Monday, October 17, 2005

Asep, Mukmin, Dede, Tikus



The following Saturday morning, I paid a visit to Bogor Baru in order to check up on Andi and Asep. Andi still had his swollen belly, suggesting worms, but was bright eyed and now up to my waist in height.

I arrived outside the damp shack occupied by the family of Asep, the man who had had TB for too long. Asep’s pretty wife was standing at the door.

"Asep died," she said, smiling slightly.

I should have been getting used to deaths, but still felt a mixture of shock, anger and sadness. The anger was partly due to my failure to get Asep cured. TB, I was discovering, could be a doggedly hard disease to cure. I looked at Asep’s pretty children, two girls and a boy. They had put on a lot of weight compared to their former malnourished selves. I told the family that my driver would continue to come once a month to give them some money. That made me feel a little better.

I waited at Bogor’s Menteng Hospital for six-year-old Mukmin and his family, but they did not turn up. I did not have the family’s address and so could not send my driver to fetch them. I tried to calculate how long Mukmin had been taking his TB medicine. Was it about four months since I had first come across the little boy in hospital with typhoid? That was not long enough to be cured. There was a slight chance that Mukmin was getting TB pills from his local puskesmas or clinic. I never saw Mukmin again.

That afternoon, I needed cheering up and decided to call in on some old friends. I walked alongside a brown canal in which naked urchins were leaping about with all the vigour of porpoises at play. Near Bogor’s Jalan Pledang I entered the little brick-built home of elf-like Dede and his gypsy-faced older sister Rama. A slightly-weary looking Rama, carrying her baby in her arms, gave me a smile of greeting. As she had been feeding her offspring, her blouse was undone, and she retreated quickly to a back room.

A grinning Dede invited me to have a seat and introduced me to his ten year-old friend who was seated on the concrete floor, next to his battered school satchel. The friend was called Herry, a slim sparkling-eyed boy, tall for his age, and wearing a school uniform several sizes too small.

"Herry is near the top of his class," said Dede, causing Herry to smile blushingly.

"You have to pay for school, don’t you." I said.

"We have to pay for the school and the books and outings," said Dede.

"And you only go to school for half the day," I said. "I think that’s good, because it means you don’t get over-tired, and you have half the day to play football or whatever."

I was allowed to look at some of Herry’s text books and exercise books. Herry’s writing was supremely neat and his teachers had awarded him high marks. The text books seemed to be of the old-fashioned rote-learning type. I agreed to Dede’s suggestion that we take a look at Herry’s primary school, located only a short distance away.

The school was a simple wood and brick construction built on three sides of a small concrete playground. We were the only people there and found all the doors unlocked. There was graffiti on some outer walls and inside the small classrooms I noted writing carved on desk tops. The walls were bare and the ceilings were stained where rain water had seeped through. What a contrast with my own school’s air-conditioned classrooms which were packed full of computers, colourful posters and shelf loads of books. I hoped Herry would not become one of the majority of teenagers who eventually give up their schooling because of a lack of money or an uninspiring curriculum.

Having bidden farewell to Dede and friend, I walked along the banks of the River Cisadane until I came to the home of Melati, Dian, Tikus and the fruit bat. In the front room, Tikus was seated on the settee with a furry pet rabbit on his lap.

"Mr Kent," said Tikus, "do you want to come to the market? I need to buy some trainers and school shirt and shorts."

"How is your sister Dian?" I asked, changing the subject.

"She’s better now," said Tikus, stroking the rabbit. "She and Melati are out. Do you want to come to the market?"

"How much are trainers?" I asked, fearing that I might be trapped into helping him pay the bill.

"Very expensive," said Tikus.

"Then you don’t need them," I said. "Do you really need new shirt and shorts?"

Tikus stopped stroking the rabbit, lifted it up by its ears and placed it on the floor. He pointed to his shorts on which someone, presumably using white correction-fluid, had written some letters and symbols. "Kids at the school," said Tikus, by way of explanation.

Tikus and I ended up in a department store near the train station. I waited at the cash desk while Tikus browsed the clothing section. When Tikus returned he was carrying a pair of fashionable jeans.

"No," I said, noticing for the first time that Tikus was sporting an earring on his left ear. "You came here to buy school clothing."

Tikus frowned deeply and looked petulant. I handed him a sum of money sufficient to buy a school shirt, made my excuses, shook hands and headed for the exit.

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