Saturday, August 09, 2003

A Weekend with Pak Pram

Spent the whole morning poring over old maps at the National Library on Jalan Salemba Raya. Major sections of the Library was closed for a major revamp of its collections. But fortunately the map collection was open.

I'm happy that I finally managed to trace the exact location of Fromberg Park and Deca Park mentioned by Pramoedya Ananta Toer in his collection of short stories, Tales from Djakarta. It is a personal project of mine to trace the history of old Jakarta and I find Pramoedya's book very revealing about life in the city during the 1950s.

It is a pity that Pramoedya's works are more familiar to the rest of the world than to Indonesians themselves; Pramoedya himself was jailed by the Suharto regime for 14 years--alleged being involved in leftist movements prior to the September 30 coup of 1965. His books were subsequently banned.

Malaysians who studied in the arts stream are familiar with his book, Keluarga Gerilya, which is a mandatory text in our secondary schools. Only recently are Pramoedya's books being republished and sold in bookstores in Indonesia.

In fact there's going to be a launch of some new editions of Pramoedya's books at TIM (Taman Ismail Marzuki) this coming Tuesday. I hope to be able to attend the event scheduled at 7.00pm on that day.

As for today, I'll be rereading Tales from Djakarta and also the original Bahasa Indonesia version, Cerita dari Jakarta, which I happen to possess. It's going to be a good weekend.

Friday, August 08, 2003

On the Tedium of IT, the Meaning of Poetry and the Vagaries of Life

It has been a long week, sullied by the bombing of Marriott. I look forward to the weekend ahead to do some reading and research.

My work-related projects are also piling up. Looks like I will be kept pretty busy until the end of the year. The challenge for me working in the IT industry is maintaining sufficient interest in it to keep myself going. At times I find IT tedious and tiring; other times it is quite exhilarating.

When I'm working on an important IT project, I try to immerse myself in the subject matter and not veer my reading too much from subjects radically different from what I am doing.

It is often very difficult to pull oneself away from reading, say, The Sexual Perversions of The Marquis de Sade, to resuming work on that dull proposal for company XYZ on how to migrate their legacy software written in Cobol and VSAM, running on an MVS mainframe to one that runs on an open systems platform using a J2EE-based multitiered architecture and a SQL relational database.

I used to work on small proof-of-concept programming projects and they can be quite fun. But the fun vanishes after the concept has been proven and all that remains is the endless task of fixing bugs and adding yet another feature into the application.

I admire writers or artists who are able to keep a regular job and still produce great artistic works. The poet T.S. Elliot was working as a bank clerk when he was writing many of his poems. I have an audio recording of Elliot reading his most famous work, The Wasteland. Listening to the writer himself read his or her own works is often very illuminating.

I enjoy poetry mostly for its sound, rhythm and imagery. People always ask me what a particular piece of poetry means. I would reply by asking them if they know what a particular piece of song or music means. Music videos are essentially meaningless but we enjoy them nonetheless. Why? Sound, rhythm and imagery. I even think music video is an important art form--it is essentially visual poetry.

I have a college-mate who used to tell me that a computer program is like a poem: "Look at the code and see how we indent certain lines and group them into modules...they are like poetic verses and stanzas..."

I'm still in touch with this friend of mine. Nowadays he is more interested in starting up a charcoal and cooking oil business than writing "poetic" computer programs. Ah, the vagaries of life.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

A Meditation on Pain

Reading reports of grieving families of the JW Marriott Hotel bombing tragedy in Jakarta got me into thinking how these people are going to overcome the pain of such a sudden loss.

Everyone one of us has and will inevitably encounter the pain of losing someone dear to us in the course of our lives. Death is never easy to accept, especially one that comes so unexpectedly and in such tragic manner. How does one overcome such pain? How does one pick up the pieces again and carry on with one's life? What is Pain?

We all understand and to a certain extent know how to deal with physical pain. Pain is but nature's early warning system--informing us of some breakdown in certain parts of our body which require our immediate attention, before it could possibly become fatal.

Touch a hot piece of iron, and neuronic impulses coursing through our body's nervous system would engage in a transaction of signals between brain and hand that results in its instant recoil from the source of the heat. Such is the exquisite efficiency of our body's pain response network.

But pain, of the emotional kind is not as easily comprehended. Is there even a biological need to feel emotional pain? Is there a survival value to it, in the Darwinian sense? Why does emotional pain often seem so senseless?

Emotional pain could also be seen as a trigger to our mind for some kind of transforming action. To the widow of one of the Silverbird taxi drivers who was killed in the blast, the loss of her husband would plunge her into a deep emotional and financial crisis. She has to find a way to pull herself out from this maelstrom of distress.

What is she to do? She would perhaps need to pick up a new skill. She will definitely be stretched and challenged in ways that she never thought she would. She will have to rise above herself.

The more religious among us would rationalise the entire experience as something that is put on our path to test our faith and to make us learn lessons that will ultimately transform our souls. Pain then becomes the catalyst for emotional and spiritual transformation.

We encounter emotional pain whenever we lose the things we consider dear: Whether it is lovers breaking up, executives being laid-off or our new BMW being scratched, pain always result from us being yanked away from a more ideal state of existence. Something precious is severed from us. And we bleed the loss of our emotional limb.

Buddhists would clinically but correctly surmise that life is essentially painful and that pain comes from our attachment to the world--which is ultimately futile given the impermanent nature of things. Nothing lasts forever: it is dictated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics that entropy shall always increase and thus the universe would ultimately breakdown and decay. Salvation and bliss can only be attained if we transcend our desires and attachments to the transient world of things material.

Many a times people have come to me and asked me how does one overcome pain? Why is it so hard to get rid of the thorn lodged in one's heart? Once the wife of a friend who found him cheating on her called me over the phone, crying: "How do I get rid of the pain and hurt inside?"

For a moment, I did not have an answer. I am hopeless with crying women. All I could say was, let time heal the pain. If the material world is impermanent, hopefully, so is pain.

All wounds--be it physical or emotional--- need time to heal. Nature is self-healing if we let it do its job. We can aid or impede Nature in this task. The emotional support of friends, a kind word, a generous gesture--all these provide the suffering party with emotional balm for the healing process to begin.

Sometimes unwisely, our response to pain is to further impede this onset of healing. We rehash our painful experiences over and over again; we plunge into anger and wallow in self-pity; wounds are reopened and the bleeding continues.

At times the experience of pain could even make us question our fundamental beliefs including our faith in the Almighty, as Christian writer, C.S. Lewis observed in his heart-wrenching book A Grief Observed, written after the death of his wife to cancer. (Their tender love story was made into a movie, Shadowlands, directed by Richard Attenborough, starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger).

We could go on and on philosophizing about pain but nothing will take away the feeling of abject terror, and the utter sense of loneliness of one staring into an infinite abyss of despair. As Catholic monk Thomas Merton wrote in The Seven Storey Mountain on overcoming the death of his father: In the end, one has to take the pain "like an animal".

We only hope that, in the paroxysm of pain, in the climax of catharsis, some transformation ultimately takes place, slowly easing one onto a path forward---a path one hopes would still provide some worthwhile glimmer of a hope, for us to resume this journey of life.

Last night, I watched the widow of the Silverbird taxi driver crying on TV: it was the wail of one whose soul has been emptied, it was the helpless cry of a wounded lamb in the dead of night.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003


How does one even begin to console families who have lost loved ones at the Marriott bombing? Many who died are from the ordinary working class: Silverbird taxi drivers, Satpams (security guards) and hotel workers; often sole income earners of their families.

The Indonesian TV channels, in typical professional nosiness, have shown wailing family members of victims at their homes; homes filled with snotty-faced children, crying; homes with mouths waiting to be fed. Gory images of charred remains of victims are shown on prime-time TV: the slow unzipping of the orange body bags, the total abject horror on the faces of families as reality sunk in -- it is a sight that could break a thousand hearts.

Survivors speaking from hospical beds voiced disbelief at how someone could do such an evil thing: to explode a bomb during peak lunchtime hour right outside a packed hotel lobby and restaurant--it is cruelty that is beyond comprehension, it is humanity at its lowest.

Our prayers are with the souls of the victims and their grieving family members. Everyday we go about our daily lives with the given belief that we would end our day alive, fulfilled at having put in an honest day's work.

I believe those victims of the blast at Marriott started their day on August 5 no differently.

But yesterday, their day ended at lunchtime rudely and abruptly. And for the rest of us who live and work in this beloved city, our days would never feel the same again.

Will we end our day today, alive and fulfilled? And the day after?

Someone out there is bent on denying us this right. But we should not relent, we have to trudge on with the belief that another day awaits us tomorrow, ready to be filled with our hopes and dreams. We need to soldier on. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to the victims at Marriott.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

The Second Wake-up Call

In my travels across the region, I've often marvelled at the impeccable quality of service given by the hotels in Indonesia. One feels enormously pampered the moment one steps into any one of the business class hotels here. The people are courteous and gentle, and there's a certain grace and charm in the way the locals move and speak, equalled perhaps only by the Thais.

The JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta where today's bomb blast occurred is no exception. Though I myself have never stayed there before--preferring the duller but more refined Regent Jakarta--friends who have raved about the service given. They liked the broadband service; they liked being greated by their names the moment they alight from their Silverbird taxi at the entrance of the hotel; and they liked the in-room massage.

Wake up calls in the morning are always personal-- non of that electronically programmed ones. Sometimes the sweetness of the voice at the other end induces you to continue indulging in your reverie for another ten minutes, often to disasterous consequences.

Which is why they will always enquire in their ever-polite manner: Do you need a second wake up call sir? Yes of course. And you slide deeper into your cool white sheets, happy that you are in such good hands.

Now it is clear that we have been sleeping long enough.

As reports of casualities and injuries from the latest bombing incident in Jakarta pour in, the magnitude of the tragedy is becoming more evident. This is not another one of those Tommy Suharto-linked fire-cracker-like explosions engineered to create mischieve and to scare people into not supporting the present government. This Marriott incident has the stamp of JI/Al-Qaeda written all over it.

For a while, we were lulled into a sense of false comfort because we had Amrozi, Muklas, Imam Samudra and Abu Bakar Baa'syir under custody and put on trial. Now it is clear that the terrorist groups are far from being crippled.

Bali was the first wake-up call. Marriott is the second. I don't think we need another one.

The City of Living Dangerously

We can hear sirens blaring from our office at Metropolitan I. From reports that are coming in from CNN and AP, It looks like the blast is worst than what we had earlier expected. At least 4 casualties involving foreigners have been reported.

JW Marriott is one of the more popular hotels in Jakarta. It is newer, trendier and well-located within the golden triangle of Sudirman, Gatot-Subroto and Rasuna Said. The Untitled Pub located at the hotel is a popular hangout for yuppies. In fact I have fond memories of watching last year's World Cup Final live telecast there.

But Jakartans are resilient: over the years there have been bomb blasts at the Jakarta Stock Exchange, Atrium Mall Senen, Eksotis Diskotek at Mangga Besar, the Soekarno-Hatta airport terminal, the UN Building and also one that went unnoticed by many people at the Parliament compound; not to mention the carnage during the riots of 1998.

Jakarta just celebrated its 476th anniversary last month. It is an old city. It has survived centuries of invasion and exploitation by foreign powers -- the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Japanese and also a coup attempt by Communists during Sukarno's Year of Living Dangerously. It will certainly survive this ordeal and move on.

To me, Jakarta is still one of the most fascinating places to live in: It is a place with a soul; and an indomitable one at that.

Jakarta Post Report

Here's the latest about the blast at the JW Marriott Hotel from Jakarta Post.

Latest Bomb in Jakarta

Received distressing news about a bomb exploding at the basement of the JW Marriott Hotel here at Kuningan about ten minutes away from our office at Metropolitan. No news about casualties yet. But eye-witness accounts from my colleagues who happen to be working on-site at Excelcom opposite the hotel report smoke billowing out and guests in bathrobes being evacuated.

JW Marriott is a popular hotel for many of our colleagues from Malaysia and Singapore. It got a boost in business early last year when the Regent Jakarta had to be closed down because of damages caused by the floods. Many guests had to be evacuated to the Marriott.

Coincidentally, the Regent Jakarta just reopened yesterday. I suppose all the guests would have to be evacuated back to the Regent now.

Security at the Marriott has always been very tight. All guests entering the lobby are screened through metal detectors; the underside and trunk of cars entering the basement are also examined thoroughly by security guards. However it is still not surprising to see this happening. Terrorism, like prostitution and drugs, can never be totally eliminated.

There have been a lull in terrorist activities these past few months in Jakarta. The last bomb was one that exploded harmlessly behind the UN building, supposedly planted by GAM (Free Aceh Movement) supporters.

I guess it's back to business as usual in Jakarta.

Monday, August 04, 2003

Zen and the Art of Driving in Jakarta

I am lucky that my office is only a ten-minute taxi ride from where I'm staying. I also consider myself fortunate that I do not need to drive here in Jakarta -- I rely a hundred percent on the taxi service, which is cheap and efficient, and many times better than what we have in KL.

Typical of the Third World, the roads here are one big chaos of cars, taxis, motorcycles, bajajs, food pedlars, pedestrians and smoke-belching buses, all jostling and intermingling in a free-for-all, exacerbated further by a total disregard for traffic rules among its users.

Those of us who learned to drive the "proper way" often steer as if our cars are discrete components on a production line: You maintain a safe distance from the car in front of you and you move mechanically along your lane, conveyor-belt fashion, starting and stopping obediently at the dictates of the traffic lights, as if remotely controlled.

Driving this way is admirable and should earn you a license without having to resort to kopi-O money, but it will be the source of endless frustrations if actually practised on the gridlocked roads of Jakarta -- or KL for that matter. The trick to driving in Third World countries is to ignore lanes and just "go with the flow".

One needs to adopt a bit of De Bono's Water Logic to drive successfully here. The key is to keep a fluid style where one flows around obstacles, always exploring and squeezing into every possible crevice and opening, all the while maintaining a flexible and nimble attitude, adjusting, accomodating and letting the traffic find its own level.

The traffic is to be viewed as an organic continuum, oozing it ways through toll expressways, asphalt roads and gravel paths, ocassionally even flooding its banks, spilling onto pavements and grass embankments if necessary.

It is interesting to note that the Dutch first built a series of canals in Jakarta (then Batavia) as the main channel for transporting people and goods. The canals today have degenerated into smelly monsoon drains, but I suspect, the old aquatic habits of drifting and dribbling have persisted and have simply been transposed onto the modern eight-lane highways of Jalan Sudirman.

Unlike their Malaysian counterparts, drivers in Jakarta maintain a Zen-like state of calmness in the face of this daily traffic madness: It is probably a combination of the Javanese virtues of patience and courtesy and a general nonchalant attitude towards traffic violation. One rarely encounters despicably self-righteous drivers who would latch on to every tiny transgression that you make and chastise you with mighty blares of the horn.

The old Javanese adage, alon-alon asal kelakon, loosely translated as "slowly, as long as one gets results", is the underlying motto here. And everyday,on the fume-choked roads of Jakarta, I see the exquisite Javanese mind at work, and I tell myself how glad I am that I am not in KL.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Thoughts at a Wedding Dinner

The typical middleclass Indonesian wedding dinner -- especially one that's held in a five-star hotel -- is a strange affair to me: Guests come in their suits and ties and the women are decked like Christmas trees in their best jewelleries and gowns. Such was my colleague's Edwin wedding dinner last night at the Dharmawangsa Hotel.

I had wanted to start a new casual trend by going there in my short-sleeves and khakis; but I don't think I managed to win any converts at the end of the night. In Malaysia, if you had gone to a wedding dinner in a suit and tie, you would have been mistaken for the bridegroom.

If one expects the rousing yamseng affair of a typical Malaysian Chinese wedding, one would be thoroughly disappointed indeed. It is not customary for Indonesians to serve liqour on wedding feasts; in fact, "feast" is a bit of a misnomer, for the usual Indonesian wedding at the hotel is a buffet-style, standing affair.

Though the wedding was an expensive one, band, singer and ballet dancers and all, the whole affair, at least to me, with everyone dressed rather comically in suits, had the atmosphere of a corporate event. Even the food was of your typical product-launch-seminar lunch-break fare. Sorry no sharks-fin soup.

But overall it was a happy and dazzling affair: Young and old, ibu-ibus and bapak-bapaks sportingly participated in communal poco-poco dance.

As usual I got sucked into the well-intentioned but tiresome when-is-your-turn conversation with my married colleagues. "There are so many beautiful girls in Indonesia". That I agree, but what I can't comprehend is why so many of my friends would want to get married only to continue leading the licentious life they led as bachelors.

Fidelity is a rare virtue in deed, especially in Jakarta. That night at Dharmawangsa, I looked around me and saw everywhere, the secret deceits of men hovering behind the coiffured heads of their jewel-bedecked partners.