Thursday, May 11, 2017

Yelahanka: Sketches of a Neighborhood

My parents live in a two-bedroom flat at the northern end of Bangalore, in a town called Yelahanka. They moved in 2002, two years after I left for grad school in the United States. Over the last fifteen years, as I've continued to live abroad, Yelahanka has become the somewhat unfamiliar home in India, experienced every two years but no more than a few weeks at a time, and always changing each time I visited.

Once a town with a history of its own, Bangalore's explosive growth over the last few decades made Yelahanka part of the greater city. In 2005, when I came to renew my student visa, the highway outside my parents' flat complex, the Bangalore-Bellary road, was being widened in preparation for the new international airport twenty kilometers north. The city seemed then to be splitting at its outer limits: earthmovers raking up heaps of rubble on the roadsides; laborers patiently striking heavy hammers to break existing concrete structures; and uprooted trunks and roots of what had once been massive trees, caked with the red earth of the depths from which they had been dug up. A study based on satellite imagery revealed that Bangalore, once called Garden City for its beautiful parks and tree-lined boulevards, lost 180 square kilometers of its green cover from 2000-2006.  

The new airport got going in 2008. A flyover – a separate airport access road to bypass local traffic – was constructed about 50 feet above, supported by giant pillars. In Yelahanka, these pillars landed on the lower road, splitting it in two. Instead of making things easier, the flyover for a long time felt like a major obstruction to the locals, blocking the view, and reducing access to public buses. The traffic, always notorious in India – an ever present cacophony of honks, a jostling for every inch of space between motorbikes, auto rickshaws and newly acquired cars – only got worse as drivers adjusted to the new u-turns and flows.

Eight years later, things have settled down somewhat. The road from the airport to Yelahanka now has billboards encouraging the wealthy to purchase luxury high-rises that seem to be popping up everywhere. A couple of kilometers farther south are new malls, showrooms, glass fronted buildings of software firms and multi-specialty hospitals. Meanwhile, around the edges of these new developments, the older sections of Yelahanka continue undisturbed: a maze of narrow streets densely packed with homes, roadside businesses, vendor stalls, places of worship, with activities proceeding in an unstructured fashion and at a frenetic pace.

Last August, as I strolled through various parts of town, I kept feeling that there is something very different about Indian neighborhoods when compared to the places I'd lived and visited around the world. But what are those differences exactly? The contrasts with American towns, not surprisingly, are the sharpest. Yelahanka is supposed to be a suburb, but the word suburb in the United States conjures up quiet streets with rows of single family homes, lawns, and parking garages; the mismatch could not be greater. Even the most crowded boroughs of New York City, parts of Brooklyn and Queens, are not quite like their Indian counterparts. Then there are the economically deprived towns across the US with their hollowed out buildings, vacant lots, potholed roads, grasses seeping back into the cracks of pavements – there are some surface infrastructural similarities, but such American towns lack the population densities and thriving small businesses that even smaller Indian towns have.

Other parts of the world come a lot closer: the backstreets of the suburbs of Seoul, Hong Kong and Istanbul, market streets of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, and particularly Yogyakarta in Indonesia. Still, the combination of chaotic traffic and small-scale entrepreneurship gives the Yelahanka-like neighborhoods of India a distinct feel.

Take the bustling side of the road outside my parents' flat complex. This is not a neatly marked pavement dedicated to pedestrians, rather it's an unpaved gray zone that ends up being shared by pedestrians, by vehicles that encroach on it to get ahead of the traffic, by public and private buses that swerve in suddenly to drop off and pick up waiting passengers, and by the vendors and informal businesses that have set themselves up along the edge. (There's also plastic litter everywhere despite the best efforts of the BBMP staff to sort trash and keep things clean -- this is another feature of Indian streets that I did not find in other developing countries, say in Guatemala or Peru, but I won't get into that in this column.)  

The first business to the right is a small tire repair shed. No more than ten feet long and wide, it's a very basic, low-overhead kind of structure. Tires of various sizes and kinds are strewn all around. A lady with a thick ledger sits outside the shed with a pen, keeping accounts; she could be the owner. It's a busy place. A truck or van or auto-rickshaw driver is always looking for a repair. But you'll find absolutely no record of this bustling place online. It's one of the many ‘off-the-grid' businesses: businesses that in a western town would be marked on a map, licensed, reviewed, and taxed, but in Yelahanka are simply part of local knowledge. Google Maps features a blank space along this stretch of the road, but this misses the all the entrepreneurial activity that takes place. Farther down the same stretch, a blacksmith offers his services beneath a square piece of tarpaulin that serves as a roof. In the center of the square patch is a coal pit to heat metal; next to it, an anvil for banging metal into shape.

And so it goes on along the edge of the road: one informal business after another. A woman in her sixties who in the narrow space of a porch sells idlies in the morning and vadas in the afternoon at rates far cheaper than restaurants; a street vendor who positions his food cart outside a small liquor shop, so that the men who come to have surreptitious drink – unlike bars, these liquor shops have no music or social fanfare, drinking here appears to be a personal affair – can purchase the snacks to go with the alcohol. 

The macro numbers only seem to confirm this. India has one of the higher rates of informal sector employment in the world. By definition, these are businesses that are small, easy to set up and dismantle, and do not take up much space. If you are interested in getting a visual sense of how such businesses operate, take a look at this YouTube video, created by Isha Gajjar. It captures numerous street vendors near the main bus station of Yelahanka. I've walked through this part of town many times.

Even the formal businesses in Yelahanka are quite specialized and diverse. There is a small shop, for example, that focuses only on selling varieties of rice; there is a machine shop called GSS Engineering Works which does lathe-based machining; and there are houses from which there comes a clattering sound, as if printing presses are churning out newspapers. But the noise, my parents noted, could also be due to looms: Yelahanka has been known for the quality of its weaving industries for two centuries.

The distinction between the formal and the informal applies to religious places too. In the older sections of Yelahanka, you'll find Hindu temples that span the entire range: from the larger ones with well constructed gopurams (the main structure), to those that you wouldn't formally consider as temples, but nevertheless serve a religious purpose, for example, the base of a tree with a wide, shade-providing canopy where a few idols have been placed; or a simple ochre-colored stone relief by the side of a pathway, accessible to everyone, the relief showing only the abstract outlines of a deity, a few fresh flowers offered by those who sit beside it and pray. Similarly, in the Muslim quarter of Yelahanka, there is a mosque whose prayer calls wake me up before dawn and which everyone knows about, but there is also, not far away, an unnoticed Sufi shrine, a single story structure painted green and with the title "Hazrat Buddhan Shah Wali".

Streets in the old section don't go in straight lines but rather curve and intersect in complex ways. With each random turn, I would discover something new. A utensil shop here, a ladies tailor shop there, a roadside shrine elsewhere. So it goes on and on! To understand this spatial distribution, it might help to consider the following contrast. In supermarkets and shopping malls, we find a dizzying range of catalogued products delivered from various parts of the world, all concentrated in one large air-conditioned room or one large building. Now imagine a more local kind of diversity, a similarly wide range of services, products and places of worship, but spread out in nooks and corners and edges of roads, not catalogued and searchable online, and which can only be known by living there and by learning what the locals know. This is what the older sections of Yelahanka are like.


Finally, a few words about the Yelahanka Lake. If I haven't mentioned the lake yet, it is because the traffic, crowds and the maze of streets are always front and center, and it requires effort to look beyond them and notice the natural beauty of the region. Luckily, from the ninth floor balcony of my parents' flat, I've always been able to glimpse the lake and the adjacent high-grass meadow where the cows graze throughout the day, their feet half sunk in the boggy soil. All kinds of migratory birds visit the region's lakes, which is why the neighboring Puttenahalli Lake has been protected as a sanctuary.

Last year, I noticed that the Yelahanka Lake had more water, and a concrete walkway had been constructed along its outer circumference. The plan is to have a boating dock for residents of an unfinished luxury high-rise at the opposite bank. Maybe this will also turn into a thoroughfare eventually. But for now, a walk along that newly constructed lake-side path provides an unexpected and calming counterpoint. Rather than say much about it, I'll close by providing a few pictures.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Quantitative Measures of Linguistic Diversity and Communication

Of the 7097 languages in the world, twenty-three (including the usual suspects: Mandarin, English, Spanish, various forms of Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese) are spoken by half of the world's population. Hundreds of languages have only a handful of speakers and are disappearing quickly; one language dies every four months. Some parts of the world (dark green regions in the map) are linguistically far more diverse than others. Papua New Guinea, Cameroon, and India have profusion of languages while in Japan, Iceland, Norway, and Cuba a single language dominates. 

Why are languages distributed this way and why such large variations in diversity? These are hard questions to answer and I won't be dealing with them in this column. So many factors – conquest, empire, globalization, migration, trade necessities, privileged access that comes with adopting a dominant language, religion, administrative convenience, geography, the kind of neighbors one has – have had a role to play in determining the course of language history. Each region has its own story and it would be too hard to get into the details.  

I also won't be discussing the merits and demerits of linguistic diversity. Personally, having grown up with five mutually unintelligible Indian languages, I am biased towards diversity – each language encapsulates a unique way of looking at the world and it seems (at least theoretically) that a multiplicity of worldviews is a good thing, worth preserving. But I am sure there are opposing arguments.

Instead, I'll restrict my focus to the following questions. How can the linguistic diversity of a particular region or country be numerically quantified? How do different parts of the world compare? How to account for the fact that languages may be related to one another, that individuals may speak multiple languages? 

In tackling these questions, my primary source and guide is a short paper published in 1956 by Joseph Greenberg [1]. Greenberg's main goal was to create objective measures that could, in the future, be used to "to correlate varying degrees of linguistic diversity with political, economic, geographic, historic, and other non-linguistic factors." His paper proceeds from the assumption that linguistic surveys have been conducted and data on what people consider their mother tongue/first language, the number of speakers of each language, vocabulary etc. are already available. Ethnologue is an example of such a global survey [2]. 

The Linguistic Diversity Index

The most basic measure Greenberg proposed is the now widely used linguistic diversity index. The index is a value between 0 and 1. The closer the value is to 1, the greater the diversity. The index is based in a simple idea. If I randomly sample two individuals from a population, what is the probability that they do not share the same mother tongue? If the population consisted of 2000 individuals and each individual spoke a different language as their mother tongue, then the linguistic diversity index would be 1. If they all shared the same mother tongue, then the index would be 0. If 1800 of them spoke language M and 200 of them spoke N, then index would be: 

1 – (1800/2000)2 - (200/2000)2   = 0.18

In the above, (1800/2000) is the probability that a randomly picked individual speaks M as their first language/mother tongue. And (1800/2000)2 is the probability that two randomly picked individuals speak M. Similarly, (200/2000)is the probability that both the randomly picked individuals speak N as their mother tongue. When we subtract these squared terms from 1, what remains is the probability that the two randomly sampled individuals do not share a mother tongue. In this particular example, the index of 0.18 is low because of the dominance of M. 

If there are more than two languages the procedure is the same. You would have one squared term that needs to be subtracted for every language. In a population of 10,000 where 10 languages are spoken and each language is considered a mother tongue by exactly 1000 speakers, the index would be:

1 – 10 x (1000/10,000)2 = 0.9.

This high value reflects both the number of languages and how evenly distributed they are in the population. 

In fact, there are fifteen countries whose linguistic diversity exceeds 0.9, as the table above shows (based on Ethnologue data [2]). The list is dominated by 11 African countries, with Cameroon at number two. India, whose linguistic diversity I experienced firsthand for twenty years, is at number 13. Two Pacific island nations – Vanuatu and Solomon Islands: small islands these, and yet so many languages! – are in the top 5. First on the list is Papua New Guinea whose 4.1 million people speak a dizzying 840 languages! The country's index of 0.98 means that each language has about 5000 speakers on average and that no language dominates as a mother tongue. 

In his book The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond, who did a lot of his fieldwork and research in New Guinea, has this startling anecdote:  
"One evening, while I was spending a week at a mountain forest campsite with 20 New Guinea Highlanders, conversation around the campfire was going in several different local languages plus two lingua francas of Tok Pisin and Motu…. Among those 20 New Guineans, the smallest number of languages that anyone spoke was 5. Several men spoke from 8 to 12 languages, and the champion was a man who spoke 15. Except for English, which New Guineans often learn at school by studying books, everyone had acquired all of his other languages socially without books. Just to anticipate your likely question – yes, those local languages enumerated that evening really were mutually unintelligible languages, not mere dialects. Some were tonal like Chinese, others were non-tonal, and they belonged to several different language families."
How different from what the majority of us are used to! 

While New Guinea's linguistic diversity is widely recognized and not in doubt, its high language count and the rampant multilingualism that Diamond observed nevertheless lead to us to two flaws in the linguistic diversity index.  

The first flaw is that the index assumes languages are well defined, mutually exclusive units. It ignores the relatedness between languages and the fact that a dialect may be arbitrarily called a language. What of cases where there is close relatedness and even mutual intelligibility, for example between Hindi and Urdu, or between Spanish and Italian? And what to make of those cases where two dialects may well be closely related, but nevertheless are mutually unintelligible when spoken? Further, the language question seems loaded with the question of identity and politics. Apparently there is a running joke among linguists: "A language is a dialect backed by by an army and a navy."

To partially address this, Greenberg -- who recognized these problems, and was well aware of the difficulties of distilling complex language realities into quantitative measures -- suggested that the resemblance between languages or dialects could be numerically quantified by a value between 0 and 1. This what I understood from his paper: take the combined current vocabulary of a pair of languages and calculate the proportion of words that are common to both languages in relation to the total list of words. This proportion gives us a approximate measure of resemblance. A resemblance close to 1 means that the two languages are virtually identical, and a resemblance close to 0 implies an almost total lack of relatedness. 

The resemblance can then be used to adjust the linguistic diversity index. Suppose there are three languages M, N and O spoken by 1/8th, 3/8th and 1/2 of the population and suppose the resemblance between [M, N], [M, O], and [N, O] is 0.85, 0.3 and 0.25.  The unadjusted linguistic diversity index is 0.593. If we adjust for resemblance, this value drops to 0.381 -- diversity is not as high as it originally seemed. I have explained the calculations at the end of the piece [3].

The second flaw in the index is that, by considering only an individual's mother tongue, it ignores multilingualism. As Diamond's New Guinea anecdote shows, a high linguistic diversity does not necessarily represent a lack of communication. The examples of Indonesia, India and the many countries of Africa show that it is possible to communicate in some common languages, lingua francas that span large parts of the population, while yielding space to local mother tongues. So a different kind of measure is required.  

Index of Communication

To accommodate multilingualism, Greenberg proposed the index of communication. As before, the index is a value between 0 and 1. A value close to 1 indicates high communicability and a value close to 0 indicates the opposite. If I randomly pick two individuals in a population, and each individual speaks one or more languages, then what is the probability that the individuals share at least one language in common? To ensure communicability, only one language has to overlap. (This index too has its problems. One flaw is that it ignores how well an individual speaks a particular language – something that might be hard to elicit in a survey. Another is how to set the threshold of communicability - is knowing a few basic words sufficient?)

Consider the simplest case where a population speaks only two languages, M and N. Using a census, you can calculate the proportion of the population that speaks M only, N only, and is bilingual in M and N. Suppose those proportions are 0.5 (speak M only), 0.3 (speak N only) and 0.2 (speak both M and N). To calculate the index of communication, I simply subtract the cases where the two individuals cannot understand/communicate with each other, which happens when the first individual speaks only M and the other only N, and vice-versa: 

1 – [0.5 x 0.3] – [0.3 x 0.5] = 0.7 

The same idea can be extended to more than two languages. 

I'll try to illustrate the index with a personal example. The engineering college I attended in the south Indian city of Trichy had students from all parts of the country. At the time the college was called Regional Engineering College (REC), it is now called the National Institute of Technology. There was one REC in each major Indian state. The RECs had a unique admission policy. Half of the engineering students admitted each year were from the local state – in the case of Trichy, the home state was Tamil Nadu – and the remaining half were from outside the state. The more populous states, such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, got more students, but even far-flung parts, the Northeast and Kashmir, had some representation.

In my first year, all the 400 odd male engineering students were packed into the same hostel (dormitory), with 5 students sharing a room. In what seemed like a deliberate policy at integration, the students were assigned rooms so that 2-3 of the students were from Tamil Nadu and each of the others was from a different state. Since states in India are organized along linguistic lines, you had 3-4 mother tongues in each room. In the corridors you could hear the two dozen major languages of India [4]. 

Despite all this diversity, communication was never a problem. Among the North Indians almost everyone knew Hindi and so Hindi was the bridge between mother tongues. The local state students– they were colloquially called Tambis by the North Indians – spoke Tamil but did not understand Hindi and were even hostile to it (even today, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi's emphasis on Hindi annoys my Tamil friends). But all students whether North Indian or Tamil, had some working knowledge of English – the language of the textbooks, which everyone aspired to speak well if only to get access to good jobs after graduation. So English – however grammatically inaccurate or spotty – was the bridge between the locals and the North Indians. 

If I randomly sampled two individuals from that student population of 400, then there is a good chance that the two students would have different mother tongues (high linguistic diversity), but due to multilingualism they would have at least one language in common. So the index of communicability was essentially 1, if we ignore the question of proficiency. 

My own case was somewhat different but by no means unique. Although I was born with Tamil as my mother tongue, I had lived mostly in West and Central India and had picked up Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi socially (the last two have dropped off due to lack of practice). I applied to college as an out-of-state student, but was really returning to my home state. In Trichy, I could communicate in Tamil with all the local students. Indeed, my colloquial command of Tamil – all the bad words included –went up! With everyone who was not from Tamil Nadu, I used mostly Hindi or English. I learned, to my surprise, that my ability in conversational English was poor, because I'd never really spoken it socially. 

The college experience I've described applies more generally. Many parts of India are like this: different language communities live together in cities and along borders between states and multilingualism facilitates communication.  

To summarize, Greenberg's two indices capture contrasting aspects of language reality in a population. The diversity index captures the number of mother tongues and how evenly represented they are in relation to each other, while the index of communication captures how connected a population is.

In theory, a population could retain its linguistic diversity while also maintaining a high index of communication essential in a globalized world. In practice however, a worldwide rise in communication appears to be happening at the expense of linguistic diversity. The numerous but lesser known languages of Australia, North America, Central and South America are losing ground quickly. Africa is the only continent bucking the trend. India's twenty odd major languages are still doing quite well, but others are not – check out these podcasts (1 and 2) by Padmaparna Ghosh and Samanth Subramanian on the challenges of linguistic surveys and inevitability of language loss.     

Finally, here are brief notes on two different countries: Mexico and United States. I've had a long-standing interest in both these countries. Drawn to its pre-Columbian indigenous past, I traveled to Mexico six times – from Chiapas to Oaxaca in the south, to Michoacán and Mexico City in the center, to Chihuahua in the north. The United States, meanwhile, has been home for the last 16 years.  


In the last section of his paper, Greenberg demonstrates how his two measures – linguistic diversity index and the index of communication – stack up when it comes to the 31 states of Mexico, and Mexico as a whole. To do this, he used bilingual data from a census in 1930. 

Mexico's indigenous languages began to decline after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521. In Greenberg's calculation, Mexico's linguistic diversity index (unadjusted for resemblance) was 0.31 in 1930 while it's index of communication was 0.83. Among individual states, though, there was a great deal of variation. The federal district (DF – Distrito Federal), which includes the highly populous Mexico City had much lower linguistic diversity of 0.12 while its index of communication was 0.99 – virtually 1, which makes sense because Spanish is indispensable in the capital. The state of Oaxaca, which I have visited twice recently and where indigenous groups have a strong presence, had the highest linguistic diversity index of 0.83. In Greenberg's data, Oaxaca's index of communication of 0.47 was the lowest in Mexico. 

But this was in 1930; I am sure things have changed in the last 86 years towards greater communicability and lower diversity as Spanish continues to be dominant. According to Ethnologue, Mexico's language count is 290 but its diversity index is down to 0.11. Most likely – this is a guess – its index of communication, which was already 0.83 in 1930, is well over 0.9 now.    

United States

According to the Ethnologue, the US has 430 languages: 219 of which are indigenous and 211 of them immigrant. North America before European settlement was teeming with indigenous languages from different families. California was one of the most linguistically diverse places in the America with around 70-80 languages from 20 language families. 

Because of the sustained ethnic cleansing that happened after European arrival, the vast majority American Indian languages are now tethering on the brink of extinction. English is dominant, which explains the country's relatively low linguistic diversity of 0.34. English is also why the United States' index of communication is likely to be very high – above 0.9 if not close to 1 (this is a guess and is not based on data). Today an American Indian who speaks, say, Navajo or Cherokee, can communicate in English with a recently naturalized Indian-American whose original mother tongue was, say, Telugu

Despite English's dominance, the United States does have a certain linguistic richness to it, thanks to immigrants (citizens or not) from all other continents to make a living here. By some estimates 800 languages are spoken in New York City!

Reference and Footnotes

1. Greenberg, Joseph H. "The measurement of linguistic diversity." Language 32.1 (1956): 109-115.

2. Lewis, M. Paul, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2016. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Nineteenth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version:

3. Greenberg's adjustment for resemblance between languages: Suppose there are three languages M, N and O spoken by 1/8th, 3/8th and 1/2 of the population and suppose the resemblance between [M, N], [M, O], and [N, O] are 0.85, 0.3 and 0.25. Then the linguistic diversity index adjusted for resemblance is:

1 – [(1 x 1/8 x 1/8) – (1 x 3/8 x 3/8) – (1 x 1/2 x 1/2)] 
– [(0.85 x 1/8 x 3/8) – (0.85 x 3/8 x 1/8)] 
– (0.3 x 1/8 x 1/2) – (0.3 x 1/2 x 1/8) 
– (0.25 x 3/8 x 1/2) – (0.25 x 1/2 x 3/8) 
= 0.381

The first line is exactly the linguistic diversity index we have already seen, without adjusting for resemblance. There are 3 languages so one squared term for each language. Each term calculates the probabilities that both randomly picked individuals speak the same language. There is a multiplier of 1 since the resemblance of a language to itself is 1. If we used only the first line, we would get an unadjusted linguistic diversity index of 0.593. 

The next 3 lines take care of relatedness between language pairs. The second line calculates the probability that the first randomly picked individual speaks M and the second speaks N, and vice versa. The multiplier of 0.85 indicates that there is a high resemblance, therefore speaking M and N should be treated (almost) like speaking the same language. Lines 3 and 4 do the same for language pairs [M, O] and [N, O] and the respective resemblance multipliers are used. In the end the adjusted diversity index gives us a value of 0.381, significantly lower than the unadjusted value of 0.593.

4. The beautiful Indian language tree illustration is by Minna Sundberg.   

5. This piece was first posted at 3 Quarks Daily.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Four days in Jogja

I was in the city of Jogjakarta (also spelled as Yogyakarta) in May 2015. It was a short stay: I was primarily visiting Hong Kong, but then had to exit Hong Kong to re-enter because my visa-free stay had expired. Nearby countries would have served the purpose, but I chose Indonesia -- six hours south by flight and across the equator -- because I'd always been drawn to its size and diversity: thousands of islands in a tremendous sprawl (if the northwestern-most part of Indonesia started in Alaska, the archipelago would stretch all the way to Virginia); 240 million people, 87% of them Muslim, speaking 700 odd languages (even greater linguistic diversity than India); an unlikely national experiment that began in 1940s after centuries of Dutch colonial rule and a short but painful three years of Japanese occupation.  

There was no way to capture even a fraction of that complexity in four days, but I wanted to start somewhere. Jakarta, the sprawling capital where I stayed the first night, was too daunting; but Jogjakarta, an hour's flight from the capital and which holds a unique place in Javanese culture, seemed more manageable. Here are some informal impressions: nothing very detailed, just a first take.  


The island of Java, studded with volcanoes throughout its length, is one of the most densely populated parts of the world, home to 145 million people. Jogjakarta lies in the central part of Java, but closer to the southern coast.     

The ride from the airport to the hotel was through a bustling thoroughfare, packed with people, shops and malls on either side. So many motorbikes and two-wheelers wove their way around cars that the traffic approached the chaos of Indian roads. Perhaps it was because I had arrived the time of the Waisak holiday – the holiday that commemorated the birth of the Buddha. In a few days, the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, was scheduled to visit Borobudur, the famous 9th century Buddhist temple near Jogja. 

That's the kind of place Java is: Islam is the formal faith and widespread, but the Hindu-Buddhist past remains a part of Javanese identity and is celebrated in so many ways. The other major draw in Jogja is the Hindu Prambanan temple, roughly contemporaneous to Borobodur. The Indian influence actually stretches even further back: Sanskrit inscriptions date to the 5th century. Thanks to the seasonal winds which promoted maritime trade, the Indonesian islands have been linked, directly or indirectly to China and India and the Middle East for over two millennia. 

Just to give one example: in the 11th century – when Buddhism and Hinduism were still strong and Islam still hadn't taken hold – cotton that was produced in Gujarat (west India) was shipped to both Egypt and Indonesia. In an effort to be responsive to their markets, the Gujarati producers adjusted the color and pattern of the cloth to suit different preferences: "Green patterns sold well in Egypt. Animal patterns were sent to Southeast Asia, but not to Islamic Egypt."

The major shift towards Islam seems to have happened between the 13th and 16th centuries. This shift was not, as in so many other places, a result of conquering armies, but a gradual bits and pieces affair, the work of a few Sufi mystics who arrived from various parts of Asia. Further, the Islam that came to Java did not erase past beliefs, but blended with them to create a composite faith that borrowed from different strands – something that still persists today.  


Although it was interesting to learn about Java's Hindu-Buddhist past, I wasn't very enthusiastic about visiting Borobodur and Prambanan. I had seen such archaeological sites in other parts of the world – Teotihuacan in Mexico, Machhu Picchu in Peru, Hampi in Karnataka, India – and was somewhat exhausted by the emphasis on past grandeur that only peripherally affected modern realities. But I had few other ideas, so I went in the hope of seeing something of the city, and how Javanese visitors related to the historical sites. 

I took the city bus to Prambanan. The bus took a circuitous route, touching the parts of Jogja where the big universities were. Certainly there was much that reminded me of India that day: the hot day; a higher than average density of people; informal vendor stalls everywhere on the side of the roads; tricycle-taxis pedaled by drivers for short rides; coconut trees; Sanskrit names on storefronts. And then there was Prambanan itself, a Hindu temple at the end of the journey. 

Prambanan's exterior was impressive. Its towers were slightly thinner compared to Indian temples, and all along the circumference of each tower were smaller conical structures pointing upward, which lent the entire complex a certain dynamism when viewed from far. But the interior of the temple, the beautiful reliefs on the walls, the deities that were worshiped – GaneshaShiva – felt pretty close to the forms I had known in India. 

IMG_20150531_021739_822 copyIndeed, it felt somewhat strange to encounter the religious tradition I had been born into so far away from home but also reaching so far back in time. Large groups of Javanese school children had come that day, as part of school tours perhaps, to get a glimpse of their island's past. They tramped up and down the steep, black stone steps of towers. What did they make of this place, I wondered. Did it fit into the modern narrative only as a relic of history, beautiful to look at but with no real influence? In India, it's a fair bet a place like Prambanan – like the 800-year old Brihadeeshwara temple in Thanjavur – would still be active as a place of worship. I know that my devout father would immediately begin his prayers if he came anywhere close to Prambanan! 

Hinduism appears to have persisted in Java not through its temples – Prambanan in the 19th century was in ruins and had to be reconstructed – but its major epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The Javanese have made these epics and their central characters their own, weaving them into their most famous art form, the wayang, the shadow puppet theater, which has been popular for many centuries, and still is. A wayang can start in the evening and continue all night, into the morning. The dalang, the puppeteer – the good ones are high in demand these days and well paid – adapts the characters drawn from Hindu epics. 

Image from Wikipedia: Wayang (shadow puppets) from central Java, a scene from Irawan's Wedding, mid 20th century, University of Hawaii Dept. of Theater and Dance

Growing up in India in the 1980s, I learned all the details of the Ramayana and Mahabharata through serials shown on national television on Sunday morning, and through illustrated picture books. Thousands of miles away, a Javanese Muslim growing up at the same time might have have learned about the epics staying up all night and attending a wayang communally with many others. The names differ slightly in Java – Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, is Rahwana; Lanka is Alengka; Sita, the wife of Rama, is Sinta. What you learned depended on how the dalang presented the story. In 1979, VS Naipaul, while visiting a village near Jogja, noted this about a wayang
"The good puppet-master, whatever his interpretation of the story, political, mystical, leaves the issues open. Everyone watching responds according to his character and circumstances…Because every character trails his own ancestry and dilemmas, even the wicked Rahwana, even the beautiful Sinta. Everyone is engaged in his own search, and at his appearance in the story is in a crisis; so that, as in the profoundest drama or fiction, every encounter is charged with meaning. The epics are endless. The puppet plays bear any number of repetitions, because the more the audience knows the more it understands; and interpretations of motive, of what is right and wrong or expedient, will constantly change." [From Among the Believers.]   
Wayangs are so popular that even the Islamist Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (the Prosperity and Justice Party, or PKS) which captured a small percent of the Indonesian electorate in 2009 and which held its national convention in Jogja in 2011 – the writer Pankaj Mishra attended the convention – even this Saudi-funded radical group, which might have rejected stories from other faiths, couldn't resist sponsoring for its delegates a wayang based on the Hindu epic Mahabharata!


There was something else going on in Prambanan that day. Near a grassy patch on the outer periphery of the temple, a woman was singing a slow, haunting kind of song while others played modern stringed instruments and a drum. In front of the stage where the singer was seated, a group of boys, dressed presumably in old Javanese style, were dancing and enacting something. I thought maybe this was a rehearsal of the Ramayana ballets that were held on Thursday evenings at Prambanan.   

After a while, I wasn't so sure. The boys seemed to be in some kind of trance. There was an older man who kept running from one boy to another, seeming to stabilize them, monitoring their progress closely. In one case, a boy was sprawled on the ground, and the old man forcibly opened the boy's mouth and removed something that the boy was chewing. Some kind of intoxicant. I learned later that whatever the boys were chewing was meant to promote the trance, and that the man who was running around checking on the boys was a kind of shaman, ensuring that nothing in this initiation got out of control. The woman whose melodious song I had found mesmerizing – I yearned for that song and voice for many days – was meant to keep the boys in their hypnotic state. 

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So what I thought was a performance, meant to entertain, was at least in part a ritual initiation ceremony, something related to Java's animist past, in which the boys enthusiastically participated for their own benefit. They cared little about the audience. But there was an audience, perhaps just as fascinated as I was, and it included women in headscarves. Suddenly the visit to Prambanan, which I had been lukewarm about, had turned interesting. For here were all those strands of Javanese faiths: a glimpse of its animist past on a holiday that commemorated the Buddha's birth, at this reconstructed Hindu temple where Ramayana ballets were held regularly – all of this explored and watched intently by visitors who were predominantly Muslim. 


It is this syncretic or composite faith that Java is known for, and which has been threatened by the more radical versions of Islam that have taken root (though not to the same extent as elsewhere). In his essay After Suharto, Pankaj Mishra, who has traveled to Indonesia many times, writes about the "creeping Islamisation": attacks on churches, on members of the minority sects, nightclubs and bars. Elizabeth Pisani who has lived and traveled extensively in the archipelago, points out in her book, Indonesia Etc.that while the syncretic tradition still remains strong,
"Islam in Indonesia has homogenized into something more orthodox than it was since Suharto came to power. Saudi Arabia has been underwriting schools and mosques in Indonesia that teach Islam off a Middle Eastern template. The classic mosques of central Sumatra and Java, with their modest three tiered roofs in terracotta tiles that echo the shape of Indonesia's volcanoes and blend into the villages, are increasingly giving way to variations of the Middle Eastern style -- domed, minarets, ostentatious." 
In my short visit, I sensed this trend on two occasions. The first was in Jakarta, where I shared a ride to the airport with three or four other men, who were likely from the Middle-East. They were all dressed in white and wore white skull caps. They were rehearsing something in Arabic – verses from the Koran perhaps. When one of them forgot a verse or was off track, another would step in to correct. The men were taking a flight to Solo, 60 kilometers away from Jogjakarta. Were they preachers who had come to teach in a mosque or Islamic school in Solo? But the ride was short and I did not have the time to ask. 

The second occasion was a slow-moving motorcycle rally in Jogja, in which the grim-looking bikers, about twenty of them, were covered in shawls or robes of some kind and carried flags with Arabic lettering. The Arabic stood out because most signs in Jogja are in Bahasa, the lingua franca of Indonesia.


In Jogja though, going by its reputation, you are more likely to run into someone steeped in mysticism rather than a hardline Islamic worldview. This is what happened on the fourth and last day of my visit, when I met Raul. 

Raul (not his real name) was the guide who took me to Borobodur. He was about thirty, dark-complexioned and with a square face. He was mostly Javanese, he said, but had a little bit of Chinese ancestry and perhaps a little European too. From the outset, it was clear that he was polite and sincere, and someone who did not impose too much. Perhaps it was the Javanese preference for courtesy and manners. Raul himself said that social interactions in Java had the quality of a ‘drama', an act.   

Mount_Merapi_in_2014Within minutes of heading out, he starting describing landmarks. Tugu circle, the intersection where my hotel was, is an important monument, he said. It is actually a lingam. The Sultan's palace (the kraton: a kind of nerve center of civic and religious life in Jogja), the Tugu monument and Gunung Merapi (the still active volcano: image from Wikipedia), are in one straight line, Raul explained, and this assisted the Sultan when he sat down to meditate in his palace. Here again that delightful mix of different strands: lingam, a phallic symbol in Hinduism, adapted here in Java and linked to a sacred natural landmark.

This was Raul the guide, I thought, simply stating facts for the tourist in a detached way. But that impression wasn't entirely right. Javanese mysticism wasn't just something he explained to tourists. He'd experienced strange things himself. He once saw a green light – not an actual light, but a light from a different realm, an aura that's not visible to everyone – descending into someone's home. Puzzled, he had gone to the the Sultan's palace, to check with spiritual advisers there. They were at first surprised that Raul could detect such auras. What color was it, they asked. The green one, it turned out, was something unpleasant that could possess an individual. 

"Such auras are not unusual in Java", he said. "Once I too was possessed by a spirit. It happened when I was driving back home on my motorbike. It was a woman's spirit, and it troubled me for a while. I went again to the Kraton. They asked me not to worry too much about it and to recite the right prayers at the mosque. You know, prayers, the way they are said create certain vibrations which can help. After some time, I was cured. These things happen in Java."

Raul understood that I might be surprised at such claims. But he was unworried what I might think. He stated everything in a matter-of-fact way. He did not linger on these things and I did not delve further. 

The presence of the spiritual advisers, people who had understood Raul's experiences and guided him, suggested a shared culture of mysticism. I later found more evidence of this in Naipaul's Islam-themed travel books, Among the Believers and Beyond Belief. In 1979 and again in 1997, Naipaul had met a successful Catholic poet, Linus, who lived in a village near Jogja. Linus was one of many Indonesians whose stories Naipaul described in detail. In 1997, Linus, much like Raul, had talked of his mystic experiences. In Linus' case, Siddhartha -- the Buddha himself -- came in his dreams, to reveal spiritual insights. But it wasn't a direct revelation and it wasn't just Linus. His friends were involved too. The message that the Buddha gave was typed onto the palm of Linus' friend. Yet another friend, a woman, was the only person who could interpret these messages by looking at the friend's palm. So there had been this group of friends that had met now and then, for many years: as in Raul's case, individual dreams and visions were collectively shared. 

Just as interesting was how Raul's mysticism intersected with the modern world. Raul mentioned how he had seen videos or a research paper online about an experiment that tested the impact of positive words and thoughts. Plants that had been exposed to positive words had developed symmetric and healthy patterns; plants exposed to abusive words had become distorted. Raul also believed that the act of naming something was important. By naming something you determined its destiny. He gave the example of an Indonesian airline that had, true its mythically inspired name, eventually gone out of business. 

Raul had been born in a city about three hours by drive from Jogjakarta. He'd studied tourism at the local university but did not finish. Later, he worked for two years at a cruise ship. He had visited coastal cities in the United States. But the work had been detrimental to his wellbeing. He had a life-threatening health crisis, a paralysis due to a genetic condition, but one that he believed was triggered by an unhealthy lifestyle, eating American-style food at the cruise-ship. He had survived that narrowly. This work as a guide in Jogja was a slow a return to normalcy.

His views now were shaped by that crisis. He was against genetically modified foods. He cited scientific studies he had read on the internet to back his claims. He was against the excessive use of refined sugar. He was concerned about how much plastic was disposed and how it was polluting rivers. The group that he now worked with not only organized tours, but was also involved in addressing such ecological concerns. Outside the entrance to the Borobodur temple – which was abuzz with preparations for President's Jokowi's visit the next day – Raul expressed unease upon seeing caged birds sold by vendors, dozens of small sparrow-like, bright-colored birds, all confined to cages and jostling for space.

Politically, Raul had a left-leaning stance. He was against the landowners who with the help of politicians had deliberately purchased land around the Borobodur and Prambanan temples, calling them amusement parks and thereby inflating the entrance fees (the $30 fee might seem okay by American standards, but a good lunch in Jogja costs less than a dollar or two – that's how cheap things are in Indonesia). Raul spoke fondly of the current President, Joko Widodo, who had been elected in 2014. Jokowi, as he is popularly known, was different because he wasn't from the political or military elite, but from a modest family in the neighboring city of Solo. When it came to Islam, Raul was clear that Sharia law or extremist interpretations had no place in Jogja. 

Meanwhile, the temple at Borobodur, striking though it was – overlooking mountain ranges and fertile green valleys – passed by in a blur. I remember Raul explaining the Buddhist themes of the temple carefully – moving from the realm of desires at the lower level to the top, where nirvana or enlightenment awaited – but my real interest had always been in conversing with and getting to know, even if only for a few hours, someone with a Javanese worldview.

So the grand Borobodur took a backseat that day, and Raul himself was front and center. I wished I could have talked more with him, but we were running out of time. After lunch at a roadside stall in the nearby village, where we had the cabbage-tofu dish, the kupat tahu, we headed back to Jogja. It was a hearty meal, sweet and spicy like many Indonesian dishes. Raul took a nap during the drive back. The next day I flew back to Jakarta.    

Friday, May 27, 2016

Nature Notes from Massachusetts: How the Land has Changed

0305151548I've lived in Massachusetts for 8 years now, and I've always been struck by the density and variety of trees here – maples, oaks, birches, beeches, chestnuts, hickories, white pines, pitch pines, hemlocks, firs. Look in any direction and your view is likely to be blocked by a tangle of trees: in the winter and early spring crisscrossing, leafless branches form a haze of brown and gray; in the summer, when the leaves have returned, there is a lush, impenetrable wall of green. 

Apparently this wasn't always the case: in the mid 1800s, the naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, was "able to look out of his back door in Concord [now on the outskirts of Boston] and see all the way to Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire because there were so few trees to block his view." In Natural History of Western Massachusetts, Stan Freeman writes: 
"in the early 1800s Massachusetts may have looked much like a farm state in the Midwest, such as Kansas and Indiana. Farm fields, barren of trees, stretched from horizon to horizon…"
Also consider this. In 1871, when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) surveyed the stone fences that European farmers in the Northeast had constructed, they found 33,000 miles of such fences in Massachusetts alone! That number should make clear just how much land was put under the plough.

Things changed quickly, though. As the United States expanded westward in the 19th century, fulfilling its so called Manifest Destiny, the Midwest emerged as a major player in agriculture. Midwestern crops could be sent back east by railroad. The farmers of the New England, unable to compete, abandoned their lands. The forests grew back, hiding the thousands of miles of stone fences.

UntitledIn 1893, forest land in Massachusetts was about 30% of the land area of the state. In 1998, forest land actually increased to 60%. This still holds true -- see 2014 USDA map. The six million residents of Massachusetts are concentrated in a few cities and suburbs, and despite the resurgence of local farms, much of what the state needs is supplied from outside. Travel west of Boston (along I-90 or Route 2 or back roads such as MA-9) and the towns are never very big. At the edges of these towns – with their  abandoned mills, red brick buildings, the odd convenience store, gas station, a church or two – are miles and miles of thick forests, winding brooks and wetlands. Even the exceptionally busy Mass pike or Interstate-90 runs through land that has simply been left alone. Driving by at 70 miles an hour, I once remember spotting a blue heron resting among cattails in a small pond.  

In Amherst, which is in the western part of the state, residential areas are continuously interspersed with a patchwork of conservation lands. One of my favorite spots is called Lawrence Swamp. Much of it looks like this picture I took a couple of weeks ago. I love how still the water is! You can follow even the smallest of ripples – created, say, by an insect skimming the surface. The mound you see adjacent to the dead pine tree is an active beaver lodge. A flooded landscape with dead trees, broken stumps and floating logs – very haphazard, but to ecologists such features constitute a habitat structure, an arrangement of the physical space that allows diverse species to thrive. In March and April, red-winged blackbirds perch themselves on the stumps, punctuating the silence with their screeches. Occasionally a pileated woodpecker will knock its beak against a tree trunk, not just once but continuously creating an eerie drumming rhythm that can be heard from far.

When Thoreau was having his simple, back-to-nature Walden experience in the 19th century, many species I can easily spot now were less prevalent or even completely absent. For example, the last wild turkey in Massachusetts was shot in 1851. Now they've made a huge comeback; I see them regularly in groups of 6-10, foraging in meadows. Moose were absent then but are now around. Beavers had been eliminated in the 17th and 18th centuries thanks to the profit-driven excesses of the fur trade. In the 1930s, they were re-introduced, and have transformed the wetlands of Massachusetts, creating swamp-like habitats that benefit a host of other species. Just to give two examples: blue herons and pileated woodpeckers make use of small tree islands in these swamps; with the increase in beaver-engineered landscapes, their numbers have risen in the last century. 

The return of forests, wetlands, and once-missing or threatened animals: how counterintuitive these trends are at a time when habitats and species elsewhere are being lost rapidly!

References: My primary source for this piece has been Natural History of Western Massachusetts, but also David Foster's Thoreau's Country: Journey Through a Transformed Landscape. The map of the state of Massachusetts comes from this USDA report. Here's a related column on beavers I did for 3QD last year.