Being Indian in Indonesia

The author records her first impressions of Jakarta.

June 22, 2013 05:31 pm | Updated December 04, 2021 11:20 pm IST

A traffic snarl in Jakarta. Photo: Pallavi Aiyer

A traffic snarl in Jakarta. Photo: Pallavi Aiyer

Having spent the last 15 years in peripatetic pursuits across the globe, I’ve learnt that every country’s expat community tends to have its unique fixations. In Beijing, this obsession centres on the pollution, with expats monitoring the air quality index more often than they say “ni hao.”

In Brussels, the largely European foreign community focuses on the unscooped dog poop that litters the Belgian capital’s streets. “Never in Germany,” it is muttered darkly as a local Bruxelloise merrily allows her Labrador to expel its waste on a sidewalk with never a second thought. In Jakarta, the clear winner for the expat obsessive-compulsive disorder of choice is the traffic.

Indeed, the traffic in the Indonesian capital is epic. The population of the city and its outlying areas swells to around 30 million on weekdays and inadequate infrastructure makes belief-defying traffic jams an everyday cross to be borne by commuters. But what really amazes an Indian visitor is just how patiently this cross is borne. Jakarta’s traffic snarls are accompanied by the eeriest of silences. There is no tooting of horns. No acts of random violence. Instead of snarling unspeakable abuses in frustration, as is the norm in New Delhi, taxi drivers in Jakarta smile apologetically at the passenger and shrug their shoulders with a gentle one-word explanation, “machet”: traffic.

All the rage in “road rage” seems to have been consumed by India and China, leaving Indonesia’s streets aurally peaceful, if perennially blocked.

One of the most congested arteries in Jakarta is Gatot Subroto, named after a much-feted Indonesian army general. I discover that the name “Gatot” crops up quite commonly in the Indonesian army. For example, the joint India-Indonesia military exercises held last year were led on the Indonesian side by Lt. Col. Gatot Heru Puan. The preponderance of the name in the military is an interesting happenstance; as it turns out the name, Gatot, is a diminutive for Gatotkatcha, the fearsome warrior from the Mahabharata .

Although a predominantly Muslim region now, Java, home of Jakarta and the most densely populated of Indonesia’s islands, has a long Hindu history. Figures from Hindu mythology continue to have a popular resonance here. Garishly painted advertisements on public buses, for example, market an energy drink called Kuku Bima Ener-G. The name is a reference to the mighty Pandava, Bhima (in fact the father of Gatotkatcha) also of Mahabharata fame.

Kuku Bima Energ-G is, however, not to be confused with Kuku Bima, a traditional medicinal potion with benefits for “men’s health.” It transpires that in one of the Javanese versions of the Mahabharata , Bhima draws the irrigation lines of Java’s rice fields with his fingernail. This is the allusion in the name Kuku Bima: a vitality drink!

Java’s classical Hindu history means that living in Jakarta can feel like having wandered onto the set of a Mahabharata TV serial. People pepper ordinary conversation with words like “manushya” (man) and “karena” (because). The explanation lies in the fact that Sanskrit forms the basis for a substantial part of the vocabulary of Bahasa Indonesia, the national language.

In my first week in the city I’d been unable to find a taxi driver who knew where the national museum was. In desperation I had called a local friend for help who had advised me to ask for “Museum Gajah” instead. The national museum has a statue of an elephant in the garden and it is by its nickname, elephant museum, that most citizens know the building. The vocabulary of Jakarta’s taxi drivers is most intimidating. “Gajah!” It often leaves one feeling terribly undereducated.

Sanskrit is not the only language from which Bahasa Indonesia borrows vocabulary. Loan words from Arabic and European languages are also common. This gives an Indian a uniquely favourable vantage point. We understand words like utara (north) and bahasa (language), as much as masjid (mosque) and asli (genuine), or stroberi (strawberry) and eksekutif (executive).

And yet, one must guard against overconfidence in deciphering Indonesian. The Rektorium, that is alluded to in bold letters across an official-looking building in my neighbourhood, for example, turns out not to be a prostate cancer treatment facility as I had at first imagined, but the office of the head of a police academy.

And when an Indonesian host offers “susu” at a party, it’s best to simply smile. In Bahasa, “susu” means milk.

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