Friday, January 10, 2003



I was in Kem Chicks supermarket, shopping for Australian sirloin steak, when someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Tom, the amiable, slightly balding, forty-three-year-old expat who had once had a sixteen-year-old Indonesian girlfriend called Kuntil. Tom was looking less dishevelled than on the previous occasion when I had met him, but he still looked rather pale. We caught up on news while having a coffee in the upstairs restaurant.

"No more problems with young ladies demanding money?" I asked, while putting sugar into my cup of Old Java.

"No more problems," said Tom, in a relaxed tone of voice. "A couple of weeks ago I met a university student called Melati. We met at the Tavern. She was telling me that Indonesians are very relaxed about sex."

"Apart from those affected by Dutch Calvinism," I said. "And Islamic fundamentalism."

"That’s right. Melati’s father’s a lecturer in Sociology. He’s half Dutch. Melati knows all about Indonesia’s culture. You’d be amazed what goes on."

"Such as?"

"You know about the banci? That’s the Indonesian transvestites. There’s evidently lots of them all over Jakarta."

"I don’t think I’ve ever seen one."

"Melati was telling me that, in many parts of Indonesia, girls used to get married when they reached the age of puberty. There are these islands off Sumatra called the Mentawai Islands. Mentawai girls used to go in for free love from about the age of thirteen."

"Sounds like Manchester," I said, assuming that Tom, as a Manchunian, would not take offence.

"Manchester will never be as relaxed as this country," said Tom, with a slight grin. "Have you heard of the warok?"

"Something that goes on in the kitchen?"

"The warok come from East Java, from Ponorogo. They started as the followers of a poet in a fifteenth century kingdom. They’re supposed to have magical powers, but only if they avoid sex with women. So they have sex with young boys. Melati was also telling me about the royal courts in Bali and in Aceh in Sumatra. Men there also had sex with boys. Have you heard of sedattis?"

"No, and I hope they’re not too extreme," I said, almost in a whisper. "There’s a couple sitting at a table behind you. Kind of big and porky. Might be Americans or Germans. Maybe unhappy Calvinists. Hope they’re not parents of one of my students."

"Sedattis," said Tom in quiet voice, "were catamites, young dancing boys. You got them in both north and south Sumatra. Their job was to entertain men. There was something similar in other parts of Indonesia. On Bali, little boys, called gandrungs, would dress up as girls, and dance for the men."

"What about the women?" I asked, in my quietest voice.

"Women on Bali went in for the same sorts of things as the men. In the royal court in Yogyakarta, in Java, there was a women-only area. They had same-sex goings-on there."

"Where does Melati get all this information?"

"One of the people she mentioned was a German, back at the beginning of the century. Someone called Ferdinand Karsch-Haack."

"You’ve heard of Margaret Mead?" I asked.

"The anthropologist who went to Samoa."

"That’s the one. Margaret Mead said the Samoans were much less stressed than the Americans, because they were more easygoing about sex. That was in the 1920’s. More recently, some critics have said that Mead got her information from young people who exaggerated what they were getting up to. Maybe Melati’s sources give an exaggerated picture?"

"Mead is still basically correct," insisted Tom. "Samoa was more relaxed in the 1920’s. Now it’s become Americanised and is full of born-again fundamentalists. They’ve got sweatshops, growing crime and incredibly high suicide rates."

"Melati’s going to make you a world-expert on these things."

"I only met her twice. She’s not been back to the Hyatt for at least a fortnight."

"Is she liberal in outlook?"

"I think she’s in two minds."

It was January 1994 and Min’s house in South Jakarta, the one next to his former school at Wisma Utara, was still empty. It was time to find out if Iwan, the boy with leprosy, was ready to move out of the leprosy hospital and into Min’s former home.

On a sunny Saturday morning I motored to the hospital in Bekasi to see Iwan and his granny. I have to admit that I might have misjudged the place. Now, as I arrived, I was noticing the hospital’s flowering bushes, the neat patches of vegetables, and the training workshops. Iwan was seated beside his granny on a bench outside his ward.

"Iwan! How are you?" I asked. I could see he was now chunky, almost fat.

"Good, Mr Kent. We want to go home." Iwan wore a wistful, pleading expression.

"Let’s go and see the doctor," I said, hoping I would not meet the middle-aged doctor with whom I had once quarrelled. "He may want you to stay."

Dr Agus was a friendly young man with intelligent eyes. There were a few damp patches on the ceiling in his surgery; the metal chairs were uncomfortable; but the doctor’s white coat was spotless.

"Iwan would be better staying here, for physiotherapy," said the doctor, smiling warmly, "but he can treat himself at home as long as he calls in here once a month for any surgical work required on ulcers. He still has to get his medicine. There’s some resistance to the drugs but they’re still effective for most people and they are working for Iwan. You know it can take years to cure leprosy."

"Is he a risk to anyone?"

"Not as long as he’s getting his medicine. It’s like TB."

"What causes the leprosy?" I asked.

"Bacillus mycobacterium leprae is the bug. This kind is related to the TB bacteria but it grows much more slowly. We think you get leprosy by long term, close contact with an infected person. It’s not easy to catch and most people seem to have immunity."

"So Iwan probably caught it from someone in his village in Karawang? Wouldn’t he have kept a distance from someone with their flesh eaten away?"

"At first, people show no signs of the illness," said the doctor, "but they may still be infectious. And in some homes you may get a dozen people sleeping in one small room. You know we’re still getting a lot of new cases."

"So what does leprosy do to you?"

"Skin sores and ulcers develop. There’s numbness. Flesh and nerves get destroyed. The ends of toes and fingers may disappear."

"So Iwan will always be limping around?"

"I’m afraid so. Ideally we’d go into patient’s homes and villages and wipe this disease out."

"Why’s that not happening?"

"In Indonesia we don’t spend enough on health. Much less than Malaysia. And some of the money is misused. Another problem is training. There’s no minimum standard for doctors and nurses."

"How is money misused?"

"Let’s just say that some administrators lead very comfortable lives. When you pay a bill, always get a receipt. Otherwise the money could go into someone’s pocket."

"Does that happen here?"

"Not here." The doctor was looking at his broken filing cabinet.

"You mentioned nurses?" I said.

"It’s a problem in this country. My mother was in Hospital. The doctors were good but some of the nurses would never have passed nursing exams in Singapore or elsewhere. One nurse was trying to attach a drip and managed to get blood all over the floor. No rubber gloves."

Iwan was looking unhappy.

"So," I said, turning to Iwan, "The doctor would prefer you to stay here."

"Mr Kent, I want to go home," he said, looking tearful.

"Will you remember to take the pills?" I asked.

"Yes, Mr Kent."

"OK. Do you want to live in Min’s former house in Cipete?"

"OK, Mr Kent." Iwan smiled shyly and his granny gave a big toothless grin.

It was a drizzly Sunday morning and Min was having one of his depressed days. Seated in his front room, he was avoiding eye contact, keeping a physical distance from people, and looking as if he had a bad migraine headache. Of course, with his limited vocabulary, he couldn’t explain how he felt.

"Do you know of anyone who could become Min’s friend?" I asked Wati. "Maybe some local child. I’d pay him a monthly wage."

Wati looked up from the pile of clothes she was sorting. "Yes, I know of someone. Mustapha."

"Mustapha," whispered Min, cheering up a bit.

"Who’s Mustapha?" I asked.

"His parents are dead. He lives with an uncle, five minutes from here."


"Very poor."


"Yes. Do you want to meet him?" asked Wati.

"Yes please."

We found Mustapha ironing clothes in a low-roofed shack down a narrow flooded lane. We had to bend our heads to enter the front room. Mustapha was about fifteen, although he could have passed for an eleven year old, and he was blind in one eye. He had the obedient look of a faithful old family servant.

"Hello Min," said Mustapha.

Min whispered something.

Wati explained why I had come and Mustapha nodded his head in agreement.

"How much will you pay him?" asked a big moustachioed man wearing a neatly pressed black shirt.

"Eighty thousand a month. Is that OK Mustapha?"

"OK," he said, with a wary smile.

It was the wet season. When I returned to Min’s house a few evenings later, the ground floor had been flooded by rainwater to a depth of half a metre. My shoes were full of slimy water, some of which I deposited on the upstairs floor. Min was in a happy, excitable mood. Min’s dad took Min by the arm, possibly to calm him down, but Min shook himself free and made a face suggesting a mixture of anger and fear. Min’s dad was looking scraggy and tired.

"How’s Min?" I asked.

"Naughty," said Wati, screwing up her face. "Very naughty. Mustapha complains that Min hits him. Sometimes Min won’t come back into the house after he’s been for a walk with Mustapha."

I turned to Min’s dad. "Are you feeling all right?" I asked.

"I’m fine," he said. His words sounded slurred; and that worried me.

"Been enjoying a beer at the end of the day?" I asked, like some court prosecutor, pretending to sound friendly but in fact being very rude.

"We’re Moslems, Mr Kent," said Wardi softly. "We don’t drink."

"Sorry," I said, realising I had been much too blunt. "Would you like Min to see Dr Joseph? He’s the child psychiatrist in Dr Bahari’s clinic, the one who treated Min when I first found him. Maybe he can give Min something to control his moods."

"Yes," said Wati, sounding pleased.

"And Min’s dad looks a bit thin," I said. "Would you like a check-up from Dr Joseph? He’s got his own surgery at his house. And Wardi can come too."

"OK," said Min’s dad.

Dr Joseph’s grey little maid ushered us all into the large front room of his comfortable old bungalow. On one side of the room was an enormous, brightly lit statue of the Virgin Mary and on the other side some sort of red and gold Chinese shrine beside which some scraps of food had been placed.

"How are you?" said the smiling, balding, round-faced doctor, emerging from his bedroom. "Come on into the surgery."

"Min has his up days and down days," I explained, once we were seated in the little green walled room. "We wondered if you had any medicine he could take to even things out."

"It’s day about," said Wardi. "One day happy. One day sad."

"I remember," said Dr Joseph, looking terribly relaxed. "He used to be on medication."

"When we spent a week with the grandparents in Lamaya ," said Wati, "Min cried every day. He kept on saying ‘Mr Kent, Mr Kent.’"

"Maybe I shouldn’t have been visiting him so often," I said, feeling uncomfortable. "Maybe he’s got too dependent on me."

"But we don’t want Min to become a recluse," said Dr Joseph, comfortingly. "It’s good for him to have friends."

"He’s now got a teenage friend called Mustapha," I explained, "but sometimes Mustapha finds Min difficult to control. Min’s brother, Wardi, is the only person who can get Min to come back into the house when he’s been dancing about out in the street."

"All children can be naughty at times," said Dr Joseph. "He’ll be easier to deal with when he’s older. I’ll give you some pills to help control his behaviour."

"When he was living in Dr Bahari’s clinic," I reminded the doctor, "Min’s medicine made him shake and made him seem totally doped. Can you give him a less strong dosage?"

"Don’t worry," said the doctor, who seemed to be slurring his words, just like Min’s dad. Was I imagining things? Probably.

"Can you examine Min’s father? He seems a bit pale and thin," I said.

Dr Joseph gave Min’s dad a fairly quick check-over before declaring him to be fit and well.

"I just wondered if the dad had been consuming something," I said to Dr Joseph in English, so the family wouldn’t cotton on. "I thought he was behaving strangely."

"No, there’s no problem," said Dr Joseph, smiling. The pupils of the doctor’s eyes looked strangely small.

When we got back to Min’s house I sighted a banci wading down the dark flooded street. He was a big muscular chap and had on too much make-up and a much too short skirt. I wondered if there was a full moon.



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