Saturday 15 January 2022


31. ALDI

Around Easter, I discovered that I was going to have to vacate the house in which I was living. The Chinese owner of the property wanted to do some redecoration and then increase the rent beyond what my school was prepared to pay. Moving house meant all the usual hassles, such as having to squash all my worldly goods into a few small cardboard boxes, having to go house hunting, and having to give lots of people my new address and telephone number.

House hunting in Jakarta requires great care. Many of the Indonesian houses built for the well-to-do look magnificent on the outside. There are Greek pillars, huge pediments, stained glass windows, and palatial entrances. But, inside, you may find that there is no hot water for the washing machine and no proper bath in the bathroom.

I eventually settled on a modern, white-walled villa with a sloping red roof. There were two small bedrooms; a sunny lounge-dining room provided views through glass doors to a little garden containing Heliconias and Hibiscus. The house appeared to have no major problems, such as broken air conditioners. A date was fixed for entry.

At this point, my driver pointed out that he would have a slightly longer journey to work and might need help to buy a motorbike. Rachmat, the house guard, was not sure whether or not he wanted to move to the new neighbourhood, away from all his friends. I ignored their comments, knowing that they were already being paid an above average wage.

I was seated on the settee in the little front room of Min’s house. Light was streaming into the room from the open front door. Standing on the doorstep were two of the local children who had come to stare. Min’s mum, perched on a wooden chair, was mending an old shirt. As usual, she looked less than wildly happy and I wondered if this was confirmation of my fear that the family were not entirely at ease in their new home and new neighbourhood. Aldi, the pleasant looking middle child, then aged about thirteen, was squatting on the floor next to Min. Aldi reported that he was having problems with the local children.

"They’re horrid to me," he complained . I thought he was going to cry.

"Are you horrid to Aldi?" I asked Eko, one of the schoolboys who was standing at the front door.

"No," protested Eko, staring at me with his big dark eyes and trying to look sincere.

"They’re not being nice," muttered Aldi.

"Come in Eko," I said, "and I’ll take a photo of you, Min and Aldi on the sofa."

Aldi made a face but the three of them were persuaded to sit together. Min smiled happily. Eko gave a slightly phoney smile. Aldi temporarily relaxed and grinned.

"My leg’s very sore," said Aldi, who looked a bit flushed in the face.

"Has Aldi been to the doctor?" I asked Wati.

"Not yet," she replied.

My main concern was for Min. I felt it was up to Wati to sort out her other children’s problems. She didn’t seem to be totally without money as, scattered around the floor, there were new toys, including a plastic car big enough for a child to sit in.

Next afternoon I again called in on Min.

Aldi was hobbling about. Fairly high up on his left thigh there was an inflamed red lump, possibly the result of a cut or a sore.

Min’s five year old sister, Imah, had a cough.

"Do you want to take Aldi to the local doctor?" I asked mum. "Imah too."

"OK," said Wati.

We drove to the clinic a few streets away and a young doctor gave Imah some cough medicine. He then applied some cream to Aldi’s cut, and administered some kind of injection.

For the next few days I was busy preparing to move house. I seemed to have acquired rather a lot of books and files and I went through them trying to decide what to throw out. In the end, what I disposed of was mainly old socks full of holes, torn shirts, used exercise books and broken pens. When I had dumped this rubbish in the bin I noticed that the maid carefully took it all out again and carefully stored it away for future sale or use.

The new residence, I had been assured, had no problems with leaking roofs. But after moving in there was a downpour and small brown stains appeared on parts of the ceilings in the lounge and one bedroom. Maybe the stains had been there before and I had just not noticed. Come to think of it, many of the houses of colleagues had similar problems. I completed my unpacking and decided that I was going to enjoy my new home.

After the several days involving packing up and moving, I called in on Min. It was afternoon and Aldi was not long home from school. He was lying on the settee.

"Aldi’s very ill," said Wardi, sounding unusually nervous. "He came home from school and he was like this."

"What do you think is wrong?" I asked. I could see that Aldi was in pain.

"His neck’s sore," said Wardi. "He doesn’t want to get up. His neck feels stiff."

"We’d better get him to the Pertama Hospital," I said, referring to the large tower-block hospital a few miles distant. I felt angry that Aldi’s family had let him go to school that day. I felt guilty that I had not visited Min’s house a few days earlier. I felt worried that it was me who had argued in favour of Aldi moving from their old house in North Jakarta to this new one near Min’s school.

In the emergency ward, the doctor examined the patient, did some tests and came to a swift conclusion.

"Tetanus," he said.

Aldi, who was being attached to various tubes, was moaning and weeping.

I was relieved that we had got him admitted to the hospital and that he was now getting treatment. I did not know much about tetanus but I assumed that the same sorts of antibiotics which had cured the blue baby in Bogor would now also deal with Aldi’s problem.

"Don’t worry," I said to him, smiling, "you’re going to be all right now." Although Aldi was terrified and in pain, I felt there was something reassuring about the nurses and the tubes.

After leaving Min’s home I had a late dinner at The Meridien. I felt more relaxed, even pleased with myself.

After work next day I hurried to the Pertama Hospital where I met Aldi’s hollow-cheeked father who looked stressed and worn out. Aldi was alone in an isolation room which could be looked into through a glass screen. My heart began to pound when I saw the little boy was having huge and violent muscle spasms which made his whole body writhe. These intensely painful-looking spasms were rapid and continual. It just went on and on and on. It was as if he was being electrocuted for hours on end. I could not cope with this nightmarish scene and asked a nurse to fetch a doctor. A tall, unsmiling man arrived.

"What can be done about these spasms?" I asked. "Surely he should be getting some attention from a nurse or someone?"

"He’s got tetanus," said the doctor. There was a hint of irritability in his voice.

"But what’s being done for him? Is the medicine working?"

"He’s getting treatment for tetanus."

I wanted some detailed information and some sympathy but I was not going to get it from this particular doctor.

"What about the spasms?" I asked.

"You get that with tetanus," said the doctor, who then walked away.

I looked at Aldi’s father. The poor man looked near to tears.

That evening I could not relax. I lay down in bed but could not get to sleep. I sat up and looked at my watch. Thirteen minutes past eleven. Next time I looked it was twenty six minutes past eleven and thirteen seconds.

There was a phone call for me midmorning while I was at work. Someone from the Pertama Hospital wanted my permission to move Aldi to intensive care.

"Of course you have my permission," I said aggressively. "Shouldn’t he have been in intensive care all along?"

"We also need your permission to increase the dosage of Diazepam. That’s Valium."

"I’m not a doctor. I have no idea about these things. Ask the boy’s father. Aldi’s not my child." I must have sounded extremely bad tempered.

"We need your permission because you signed the form when the patient was admitted."

"I can’t make a decision. You’ll need to ask the father."

"We have to ask you."

"So what happens if you don’t increase the dosage?"

"The present dosage is not sedating the child enough."

"And if you increase the dosage? Are there any problems with that?"

"There is a risk of heart failure, which is why he should be in intensive care."

"He should be in intensive care, but I can’t possibly make a medical decision about dosages."

"The doctor always needs permission before taking any important step like this."

"Tell the doctor he must do what’s best for the patient. I give permission for that. If he wants to increase the dosage, that’s OK. And please consult the father." I imagined that Aldi’s father would know as little as I did.

I was becoming superstitious. I looked at my watch and it was thirteen minutes past twelve. Next time I looked, it was thirteen minutes past one, the thirteenth hour. This was stupid, I thought. Just a coincidence. What was the significance of the number thirteen? According to some numerologists, thirteen means the end of a cycle and new beginnings.

After school finished I was driven straight to the hospital, nerves shivering. I looked at my watch. Thirteen minutes past the hour. I wondered how the family would react towards me if anything had gone wrong. I remembered again that it was me who had helped persuade Aldi to move to the new house.

We reached the gates at the front of the hospital. Wardi was standing there. He signaled to us to stop and approached the car.

"Aldi is dead. He’s left this world. It’s all right Mr Kent." Wardi was speaking calmly and with no anger in his voice.

My brain felt numb, as if someone had given it a violent blow. I went with Wardi to find a doctor and was shown into a room where a middle aged woman sat at a desk. She looked sober minded and sympathetic. Judging by the room’s comfortable furniture, she was a senior doctor.

"What happened?" I asked.

"The child had a serious case of tetanus. He had had the disease many days before he came to us. I don’t think he had been immunised."

"He had an injection from a doctor at a clinic when he got the red lump," I pointed out.

"Yes but there are two different kinds of injection, those you get before an injury and those you get after an injury. It is the first kind that is vital."

"Did Wati get the children immunised?" I said, turning to Wardi. "After I gave her the money a few weeks ago."

"She went to the clinic," said Wardi, "but they said they didn’t do vaccinations."

"It is very important," continued the doctor, speaking softly, "that they get immunisation before any accident."

"What treatment did Aldi get here at the hospital?" I asked.

"I was in charge of his treatment," she said. "We gave him penicillin and diazepam. The penicillin is for the bacteria, but it does not deal with the toxin already produced by the bacteria. The toxin causes the spasms. The diazepam is to try to relax the muscles. There is a danger with the diazepam that the heart may stop which is why he was moved to intensive care. Unfortunately his heart gave out."

"Was there a doctor in intensive care to help him?" I said.

I must have sounded too angry because Wardi took my arm and said, "It’s all right Mr Kent."

"We did what we could," said the doctor.

There were forms to be filled in at the hospital, and bills to be paid. When we eventually reached Min’s house, Aldi’s small body, covered by a cloth, was already lying in the middle of the living room floor. Relations and neighbours were seated on the floor in a circle around the corpse, and I thought that I should join them. A smiling neighbour came in and read some Moslem prayers. This neighbour did not seem to be at all upset by events but I found tears flooding from my eyes. I hoped that, Lazarus-like, the little body might get up, but it didn’t. Min looked confused, unsure of what was going on.

Wati beckoned to me to come upstairs. There she sat close beside me, pressed against me in fact, and prepared herself to speak.

"Mr Kent, we need money. We have to pay for the burial."

"I’ll pay. Don’t worry."

"We need to go to Lamaya for the burial. It’s the small town where we used to live. It’s a long way."

"Yes, I know. A journey of four hours."

She was naturally in a disturbed state of mind. At one point she picked up a photo of her dead son, ripped it into pieces and then flung the pieces onto the floor.

I wanted to get some fresh air and took Min outside to the communal bench half way along the street, next to where the mobile food carts usually park. It was already dark and insects danced in the light of kerosene lamps. Min became quite jolly, obviously unaware of the true nature of events. Two or three of Aldi’s former school friends came and sat down beside us. They showed no signs of sorrow or unhappiness.

"Mr Kent," said Wardi, who had come to join us, "we need your driver to take the family to Lamaya."

"It’s nearly midnight," I said.

"It’s the Moslem custom that the body must be buried quickly."

"I understand that, but my driver has to get home to his family. What other form of transport is there?"

"An ambulance will be very expensive."

"I know. But it’ll have to be an ambulance."

I returned to my home and lay on my bed. "It’s all right Mr Kent," was what Wardi had said. To some Moslems, it was a simple matter of God’s will; one had to accept these sometimes mysterious events. But how could a good and all powerful God allow such things to happen? I remembered that when Budi had died, I had wondered why angels had not intervened. Buddhist Rahayu, whom I had met during the Idul Fitri holiday, might have seen all this suffering as something inevitable for beings who had not yet reached enlightenment. There would be continual reincarnations until attachments and illusions were got rid of. He did not apparently believe in a God in the Moslem or Christian sense of the word. I remembered what Tom had said: "They die of tetanus every week in the kampungs." What worried me most was memories of Aldi’s painful spasms and the thought that they might not have occurred if I had done things differently. I tried to comfort myself by thinking that my actions, such as moving Min’s family to their new home in South Jakarta, had seemed right at the time. Eventually I drifted off to some kind of sleep.


I needed a new house guard. Rachmat, my previous guard, had decided he did not want to move to the new neighbourhood, away from all his friends. My maid found me a skinny replacement, a youth called Irfan.

Various sounds would waken me in the night. It was amazing just how many of my Indonesian neighbours kept dogs that went to bed very late and cockerels that woke very early. Part of the noise problem was due to the thinness of the walls. I suspected that when my alarm clock went off, the old man across the road would leap rather suddenly out of bed. Of course the main reason I was ill at ease was Aldi’s death. I was nervous about going back to see Min.

Min’s family had not been sleeping well. There were new lines under their eyes.

"Mr Kent," said a dispirited sounding Wati, who was sitting in her front room with her youngest child on her lap, "how much do you pay Wisma Utara for Min’s schooling?"

"Quite a lot," I said, wondering what Wati was leading up to.

"I don’t think Min needs to go to school," she said, in an unusually outspoken way.

"How do you mean?"

"I don’t think Wisma Utara is doing him much good."

"You may be right," I said. "I’ll have a word with Joan. If I’m not paying fees to Wisma Utara, I can give you the money instead."

Wati’s face seemed to relax.

"How’s the vegetable stall?" I asked.

"It’s not good. There are too many other people selling vegetables."

I guessed that Wati might be in real need of a boost to her income.

"Before I forget," I said, "We must all go to my doctor to get you immunised. Would tonight be suitable?"

"Tomorrow," said Wati, sounding hesitant.

"She’s frightened of needles," said Gani, Min’s brother-in-law, who had been hovering at the door.

"It’s no problem. I’ve had lots of injections," I said.

"My children," said Gani. "Can they come too?"

"Yes, of course," I said. "So tomorrow it is."

Min and I walked up the road to see Joan at Wisma Utara. We were invited to have a seat on a rather stained sofa in the lounge.

"How’s Min getting on with his schooling?" I asked.

"Just fine, Mr Kent, just fine," said Joan.

At this point I was distracted by a pair of mournful eyes belonging to a skinny boy seated on the floor.

"Who’s that very thin child with his finger in his ear?" I asked.

"Dadang. Sweet looking boy," said Joan.

"He looks poorly," I said. "There are bubbles coming out his nose." In fact he didn’t look as if he was long for this world.

"He’s fine. Everyone’s fine," said Joan, sounding tired and depressed.

"Can we take him to the doctor?" I knew Joan liked to get out of the home for a change of air.

"Yes, if you like."

I sat down beside Dadang, took his damp hand and asked him how he was feeling. He looked at me with his big sad eyes but said nothing. It was like looking into the eyes of a baby seal separated from its mother. When he coughed, cupfuls of phlegm exploded from his mouth and nose.

Having returned Min to his house, I took Dadang and Joan to a nearby clinic that did x-rays.

"Can you check for TB?" I said to the doctor. I didn’t want to think of Min sitting in school alongside a child with a serious infection.

"We’ll do all the tests. You’ll know by tomorrow," said the doctor. "Dadang is underweight."

After returning Dadang and Joan to Wisma Utara, I walked down to the rubbish tip to visit Iwan, the boy with leprosy. He was not at home.

"Where’s Iwan?" I asked one of the locals, a teenage girl with eyes that were a mixture of the sulky and the sultry.

"At his Kampung. He’s still in Karawang."

As I reckoned that Iwan’s medicine must have run out yet again, I asked the girl if she would fetch Iwan’s uncle. She walked, slim hips swinging, to a nearby hut and returned with the thin little man.

"Can you go to Karawang and persuade Iwan to return?" I asked the uncle, "He must get his pills."

"I’ll go now," he said eagerly, as I handed him more than enough money for the bus.

That evening I met Fergus for a drink. As usual he was wearing immaculately pressed shirt and trousers and dark glasses.

"It’s been a bad week," I said to Fergus as we sat in the Tavern, a bistro-style bar crowded with overweight expats, Indonesian secretaries having a night out, and commercial girls. "An Indonesian child I knew died of tetanus."

"Very high death rate among Indonesian children," said Fergus, looking surreptitiously in the direction of a table surrounded by Indonesian women. "It’s been happening throughout history."

"Makes me feel guilty," I said.

"Remember what Buddha said. You’ll never find a family that’s not known some sadness. People die. We’re all bound to feel guilty. It’s like in these Greek tragedies."

"I didn’t know you were into Greek tragedies." The last book I had seen Fergus reading was a Wilbur Smith.

"We were talking about this at school. In a Greek tragedy, people have to decide between two possible actions. But they always end up feeling guilty whatever decision they make."

"That seems to be the way it is," I said.

"Buddha and Jesus pointed out that suffering is inevitable in this world."

A tall Indonesian girl, wearing too much makeup, walked past our table. As she did so she smiled in the direction of Fergus, who gave a quick smile in return.

"How’s Min?" asked Fergus, as his eyes followed the girls legs towards the exit.

"Fine. But I don’t think he’s gaining much from his schooling."

"I suppose there isn’t too much you can do with a child who can barely speak?"

"Agreed, but the children and staff at Wisma Utara seem to sit around a lot, not doing very much."

"Lack of supervision," said Fergus. "It’s a problem in Indonesia. I just had some problems with a travel agency. Staff not too well trained. Lot of hassle getting tickets for Thailand. Anyway, what are your plans for summer?"

"I might explore parts of Java. Maybe a trip to Borobudur."

Next evening I was sitting with Joan in the lounge at Wisma Utara. Children of various shapes and sizes were seated on the floor watching the black and white TV. Some of the children looked less than normal. One or two were rocking back and forward. It was very humid and there was a smell of urine.

"You remember Santo?" said Joan, before I had a chance to ask about Dadang’s x-rays.

"Santo?" I said. I had a picture in my mind of a boy with wide apart eyes.

"He died," she said softly.

"Goodness. What of?"

"TB," said Joan.

"Was he getting treatment?"

"No, Mr Kent."

"Why not?" My voice was rising.

"His family is poor, Mr Kent." Joan, dressed as usual in cheap T-shirt, slacks and sandals, emphasised the word poor.

"But they’re rich enough to pay for him to stay at Wisma Utara. Anyway, I could have paid."

"Mr Kent is always very busy. He doesn’t come to see us often."

"But Santo must have been ill for years. Had he seen the doctor?"

"No, Mr Kent. We didn’t know he was ill."

"The doctor comes here once a week. Didn’t he examine Santo?"

"No, Mr Kent."

"I don’t understand," I said, my voice becoming high-pitched. "Santo had a family rich enough to put him into this place, but they didn’t check up to see if their child was ill. There’s a doctor comes here once a week but he didn’t check up to see if the child was ill. Nobody told me the child was ill."

To be fair, I had never noticed anything seriously amiss with Santo; so why should the doctor notice. Santo had always looked rotund and smiling. I wondered if it really was TB.

"Diah’s also ill," said Joan.

It seemed that Joan had suddenly decided to offload all of Wisma Utara’s unhappy secrets. Perhaps she thought that, as I had now taken an interest in undernourished Dadang, I might as well know about all the rest. Probably she felt better for telling the truth.

"Where is Diah?" I asked, remembering the pretty teenage girl and her happy smile.

"She’s gone home to stay with her family."

"What’s wrong?"

"A tumour on the brain."

"Can I help?" I asked. My brain was feeling dizzy as a result of all the bad news.

"No, Mr Kent. Her family are rich. They can pay for treatment."

"What about Madan? He looks very thin." I was looking at a boy with a morose but handsome face.

"His father’s a doctor at the Kota Hospital," said Joan.

"Heavens," I said, wondering why a doctor might dump his son in a home and then let him grow so thin. "What about a checkup for Madan?"

"His father knows you come here," said Joan. "He says Madan must not be taken to any doctor or clinic."

I decided not to pursue the matter. There was something in Joan’s tone of voice suggesting it could be dangerous to oppose the wishes of Madan’s father.

"Any results from Dadang’s x-ray?" I asked. I couldn’t see Dadang, who was normally seated in his corner with his finger in his ear.

"The doctor says it’s TB," said Joan. "We got the x-rays."

"Not good. Has he got medicine?"

"Dadang’s family have taken him home," explained Joan.

"Would they like me to help pay for the treatment?"

"No, Mr Kent. They’re rich."

"Do you think anyone else here has got TB?"

"Wira’s father has TB. Wira’s one of our staff."

"Is the father getting treatment?"

"No Mr Kent. Wira gets paid very little."

"OK. I’ll give Wira money if she gets me a hospital receipt each month. And Wira better have an x-ray too."

"Thanks Mr Kent."

"And where’s Gus who used to help look after Min?"

"He’s got cancer."

"You’re joking." I was beginning to wonder if there was anyone at Wisma Utara who was not sick.

"No," said Joan.

"Has he got x-rays or anything? Has he been to a hospital?"

"Not yet."

"Well how does he know he’s got cancer?"

"The doctor told him."

"Tell him to go to the hospital and get a proper check up."

It occurred to me that Fergus was right. Making decisions led to guilt. If I had left Min living in the North Jakarta slums, I would have felt guilty. But having moved him to the house near Wisma Utara, I now felt guilty. Wisma Utara seemed to be an institution lacking proper supervision, at least as far as health was concerned.

Leaving Wisma Utara, I walked down the narrow little lane leading to Min’s house. I found Min’s mum brushing her front doorstep with a homemade broom.

"Wati," I said, "I think Min should stop going to Wisma Utara. Tomorrow he should stay at home. I’ll give you the money I was going to pay them for the schooling."

"Right, Mr Kent," said Wati, looking supremely happy for a change. I got the feeling she didn’t have a totally high regard for the staff at Wisma Utara.

"Any ill effects from the injections?"

"No," said Wati, grinning widely, "but my arm was sore for a while."

"My doctor says your x-rays are all OK. No TB."

After my visit to Wati, I headed for the rubbish tip. Leper Iwan was back from visiting his mother in distant Karawang. As had happened on the previous occasion, he was distinctly unwell. He was looking more skeletal than a kampung chicken and parts of his feet were horribly mushy and infected.

We headed straight to the local clinic where the doctor declared that the boy must go to the leper hospital.

The following day, a Saturday, I took Iwan and his granny to the Jakarta suburb of Bekasi, where the leper hospital is located.

"He has to be admitted as an in-patient," said the muscular doctor in his green-walled surgery.

"He needs to have his wounds attended to every day, by a nurse. There’s a lot of puss. And he’s malnourished."

"It’s the best thing," I said to Iwan. "You’ve twice been off to your village without enough medicine. And you look as if you haven’t eaten for a month."

"What about my granny?" said Iwan, eyes watering. "The doctor says she can’t stay in the ward."

"I’ll give her money to stay in a local boarding house," I said, "and I’ll give her money for food." I knew the granny would probably be able to sneak into the hospital any time she wanted. There appeared to be no staff on duty in the latter part of the day.

"There are lots of other children in the ward," said the nurse. "You’ll have plenty of friends. OK?"

"OK," said Iwan.

We walked through the pleasant gardens and met some of Iwan’s fellow patients in a ward for young males. I was struck by the fact that the majority of these patients looked quite normal. Only one boy was limping as badly as Iwan and none was as undernourished. If only Iwan had looked after himself better.

At the end of the day, and after consuming the maid’s undercooked but re-heated chicken, I developed a headache. The maid called in young Irfan, the house guard, and suggested that he massage my feet. So I sat on the settee while he squeezed each toe in turn.

"Wahdoo! That’s too much," I protested. The pain in my toe was worse than the pain in my head.

"This will help your head," he explained.

I noticed Irfan’s dirty fingernails and I suspected that he didn’t wash his slightly tattered clothes or himself too frequently. He was quite a good-looking kid but he wore a worried expression.

"Irfan, where’s your family from?" I wanted to distract myself from my pain by thinking about something else.

"Central Java. My father died when I was very small My mother remarried after my dad died. I was left with my father’s first wife."

"Your stepmother? How did you get on?" I asked.

"I had to sleep in the mosque. My stepmother had no room in her house. It’s full of lodgers."

"Do you ever see your real mother?"

"Hardly ever. She lives in the middle of Java with her new children. It’s many hours by bus."

"And her new husband? What does he do?"

"He lives in Jakarta. He got a job here as a driver. He works for an Indonesian and gets paid very little."

I was beginning to feel really sorry for poor Irfan. "Have you been to school?" I asked.

"I reached Primary Three."

"What happened when you left school? What did you do all day?"

"I made money from guarding parked cars outside Hero’s supermarket. Mister, can I go back to school? It would only be in the mornings. I’d work the rest of the day." Irfan gave me his big-eyed, child-beggar look.

"Would you want extra money from me?"

"I haven’t enough money to pay for school. I have to give some of what I earn here to my sister. She’s unemployed."

"OK. Go and visit the school and see if they’ll take you. You may be too old now."

"Thanks mister."

"I think my head is a little better now," I said. My problems seemed slight compared to those of Irfan.

I few days later I spoke to Irfan while he was cutting the grass in the front garden.

"Irfan, how was school? What class have they put you in?"

"I’m in Primary Four," said Irfan. He was blushing.

Poor kid, I thought. He must be twice the size of all the other students. But at least he’s getting some kind of education.

The weeks and months went by; there was lots of tiring exam marking and report writing; Iwan made good progress in the hospital; Min stayed at home rather than going to his school; my bags were packed ready for a trip to Borobudur.


A Burmese lady called Nan introduced me to Central Java’s most famous monument: Borobudur. I had got talking to Nan, along with her jovial husband and pretty teenage daughter, in the bar of the Ambarrukmo Hotel in Yogyakarta, about twenty-five miles from Borobudur. Nan was in her mid-forties, had been educated in London, and now taught English at a school in Bandung; she dressed with a balance of the classical and the colourful; she had intelligent, almond shaped eyes and a permanent warm relaxed smile. Nan had offered to be my guide to what she called ‘Buddhism’s greatest work of art’. Nan would give me the tour of Borobudur, while her husband and daughter explored Yogyakarta’s markets.

"Borobudur looks quite mystical, doesn’t it?" said Nan, as we got out of my Mitsubishi, on that bright July morning. "I can never get enough of this place. You know that for hundreds of years it was covered up by jungle."

I looked up at the giant bell-shaped stupa at the top of the pyramid-shaped grey-brown mass of stone. The pyramid had been built on a low hill. Beyond the hill were rice fields and palm trees and beyond that steep-sided volcanoes, ten thousand feet high. The giant yellow sun floodlit part of the scene, emphasising the blackness of the shadows and the orange-blueness of the sky. Cockerels were crowing and there was an aroma of warm flowers. This was surely a place as wondrous as Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Bagan in Burma.

"It looks impressive," I said. "How old is Borobudur?"

"Begun in the eighth century AD," said Nan. "It’s actually bigger than it looks. It’s the biggest Buddhist monument in the world. If you wanted to see all the carvings it would take you many hours."

"Buddhism must have been important here."

"Buddhism and Hinduism," said Nan. "This island was Hindu-Buddhist for over a thousand years. Hence Indonesia’s Garuda symbol; and the Indian word puasa for fasting; and the gentle, unselfish nature of some Indonesians."

"They can be very unselfish," I said. "I’ve often noticed poor children sharing their food and toys."

We climbed some steep steps and reached the foot of the monument. Above us were nine terraces, four of them having half-enclosed galleries with lots of stone carvings.

"It’s in good condition," I commented, "apart from the litter and graffiti near the car park."

"It’s been restored," said Nan. "It’s now on a bed of reinforced concrete."

"You’re going to be my guide. Tell me all about Buddhism."

"Ha. I’ll try my best," said Nan, as a party of cheerful girl guides squeezed past us. The guides were followed a few moments later by a group of lively boy scouts.

We reached the first of the four galleries stretching around the monument. "There’s a great variety of beliefs," said Nan. "The Buddha, about 2500 years ago, didn’t write his teachings down. The Buddhists who completed Borobudur have different views from the Burmese Buddhists. Here, at Borobudur, people believed in lots of supernatural beings who helped you reach Nirvana. That’s no problem so long as people don’t sit back and think these magical beings are going to do all the work."

"You believe in free will?" I asked.

"The advertising agencies think they can predict what we’re going to do. But scientists like Heisenberg tell us that life is not always predictable."

"Heisenberg?" I asked, while running my fingers over one of the stone figures. I noticed that the carvings included dancing girls.

"Heisenberg was the scientist who said that the path of the electron is unpredictable."

"I’m not too good on science," I confessed. "Do you think that electrons have got free will?"

"Anything’s possible," said Nan, with a chuckle. "What I do know is that everything we are is the result of our thoughts. What we are going to become is the result of what we are thinking now."

We had caught up with some of the scouts and guides. Two scouts, arm in arm, were studying a carving of a ship. As we passed them there was a whiff of clove cigarettes. As we passed two guides who were sketching an elephant, I thought I detected an aroma of marshmallow.

"There are people who think we’re like robots," I said to Nan.

"Just think," she said. "What would happen if people stopped believing in free will? If I stole your car, I could claim that I had had no choice in the matter. I was acting like a robot."

"So Hitler was not forced by his environment, by his heredity or by his ignorance to choose the bad path?"

"Hitler knew what he was doing," said Nan. "He had decided to follow his selfish ego. He was deliberately ignoring what was good for the world as a whole."

"So Hitler was evil?"

"Buddha might have said that Hitler’s actions were unwise, unwholesome and undesirable, rather than evil."

"Is it all relative?" I said, while noting a stone carving of a camel. "Think of a lion killing a lamb.

To the lion it’s good. To the lamb it’s bad."

"Perhaps the lion has chosen the path that leads to it being a lion."

"The lion might be reincarnated as a vegetarian?"

Nan laughed. "And the lamb might be reincarnated as a lion."

"Is it all relative? Take the bombing of Hiroshima. To some Americans, it was good. To some innocent Japanese children who got killed, it was bad."

"Some Buddhists would say that good and evil are relative. But killing is wrong.," said Nan. "It’s a matter of self-knowledge or enlightenment. We have to learn that we have a selfish ego. We then have to take the path of suffering, to learn to get rid of the selfish ego. We have to struggle."

"Struggle?" I noticed some immensely fat American tourists struggling up the steep steps below.

"Some effort is usually required if you are going to follow the right path: becoming loving and kind to all, not being bad tempered, not saying hurtful things. But love will be spontaneous for the more enlightened." Nan looked sunny and relaxed as she gave her tutorial.

"Does Borobudur help?"

"It’s thought that pilgrims would come here to learn more about the path to Nirvana. Look at this panel." We stopped at a carving showing a rather unhappy looking man. "I think," said Nan, "it’s meant to show the laws of cause and effect. You desire something bad and you automatically suffer as a result."

As we moved along the galleries we could not see the rice fields or the trees outside, only the sky. "It’s a long walk," I said, noticing the sweat on my face. We had moved faster than the American tourists, but slower than the guides and boy scouts. We passed a middle-aged couple who were probably Chinese-Indonesian; they looked as if they were dressed for a luxury cruise.

"It can be a long journey to Nirvana, said Nan. "In this part of the world you might find a rich Chinese Buddhist who makes a lot of money. He uses doubtful methods to get money from a bank and then takes land away from some poor Moslems and builds a factory or hotel. If he thinks he can achieve salvation by giving money to some temple or orphanage, he could be wrong. He won’t reach Nirvana until he learns to conquer greed and starts loving his poor neighbours. Good works are useless without love."

"Saint Paul said something about that."

"Paul? ‘I may give away all my money, but if I have no love, I am no better off. Our understanding of things is only partial. It will pass away. But love will never come to an end.’"

"You know Saint Paul?"

"I went to a Christian school," explained Nan.

"Where are we now? What are these carvings?"

"This is about where man is reminded about the need for self-sacrifice, to help others. He also learns about the escape from continual reincarnation."

Finally we reached the highest realm of Borobudur, the area from which you can view the whole world around you, from the rice fields to the mountains and beyond. There were no more galleries. Instead there were dozens of Buddhas, each one sitting serenely inside his stupa. The topmost stupa was empty.

"This is where you learn about Nirvana," said Nan.

"What do Buddhists believe about God, Nirvana, heaven, reincarnation? It all seems a bit obscure."

"Nirvana," said Nan, "cannot be described. It’s beyond our understanding. We can say that in Nirvana there are no longer lots of individual beings; there is no yin and no yang."

"So," I said, "how do we achieve this Nirvana?"

"We have to make the effort to achieve self knowledge. We shouldn’t think that we are our physical bodies. We should realise that we are part of God. As Jesus would say, remove the plank from your own eye. Love everyone. Love unites the yin and yang."

"Could take a while," I commented. "Might take many reincarnations."

"Reincarnation," said Nan, "is like the flame passing from one candle to another. The flame is the person’s consciousness, and the person’s karma, the seeds of good and bad deeds."

"In Nirvana, there is no individual self?"

"I don’t have a self that will always be Nan. But Buddha did believe that things which are real cannot cease to exist. In other words Nirvana is something positive and good."


"The person, let’s say Nan, who has certain lusts, who gets angry sometimes, who likes certain music and certain books, that person doesn’t continue for ever, unchanged. That person doesn’t enter Nirvana until the anger and lust have gone. But whatever there is about me that’s real, that real part doesn’t cease to exist."

"Can you remember a past life?"

"I get a sense of deja vu, that’s all. Mozart composed music at the age of five. Pascal invented some geometrical system at the age of eleven. Could be knowledge gained in a previous life."

To our left, a slim young girl guide was pointing out Mount Merapi to her excited friends. Below the volcano was a luscious landscape of coconut groves and rice-terraced hills.

"What about God?" I asked.

"The early Buddhists didn’t seem to take an interest in the kind of god who pulled all the levers of power. They were more interested in Nirvana."

"They didn’t believe in the sort of old man who’d help his people conquer cities and wipe out women and children? The sort of old man in the sky who’d create typhoid? "

"No. The typhoid has a cause. It has developed out of something. Its karma has led it to become typhoid."

"Don’t you need a God, or some mysterious something, to make reincarnation work and to make sure people are rewarded and so on?"

"Buddhists have the Dharma or law of nature. It’s inside us. It’s the mysterious something. Buddha believed you couldn’t grasp it with the mind alone. Some people can call it God if they like. Buddha didn’t speculate."

"Talking of mysterious somethings," I said, "are we going to see the Hindu temples at Prambanan?"

"It’s next on the itinerary. Let’s go before we melt in this heat. There are drinks in the car."

At the car park I noticed one particularly battered old bus. The faces of happy boy scouts were pressed against its back window. When the bus started, huge clouds of black smoke were emitted from the exhaust.

We motored to the Loro Jonggrang temple complex, a series of gloriously elaborate stone monuments rising up, lingam-like, to sharp points, just like the volcanoes in the far distance. The largest temple is dedicated to Shiva, the Destroyer, and is forty seven metres high. It has stone carvings which tell the story of the Ramayana: the story of how Prince Rama, accompanied by the monkey king Hanuman, attack an ogre king and rescue a lady called Sita.

"This is very roughly as old as Borobudur," said Nan, as we stood up close to the stonework.

"The Javanese of those times had an amazing culture. They must have been pretty prosperous. What do you think brought it to an end?"

"Maybe Mount Merapi erupted," said Nan.

"Their god did not protect them. What did these Hindus believe about God or gods?"

"Don’t think of these Hindus as primitive," said Nan. "Hindus have several gods but they are all aspects of the one God. The Hindu writers explain things in different ways at different times. God, or Brahman, is sometimes seen as being the impassive law, or word, that governs everything. Sometimes God is the being that the world is made out of, and to which people’s souls return. Sometimes God is seen as the hub and the rim of a wheel, while individual people are the spokes. Sometimes God is a God of love, namely Krishna."

"God is the Word?"

"Listen to John’s gospel," said Nan. "‘When everything began, the Word already existed.’ And this, when Jesus talks to God about his followers. ‘They may be one, just as you and I are one, I in them and you in me. They may be brought to perfect unity.’ I always think that sounds like Hindu-Buddhist thinking."

"You learnt that at school?" I asked.

"I learnt that part by heart. And this was said by Buddha: ‘In the beginning is the One and the One is the only thing that is. All things are One and have no life separate from the One. The One is everything and is not complete without the least of its parts. Yet the parts are parts within the whole, not merged in it."

"I sort-of understand that, but I still don’t see the entire picture. Where did we begin? How did we end up here?"

"Maybe we’ve always existed," said Nan, sitting down on a large stone. "Maybe we move up or down according to our actions. Good actions we move up. Bad actions we move down."

"We’ve done a lot of walking? How about a nice cup of tea?"

As we walked over well tended lawns towards the car park, I noticed a group of guides lying flat-out under some trees. Some scouts were disporting themselves on top of some ancient ruins.

Back at the hotel, seated in a comfortable lounge, I shared some tea with Nan. We got onto the subject of life in Bandung, where Nan had her home.

"I imagine Bandung’s more peaceful than Jakarta," I said.

"Normally. Last week a church was burnt down."

"A church?" I said, startled. "It wasn’t in the papers."

"These things get hushed up," said Nan. "Government orders."

"Who’d want to burn it down?"

"Three groups. In Europe you get your hooligans; some of them might enjoy burning down a building and it’s the same here; young toughs with no decent family life or job or education. Next you have the Moslems who sell things in the street or traditional market; they feel threatened by the supermarkets, malls and fast food outlets; some of them want to attack the owners of the modern businesses who’re often Chinese Christians. Finally you have the fundamentalist Moslems; some of them see the Christians as part of a corrupt regime."

"My impression is that the overwhelming majority of Moslems are moderate, hospitable, peaceful people," I said.

"I agree," said Nan. "The people who’d burn down a church are a tiny minority. Like in Britain, hardly anyone would start a riot."

"But there are a few skinheads who cause trouble?"

"I’ve a friend in the police who was telling me they’re worried about extremists who might try to stir things up. First you burn a mosque, then a church, then a mosque. Soon the moderates get so angry, they become extremists. Like Yugoslavia. Who gains? The masterminds who end up in power. It could be an ambitious businessman or general or religious extremist."

"Do these things happen in Burma, or Myanmar?" I asked.

"Oh yes," said Nan. "Aung San, the country’s leader, was shot by gunmen hired by a right-wing politician. Soon there was warfare between the various ethnic groups and eventually a military dictatorship. When there’s a riot, there’s a suspicion it’s been planned by part of the elite so democracy can’t get a hold. So the army will stay in power. Not all of the Burmese are good Buddhists."

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