Monday, May 31, 2010

Everything Counts in Large Amounts

It's census month in Indonesia folks, time for the decennial counting up of heads. Last time around, at the turn of the millennium, a population of 205.1 million was tallied up. Moreover, despite the fact that the island of Java represents a mere 6.6% of the country's land mass, a full 60% of this impressive figure was found to be hunkering down here, living, studying, working, not working, embezzling each other's money and burning down each other's houses of worship, as well as trying to push this 200 plus million figure to even greater heights via the time-honoured method.

God alone knows what the score will tot up to this time around when the final whistle blows on June 30th but my personal suggestion would be to mould a greater proportion of the latex currently being harvested from Indonesia’s many rubber plantations into a few million vulcanised, bulletproof Peter wrappers. These would be distributed free at every minimart in the country. If not, the population tally could be nudging towards the critical red end of the totalizer when it comes to 2020's rollcall.

This time around, an amazing 700,000 census takers are currently pacing the streets, the better to map out Indonesia's education, poverty, fertility and employment demographics. The results will then be meticulously tabulated, printed out in neat columns and starchy official pamphlets before being presented to the nation's high ranking civil servants and politicians, who will then make paper hats out of them or use them to swat mosquitoes with.

In our house, a poorly photocopied piece of A4 paper from our local census squad lay untouched on our communal dining table for a whole week until last Sunday. The proper census is supposed to consist of 43 detailed and probing questions, however this rather tatty sheet merely demanded that we fill in our names, places and dates of birth, education levels, religions, jobs and marital statuses. This was seemingly still too much for us indolent slackers though.

And so it was that last Sunday morning I looked out of the window at about lunchtime to see who was rattling our gate only to be confronted by two sweet young schoolgirls. "Are you expecting company?" I asked my housemate. After mincing to the gate in my slinky Ade Rai signature sarong, I learned that the two young ladies in question had come to collect our piece of paper.

"Erm... we haven't filled it in yet my little lovelettes," I confessed, "but won't you step into our oubliette or faites commes chez vous whilst we go and look for a pen? By the way you seem a little young to be doing this."
"Yes, we are still at school, the RT sent us round." Mental note to self, send the RT an Idul Fitri card this year.

And so I sat down, pen in hand, and tried to remember my own name. Then came my date of birth (December 3rd 1992: I'm 17 and a half you understand). We were doing just fine with the other questions too until we came to the religion column. Alas all three of us in the house are card-carrying atheists and so I put three dashes against our names and handed the form back to one of the young census takers. "You haven't filled in the religion column Mister."
"Yes, none of us follows a religion."

There then followed an earnest furrowing of brows and the familiar does-not-compute face that I've encountered many times previously here upon professing to not believing in old beard face. Thankfully, the young lady thought better of trying to open up a philosophy 101 Pandora's box in our living room and she and her mate quickly scurried off instead.

One is often required to divulge one's religious affiliations on all manner of official forms in Indonesia I've noticed. Even filling in a warranty card for a new TV set seems to require an affirmation of faith. "You say your TV’s broken down Sir? Well, I see from your details that you're a Catholic so I will send a technician round with some rosary beads to exorcise the set for you. Although please note Sir that this guarantee is invalidated if you don't go to confession at least twice a month and tell an official Toshiba priest exactly what kind of DVDs you've been watching."

As for the census itself, I don't have the greatest confidence in its statistical accuracy to be frank. Last week, for example, the Globe reported that census takers in Riau have concluded that a woman they’d met on their travels is 145 years old. "She has a 98 year old younger sister and daughter aged over 70 years," said Dwi, one of the census takers. You do the maths. This is one serious super granny. I mean we learned this week that American scientist Craig Venter has started producing synthetic genomes that could alter the very destiny of life on Earth. He should really get himself down to Riau though and take a few blood samples of this antediluvian old mare. That's some serious DNA she's got going on there.

So what will the final number be? 220 million? 230 million? Who knows? Where Java is concerned though, the old breeding like rabbits cliché hardly covers it as far as I can see. The population here perhaps more closely resembles a process of exponential cellular division with Indonesia's most populous island as some vast Petri dish overseen by a cosmic Craig Venter-esque divinity, who occasionally tosses a bird flu, swine flu or HIV virus into the great experiment in order to gauge their effects on the exploding masses. Now why can't I put that religion on my TV warranty card?