Sunday, December 22, 2002



It was late afternoon and my door bell was ringing. Thin, gangling Fajar had arrived with the two little street musicians Ali and Dikin. As they sat themselves down on the tiled floor of my spacious lounge, the door bell rang again. The maid announced the arrival of an old man, an itinerant musician with a harp-like instrument. Seeing that the old man had the appearance of a happy little elf, I welcomed him in. Another ring of the bell and this time it was young friends of Fajar. There was permanently smiling twelve-year-old Andri, who was curious to see the inside of my house, handsome eleven-year-old Hermanto, who sometimes accompanied Ali and Dikin on the banjo, and Hermanto’s comely teenage neighbours Sinta and Farah, who claimed to be learning English at school but who couldn’t say more than ‘Hello’. Acting as chaperones were my maid and her husband.

"Fajar," I said, "how long have you been taking the TB medicine?"

"Four weeks." He still looked tired.

"So, you’re not going to infect anyone," I said. "Is your father now taking his TB medicine?"

"Yes," said Fajar quietly.

"How’s your brother in Sumatra?"

"He was vomiting blood. He’s gone to hospital."

"Maybe he should come to a hospital in Jakarta."

"He’s got lots of relations in Sumatra."

"Your family is from Sumatra?"

"Yes, from Lampung."

I turned to smiling Andri. "Where are you from Andri?"

"Jakarta," said Andri. "I’m a local, a Betawi." I noticed his threadbare clothes.

"Andri’s Chinese," said Hermanto, smirking.

"Half," said Andri, blushing. "My mum’s not Chinese."

"Are you Moslem?" I asked Andri.

"Yes," said Andri, looking pleased.

The maid brought in plates of rice and vegetables every morsel of which was pressed into hungry mouths. The music began with a high wailing song from the old man. This was followed by street songs, from Ali and Dikin, which everyone joined in. Next came dangdut music, prompting Andri and Hermanto to get up and dance. You can never be lonely in Java.

It was a Saturday morning. My vehicle inched its way into the little market town of Parung, which is on the back road to Bogor, and which is the meeting place of two narrow and particularly busy roads. The traffic stopped and became completely jammed. A very fat little policeman and a skeletally thin policeman looked as if they had given up trying to get the traffic moving and were resignedly breathing in the thick brown fumes of buses and lorries. After a wait of ten minutes, my stomach began to tense up. I ordered Mo to park at the side of the road, jumped out of my vehicle and set off on a walk.

I left the long dusty street of concrete, garage-like shops and crossed an area of weed-covered parkland where small barefoot boys were playing football under a deep blue sky. At the edge of the parkland stood a home-made wooden shack, outside which sat a barefoot old crone, possibly in her late forties. Beside her sat her depressed-looking little son, aged about four. I felt instantly sorry for the four-year-old as he and his mother conjured up images of Victorian poverty and distressed characters in Grimms’ fairy stories.

The woman told me that she was unwell and pulled down part of her grey blouse to reveal a large dark misshapen growth on one of her meagre breasts. She told me her name was Nurul and that her husband lived in Jakarta. Nurul seemed resigned to her condition, but was eventually persuaded to come with me to the nearest doctor’s clinic. We set off on foot.

A serious-looking woman doctor examined Nurul, diagnosed breast cancer, and explained that surgery at a hospital was almost certainly required. Nurul was adamant that she was not going to a hospital and was certainly not going to let anyone get at her with a knife. The doctor failed to change Nurul’s mind and so dispensed some rather expensive pills. I assumed the doctor knew what she was doing.

Having said goodbye to Nurul, and having promised to return within a few weeks to get her more pills, I returned to my vehicle and found that the traffic had eased and that my journey could continue.

Somewhere between Parung and Bogor I asked the driver to stop. I needed some exercise and it is always exciting getting out in the middle of nowhere. I set off down an unknown track.

There was a steep descent, through some trees and an impoverished hamlet, down to some fish ponds. And at the water’s edge there was a wonderful surprise: a house-sized statue of a fat grinning dwarf-creature sat above a stupa. Some giggly young girls and boys had followed me and they were now disporting themselves around the base of the monument.

From the trees came a very old man of diminutive stature. He had the same roundish body and the same friendly smile as the statue.

"President Suharto comes here at particular dates," said the man.

"Suharto?" It was difficult to imagine the elderly president walking down the rough path past the falling down shacks of the hamlet.

"Yes, the President. This structure is linked to others in different parts of Java."

"What’s the link?" I asked.

"It’s to do with energy flow," said the man. "Energy flows along lines between holy sites."

"Ley lines?" I asked, but the man had not heard that term before.

"The energy can help you to understand things better, can help you to be in harmony with God."


"We need all things to be in harmony to avoid disease and disaster."

"How does the energy work?"

"Every object contains energy or power. The trees and mountains and animals. It is important to have things in balance."

"So, is this place here very special? Is it a special place in the universe?"

"Everywhere is special. The universe is in every person and in every place." The man smiled his gnome-like laughing smile.

The funny thing was that I sort-of believed him. Thanks to Samsu, I had read about physicist David Bohm’s belief that all the information about the entire universe is contained within each of its many parts. It’s like a hologram. The whole is in every part. The world is an indivisible whole. There is only one of us. I had read about physicist Alain Aspect’s discovery that small particles, many miles apart, could appear to communicate with each other, as if they were part of the same whole. Well, these physicists do do strange things.

"The universe is in everything?" I said. "Have you heard of quantum physics?"

The man gave me a blank stare. "I don’t know about that," he said.

"Is this statue Islamic?" I was remembering that Indonesia has more Moslems than the entire Arab world and that Islam in Indonesia has a strong spiritual side.

"No," said the man, shaking his head.

"So the statue is animist? Or it’s linked to Hinduism?"

"It’s something traditional," said the old man, who didn’t seem to understand the words ‘animist’ or ‘Hinduism’.

There was a call from somewhere up near the hamlet and the old man shook my hand and wandered off into the trees.

I decided to continue my walk and followed a path alongside a narrow river sided by rice fields and the occasional banana tree. Some of the children decided to follow me through this sunny world of magical colours.

It was near the end of July 1996 and, while I was in my bedroom doing my packing for my holiday trip to Britain, I was listening to the world service of the BBC. To my alarm, the news was about rioting in Jakarta. It seems that, early in the morning, the party headquarters of Megawati had been attacked by men claiming to be supporters of her rival Soerjadi. After a two hour clash, the police had moved in and Megawati’s people had been ejected. Scores of people had been taken to hospital with serious wounds and scores of Megawati’s supporters had been arrested. During the afternoon stones had been thrown at the military and rioting had taken place in more than one part of central Jakarta. I switched on the television to watch the evening news and saw scenes of smoke rising from burning vehicles and buildings.

Then the phone rang. It was Fergus wondering if I had seen the TV news.

"Nothing to worry about," said Fergus, in his usual calm voice. "The authorities seem to have got things under control."

"Is it going to be safe if I go into town tomorrow?" I tried not to make my voice go too high.

"This trouble is only in one very small part of Jakarta," said Fergus. "There have been troubles before. Suharto will stamp on it hard. I’ve been out to the shops and it’s all perfectly calm. And now I’m off to play squash."

The day before my holiday trip to Britain I met Carmen for a coffee at cafe in Kemang in South Jakarta. It was one of those American franchises with bright coloured plastic tables and uncomfortable seats.

"What’s in your Telegraph?" asked Carmen.

"It’s an old Telegraph. There’s a story about some women in Britain raiding an airfield where Hawk fighters were based. It seems the Hawk is used in East Timor. The rumour is that the Indonesians often get aid on condition they buy British-made water cannons or jets."

"I remember a Labour government in 1969 selling weapons to Nigeria," said Carmen with her habitual chuckle, "and not seeming to worry too much about the Biafrans."

"There’s not been much in the British papers about the take over of Megawati’s HQ," I commented. "Fergus seems to think the recent riots are nothing to worry about."

"I’m not so sure," said Carmen. "My driver said that thousands of people poured out of the slums and that a number of people were killed. Worst riots since 1974."

"What happened in 1974?"

"Ah," said Carmen, almost convulsed with excitement, "the ’74 riots were started by undercover intelligence agents."

"You’re a conspiracy theorist?"

"The Guy Fawkes plot," said Carmen, "was probably the work of King James’s spy master. He set up the plot so he could clamp down on Catholics and increase his own power."

"So, in 1974, was it President Suharto who was behind the riots?"

"Not necessarily," said Carmen. "King James didn’t know what his spy master was up to. Now, in 1974, one of the chiefs of one of the spy agencies may have been looking for an excuse to clamp down on student dissidents, and may have been looking for a way to increase his own power."

"You’re suggesting that Suharto may not always be in control of his own spy agencies."

"Exactly," said Carmen with a giggle. "President Kennedy obviously didn’t foresee that part of his intelligence apparatus was plotting against him."

"So, these recent riots, are the work of some hidden force?"

"Suharto benefits from the removal of Megawati, because Megawati is very popular. But the riots don’t help Suharto."

"Don’t the riots allow the government to clamp down on students and people like the Democratic People’s Party?"

"Yes," said Carmen, "but the riots make Suharto look weak. They may be part of a long-term plan to topple the president."

"Any other scandal, rumour and gossip to cheer me up?"

"Yes," said Carmen. "My driver said he had heard a rumour that Suharto’s wife did not die from natural causes. She was allegedly accidentally shot during an argument between her sons Tommy and Bambang."

"Any details? Any proof?"

"None. But listen to this. You’ve heard of Eddy Tansil?"

"Eddy Tansil," I said. "Chinese-Indonesian businessman, given a twenty year jail sentence about two years ago. He was said to have bribed people at one of the state banks. The bank gave him a loan to build a factory. The money was misspent. He supposedly stole about five hundred million US dollars."

"And, as you know," said Carmen, "he escaped from Cipinang jail a few months ago. Well, the rumour is that, to pay for his escape, he bribed the late president’s wife and bribed Liem Sioe Liong, also known as Salim. You know Salim?"

"Salim is the rich Chinese business partner of Suharto. He’s into everything from noodles and cement to textiles and electronics."

"Right. One of the six richest people in the world."

"So, does Salim own Indonesia?"

"No," said Carmen, as she finished her coffee. "It’s not just Salim. There are the other ultra-rich Chinese-Indonesians, such as Prajogo, Pangestu and Widjaja."

"You’re forgetting certain non-Chinese Indonesians, certain pribumi."

"I’d forgotten," said Carmen with her usual laugh. "The President’s family. And his friends like Habibie."

"And you’re forgetting the Americans. Freeport and all those other American companies."

"Yes," said Carmen, "but the point is that certain people in the army are not too happy about the wealth of certain Chinese and certain members of the Suharto clan."

Before heading for the airport and my brief holiday in England, I made sure that I called in on Min. Was it going to be safe to drive deep into the city? The streets seemed quieter than usual; but there were no signs of the military or of damaged property. Min’s kampung appeared no different from usual; goats wandered peacefully, schoolchildren smiled happily and workmen hammered away as usual at bits of car and bike in little repair shops. Min was looking well and his mum seemed unconcerned by the political situation.

"We don’t have time to worry about these things," she said. "We just get on with our work."

As I left for the airport I was thinking about physicist Alain Aspect’s discovery that particles, thousands of miles apart, could apparently communicate with each other. Would I be able to communicate telepathically with Min while I was in England? I would never know. Min’s vocabulary was so limited that he would not be able to tell me what had gone through his mind while I was away.



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