of-tune set of tubular bells; Singaporean music is a melting pot of its neighbours' efforts, but it is effectively being swallowed up by rock 'n' roll; I can't really remember the music in Malaysia or Thailand, but I remember one bus journey – I forget which country – where the musical accompaniment bore a scary resemblance to the sound of a cat scratching its claws down a blackboard; and Indian and Nepalese music is wonderfully diverse, with traditional tabla music, the wonderful sound of the sitar, entertaining film music, and the kind of pop music that is chirpy, bouncy and annoying in the way that happy morning people are when you've got a nasty hangover behind the eyes.
So is Hindi pop more irritating than any other country's pap? It depends; I remember almost gnawing my left leg off while putting up with Indonesian pop, I remember Thai videos on buses frying my brain cells, and I'll keep my thoughts about the ukulele to myself. Hindi music, though, is close to winning, because the voices have an amazing way of cutting through any other noise, be it the rumble of the bus or the fascinating cacophony of life in India. The women who sing Hindi pop music sound like they are on helium1 and the men basically shout, so whatever the lyrical and compositional subtleties, it sounds to the unwary like a kind of aural warfare. Add in string sections that sound like the Eeee-Eeee-Eeee from Psycho's shower scene, and you have a musical experience that can only be described as invasive, which is a shame, because Hindi pop2 is everywhere in India.
On top of this, Hindi pop songs are plugged so remorselessly that even if the music weren't so invasive, it would still get to me; there's no kind of music in the world that can stand that sort of constant playing. Especially not Hindi Pop Hits of 1998...
1 Often this is due to a faulty tape mechanism playing the tape too quickly; I put one of my tapes into a supposedly posh Indian tape deck, and even Sheryl Crow sounded light and shrill. I'm convinced that if the local equivalents of Andrew Eldritch's and Janis Joplin's 40-a-day voices ever appeared on the Indian pop scene, they would be burned at the stake for heresy in much the same way that Elvis was for his earth-shattering hip movements in the fifties.
2 I'm not talking about Hindi film music here, because although it might sound the same to the uninitiated, Hindi film music is really rather skilled. In the films, singer-songwriters are not common, and there's normally a composer who writes the music, a lyricist who writes the words, a group of singers who sing the songs, and the actors who mime and dance along on the screen. The composition and lyricism is in a different league to bog-standard Hindi pop, and the dancing is, without a doubt, spectacular and highly skilled, and puts western boy bands to shame. If only all Indian pop was this impressive; unfortunately, it isn't.