Saturday, January 29, 2005


Christmas 1990 was approaching and I had shopping to do.

Mo, my middle aged driver, wasn’t smiling. I could tell, as I could see a tense little mouth in my vehicle’s front mirror. It was the late afternoon rush-hour and I had asked him to stop on a very busy street called Jalan Katedral, a street which has Jakarta’s main mosque on one side and its cathedral on the other. I had spotted something strange. Seated at the roadside with his rough featured, peasanty mum, and a plump baby, was a boy aged about six. The boy had no hair and no shoes. Even worse, he had no trousers and one of his hands was missing.

I don’t think Mo liked the look of the trio but I got out of the Mitsubishi and crossed the road to speak to them.

"Hello!" I said. "Do you live here?"

The mother pointed behind her at the broken fence and the patch of waste land behind.

"Has the boy got no trousers?" I asked. The boy had the sort of innocent look worn by little African children in Oxfam pictures; he had sores on his legs and bare bottom. And one of his front teeth was missing.

"We haven’t any money," said the mother. She had the face of a big tough Red Indian who had fallen on hard times.

"The boy has only one hand?"

"He lost his hand. His name is One Hand."

"And his tooth?" I asked.

She held up her fist, seemingly to indicate that someone had punched the six-year-old. Perhaps she had punched him.

I handed the woman some money, whereupon she got up and swiftly disappeared round the corner, with the baby, heading in the direction of the nearby market, called Pasar Baru.
One Hand clutched my leg and rubbed his head against it. Then he picked up a piece of grass and began to play with it, with one hand.

I walked round the corner to see where the mother had gone, but there was no sign of her. One Hand followed me. We crossed the road to Jalan Antara where several of the homeless slept. Mo, my driver, brought the vehicle over and acted as my translator as I spoke to one of the families. A ragged woman, with a thin but pretty face, told us that One Hand’s father no longer lived with them. At this point, One Hand wandered off, out of sight.

"Where will the mother be?" I asked the ragged woman.

"She’ll be back later," she replied with a cheery grin.

Having done some shopping, I returned to Jalan Antara. The sky had been darkened by black rain clouds and the air was warm and damp. One Hand’s mother, carrying her baby, emerged from the shadows. The lady appeared to be wearing a new dress and new earings. Where was One Hand? Round the corner he came, head down, still wearing only a shirt.

"One Hand still has no trousers," I said to the lady.

As I spoke, the baby produced some yellow diarrhoea.

"Is the baby OK?" I inquired. "Do you want to see a doctor?"

One Hand’s mother nodded approval.

Mo, my driver, was looking even less happy as I ushered One Hand, his mother and the baby into my van. It was a short journey to the huge and ancient Dipo Hospital. This was a place of dim lights, high ceilings and malodorous stains.

The doctor could see the baby was fat and smiling. "Not much wrong," he said, as he wrote out a prescription.

Outside the hospital I asked the mother, "Would you like some clothes and shoes for the boy?"


So we did some shopping in the traffic free streets of Pasar Baru, buying a shirt, a pair of shorts and some sandals. I felt like a happy Santa Claus dispensing gifts. I felt Christmassy.

"I’ll come back tomorrow at six o’clock to the spot where I met you," I explained. "Will you be there?"


I left them seated on the dark wet pavement watching the luxury cars go by.

Next evening, when I returned, there was no sign of them. I walked around the block and asked a stallholder, "Have you seen the boy with one hand?"

"They’ve gone to the canal to wash some clothes." I grew angry at having to wait.

Around seven o’clock a woman appeared carrying a baby and far behind trailed One Hand, trouserless and shoeless.

I met up with them and said, "I’ve been waiting one hour! Where are One Hand’s trousers? I bought some only yesterday."

"They’re being washed," said the mum.

"But the poor kid’s going around with no trousers and no shoes. And he has no hair!"

She didn’t reply. I wondered if she had sold the clothing.

"It’s not much of a life for the kid, is it?" I said. "Look, here’s some more money. Don’t waste it."
Mo gave me a disgruntled look as he and I drove off to the Meridien Hotel.

My next sighting of One Hand, his mum and the baby came a few days later when I was again in the vicinity of Pasar Baru. They were seated at the roadside, and One Hand was trouserless and shoeless.

"Things haven’t changed, have they," I said to One Hand’s mum.

"I want to go on the transmigration programme," she said.

"You mean go off to an outer island and cultivate a plot of malaria infested land in a region with poor soil and too much rain?" That’s roughly what I tried to say in Indonesian. The government’s controversial transmigration programme was aimed at reducing over-population on islands like Java by moving volunteers to the less crowded, outer islands. The transmigrants were given small plots of land and a little help with getting started.

"Apa?" she said.

"You want to go to an area which may not want to be invaded by Javanese like you?"

"Apa?" She didn’t seem to be getting my drift.

"You want a fresh start?" I asked in Indonesian.

"Yes, I want to go back to Sukabumi, but we need money for that."

"Sukabumi’s here on Java, near Bandung," I said. "You don’t want to go on the transmigration programme?"

"I want to go back to my family in Sukabumi," she insisted.

"How much money do you need?"

"Two hundred thousand rupiahs."

"If I give you the money will you use it properly?"


I gave her what she had asked for and returned to my van, from which Mo had been watching the proceedings. I was again in the Christmas mood. Two hundred thousand rupiahs was the equivalent of about one hundred American dollars.

"You gave her money?" said Mo, as he started up the engine.

"Yes. She hopes to go back to Sukabumi."

"You shouldn’t give these people anything!" said Mo, sounding bitter. "They are beggars. You should have reported them to the police. The police have places for such people."

"I’m sure they do."

Mo continued, "I’ve had to work hard all my life. My parents were poor. I had to work to pay for my education. That woman doesn’t work. She doesn’t deserve help."

For some reason this reminded me of an occasion in India when a middle class citizen of Bombay had said to me, as we drove past some pig-sty slums, "Filthy animals, these people!" Come to think of it, he had also pointed to some children who had had limbs chopped off to make them better beggars. Goodness! I hoped that was not what had happened to One Hand.

I invited Mo to join me for a meal in a cafe. We collected our plates of nasi goreng at a counter, I sat down at a table near the window and Mo went off to a table near the kitchens. I asked him if he wanted to join me but he said he preferred to sit separately. I suppose he may have been a bit shy, or maybe he hadn’t forgiven me for telling him off about his reckless driving at a certain point during our trip to Bandung.

I never saw One Hand again. Perhaps they really did go back to Sukabumi. That was better than begging on the streets of Jakarta.

But I missed the little kid.

Towards the end of the Christmas holiday I received a dinner invitation from a personable teaching colleague called Anne, who lived in the centre of Jakarta, in a posh district called Menteng. Anne had a businessman husband called Bob and a teenage daughter called Pauline.

The evening sky was full of dark pink clouds as my vehicle travelled through grey, traffic-filled Kebayoran Baru and on to Menteng, home to embassies and President Suharto. The bumpy ride was enlivened by a knife wielding gang of high school students hanging from the doors of a graffiti covered bus, the occasional plain clothes policeman at a street corner, and exhibitionist ragamuffins selling posters and toys.

Anne’s house was a 1930’s mansion full of ferns, antique furniture, faded photos in silver frames, and marble statues of Buddhas and fauns. A maid led me to the far end of the living room where Pauline, attired in T-shirt and jeans, was watching Taggart on TV. Next the TV was a desk with a computer and pile of school books.

Pauline stood up, stretched herself, and gave me an welcoming smile. She had a pretty nose.

"Hi. Mum’s on the phone," explained Pauline. "She’ll be here in a moment. I’m supposed to be doing homework. It’s Baudlaire. Can I read you a bit?" She picked up a book.

"Go ahead," I said.

"There are perfumes as cool as the flesh of children," she read. "Sweet as oboes, green as the prairies." I was aware of two maids hovering in the background.

"Does it make any sense?" I asked.

"Sort of."

"What is Baudlaire saying some perfume makes him think of?"

"Cold flesh."


"Oboe music."

"What do you think?"

"Children’s flesh around here makes me think of ringworm, fungal infections and scabies."

A smiling Anne emerged from the kitchen. Anne always reminded me of Monaco’s Princess Grace, or perhaps a respectably dressed Madonna, the singer. Yet she worked as a humble teacher and her face suggested genuine compassion and concern for the world.

"Kent, sorry to be neglecting you," she said. "I was hearing awful things about torture and murder carried out by the military."


"No. The British army in Malaysia."

"Oh dear."

"Let’s go out to the garden," suggested Anne.

Anne and I went to sit on comfortable chairs positioned on a terrace that overlooked the dimly lit swimming pool. The frogs were making loud frog noises and frightening away the mosquitoes. A maid brought us glasses of white wine; Pauline fetched some olives.

By the time our glasses were empty, Bob had arrived, and a maid, positioned beside a table at one end of the terrace, was ready to serve supper. Bob was wearing a smart grey suit and looked like a slightly tired film star, used to playing the part of a kind and respectable husband.

"What have you been getting up to?" asked Bob, after we had loaded our plates with beef sate, peanut sauce, red peppers, French beans, new potatoes, green mango, avocado and lettuce.

I told them about my trip with One Hand to the Dipo Hospital.

"You have to be careful with hospitals," said Anne, looking pensive.

"British ones," said Bob, as he refilled my glass with meaty red wine. "Over a thousand people die each year in British hospitals because of mistakes with medicines."

"I was thinking about Florence Nightingale," said Anne. "She thought she was helping the soldiers in the Crimea, but the death rate went up at her hospital after she arrived. Her hospital had the worst record in the area."

"Why was that?" asked Pauline.

"She was a bit of an amateur," explained Anne. "At first, she didn’t understand enough about hygiene."

"The problem in Indonesia," said Bob, "is that medical standards are not always very high."

"I gather you weren’t totally impressed with Carmen’s nightlife tour?" said Anne, changing the subject.

"That seems a very long time ago!" I replied. "Actually, it was interesting, but after teaching I’ve no energy for that sort of thing."

"I know what you mean," said Bob, looking sincere.

"One or two people in Bob’s office seem to find the energy," said Anne. "What is it Baudelaire says? ‘After debauchery one always feels more alone, more abandoned.’"

"Mmm," said Pauline, smiling faintly. "Mummy’s been visiting the library again."

"I was interested in the life of this poet Pauline’s been studying," explained Anne. "He seemed to find it difficult to resist the Paris nightlife, and ended up feeling like someone expelled from Paradise."

"Talking of the office," said Bob, "that new chap Carl was comparing this country to Nigeria. That was his last posting."

"Different civilisation," said Anne. "Nigeria’s never had anything quite like Borobudur and Buddhism."

"That’s what I said," continued Bob. "But he went on about corrupt politicians and soldiers, the potential for clashes between Moslems and Christians, tribal wars with primitive weapons, and so on. He’d been to New Guinea. He said the Christians there believed in evil spells and killing each other with bows and arrows, except on Sundays. He said the parents trade their daughters like cattle."

"Kent," said Anne, "you’ll find Indonesia is much more diverse than Nigeria."

Diverse it certainly was. As I was being driven home, a host of images passed through my mind: massage parlours and mosques, volcanoes and flame trees, shanty houses and luxury mansions, and Budi, Abdul and One Hand. I was slowly learning about the Third World, but I hadn’t yet made any deep friendships with Indonesians. I hoped I wouldn’t have to wait too long before finding my soul mate.


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