Monday, January 12, 2004

17. REJECTED BY HIS FAMILY

After a Saturday breakfast of fresher than fresh eggs, porridge oats with papaya and cream, croissants and coffee, Asiaweek, The Far Eastern Economic Review, Inside Indonesia and The Jakarta Post, I was ready for the day’s adventure. I strolled out to the garage to see my driver.

"Mo, did Iwan get his leprosy medicine?"

"Yes. Enough for a month," he said.

"Right, Mo, we’re off to Bogor. And later we’ll see Min, back in Jakarta."

Mo’s immobile face managed to show displeasure.

We sped along the narrow twisty roads, which were crowded with wandering bikes and children, but crawled along the wide, smooth toll road. As I sat comfortably at the back of my van, I began reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, in preparation for one of Monday’s lessons. In 1948, someone called Leslie Fiedler wrote an essay, in the Partisan Review, in which he described Huck and Jim as enjoying a sexual relationship. In old age, Mark Twain organized the Angelfish Club, a group of schoolage girls, called Angelfish, whom he regularly wrote to and invited to stay with him.

When I looked up from my book it occurred to me that the toll road was rather pleasant because of the views of golf-courses and bougainvillea. The only thing that disturbed me was that when I looked in the vehicle’s front mirror I could see that Mo’s eyes would occasionally close for a few seconds, and then open with a blink. My guess was that Mo was putting on some kind of act.

We reached Bogor safely and motored along sunny, tree-lined streets to the mental hospital. In the hospital’s Merdeka ward I found Chong watching an old black and white TV that was situated in the shabby lounge area. He had already grown strong enough to sit up unsupported.

"Hello Chong," I said.

He nodded. He was too shy to look either at me or at the maternal looking female nurse sitting near him.

"Chong’s been drinking the milk," said the nurse. "He’s put on weight already."

"He’s certainly no longer skin and bones," I said. "What does the doctor say?"

"The doctor said Chong’s suffering from depression," explained the nurse, in a quiet and sympathetic tone. "Chong is Chinese Indonesian. He’s a bit retarded and his family have rejected him."

"Oh dear," I said. "So he’ll be able to stay here?"

"Yes. When he’s put on a bit more weight, he’ll be transferred to another ward."

"Chong, how are you getting on?" I asked

Chong stared downwards and responded with a whispered word, which I could not make out.

"Chong, do you like watching TV?" I asked.

There was a pause and then a slight nod.

"Are there any children in this hospital?" I asked the nurse. I wondered if there were any poor children like Min.

"In the Pertama ward," said the nurse. "There are about five patients. To get there, you cross the grass and turn right, then left. Five minutes walk. You’ll see a single storey building with white walls and red tiles."

"May I visit them?"

"Of course."

"Would I be allowed to take them for walks in the grounds?"

"I think so. You can ask someone at the Director’s office."

I delivered some more milk and biscuits to Chong and then called in at the main office where a plump, bespectacled doctor, having asked me a few questions about my place of work, agreed to me giving the children some exercise. In Britain things would not have been so simple.

The red roofed building for the children was relatively basic, but it had some bright painted walls and it was surrounded by beautiful garden. The only person on duty was a little old man with a slender frame and a gentle smile. His name was Nano and he agreed to show me round.

The office, where Nano had been watching TV and eating rice and vegetables off a piece of brown paper, contained a battered filing cabinet and a table covered in dog-eared files. Next to the office, there was a long dormitory, the austerity of which was lessened by the cartoon characters painted on one section of wall. Two teenage girls, looking well-fed, respectably dressed and quite normal, were sitting on wooden beds, reading comics. At one end of the dormitory was a small cell which had barred windows but no furniture. Sitting on the concrete floor of the cell was a big, muscular, shaven-headed teenage boy who looked harmless but less than normal. He smiled at me in an open-mouthed, vacant-sort-of way.

"Who’s this in the cell?" I asked.

"Erwin," said Nano.

"Why’s he in the cell?"

"He’s very backward. Very strong. He might run away."

"And the two girls reading comics?"

"Wira and Sum. Suffering from stress," explained Nano.

"How many children all together?"

"Five."

"The other two?"

Nano led me through the toilets to a backyard, where, against a damp black wall, stood a bare boards bed. On the bed, in uncomfortable crouching positions, were two teenage boys. Their heads were shaven; their skins were covered in sores; they were tied very firmly to the bed by flat looking ropes or cords; they were completely naked.

"John on the left and Daud on the right," explained Nano. "They have very low mental ages."

Daud had quite a pleasant face. John was less than handsome.

"Are they dangerous?" I asked.

"No," said Nano. "But they might try to run away."

"Has Daud always been backward?"

"His mother says Daud was normal until the age of nine when he caught some infection which damaged his brain. He has epilepsy, just like Erwin and John. John was born mentally backward."

"Were these children put in the hospital by their families?" I asked.

"Yes, their families pay for them to be here."

"Do they get medicine?"

"Yes."

I wondered if Min might have ended up in a place like this, if he’d been unlucky. Probably not, because there would have been no one to pay the hospital bills.

"Can I take these kids for a walk?" I asked Nano.

"Erwin is very big and strong. He might try to run away," said Nano gently.

"What about John and Daud?"

"They are idiots," said Nano, smiling.

"But they might want to go for a short walk in the garden," I suggested.

"How far?"

"We could go to the little shop within the grounds," I explained. "Is there anything you need?"

"Cigarettes," said Nano, grinning. "Djarum filter."

"OK. And we can get some biscuits and milk," I added.

Nano untied John and Daud, and then rummaged in a cupboard for some clothes. The two boys stood reasonably still while they were fitted into shirts and shorts several sizes too big. They had to hold the shorts up as they walked.

I took John in one hand and Daud in the other. John seemed well dosed with medicine and a bit wobbly on his feet. Daud was a trifle wilder and tended to pull me forward while making strange faces and noises. To my surprise, Nano didn’t come with us, but the two girls, Wira and Sum, followed me at a distance.

We progressed through the garden, reached the tiny hospital shop, and bought our supplies. The packets of biscuits were a problem as the two boys found them impossible to open. It took me only three or four minutes to break into the plastic wrappings. John and Daud scoffed down the food as if they hadn’t been fed for days. Wira and Sum ate more slowly.

"Do you like it here?" I asked the girls, as we headed back through the gardens, past flowering frangipani and alamanda.

"It’s OK," said Wira, smiling sweetly. Sum looked less happy, as if she might burst into tears.

Safely back at the ward I handed over some clove cigarettes to a relaxed-looking Nano. I suspected that, like the nurses who had been looking after Bangbang when he vanished from the Dipo hospital, Nano would not have been too worried if any of his patients had disappeared. I felt extremely pleased that I had made the journey to and from the shop without major incident. Nobody had tried to escape. Nobody had had a fit. I returned to my vehicle in a good mood.


"To Andi’s house, beyond Internusa," I said to Mo.

While we made our thirty minute journey to the other side of Bogor, I gave my hands a clean with some medicinal alcohol.

Little Andi, playing in the mud outside his falling-down hut, still looked malnourished but at least his mother had taken him to the hospital for a check-up.

"The doctor says he hasn’t got TB," said mum, holding up an x-ray.

"Has the doctor given him any medicine?" I asked.

"Worm medicine, vitamins and milk powder," said mum.

I gave her some more cash and then went to see Asep, in his nearby hovel beneath tall trees.

"Are you still taking the TB medicine?" I asked.

"Yes," said Asep, who looked cheerful but pale and thin.

"How’s the little girl with the burns?"

"She’s right behind you," said Asep.

There she was, grinning happily, wearing a grubby little dress, and holding out a hospital receipt. Her leg looked a fraction better.

"Thanks for getting a receipt," I said to the little creature.


Having returned to the Mitsubishi, I requested Mo to take us back to the centre of Bogor. We bumped along, squeezing past buffalo and hordes of pretty school girls, and then past minibuses and crowded open-air markets. Eventually we reached the canal that was ten minutes walk from the humble home of the fruit bat, Melati, Tikus and Dian. Leaving the vehicle, I strode along narrow lanes and down steep steps. I was anxious to find out if Dian had got some TB medicine.

"Hi mister," said Melati, as I entered her small front room with its dreamy view of the river Cisadane and Mount Salak.

Dian came forward to present me with her x-ray, little packets of pills for TB and various receipts.

"Well done," I said.

I sat down near the door, in order to get as much fresh air as possible. Fortunately, Dian had been taking her pills for at least a fortnight and so she was not so likely to infect others.

"Mister, what’s your name?" asked Melati as she lay back on the sofa, showing lots of slim leg.

"Mr Been," I said.

"Mr Been," repeated Melati, impassively.

Tikus arrived, fresh from school, and sat between Melati and Dian. A shifty-looking young man, whom I guessed might be Dian’s husband, hovered at the door. He was no doubt ensuring that the foreigner caused no mischief.

"Have you been x-rayed, Melati?" I asked.

"Yes, all of us," said Melati. "My grandfather also has TB."

"Is he getting medicine?"

"Yes."

Granny arrived with the fruit bat and squeezed onto the sofa.

"Take a photo, Mr Been," pleaded Melati.

As I began to get my camera ready, Dian decided to get up and leave; the fruit bat tried unsuccessfully to stretch its wings; granny posed nicely; Tikus decided to tickle Melati.

"Keep still," I said.

Melati gave Tikus a pretend punch below the belt.

"Keep still," I complained. Click. "Now I’m off to have lunch," I explained, and made my exit.


Throughout my morning in Bogor I had been thinking about Min. Now I was in a hurry to see him and after a quick lunch of pizza, and a journey of an hour and a half, I had reached Wisma Utara, back in Jakarta. During the journey I had noted, from viewing the front mirror, that Mo’s eyes would occasionally close for a few seconds.

Min was looking well, and sidled up to me to take my hand. We went for one of our walks, heading on this occasion through an area of interesting, twisting little lanes. Outside a two storey kampung house with a smart green door, I got chatting to a girl, called Ijah. She was in her late teens, pretty like a nun from the Sound of Music, and dressed in green and white Islamic gear including headscarf. I told her a bit about Min. She listened politely and seemed interested.

"We have someone like Min in our house," she said quietly. "Would you like to meet him?"

"We’d love to," I said.

We stepped inside and climbed some narrow wooden stairs to an attic. Lying on a bed was someone who looked like a malnourished Extra Terrestrial with withered legs. He was maybe in his thirties or maybe forties. Min put on a worried face.

"This is my brother Tejo," said Ijah.

"Hello Tejo," I said, but got no reply. He avoided eye contact and looked nervous.

"What’s wrong with him?" I inquired of Ijah.

"He got ill when he was a child," said Ijah. "He can’t use his legs."

"Perhaps polio," I said. "Does he stay in this attic all the time?"

"Yes."

"Have you got a wheelchair?"

"No," said Ijah.

"Would you like me to buy one for Tejo?" I asked.

"If you like."

"Tejo, would you like a wheelchair?" I asked.

He nodded.

"Can he speak?"

"Oh yes," said Ijah, "but he’s not used to people."

"It’s nice to meet you Tejo," I said. "This is my friend Min. We’d like to come and visit you again." I rambled on for a bit, but got no reply from Tejo, although he did smile when I shook his hand and said my goodbyes.

Min and I walked back to Wisma Utara, but on reaching the entrance, Min decided he was not going to go back in. He decided instead to do a kind of dance in the middle of the street. I took his arm and tried to haul him in, but he broke free and continued his gyrations. I fetched Dan, the member of Wisma Utara’s staff who had been allotted to caring for Min. Dan gently took Min by the hand and Min obediently went in to supper.


As I was being driven home from Wisma Utara, my driver announced that he would not be unhappy if I dispensed with his services. In other words, he wanted me to find a new driver. My immediate reaction was relief. There would be no more eyes closing while driving along the toll road. When I had first arrived in Indonesia I had thought that I would be capable of treating people like maids and drivers with respect and consideration; but I had sometimes made Mo work seven days a week; and I did not necessarily have Mo’s total sympathy when dealing with certain waifs and strays.

I paid Mo his monthly salary plus the usual ‘extra’ that one is expected to pay when saying goodbye to an employee. Mo departed with a broad smile and I began making phonecalls in order to find a new driver. Fortunately the family of one of my students, a family that was about to leave the country for good, were anxious to find employment for their excellent driver, whose name was Mo. The new Mo was a married man in his thirties, tall, kind-faced and calm. I promised him that he would normally have Sundays off and that I would pay generous overtime for extra duties such as visiting hospitals.

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