Friday, January 09, 2004

19. FAMILY

It is difficult when you want to be with two sets of people at the same time, but know that the sets are separated by oceans and continents. I wanted to be with my parents, but, during my ten days in chilly, grey Britain I worried all the time about Min, back in Jakarta. Was Min fully recovered from his sickness? Was he eating? Was he getting any exercise? If only he could have understood the idea of me being away for a ten day holiday, exploring the Lake District, with my mum and dad. How do you explain such things to someone with the vocabulary of a two-year-old? He would be thinking he had been abandoned.

During the five months I had known Min, he seemed to have made such a lot of progress. He had grown taller and stronger; he had started to speak again, even if it was only simple words or phrases like ‘hungry’ or ‘how are you?’; he could eat with a knife and fork; he could kick a ball.

On the flight back to Jakarta there was big dipper turbulence and a flashing thunderstorm over Kuala Lumpur. Big dippers can be scary. The lady sitting next to me vomited into her sick-bag, and I held on tight to the arm rests, trying to hold the plane up. On my headphones I listened to Clair de Lune, thought of Min, and prayed.

We touched down safely in Jakarta. It was wonderfully warm outside the terminal and my driver was waiting for me; I asked him to take me straight to Wisma Utara, an hour and a half journey through the dark. As always the traffic was heavy and I was tired and nervous.

We parked in our usual spot and I hurried down the poorly lit lane to the children’s home.

Min was alive. He must have been eating! He was sitting up straight on a bench looking worried and upset. He avoided eye contact. I sat beside him and took his hand. He withdrew it. I supposed he was angry and sulking because, in not visiting him, I had caused him days of heartbreak. But at least he was alive.

And there was eight-year-old Tedi, back from the hospital, and looking healthy. He had survived his bout of typhoid.

"Mr Kent, nice to have you back," said a very happy looking Joan, coming to sit beside me.

"How’s Min been?" I asked.

"He missed you Mr Kent," said Joan. "He kept on saying ‘long time’, ‘long time’."

I put my arm around Min’s shoulder and he sort of smiled.

"Mr Kent," said Joan "I have great news. You remember the photo in the newspaper? Min’s older brother came here!"

Min’s older brother had come to Wisma Utara! Min had a family! I felt a surge of joy. But it was joy mixed with anxiety and jet lag. "Fantastic," I said, "Are his family going to take him home?"
Various thoughts raced through my mind. I wondered why his family had not already taken him home. That was strange. And if they had taken him home before I had got back, would I ever have seen him again? And if they had taken him home, would he have been at risk of going missing again?

"The brother’s name is Wardi," explained Joan. "Wardi said he’d wait until you returned before doing anything. He wants to meet you."

"Where do they live?" I asked.

"Near Teluk Gong, down near the sea and the road to the airport."

"That’s miles from where I found Min. Right the other side of Jakarta!"

"A very long way," agreed Joan.

"Has Min got parents?" I inquired anxiously.

"Yes, a father and a mother and two sisters and three brothers. They’re very poor people, Mr Kent, very poor."

"How did Min get lost?" I asked.

"Wardi said that Min just wandered off. Just disappeared. He said they looked for him for days and his mother cried."

"How long has he been missing?"

"Some months," said Joan. "They’re not sure about the exact dates. The parents are uneducated people."

"Do they know what’s wrong with Min?"

"Wardi said Min was a normal child until about the age of seven, when he got an extremely high fever. He was desperately ill for weeks. After that, he wasn’t right in the head. Several times, he wandered off and got temporarily lost."

"When are they coming back to Wisma Utara?" I asked.

"Min’s older sister is coming here tomorrow morning. You can meet her then."

"Yes, that’s good," I said. "She can take us to see Min’s family in Teluk Gong."

"Can I come with you, Mr Kent?" asked Joan.

"Yes, that would be helpful," I said. There was so much to think about.

I took Min for a short walk around the dimly lit block of streets and tried to sort things out in my mind. How strange this all was. Strange, but wonderful that his family had found him. If he had been my child, I would have taken him home to Teluk Gong straight away. I wondered what Min must be thinking? I hoped his family wanted him back. The fact that they had responded to the photo in the newspaper presumably meant that they did want him back. Maybe there was a case to be made for Min staying a little longer at Wisma Utara where he could get regular schooling and food, and where he might be less likely to go missing. His behaviour could still be a bit wild at times. On the other hand, maybe Min was desperate to get home. Oh dear! What was best for Min?

The main things were that he should have a permanent family home and that he shouldn’t get lost again.

I thought of all the people who had said originally that I should have left Min on the street. They had said we would never find his parents. Well, we had found them and now we had to make sure that his return to his family was a success.

I looked at Min, who was now happy to take my hand, but whose face still suggested worry and stress. With his limited verbal ability, he couldn’t answer any questions I might ask. He could not tell me what sort of people his parents were. I thought of poor, deceased Budi whose parents were sickly, not very bright, and more keen to spend money on earrings rather than doctors. I thought of little Abdul whom I had found on a bridge in Bandung, after he had run away from his granny who had beaten him. I thought of Bangbang who seemed to find it so easy to run away, either from his family or from the Dipo Hospital. I thought of Hamid who did not seem to be wanted by his alcoholic parents or by his granny in the big house. I thought of Chong, rejected by his family, and ending up in the street. I prayed that Min’s family would be better than all of those.

I returned Min to Wisma Utara and walked back to my van.

"Back home now. I’m exhausted," I said to the driver. "How is Iwan, the leper kid? Has he come back yet for his leprosy medicine?"

"Not yet," said Mo.


Next morning, in Margaret’s room at Wisma Utara, I met Min’s older sister, Siti, and Siti’s husband, Gani. They looked as if they were in their late twenties or early thirties. Older sister had an attractive face that could have been painted by Raphael, a face that suggested someone calm, sensible and open-hearted. She was wearing her best country-peasant dress. Husband Gani was in T-shirt and cheap trousers and his narrow eyes and strained smile made his face more difficult to read. Both of them wore cheap sandals.

The greetings were amazingly formal. When Siti first arrived she took Min’s hands in hers and then Min shyly kissed her fingers. Everyone looked so very serious, including Min. It was like something from a previous century. But then Siti hugged Min and tears came to her eyes.

"It’s wonderful that you’ve found Min again," I said. "You saw his photo in the newspaper?"

"Yes," said Siti. "It was a neighbour who brought the newspaper to us. He asked if we thought it might be Min. We said it could be. The boy in the photo looked slightly bigger than we expected."

"Did you recognise Min when you came to Wisma Utara?" I asked.

"Min looked older, and in nice clothes, but we recognised the moles on his face and neck."

It occurred to me that Siti and family might be fakes, but there was some resemblance between Siti and Min, and they had been observant about Min’s moles, some of which were hidden by his shirt.

"Shall we go to Min’s home in Teluk Gong?" I said.

"Yes," said Siti.

So it was off in my van to North Jakarta with Min, Joan, Siti and Gani. I wondered if Min knew where we were going.

Having crossed the city from South to North we reached Teluk Gong’s street of cheap market stalls, unsavoury discos and grey concrete warehouses. Min was now in high spirits, seemingly recognising the scene. We drove over the wide black Angke canal and right down a narrow little street, squeezing past goats, undernourished school girls with cute faces, and old men pushing water carts. Min puffed his chest out and gave a squeal of delight. He was arriving home in style.

The road narrowed further and became a muddy track, which in places was flooded to a depth of about a foot. To left and right were miserable hovels as bad as any in Bombay. We bumped and juddered over pot holes, some hidden in black water, and then reached the end of the track.

On foot we passed through a sad little unofficial graveyard where tiny mounds of earth suggested the deaths of many babies. We crossed over sewage-filled waters by way of narrow planks and came in view of Min’s home. It was part of a terrace of wooden shanties built on stilts above the swamp. It was not an ideal home.

A crowd of ragged neighbourhood children called out friendly greetings to Min and then ushered us into Min’s crowded one room home. There were two beds, a chair, a chest of drawers, a few pots and pans and not much else. A little light came through gaps in the wooden and canvas walls.

Min was given handshakes and hugs by various people and his eyes twinkled with delight. The biggest hug was from a little old woman with a cheerful grin and kindly eyes. This, I later discovered, was his grandmother. Min then sat on the floor with a host of children and adults. Joan sat on the edge of a bed.

"This is Min’s mother, Wati," said Siti, introducing me to a small woman in her late forties. Wati was dressed in a faded and well worn skirt of the type worn in the countryside. Wati gave me an inquisitorial look as she sort of bowed and shook hands. Something about her piercing eyes suggested someone with a strong will.

"And this is Wardi, Min’s older brother," said Siti. Wardi , a strong, slightly frowning fellow, who looked about twenty, gave me a firm handshake. He had the same dark eyebrows as Min. I imagined that he might also be capable of the same dark moods as Min.

"And Min’s father?" I asked.

"That’s him sitting by the door," explained Siti.

I went across to shake the hand of a small, tired-looking man with a friendly smile. I suspected that he had had a life of hard physical toil and poor nutrition.

I was given the chair to sit on and I exchanged pleasantries for a short while with Wati and Wardi. Then I came to the point.

"Do you want Min to stay here with you tonight, or do you want him to continue for a bit longer at Wisma Utara?" I asked.

Wati and Wardi exchanged words in Sundanese, the local language of West Java. Then Wardi said, "It’s up to you Mr Kent."

"He’s not my child," I pointed out. "The decision has to be made by you. It may be best for Min to be back with his family immediately. He can’t stay at Wisma Utara for the rest of his life. It’s not as good as a real family home." I turned to Joan. "What do you think?" I asked her.

"Mr Kent," said Joan "It’s best for Min to stay a few more weeks at Wisma Utara because he’s getting schooling there and you’ve paid up to the end of the month."

"And he can’t get lost at Wisma Utara," I added. I was in two minds. To help me decide what was best, I was looking for clues from what I could see around me. Min seemed at ease and to be enjoying all the attention. I had not yet come to any conclusions about the family. The primitive house seemed dangerous, with its absence of clean water. "Wardi, what do you think?" I asked the older brother.

"It’s very difficult to decide," said Wardi, after more discussion with Wati. "We think you should decide."

"I can’t make the decision," I said.

Wardi conferred with members of the family before turning to me and saying, "It’s up to you, Mr Kent."

"You have to decide," I pointed out again. "What do you think Min would like?"

"He doesn’t understand," said Wardi.

I turned to Wati and asked, "How many children do you have?"

"I’ve had ten children," she said, frowning deeply, "but four died when they were very young."

"When Min was aged seven and got very ill, were you able to get a doctor?" I asked.

"No. We lived further out on the marsh in a tiny hut," said Wati. "There were no doctors and we had no money."

"What age is Min now?"

"About fourteen," said Wardi.

"I thought he was between nine and twelve years old," I said.

"But he’s got bigger recently," said Wardi.

"What work does Min’s father do?" I asked.

"He’s a labourer. He earns about thirty thousand rupiahs a month."

I worked this out as being about ten pounds a month, but my maths isn’t good.

And then a thought occurred to me.

"Joan," I said, "What would a small house cost in the kampung beside Wisma Utara?"

"I don’t know Mr Kent," said Joan. "I think very expensive."

I was due to get more money from my employer sometime in the summer.

"Would you like to live near Wisma Utara?" I asked Wati. " I haven’t got enough money at the moment, but I might have enough by August. I can’t promise anything Would you be interested?"

Wati and Wardi conferred again with family members.

"Min could go to the school by day and stay with you at night," I said. "Would you like a house there? A house with a water supply."

"Yes," said Wardi. "But it might be very expensive."

"Yes, it might be," said Wati. "We’ll need to give it some thought."

I was coming to the conclusion that I would prefer Min safely back at Wisma Utara for a few more weeks. I was not yet convinced that Min would be entirely safe in his family’s shanty house. I was beginning to think that a move by the whole family to the area around Wisma Utara was the solution to the problem. That would ensure Min got some kind of schooling and the family had a healthier environment. "So what about Min?" I said. "Is he staying here tonight or going back to Wisma Utara?"

"It’s up to you, Mr Kent," said Wardi.

"Well, I’ve paid Wisma Utara up to the end of this month," I said. "Shall we take Min back? We could walk with him to the van and see if he’s happy to get back in. Shall we try that?"

"OK, Mr Kent," said Wardi.

We all walked back to my vehicle and Min seemed happy to climb on board.

"Min will want to see you again tomorrow," I said to Wardi, before departing, " I can pick you up at nine in the morning and then we can give Min some exercise. Would that be possible?"

"OK, Mr Kent," said Wardi. "Tomorrow at nine."

I wondered what Min was thinking but his face wasn’t giving anything away. I felt relieved that Min was going to be sleeping in his safe and comfortable room at Wisma Utara, but I felt deeply anxious that I was separating Min from his mum and dad.

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