Wednesday, January 01, 2003



It was a muggy Saturday morning and I was standing in the garden area in front of Bogor’s Menteng Hospital. Butterflies were fluttering happily around the magnolia flowers, two schoolboys were enjoying a pretend-fight on the grass, but I was not in the best of moods. Mukmin and his family were supposed to have turned up before ten o’ clock. It was now eleven o’ clock and there was no sign of them. Six-year-old Mukmin had recovered from his typhoid but he still needed medicine for his TB.

"Where do you think they are?" I asked Mo, my driver.

"Perhaps they’ve gone off to visit relations. This is what happens after Ramadan."

I was not only worried about Mukmin but also about sad little Agosto, the boy who lived in the shack under the dark trees. The previous week, Agosto had been looking like a Boticelli angel, grown thin and grey. I was feeling guilty at having done so little for Agosto after he had been orphaned by the death of Ciah, his mother. He had never looked well since the time he had had typhoid. There was something gloomy about the boy that sometimes made me want to avoid his company.

"Can you go to Agosto’s house," I said to Mo, "and get him to come to the hospital for a check up. I’ll wait here in case Mukmin arrives." Mo drove off in the direction of Bogor Baru.

I sat on a wooden bench, shaded by sweet-smelling trees, and watched a series of hospital patients come and go. Spindly-legged creatures shuffled past in dusty torn sandals; women with fat brown legs stepped smartly by in polished leather shoes; there was a distant wail from a small child.

I took a look at my newspaper and began studying an article about a novel called ‘Pale Fire’ by the author Vladimir Nabokov. According to the article, Nabokov was making the argument that there is a lot of chaos in life. Accidents happen. People do not always achieve the objectives they desire. How true.

There was a slight ‘bleep bleep’ sound which made me look up from my paper. Sitting on the bench opposite was a toddler with a bruise on one leg. This child was being guarded by a teenage girl with an almost-too-short skirt and a preteen boy playing an electronic game. I might have been irritated by the ‘bleep bleep’ from the game but instead I was charmed by the lyrical good looks of this trio. The girl wore cheap plastic sandals but she had a face that would not have been out of place among the film stars in Cannes. I suspected that nature was better than any scientist at producing beautiful people, or beautiful magnolias.

Minutes before the children’s clinic closed, little Mukmin and his father came striding through the hospital’s front entrance. We were just in time to get him his TB medicine.

"Why were you late?" I asked the dad as we stood outside the doctor’s surgery.

"It’s a five hour bus journey," he said, with a friendly smile. Mukmin gave me a charmingly shy grin.

Then I noticed Mukmin’s left eye. It looked squint and dull. "What happened to his eye?" I asked.

"Last week some kid hit him with a stick. They were playing a game."

"What did the doctor say?"

"Nothing they can do. But he can see OK with the other eye."

I had felt good when Mukmin had got rid of his typhoid. It was me who had persuaded the father to keep the child in hospital long enough for a full recovery. But now Mukmin’s permanently injured left eye seemed to be forcefully reminding me yet again that life is not a long quiet river.

"See you in a month’s time," I said to Mukmin, as he and his dad hurried off to get their bus.

Mo returned without Agosto. "Where is he?" I asked.

"He doesn’t want to come to the hospital," said Mo.

We drove to Agosto’s damp shack under the trees.

"Hello Mister Kent," mumbled Agosto, who now resembled some miserable Dickensian waif.

"You look unwell," I said.

"I’ve got a cough."

"We’d better take you to a doctor. Then I can give you some money for food."

As we drove into the centre of Bogor I spotted a sign saying ‘doctor’ and asked the driver to stop. The sign was outside an orphanage which was housed in a home-made-looking house. In a brown-walled surgery, a thin middle aged man, with the look of a junior clerk, asked Agosto some questions and then opened the drawer of his desk. He took out three different pills from a mixed assortment and handed them to the boy.

"What’s wrong with Agosto and why is he only getting one of each type of pill?" I asked.

"This pill," said the man, "is paracetamol for headaches. This pill is for malaria. And the third one is an antibiotic for the cough."

"One antibiotic pill will not cure a cough," I said, in a tone intended to imply angry contempt.

"I only have one of those tablets left," he said, sounding flustered.

"Are you a doctor?"

"No. I work for the Health Ministry." He looked down at the ground.

"I don’t think you know what’s wrong with Agosto. One malaria pill is not going to do much good. It’s ridiculous." I was nearly shouting. I hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink since breakfast time.

"I only have one of each pill. It’s all I have left of these particular ones."

"I’m going to the hospital to meet a real doctor!" I snarled.

At the Menteng Hospital, the children’s clinic was closed, but at three in the afternoon we were able to see a hospital doctor who gave Agosto a quick examination.

"Bronchitis," said the tired looking medic, who was losing some of his dark hair. "I’ll give you a prescription for an antibiotic."

"It’s not malaria?"

"Definitely not."

The following Friday, I had just got home from work when there was a phone call from Agosto’s married sister.

"Agosto’s very ill. He needs to go into hospital immediately," she said.

"Has he got a fever?"

"Yes. Can you come at once?"

"I’ll send my driver immediately and Agosto can go straight into hospital."

When Mo got back from delivering Agosto to Bogor’s Menteng Hospital, he related that the child again had typhoid and that the doctor was worried that the disease had been present for three weeks already.

On the Saturday morning I arrived at Agosto’s bedside. He was in that gloomy part of the hospital reserved for the most gravely ill and was linked to various tubes. His skin was grey, his flesh was pinched, and the lack of recognition in his face suggested he was semiconscious. What made me most pessimistic and distressed was the fact that the pupils of his eyes were rolling about in a wild erratic way.

"How’s Agosto?" I asked the only nurse on duty.

"He’s got encephalitis. It’s a virus that affects the brain," replied the very young man.

"Can I speak to a doctor?"

"A lot of the doctors are on holiday," said the nurse. "Idul Fitri holiday. End of Ramadan."

"Is there a doctor in the hospital?"

"In the Casualty Ward." The nurse walked away.

I took Agosto’s hand and squeezed it. I could feel him squeeze my hand in return. I found that comforting.

Seated next to the bed was Agosto’s brother-in-law, a distressed looking youth, not much older than Agosto. No sign of the sister.

An elderly surgeon came in to look at a female patient and as he was about to depart I approached him with a question.

"How’s Agosto?"

"Not my patient," he said, looking a bit confused.

The nurse came over to speak to me. "Better not to touch the boy," he said softly. "You might catch the encephalitis."

I went to wash my hands.

That evening I got a phone call to say that Agosto had died not long after I had left the ward.

Some time after the death of Agosto I remembered a conversation I had had with Sally, our school nurse. That conversation had been after the death of Agosto’s mother.

Sally had explained that people living besides rice fields can get infected with bacteria that cause Leptospirosis. The Leptospirosis can lead to encephalitis. One symptom of the illness can be a big red spot, a purpura. Agosto had had a purpura on his thigh. I wondered if the doctors in Bogor had got their diagnosis correct?

Life continued and various sick children I had encountered during my walkabouts got better. Two children recovered from typhoid, one recovered from tetanus, and one had her tonsils out. Aisa was nearly rid of her TB.

Min was growing bigger, and his behaviour, like that of a two year-old, could still be difficult on occasions. One-eyed Mustapha, frustrated by Min’s occasional obstinacy, had given up his attempts to be Min’s friend and minder. As a result, Min was being looked after increasingly by his older brother Wardi. I wondered how long Wardi would be willing to be Min’s minder. Wardi was going to get married to a beautiful Sundanese girl.

The garden in front of Jakarta’s little, white, classical-style Anglican church is a peaceful place, even though it is in the centre of Jakarta, opposite a major traffic roundabout and the busy Aryaduta Hotel. One Sunday, at the get-together in the garden after the morning service, I found myself in conversation with a tall, thin, Danish businessman called Ben. There was something both tranquil and jovial about the young man.

"So, where does evil come from?" I asked Ben, as we sipped orange juice. I had been telling him about the death of Agosto and about Mukmin’s accident to his eye; and that morning’s sermon had mentioned evil.

"Have you heard of Axel Munthe?" asked Ben. "The Swedish doctor who wrote about his life in his villa on Capri."

"The Story of San Michele," I said. I had read this beautiful book.

"Well, Munthe puzzled about God appearing to be so kind on the one hand in giving us the beauty of an island like Capri, and appearing to be so cruel on the other hand in letting a small child suffer a long painful choking death. Munthe described the agony of holding the quivering hands of patients who were dying. Now, I think we all share Munthe’s puzzlement at some time."

"Yet you still attend church," I said. "I hardly ever come here. What’s your answer to the puzzle of life?"

"Maybe the kingdom of heaven is within us. Maybe it is us who cause illness. When I was aged about thirteen, I used to have asthma. I used to wonder what it was that was taking my breath away? Then I decided that the problem was anger and conflict with my parents and friends and avoidance of the rough and tumble of teenage life. When I relaxed and came to accept the people around me, I got better."

"But is all illness psychological?" I asked.

"Let’s take the question of why someone keeps on getting ill or having accidents. For example, I might have a number of different symptoms but they may have just one underlying cause, such as insufficient love. This lack of love may give me high blood pressure. This symptom, high blood pressure, can be treated with pills; but if the lack of love is still there, a new symptom can emerge, such as glaucoma. I can get the glaucoma treated, but the lack of love is still there and may lead me to having an accident or some incurable disease. And after death I might be reborn with some handicap. In other words this life is only a tiny part of my education."

"So love is the key?"

"Heaven, paradise or nirvana are supposed to be places of oneness and harmony. To get harmony and balance in my life I have to love absolutely everyone; I have to always handle anger, fear and guilt in a sensible way; I have to have no selfish longing for money or revenge or power."

"Getting ill could be caused by poverty and germs," I pointed out, thinking of Agosto’s impoverished circumstances.

"I agree," he said, with a big smile. "But why does one child get typhoid and another not? I’m in favour of improving nutrition and hygiene, but I believe we also have to consider deeper causes. We can also consider the Buddhist argument that suffering is inevitable in a finite world."

"Finite world?"

"In a finite world like ours, you get opposites, light and dark, male and female, good and evil. Some conflict is inevitable, some illness is inevitable and some suffering is inevitable."

"It can be difficult for some people to believe there’s any meaning in life when they see a child dying."

"I agree," said Ben. "But for life to have come about, you probably need that something that we call God. Think of my cat playing with a word processor and accidentally typing out the works of Hans Christian Andersen. So many things had to be just right in order for life to come about. It suggests some kind of spirit or consciousness behind it all."

"Unless you have an infinite number of universes?"

"There may be parallel universes, and maybe one day my cat will produce Thumbelina and the Ugly Duckling. You know the thing that convinces me most about there being a meaning in life is the near-death experience. Opinion polls have shown that millions of people have had these."

"That’s when someone has been declared dead by the doctor," I said. "But they come back to life and describe having seen a bright light and having encountered something like angels."

"Yes, sometimes. But the important point is this. Some of these people have described floating out of their bodies and being able to see and here things, even in rooms next door to where they were lying dead."

"So you think that consciousness does not need the brain?"

"Exactly! And another thing. Look at the patterns in life. The more you give, the more you get. You reap what you sow. Forgive and you’ll be forgiven. I’ve found these things are true. There seems to be a sort of divine law."

"If there’s a divine law, why do we get mosquitoes?"

"Free will. Maybe each individual life-form chooses what it wants to become. And some life-form chose to become a mosquito."

"That’s possible, but I’ve always been puzzled by why one being chooses to be good and another being chooses to be evil. The sermon talked about Adam making the wrong choice."

"We all seem like competing individuals making individual choices, but ultimately we are all one individual. What I mean is that we all came from God, and we all have the same lessons to learn, in a whole variety of lives. Maybe in a previous life I was like Hitler. So we are all pretty much the same. I am no better than you and you are no better than me."

"You obviously believe in free will."

"We have Sartre’s ‘dreadful freedom’ to choose our way of living, and the dreadful worry that we’re responsible for all our actions."


"Maybe it’s not so dreadful. Coming here to Jakarta gave me fantastic freedom. Away from the conventions of Europe, I could do anything here. I could be a saint or a sinner, a cow boy or a clown. That’s why faith is important."


"Kierkegaard has a story."

"Someone else mentioned him." I was remembering Carmen.

"A prince, that is God, wants to marry a humble girl, that is the human who has no true knowledge of what life is all about, the human who sees life as possibly meaningless. The prince can marry her only if she loves him for his goodness, not because he is rich and powerful. If he shows her his wealth and power, she may marry him for the wrong reasons, so he hides his powers and the benefits of marrying him. The girl has to make a leap of faith. She has to have faith in the absurd teachings of Jesus."

A dark haired woman with Italian-good-looks had been listening in to the latter part of our conversation. Ben introduced her to me as his wife. Her warm smile suggested she was as good-natured as her husband.

"We’ve got to go," said Ben. "Lunch invitation in Tanah Kusir. Hope I’ve not bored you."

"Not at all," I said, "You’ve given me a lot to think about. And what you’ve been saying is a lot more logical than most sermons."



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