Monday, January 19, 2004

13. THE BOY FROM SUMATRA

It was late afternoon when I arrived at Dr. Agung’s clinic which was housed in a small villa in the upmarket district of Menteng. It was the day of the operation to remove the lump from the face of Daus, the boy with elephantiasis. An elderly receptionist pointed me in the direction of the ward where patients recovered from their operations.

The ward had only two patients. A hollow-cheeked little girl, who had had a hair lip operation, was sitting up in bed, reading a comic. Daus was lying half-asleep on his bed. Next to him sat his smiling aunt. As I approached the boy, he began to stir. His right hand moved up to his face and he began trying to remove his bandage. Then he sat up groggily, moaned, and made an attempt to get out of bed.

"Daus, stay in bed," I said, panicking ever so slightly. "Nurse! Daus is waking up."

But there was no nurse in sight. I searched along the corridor and eventually found a thin, little nurse in an office. "Come to the ward. Daus is waking up." The middle-aged nurse got up slowly from her seat and strolled along to the ward where we found Daus’s aunt holding her nephew down.

"The sedation can’t be very strong," I pointed out. "He seems to be trying to rip out his stitches." I used a mixture of Indonesian and sign language to try to make my point.

"Get back to sleep, Daus," said the nurse calmly, as she gently pushed him back under the covers. Daus obediently closed his eyes. It was fortunate Daus had his aunt to guard him. From time to time she would hold down his arms to stop him interfering with his wounds.

"How was the operation?" I asked the aunt.

"The doctor says it was fine."

"Daus has no parents? He’s always lived with you?"

"He has no father, as far as he knows," said the aunt, with a relaxed smile. "He was born in Sumatra. His mother died when he was aged two. He used to run away to the cemetery to sit by her grave."

"Very sad."

"His relatives stole the small piece of land he inherited from his mother."

"Could he do anything about that?"

"Nothing. No one paid him much attention."

"He’s been unlucky."

"The next thing was that he got hit by a vehicle."

"A serious accident?"

"He survived. And then he decided to come to Jakarta to visit us, his uncle and aunt. And he decided to stay. He enjoys working at our cold drinks stall in the market."

The nurse appeared with a bill. The neatly typed document showed that the operation was free, but that the clinic was rather expensive. I needed another weekend trip to Bogor to calm my nerves.


Rain was threatening as I strolled alongside one of Bogor’s canals, thinking I was in Burano, near Venice, in an earlier era. There was an aroma of toilet water with a hint of coriander and frog. White shirts, red dresses and blue jeans hung on a washing line silhouetted against a cloud-blackened sky. There was a chirrup of birds from cages hung beneath roofs.

"Hey mister," called a young voice. "Come in here."

It was Dede, fan of Manchester United, and I accepted his invitation to sit in his simple front room, where his granny was doing some sewing and the television was showing a Japanese cartoon.

"Look," said Dede. "My leg’s better."

"It should be by now, after all these months."

Dede and I practised some English for ten minutes. Then I noticed a curtain moving.

"Hello Mr. Kent," said a figure emerging from the bedroom. It was the lovely Rama, dressed in a little lilac mini skirt, and she had remembered my name. "Take my photo."

"OK."

"You sit next to me on the sofa," she said, "and Dede’ll take the photo."

She sat beside me and placed her hand on my knee. Click.

"Take one of me and Rama," urged Dede.

As they sat back, ready to be photographed, four schoolboy friends of Dede pushed through the door and plonked themselves down on the floor in front of Rama. Then two older youths, one carrying a baby, sidled in and took up the remaining space on the sofa. Finally Rama’s mother, her uncle and aunt, two neighbours, and seven small toddlers came into view. The baby was crying, one schoolboy was scratching his groin and one was sticking out his tongue. Click.

Sweat was running down my forehead and over my glasses, leaving salty stains. I knew that I was there to be stared at and that the latest intruders were not going to go away. It was like being in an overcrowded broom cupboard with the door closed and several electric fires turned on.

"I’m sorry but I’ve got to go. Got an appointment," I lied.

It was raining as I left and I was followed by two of the youths.

"Where’re you going, mister?" asked the one with the earring in his nose.

"Back to my van," I explained.

"Do you like morphine?" asked the one with no earring, but lots of spots.

"Certainly not," I said, and began to speed along a series of little alleys and tracks until I had left them far behind.

The rain was of Bombay-monsoon proportions as I splashed my way up some steps to a house that I recognised. It was Melati’s house and I decided to seek refuge there.

"Hi mister." said Melati. "You help me with my English?"

"If you’d like." I wiped the rain off my glasses and sat by the window.

"You’re wet, said Melati."

"Some people say that," I admitted.

"So am I," said Tikus, Melati’s younger brother, who was dressed in sodden football shorts.

"You been playing football in the rain?" I inquired.

"No, swimming," said Tikus.

"You like music?" asked Melati, switching on a tape.

"Very good. I like dangdut. We don’t have it in England." But the music wasn’t dangdut.

"You like Michael Jackson?" asked Tikus, and he began a much exaggerated version of that singer’s dancing.

"Here’s my English text book," said Melati, handing me a thin publication, and turning down the music.

I opened it and began to read. "Ade meet his friend. They are going play badminton" I put the book down and closed it.

"You teach me words. What is this?" she said in Indonesian, as she pointed at the floor.

"Floor."

"What is this?"

"Picture. It’s Iwan Fals."

"What is this?" asked Tikus, not wanting to be left out.

"Your sister’s T-shirt." They looked puzzled by the string of words.

"Mister, we need money," said Melati, changing the subject, and pleading with her big dark eyes.

"What for?"

"For school."

"I only give money to people who are ill."

"I have a headache," said Melati brightly, as she held her hand to her brow.

"Then you should rest. I must be going."

"I’m very thin, mister," added Tikus, as he held in his tummy, and then turned to show the meagreness of his rump.

"Nonsense," I said.

A girl, who was genuinely wraithlike, stood grinning at the door. This was Melati’s sister, Dian, aged about eighteen, and cute like her sister.

"Dian’s got a bad cough," announced Melati.

"How long’s she had it?" I asked.

"Three years," said Melati.

"Has she had an x-ray?"

"Yes. She’s got TB," said Melati, emphasising the words to ensure I got the message.

My mood changed from flippancy-mode to serious-mode. "Is she getting any medicine?" I demanded.

"No. We can’t afford it," explained Melati.

"Why didn’t you tell me last time I was here!" I complained. "You are strange. Look, she must go immediately to the hospital for medicine. It can take a year to get better. She must take a cocktail of pills every day. You’ll all need a check-up." I think I used the word bodoh, meaning ‘stupid’. It’s difficult to be subtle when you don’t have mastery of the language.

I handed over some money.

"Thank you mister," said Dian, smiling prettily.

"I must have receipts," I said. "And I’ve given you enough money for you all to have an x-ray. Is that OK? "

"Thank you," said Melati.

"Look the rain’s stopped," I said. "I have to get back to Jakarta." I stood up, avoided shaking hands, and escaped into the cooler air of the alley. I would need to remember, next time I visited Melati, to keep a distance from anyone who coughed, and to avoid touching the hand of anyone who looked unusually thin and pale.


Late that afternoon, I took Min to Medan Merdeka, the vast parkland which lies at the heart of the administrative district of Jakarta. The main feature of the park is former President Sukarno’s big erection, the white, marble obelisk known as Monas. Sukarno, a man who reportedly had nine wives, although never more than four at any one time, had his 132 metre erection topped with a gold-plated flame, paid for apparently by the World Bank. Monas is an elegant monument and it commemorates Indonesian independence; the phallus shape symbolises fertility.

By day, Medan Merdeka can be a sunny green space filled with joggers, vendors selling balloons, children playing in ponds and office workers enjoying steaming, noodle snacks. By night the park is said to be home to runaway children, drug dealers, prostitutes and plainclothes policemen.

For Min and I, the first stop was a stall selling fruit, everything from custard apples to mangoes. Min grabbed a piece of melon without waiting to be asked. I could see how he had survived as a street child. The stall holder was laid back about ithe incident; I paid for the fruit and apologised on behalf of Min.

Min was having one of his better days. There was a little less of the sad, lost look about the skinny little creature and he was a bit more steady on his feet, in spite of the drugs Dr. Joseph was pouring into his fragile body.

As Min and I wandered along various paths, I tried to imagine this park as it had been in former times: a field for grazing cattle, a training ground for the soldiers of the Dutch East Indies, and, in the 1960s, the site of mass rallies where Sukarno made rousing speeches attacking the western imperialists.

It began to grow dark and we headed across an area of grass in the direction of the road where my vehicle was parked. Suddenly a straight backed man in a khaki T-shirt loomed up in front of us. He looked like trouble.

"Who’s this child?" he demanded to know. His rude tone didn’t put me in the mood for giving a friendly explanation.

"This is Min," I replied simply.

"What are you doing with an Indonesian child?" He stood in front of us, barring our way.

"We’re out for a walk,"

"What right have you to be with him?"

"He’s mentally backward. I found him in the street and now he lives in an institution."

Judging by the sneer on the man’s face he thought I was a kidnapper or worse.

But then I remembered Dr. Joseph’s note, took it from my pocket and handed it to the man to read. At the same moment, Min separated himself from my hand and began to do what looked like a drunken Maori war dance, accompanied by various simian, whooping sounds.

"Look, would you like to take this kid home with you? You can have him," I said, confident the man would not take me up on the offer.

The gentleman stared at Min, had an attack of the willies, turned, and slunk off. Min and I returned peacefully to the clinic.

As I was being driven back home to my house I was thinking how lucky I was to be in a place so full of exciting little adventures. And what about Min? I saw him as being a mixture of two-year-old and teenager. The speech part of his brain and the ice-cream-in your-face part of his brain suggested an age of two years. But the war dances, the moody expressions, and the reasonably advanced survival skills made me hope that part of his brain was teenage. Whatever his age, Min certainly had character.

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