Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Chandra; Novi

The following weekend, back once more in Bogor, I walked along the sun-dappled banks of the River Cisadane to the home of Melati, Dian, Tikus and the fruit bat.

I was invited to have a seat in the front room. Only Dian and Tikus were at home. Dian gave me a strained smile and assured me that she was well. Tikus, sprawled on the settee, and didn’t bother to contain his yawns. I struggled to make conversation. I swiftly got the message that they were not in the mood for entertaining me, so made my excuses and went for a solitary walk.

After lunch near the Internusa Shopping Centre, I took a stroll through the nearby kampungs. Having passed a bungalow-sized mosque and a number of simple houses with gloomy interiors, I descended a steep lane and reached a dank, sunless quarter next the small and murky river Ciparigi. It was how the slummier parts of Venice might have been in a previous century. There was a smell of dampness, dead vegetation and waters polluted by human waste.

Outside a basic brick and concrete house, occupying a sloping site, stood a big-boned woman, a small girl, and Chandra, the boy with the skinny legs and pink shirt, the boy who had claimed he needed money. When he saw me coming, Chandra climbed the steps of his house and disappeared inside.

"Chandra lives here?" I asked the woman.

"Yes. His mother has just died."

"Died?" I felt an element of shock in my chest.

"She had TB."

Now I knew why Chandra had wanted money.

I left the scene but returned one week later to persuade the boy’s emaciated-looking father that he and his children should have a hospital check-up. It transpired that one daughter, a girl in her late teens who looked quite plump and healthy, had TB in the form of a lump on the top of her shoulder. This was non-pulmonary TB, evidently quite common in parts of Asia. Some patients with tubercular lumps can appear otherwise healthy, with no weight loss and no cough. She began receiving medicine and had recovered within a year.

Chandra always kept his distance on the rare occasions I visited the daughter to check that she was taking her pills.

Out for some Sunday morning exercise, in an area only five minutes from my local supermarket, I walked through sun-drenched meadows with happily grazing goats, kampungs with red-and-green-roofed houses, fields of tapioca, and patches of tall fruit trees.

Beside a small stream stood a group of boys, one of whom, aged about thirteen, had a cheeky grin on his rather plain face and a nasty abscess on his bare leg. This boy told me that his name was Novi, and he had not had any medical treatment for his wound. I gave him some money to pay for a visit to the doctor and he promised to provide me with a receipt, should I bump into him again.

Next afternoon, Novi arrived at my front door, with a doctor’s receipt.

"How did you find my house?" I asked.

"My father is a neighbourhood chief," said Novi, "and he asked the other local neighbourhood chiefs, the other RT’s, if they knew of a white man living nearby, someone who likes wandering through kampungs. Your own neighbourhood chief, your own RT, lives in the very small house at the end of your road and he’s seen you going for walks."

"I’m amazed," I said. I had never met my neighbourhood chief and it had not really occurred to me that, as one of the tiny handful of expats in the area, I must stand out like a sore thumb.

"My father hopes you’ll come and visit him," said Novi.

I loved visiting Indonesians’ houses and let Novi take me straight away to visit his family.

The home of Pak RT, or Mr RT, stood on the edge of a hamlet and was larger than average, big enough to house an extended family. It had that home-made, slightly dishevelled look of kampung houses. Some of the musty green-brown roof tiles looked loose; water was provided by a well; chickens ran about in front of the open front door.

The cavernous living room, into which I was invited, had a bare concrete floor, well-worn furniture, but a larger than normal TV. Pak RT came forward to shake my hand. He looked as if he was in his late fifties; he was tall and his hands were big and muscular; his manner seemed placid and amiable, like that of a simple farm worker.

"I am a retired soldier," he said, as he sat back in his chair.

"And you are the elected neighbourhood chief," I said. "I want to learn all about that."

He proceeded to tell me that he was elected by the thirty households in his area. Elections were held every three years. He helped his neighbours with government form filling; he organised kerja bakti, voluntary work, such as ditch clearing or celebrations of Independence Day; he settled neighbourhood disputes; he had helped to raise money for the building of a musholla, a small mosque.

"Are you a rich man?" I asked.

Pak RT’s wife, who had been hovering in the background, gave out a laugh.

"We are poor," she said.

Pak RT’s wife was much younger than her husband; she wore a well-cut trouser suit and a gold watch; she looked sharp, self-confident and alert. She would not have looked out of place in a smart shopping mall.

"Does Pak RT get paid for his work," I asked.

"It’s not like being a civil servant," she said. "No big cars. All we get is a small monthly contribution from the local people. This is a poor neighbourhood."

"Do soldiers get well paid?" I asked.

"No," said Pak RT, unsmiling. "I wasn’t an officer. I couldn’t become an officer because I didn’t have the money."

"You have to pay to become an officer?" I asked.

Pak RT shrugged his shoulders; he seemed to have decided to keep quiet on the subject.

"My husband had to have two jobs," said Pak RT’s wife, breaking the silence. "While he was a soldier, he also had to do private work as a guard."

There were two teenage girls standing shyly at the far end of the room; and there were four young boys, perhaps cousins or friends, who had joined Novi and who were now standing beside Pak RT. The boys were not shy. One boy, with a cheeky-monkey face, held up three fingers, then one finger, and whispered some rude words in English while staring in my direction. Pak RT ignored this.

The following afternoon, Novi arrived at my front gate with a letter from his mother. It was a request for a sum of money to help pay for Novi’s schooling. I explained to Novi that I only helped very poor people and he was not one of the very poor. I politely got rid of Novi and put the letter in the bin.

Another letter arrived the following day and I wrote a courteous reply, repeating what I had already said to Novi.

Next came a series of telephone calls from Novi, begging for money.

Eventually he gave up.


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