Friday, August 01, 2003

Child on a Pavement

Yesterday, after having my dinner at Jalan Sabang, I decided to walk over to the Hero supermarket at Sarinah to buy my weekly supply of apples. Crossing the busy Sabang-Wahid Hasyim junction, I weaved my way past buzzing bajajs and Kopaja buses packed with sweaty bodies, all the time trying hard not to breathe too much of that heady mixture of fumes, satay and kretek.

I had to carefully watch my steps too as I trudged on the uneven pavement, almost playing hopscotch with the broken brick tiles and spittle that littered the way. Squeezing through the throng of pedestrians and pedlars, I was stopped short, right on my path, by a child, lying peacefully asleep on the pavement.

She could not have been more than two years old -- I could tell it was a girl because of the delicate, almost angelic features on her face -- and she was wrapped in a dirty shawl, lying there all alone, oblivious of the faceless mass that ebbed and flowed along busy Jalan Wahid Hasyim.

Female beggars, often with suckling babies, are a common sight everywhere in Jakarta. I see them all the time along Jalan Wahid Hasyim, arms out-stretched with plastic containers hoping to catch a few drops of generosity from passers-by.

But right here at my feet was a child so innocently beautiful, as if dropped from heaven -- an infant Moses swept down the river of humanity -- with a tenderness on her face that could warm the coldest of hearts, wrapped in her own oasis of bliss. I instantly felt like holding her in my arms. Where was her mother? Could she even be an abandoned child?

As I stood there wondering, there were also a few other concerned people milling around the child. Her beggar mother must have gone off for a while to ease herself behind some alley corner (another common sight here in Jakarta), everyone thought. It was also the first conclusion that came into my mind.

As there were already people tending to her, I proceeded to the supermarket to shop for my groceries and made a mental note to come back immediately after. When I returned to the same spot some ten minutes later, to my relief, I saw that her mother was back -- the child still sleeping quietly beside her.

I remember reading reports about beggars and the organized syndicates behind them: Some of the syndicates even rent out babies and children to the beggars, to help elicit more sympathy from the public. The sight of maimed, limbless beggars is a common one across many Third World countries. It is also one that is always heartbreaking.

One feels a tinge of guilt whenever one brushes away another annoying dirty-looking street beggar pestering for money -- especially when he or she shows signs of deformity, sickness or injury. But there are so many of them -- what could one do?

As I observed the figure of the child and her forlorn-looking mother -- the Madonna and Child of the slums -- I recalled a scene from Christopher's Koch's book, The Year of Living Dangerously, set in the turbulent Jakarta of 1960s: The character Billy Kwan, a photographer (played by Linda Hunt in the movie version) and Australian correspondent Guy Hamilton (played by a dashing Mel Gibson) were debating whether one should give money to the beggars.

Hamilton dismissed it as useless, for it would just be a drop in the ocean. The philosophical Kwan disagreed: one must do whatever one can within one's immediate surrounding -- contribute one's light to the sum of light -- and not worry about the larger picture.

As I emptied all the coins in my pocket - 100s and 500s - into the mother's plastic cup, I quietly hoped that Billy Kwan was right.

I wanted to believe that those minuscule drops of mine into that ocean of poverty would in some insignificant way contribute a tiny ray of light - no matter how faint -- into the dark life facing this cherub of a child: A child with a future yet to be discovered; a child sleeping blissful and contented that Thursday evening, on the sun-baked pavement of Jalan Wahid Hasyim.

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