Friday, January 23, 2004


Sometime during the second half of 1991, something happened which I felt I might have previously glimpsed in my dreams.

My driver, Mo, had not turned up and I was in an ulcerous mood. It was a Sunday but I had no transport. I decided to go for a walk and headed along the dusty main road in the direction of the wonderfully scruffy market at Kebayoran Lama.

The market had its usual Congolese appearance, or perhaps it was Calcutta on a bad day. Rising from a choked and crumbling drainage ditch came the smell of bloated dead rats and human excrement; a three wheeled taxi with an explosive exhaust set down a woman in an Islamic headscarf outside a jerry-built shopping bloc; an orange bus covered in schoolboy graffiti swerved around a pothole as big as a car tyre; piles of fresh cassava, chilli and taro stood next to a mountain of steaming rotting vegetable matter; a bandaged leper was having money extracted from him by a uniformed official; a policeman was ignoring the unsmiling pickpockets and the tattooed street thugs with their army-style haircuts; big-eyed, thin-limbed street kids were selling plastic bags next the stalls selling shoddy shirts, pirate cassettes and toy guns; dangdut music blared from the stolen radios guarded by vendors seated on the railway tracks. In its own way the market was gorgeous and bewitching.

Down a narrow Dickensian lane there was a games arcade, unlit inside, and next to that a flea-pit cinema showing an Indian film.

Seated on the cracked pavement in front of the cinema, in a state of utter dejection, was a young boy. He was barefoot, dressed in a dirty ragged shirt, and long trousers several sizes too big. He was moving his head from side to side like a depressed young panda in a zoo. At his feet were a few scraps of cooked rice on a piece of brown paper. Was he about twelve years old? Difficult to tell as he was so undernourished. I decided to find out what was wrong with the boy.

"What’s your name?" I asked, as I squatted down in front of him.

There was no reply; he avoided eye contact. I asked a few more questions but got no answers. I stood up, moved back several paces and watched. Passers-by ignored him, or, in the case of three well dressed young men, mocked him with jeers and insults.

At one point he stood up, a little shakily, and walked to a stall selling drinks. He held his head high, and, in a surprisingly insistent manner, held out his hand to demand a drink. The young stall holder, no trace of emotion on his face, handed the boy a glass of coloured liquid. The kid drank thirstily before returning to his little patch of pavement.

What was I to do? The lad seemed like a hopeless case; he was not the sort of normal, cheerful, talkative waif or stray I had envisaged myself helping when I had first arrived in Jakarta. In any case, I had no money on me and without money there was no possibility of transporting him to some hospital or other institution, if indeed that was appropriate. He couldn’t stay with me at my house; I was not allowed by the terms of my lease to have any guests stay at my home, other than family and friends from Britain. And yet I couldn’t abandon this child.

I walked home at speed, a journey of twenty minutes along potholed pavements, and collected a few thousand rupiahs. As I hurried back to the market I hoped I would find the boy still in the same place. And if he was still there, what then? The sadness on his face had been haunting. He hadn’t looked manic or psychotic like Bangbang. In fact he had the delicate face of Botticelli boy or a Michelangelo Madonna. Had his family thrown him out? Why wouldn’t he speak? I grew more and more anxious to get back to the little cinema before any possible decision on his part to wander off and disappear for ever. I didn’t want another failure.

Sweating, and with nerves writhing, I reached the crowded bazaar, the games arcade and then the cinema. There he was seated on the pavement. Thank heavens. I took his hand and he accepted it. I was making progress. I walked with him towards the stall holder who had given him the free drink.

"Does this kid live here?" I asked.

"No," said the stall holder. "I don’t know where he’s from. He wandered into this area recently."

I took the boy round the corner to some kampung houses, stopped an old woman and said, "Do you know this child? Does he have a family?"

"He’s not from around here," she said.

I tried another stall holder next the cinema. "What should I do with this kid? Where can I take him?"

"He’s mental," said the elderly man, in a sympathetic tone. "You could try the Jiwa Hospital for the insane or the Dipo Hospital. They’re both in the city centre."

"Are you sure he doesn’t have a family? He doesn’t live near here?" I asked.

"He’s not from here," insisted the man.

I flagged down a bajaj, an orange three wheeled taxi, and found that the lad was happy to get in. No problem. No protests. No struggling child. No lynch mob to accuse me of kidnapping. The kid still held my hand.

"Take us to the Dipo Hospital," I said, as we set off.

"That’s an hour’s journey," said the bajaj driver. "This machine only does short runs." So after ten minutes we transferred to a red four wheeled taxi, with broken air conditioning, which took us by a circuitous route to our destination, the big hospital from which Bangbang had escaped. I asked the driver, a tall man with a gold chain round his neck, to wait while I went to the hospital’s front office.

"I found this kid in the street," I said to the two strongly built men at the desk. They looked like off-duty commandos. I briefly explained the story.

"What’s wrong with him?" asked the slightly fatter one, hardly able to contain his mirth as he studied the ragged, trembling waif.

"I don’t know, but I’d like to have him admitted to the hospital," I said.

"Has he got a fever?" said the slightly thinner one, derisively.

"No. I don’t know what’s wrong with him," I explained. I was incensed by their lack of sympathy for the boy.

"Well he can’t come into the hospital if there’s nothing wrong with him," said the fatter one.

"He’s very thin, he won’t speak and seems to have no family," I said.

"Maybe he’s mad," said the thinner one, and they both guffawed.

This was the hospital which had raised my blood pressure when it had managed to lose Bangbang. Now I realised it would be stupid to trust the same hospital again. I took the desperately worried looking child by the hand and returned to the taxi.

We drove to the Jiwa Hospital, a mental hospital, in the nearby Jakarta district of Johar Baru. The hospital was in an old colonial building, looking like a fort, surrounded by neglected grass, a few trees and some moderately poor housing. I dreaded to think what conditions might be like inside.

"Can I speak to a doctor?" I asked the guard, a young fellow in a uniform.

"They’ve gone home," he said.

"A nurse?"

He fetched a nurse, a middle aged lady with a sad and sympathetic face, and I told my story.

"We can’t help," she said in a quiet voice.

I was tired, hot and now angry. "Why not? This is a mental hospital and this is a kid who seems depressed and unable to speak."

"We only take adults," she said, "and then it’s only after they’ve seen the doctor. I’m sorry."

"But I was told this was a suitable place," I said. "This child has nowhere to go. I can’t return him to the street." I was raising my voice and the guard and the taxi driver seemed to be smirking. The kid was staring at me like a refugee begging not to be shot. Then he squatted in the grass to do the toilet.

"You could try Doctor Bahari’s private clinic in Menteng, not far from here," said the nurse. "It’s expensive but I’m sure they’ll take him."

"Great! We’ll try that. Thanks for your help." Suddenly I felt more optimistic. A private clinic would surely be a hundred times safer and more comfortable than a government run mental hospital. We got back into the taxi where it looked as if the driver had been fiddling with the meter as the fare had jumped enormously.

"Menteng," I said, and off we went by what seemed like an especially long route. The sky was darkening as we reached our destination, a dusty, treeless side street that had seen better times.

Doctor Bahari’s small clinic, housed in what had once been a sizeable middle class villa, was different from the Jiwa Hospital. It had a doctor, a small, grey haired, plainly dressed, thoughtful-looking lady, who invited us into her office. She asked the boy some questions in a respectful way. He remained silent. He looked puzzled and drained.

"We’ll call him Ujang," said the doctor.

I related what I knew about Ujang, which wasn’t much. Then I asked, "Can you take him into the clinic?"

"Yes. Certainly."

"Thank goodness!" I breathed deeply and smiled at Ujang, whose eyes possibly picked up the signals coming from my face. At least he was now looking me in the eye.

"You’ll need to buy him some sandals and new clothes," said the doctor looking at Ujang’s bare feet and over-long trousers.

"What’s wrong with Ujang?" I asked the doctor.

"It’s too early to say but it’s possible he’s mentally backward," she explained.

"Do you think Ujang has a family?"

"He probably does, as he seems socialised and able to show affection."

"Do you think we’ll be able to find his family?"

"It’s unlikely. Jakarta is a very big place. Even if we did find them, they might not want him back!"

The next stage was to pay for ten days stay at the clinic and for the purchase of some clothes. The clinic was certainly expensive. Not that I minded, as a place where you had to pay a lot of money was more likely to look after Ujang properly.

We entered the quarters for the less seriously ill patients, the majority of whom seemed to be middle class Chinese Indonesians suffering from stress or breakdowns. The appearance of this part of the clinic was that of a dimly lit, run-down boarding house There were pot plants, comfortable old chairs, and even individual bedrooms. There was a rat in the gutter, but it looked healthy and happy.

Then we entered the section protected by metal bars and a locked door. This was a large sparsely furnished courtyard with smaller cell-like bedrooms off. This prison-like area was where Ujang was to stay along with half a dozen or more patients who all looked heavily drugged and deranged. The only child, apart from Ujang, was an angry looking, lunatic girl, who followed me around, occasionaly grabbing at my arm. The fiercest patient was a man in his forties with staring eyes who staggered up to me and demanded a cigarette. A male nurse simply pushed him away. The nurses seemed to be the same types as at the Dipo Hospital, grinning like tigers.

I put my arm around Ujang’s shoulder and tried to explain things to him, but I think that to him my words were without meaning. Could I leave him in this place with its mentally disturbed adults? There seemed to be no alternative. He had to be in a secure place where he would receive food and shelter. Fingers crossed that nobody would hurt him.

I took Ujang for several walks around the courtyard and then stayed chatting to the nurses as long as possible, but eventually I had to move towards the exit. Ujang wanted to come with me. He looked like a pup about to be abandoned. He clung on to me very hard until the nurses prised him off.

"I’ll be back tomorrow evening," I promised.


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