Can You Please Stop That Noise?

What if you were subject to the pullulation of noise all your life, would you still be annoyed, not to mention deranged, by it? Let’s push this idea a bit further, what if by noise we mean not just of the audible kind, but a whole raft of sense-assaulting ‘noises’ in a daily existence? The list will start from the stench that evaporates from the sewage, the profusion of kamikaze motorists and we hardly stop at the incredible harangue of mosquitoes.
In a besieged life such as this, it’s arguable whether you’d become a stronger or much reduced person: stronger in the sense that you’d grow more resistant to the meanest germs and the most deafening audible assault. And most probably become the luckiest person that escapes from a calamity on a daily basis. Or conversely, due to endless bombardment to your senses and body, you turn slowly and irrevocably into a hapless decrepit.
Life in Jakarta is an open-air affair in a crowded space. There’s no partitioned zone between public and private space. The prevalent din in the open-air penetrates to the deepest and most protected sanctuary of your privacy. A stroll on Las Ramblas, Barcelona or a dinner in Roppongi, Tokyo (yes, it’s still more tranquil than any part of Jakarta) often reminds you of this fact. On moments like these, you’d be reminded of how much you’ve missed this calm and peace in a daily existence.
What I’m getting at is this: those of us who live in Jakarta are used to the noise. Not necessarily immune to it. A composer friend, Slamet Sjukur, challenged it. He started a movement to ban the clarion calls of Adzan out of an outrage that his privacy has been infringed upon. We know where this movement would wind up: in the bin of the memory of a list of forgotten causes. Most of us accept the noise as a given, much like the Goby fish accept the murky canals where they find themselves wallowing in each day.
This modality of a lifestyle tinged with noise is in turn reflected in the peculiar way we conduct our life in the Big Durian. Whether you find yourself in a restaurant, a wine lounge or a bar, chances are you’ll spot a huge television set blaring brightly in the most visible corner of the premises. The volume is usually turned just above the din, as if a conversation is pursuant upon a good piece of transmission from one of the networks. I suspect that in most households the same television sets are let on while the inhabitants fast sleep lulled by the susurrus of broadcast gibberish.
You would think, however, being exposed so openly to the noise, the denizens of Jakarta would be a glib and loquacious lot. You would be very wrong. The television sets and ear-splitting lounge music are set to the precise volumes so that you’d be saved from an awkward start in a conversation. If we were to risk making a speculation, we’d say that the infectious noise has turned our public life one that is barren of conversations. If this were true, we’d soon be exchanging glasses of drinks as conversational gambits. We’d be passing downloaded musical tracks like postcards to let others know how we feel about them. Would that be a higher, more evolved way of communicating, I wonder, or a regression?
Since these noises get amplified, turn louder and louder, we too speak, not more volubly, but just more forcefully to be heard and behave more aggressively as an indirect consequence of being loud.
The noise in the Big Durian has turned us all into little iPods hooked on a new breed of soundwaves. We clap on the earphones to turn up a different noise so that we don’t have to listen to the kind from the external. We’re not deaf. Helpless to resist the noise, we end up feeding on it in despite of ourselves.
I wonder why there aren’t more spas that promise a half-hour reprieve in complete solitude. Primordial quiet. Pick your preferred eras. In a clamoring and disquieting city, quietude and tranquility are sellable commodities. So are earphones with special regulators to control the kind of sounds you’d permit to enter into your systems.
May I suggest then that we walk more gingerly, speak more softly and act less in haste, in our effort to tone down the level of noise? Then again we’re probably ways too late for that now. Prepare those earphones. Or be deaf. Or mute forever.

A version of this article appeared in Now Jakarta, August 2010

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