Saturday, August 16, 2003

Visiting Kampung Kebon DJahe Kober

It's a long weekend for me: tomorrow is Indonesia's Independence Day and Monday will be a public holiday. I had decided to spent the holiday researching on Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Jakarta of the 1950s.

In the short story "My Kampung" from the collection, Tales from Djakarta, Pramoedya painted a grim picture of inhabitants in a shanty dwelling "five hundred meters in a straight line" from the Presidential Palace called Kebun Djahe Kober. Here death and disease are everyday occurences and the daily topic of conversation is "who died?".

Pramoedya narrates in a sardonic tone, the squalor and suffering of life in Kampung Kebon Djahe Kober where the Angel of Death, Djibril is described as a regular visitor to the kampung--his appearance signaling the departure of another unlucky soul from this world.

I had carefully studied my maps to pinpoint the exact location of Kampung Kebon Djahe Kober. And this morning I took an ojek to Tanah Abang, where I found what's left of the village, located just next to an old Dutch graveyard. I had also found out earlier that "Kober" in the Betawi dialect actually derives from the word "kubur" or graveyard. Pramoedya masterfully chose Kebon Djahe Kober to make an oblique commentary on life in a typical ramshackled urban village--so common in Jakarta--and whose inhabitants literally lives in close proximity with Death.

Kebon Djahe today, consists of 3 gangs or narrow alleys. I wandered among the alleyways which are lined with smelly gutters and chanced upon an old man who was making birdcages. I started a conversation with him and I soon found out that Pak Rachmat, 70 years of age is actually the oldest person in the village. I marvelled at my good fortune: I couldn't ask for a better person to learn about the history of Kampung Kebon Djahe Kober.

Pak Rachmat was very eager to share his recollections of old Jakarta. He invited me into his small little compartment of a house where he had successfully raised eight of his nine children (one of them died). We talked animatedly about many things: the old electric tram service in Jakarta, the canals where everyone used to bathe publicly, the Gestapu incident and what a great leader Bung Karno (Sukarno) was.

His hospitality touched me deeply. We exchanged addresses and before I begged my leave, I promised to visit him again. I had earlier made an appointment with Setiawan to pick me up from there to go on a photo-shooting excursion to Monas. When we left, Pak Rachmat was standing--looking gangly in his shorts and worn-out shirt--waving us goodbye.

I feel happy that the Angel of Death, Djibril does not visit Kampung Kebon Djahe Kober that frequently these days. And I pray it will be many many more years before he makes that inevitable appointment with Pak Rachmat.

Friday, August 15, 2003

People are more Important than Books

And I couldn't agree more. Perhaps a surprising thing to say for someone who has often been accused of being anti-social--preferring to stay at home to read a book than to join friends on another night of clubbing at the latest nightspot in town. People would naturally think that I value books more than people.

But I want to reiterate my view that people are more important than books. Why? Because people make more interesting "reading".

You see, people are like books--only vastly more interesting ones. I value all my friends and acquaintances as living sources of knowledge and experience. They are like plots that are constantly unfolding--books that are still in the process of being written. And there's always so much to read between the lines. Furthermore, people unlike books, are interactive in nature: "reading" them is a multimedia experience that allows one to act both as observer and participator.

Some people are open books; some require massive amounts of cross-referencing and careful perusal of footnotes before one could gain a glimmer of their insights; some cannot be read because they are written in an alien language.

I get to learn so much from my friends in Jakarta: Just yesterday over a cup of kopi tubruk with Edwin (whose father is Javanese and mother Ambonese and he himself recently married a girl from Manado), I learnt that there's an ancient Javanese poet and seer called Ronggowarsito, who can be considered to be the Nostradamus of Java.

I also learnt a lot about the differences between the Javanese and the Sundanese people from my many hours of conversations with Ibu Titi whose husband is Sundanese. I also found out from her how much Sukarno is still revered by the older generation.

And while waiting for our flight home from Makassar on a business trip with my colleague Dharmanto, I learnt from him about the importance of sperm mobility in the process of insemination: Dharmanto's wife only successfully conceived a child after years of undergoing various types of treatment in countless fertility clinics.

I ocassionally would also probe our secretary June for information about her family who has settled down in Jakarta for 13 generations. Her family home in the old Chinatown area is considered a historical heritage. One of her ancestors was also the Chinese Kapitan of Batavia. Entering her quaint Chinese house, I half-expected a sword-wielding Zhang Ziyi to leap over the roof into its open courtyard--where now a huge satellite dish is planted, in jarring anachronism.

And then there's Aan, a Chinese who originated from Bagan Si Api-Api, a small island in the Riau archipelago. The Chinese there are supposed to have been descended from survivors of a shipwreck and an annual ceremony is still held there today to commemorate the event.

And there's more:

Pretty 17-year-old Rosi told me about her experience working in the onion fields of her hometown, Brebes in Central Java; Wijaya recounted his arduous one-week journey on the back of a lorry from Medan to Jakarta down the island of Sumatra; Setiawan from Semarang, married for 17 years, defended his theory that most people got married mainly because of sex; and most fascinating of all was the story by Hengky from Makassar who narrated to us how he was molested by a gay doctor while undergoing circumcision!

I have so much fun talking, probing and picking the background and opinion of my friends; these walking books never cease to fascinate me with their endless anecdotes and snippets of wisdom.

With Jakarta having a population of more than 10 million people, I have a vast library of resources to tap into. Who said books are more important than people?

Thursday, August 14, 2003

The Wisdom of Pak Pram

Last Tuesday night at the book launching event held at Taman Ismail Marzuki Arts Centre, we listened intently to the wisdom, humour and bitterness of a man who had spent 14 years of imprisonment and 10 years of forced labour on the penal island of Buru. Every word that Pramoedya Ananta Toer uttered was tinged with an emotionally depth and an intellectual intensity that reverberated in one's mind.

Commenting on the theme of women in his books, he said that he prefers the word "wanita" to "perempuan" because "perempuan" reminds him of "perampokan" which means "robbery" (in Malaysia we use "perompakan" which strangely is only used in Indonesia to refer specifically to acts of piracy at sea) whereas "wanita" reminds him of the word "berani", meaning "brave".

Bravery is a virtue which he learnt through the examples of two women whom he revered--his grandmother and mother. Despite the poverty and the hardship of living under colonial rule, these women always tried to fend for themselves and never sought help from anyone. He remembered when his grandmother fell sick, she did not want to trouble her children or grandchildren and insisted on going back to her kampung. She died on her way home.

Pramoedya's mother, which he also recounted so affectionately in his memoir, The Mute's Soliloquy, was a woman who always had high hopes for him, even at a time when they could hardly feed themselves. She told Pramoedya that one day he will go overseas to Holland to earn himself a degree.

Pramoedya himself never got a formal education beyond the equivalent of our lower secondary school. But he was proud to mention that he finally fulfilled his mother's wishes when he was honoured with a doctorate degree by the University of Michigan in the United States at the ripe old age of 74.

The example of both his grandmother and mother fortitied his character and had become the source of inspiration for many of his books. These women were both individualists in a society that until today still practises subservience and blind loyalty to authorities. He offered an advice to many of the young students who were gathered there that night: All successful people are essential self-taught. Formal education is not the key nor the necessary factor.

On a lighter note, Pak Pram said, even someone like Inul Daratista should he applauded for having the courage to stand up to her rights. Inul is the controversial dangdut singer and dancer who has been grabbing the headlines this year because of her sexy brand of hip-gyrating moves which drew the ire of many religious groups.

The tragedy of Indonesia is the adherence of its people to what he called "Javanisme"--the traditional Javanese culture of blind obedience to elders and authorities. It is this "Javanisme" that resulted in 2 million people being slaughtered for suspected involvement with the Communists in a nationwide killing frenzy after Suharto's so-called Orde Baru regime took over control from Sukarno in 1965.

Pramoedya's bitterness against the Suharto regime runs deep. His house was seized from him and his books and writings burnt during the cathartic events following the failed Communist coup of September 30, 1965. The Indonesians refer to the event by the sinister sounding term "Gestapu", which is a contraction of "Gerakan September Tiga Puluh".

Even though Pramoedya has been released from prison in 1979, his house has until today still not been returned to him. He said that he has been unfairly accused of being sympathetic to the Communists when all he was concerned about was the welfare of his fellow citizens. "Saya bukan Komunis atau Kapitalis. Saya Pram-is", referring to the belief in his own individual conscience--"Pram-is"

He also see the present Megawati government's handling of the Aceh situation high-handed. The Aceh people too have suffered many atrocities under the hands of the Indonesian army. He praised the Acehnese spirit as to be emulated and reminded everyone that Aceh was still standing proudly as an independent kingdom long after the rest of the Malay archipelago had fallen into the hands of Western colonialists.

When asked what he personally thought about President Megawati Sukarnoputri, he said, "Megawati bukan Sukarno". He still respects Indonesia's founding father as a brave man who had the courage to fight the Dutch and almost single-handedly united the 15,000 islands of the Malay archipelago into one single nation. Megawati, Pak Pram noted sadly, does not possess the qualities of her father, Sukarno.

Pramoedya also took many questions from the floor. His hearing problem prevented him from listening to his audience directly--he had to have the questions repeated loudly into his ear by the moderator or written down on paper.

It wasn't all a sombre and serious night filled with political exhortations. There were some lighter moments when one of his fellow writers asked why certain supposedly erotic passages in his books sounded rather weak and insipid.

Pak Pram sportingly answered: "Seks itu aneh bagi saya. Saya tidak punya kesempatan mempelajarinya". (Sex is still a strange thing to me because I never really had the opportunity to learn it). His childhood and youth was filled with the preoccupations of survival and overcoming poverty. Sex was a luxury.

That night I felt myself fortunate to have the opportunity to listen to this great soul. Pramoedya Ananta Toer is not only the living conscience of Indonesia but also a voice of sanity for a world that sometimes forgets that the simple virtues of hardwork, courage, kindness and humility are what makes a great man and ultimately, a great nation.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Meeting Pak Pram

Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who is 78 years of age this year, is Indonesia's grand old man of letters. Last night I had the opportunity to get close to the great man at his book launching event held at the Taman Ismail Marzuki Art Centre (TIM). It was actually a re-launching of his five women-themed books: Larasati, Panggil Aku Kartini Saja, Midah, Gadis Pantai and Calon Arang.

Imprisoned by Suharto's Orde Baru regime for 14 years for alleged involvement with the Communist movement, Pramoedya's books were also banned in his own country while the rest of the world collected, translated, analyzed and pored through every word that he has written. Today he is regarded as the Malay world's leading candidate for a Nobel Prize.

I mentioned in a previous blog entry that his novel Keluarga Gerilya was (I'm not sure if it still is) a mandatory text for arts stream students in Malaysian secondary schools. I was quite amused last year watching an episode of the Indonesian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" (a misnomer actually because the prize money is 1 billion and not 1 million rupiah) when a participant was asked to pick from a list of books by Pramoedya, which title was used as a textbook in Malaysian schools. He didn't get the answer right.

Arriving at TIM straight from the office, I managed to grab a quick dinner of soto ayam Lamongan at one of the warungs nearby before securing myself a good seat inside the Galeri Cipta II hall.

A thin but healthy Pak Pram (or Bung Pram as he is affectionately called here) arrived, wearing a cap and holding a walking stick, looking like an elderly man out to cheer his grandchildren on a Sunday afternoon game of soccer.

The literati of Jakarta was also present that night. A crowd of 300 people, mostly students, milled around the stage, some sitting cross-legged on the floor waiting in anticipation to hear the man speak. Their reverence for this man was clearly evident.

When Pak Pram spoke, everyone was spellbound. His voice was clear and spirited. He joked about his hard of hearing (he is deaf in one ear after being rifle-butted by a soldier during his arrest in 1965); and he evoked melancholy and defiance when he spoke about the women who had influenced him most in his life--his grandmother, mother and wife.

He praised their independence of spirit, kindness and bravery in the face of adversity. He also did not mince his words when asked to comment about the present government. Ocassionally he would also break into a mischievous laugh like a scoutmaster telling horror tales over a campfire.

I kicked myself for not having the presence of mind to bring along my video camera. Soon I found myself scribbling notes on whatever pieces of paper I could find in my wallet--credit card slips and ATM receipts. I will save those notes of mine as the subject of my blog entry tomorrow as I do not want to make today's entry too long.

After having to fight through hordes of fans and reporters, I am happy to say that at the end of the evening I managed to get six of my Pramoedya books autographed by the man himself--including my precious English and Bahasa versions of Tales from Djakarta.

I regretted having left my copy of The Mute's Soliloquy in KL. I must make sure that I bring it back with me to Jakarta on my next trip home. Who knows, I might get a chance to meet Pak Pram again.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Eating and Reading in Jakarta

I spend a lot time reading at eating places in Jakarta. These days I would even consider myself fortunate that I do not have a taste for expensive or Western food--I don't have to worry about eating at places that could be potential terrorist targets.

Though the best food in Jakarta can be found at many roadside hawker stalls, eating at these places could be a hassle as you are constantly harrassed by an endless stream of pengamins (street musicians) and asongans (street vendors peddling everything from locally-made Sutra condoms to English-Indonesian dictionaries to fake Mont Blanc pens).

This is especially so at Peconangan--a popular eating street near Kota (Chinatown) where one can find everything from sate babi to sup bak-kut to kodok goreng. One needs to have lots of 500 rupiah coins handy to feed and steer these persistent street serenaders away.

Whenever I'm eating alone and need to do some reading before and after my meal, I would choose a local restaurant that's not too crowded and have well-lighted tables. Bakmi Gang Kelinci at Jalan Sabang is one such place. Ocassionally I also eat and read at Ayam Goreng Priangan, often indulging myself in a good cup of kopi tubruk after a satisfying Sundanese meal.

My usual place for nasi padang is Sederhana which is arguably the most popular "chain" of nasi padang restaurants in Jakarta. Even though a typical nasi padang restaurant is usually very busy, I could still manage some reading there as they are quite comfortable and very well lighted; not to mention the fact that they also serve a very good glass of jus alpukat (avocado juice).

Sometimes I also read at Warung Si Boy, right in front of my hotel, while enjoying a good bowl of Indomie rebus with teh hangat tawar. Costs me only 3,500 rupiah. Sometimes Si Boy's pretty sister would strike up a friendly conversation with me (Dari mana? Jepang?). Fortunately, there are not many pengamins there but one occassionally encounters a scary-looking banci (transvestite or pondan) jingling noisily by your side with a tambourine made from bottle-caps. A 500 rupiah coin will shoo him/her away.

I am not a very good judge of food as I am usually too engrossed in the book that I'm reading (not a recommended habit as one might end up swallowing things that one shouldn't), but I find Laksmi Patmunjak's Jakarta: Good Food Guide, the best reference for street-side food in Jakarta.

People always question me whether Jakarta is a safe place to go to, let alone live in. All I can say is: I have good food, good books and good friends here for company--what more could one ask for?

Bon appetit!

Monday, August 11, 2003

The Intuitive Aspect of Science

The physical sciences and mathematics are often considered dull and unimaginative subjects; the discipline is filled with the rigours of solving complex mathematical equations, the tabulation of voluminous empirical data and the description of natural phenomena in dry technical jargons.

Being someone who has been drafted into the science stream since I was sixteen (Form 4), I consider an education in the sciences as the best thing that ever happened to me. Early on, I realised that there are certain people who have a natural aptitude for mathematic thinking and there are others who are just hopeless when it comes to dealing with symbols and numbers.

The exacting nature of the physical sciences requires a mind that is precise, logical and methodical to excel. But it does not mean that those who opt for the humanities do not possess nor require such abilities. Often the study of the arts and humanities require these faculties to be honed to an even more acute level given its very subjective nature.

Neither does the study of the sciences exclude the need for its students to be intuitive, imaginative or even "artistics". If the domain of science and mathematics is looked upon as nerdy, tedious and boring, it is because the teachers who are teaching these subjects are not approaching it in the correct way.

Often, a topic is introduced without relating it to its historical context or its practical application. Why for instance do we study analytical geometry? What is the actual significance of Newton's Laws of Motion? What do Maxwell's equations really mean, intuitively? Why do we need to spend hours learning how to manipulate algebraic symbols and solve differential equations? Who invented differential calculus?

The study of science can be history, engineering and philosophy rolled in one. It is an intellectual adventure that is unsurpassed, and at its most sublime it gives the student an experience of exhilaration that borders on the spiritual.

Both imagination and logical rigour is required to do well in science. Michael Faraday is an example of a scientist who reasoned in an intuitive manner. His postulation of the presence of electric and magnetic fields from where lines of force called "flux" act, is a triumph of the intuitive imagination.

It was left to the logical genius of James Clark Maxwell to put the mathematical meat behind Faraday's intuitive flux-field model, formulating it in four neat equations--Maxwell's Equations--which every electrical engineering student today know by heart.

Maxwell's equations describe completely the phenomena of electricity and magnetism, and their interrelationships--the Laws of Electromagnetism--without which our our cellular phones, television broadcasts and WiFi PDAs would not have become a possibility.

Without the creative imagination, new scientific theories and models will not arise. And without the logical precision of mathematics, all the engineering applications of science would not have been possible. A good scientist possesses both qualities.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

The Games of Married Men (and Women)

My married friends these days far outnumber the unmarried ones. In Indonesia, it is rare to find someone still unmarried in his 30s. I can divide my married friends into two categories: Those who claim that being married is the best thing in their lives, and those who harbour regrets at having lost the freedom of their bachelorhood.

The former group would always look at me with some condescending kind of pity--they cannot understand why I am so "selfish" and choose to remain single. The second group would look at me with envy: "I wish I could still do as I wish like you, never having to worry about going home late, never having to constantly report to my other half".

Both sides have valid arguments, and I enjoy hearing them make their cases. Being male and single, I am privy to many of their infidelities too and I must say that they exist equally in both groups. Sometimes I wonder if women also have their secret worlds, totally hidden from their men.

I guess it is a game that men and women play against each other. Who could forget the duel of seduction between the characters played by John Malkovich and Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons? I have been watching Dangerous Liaisons over and over again since the late eighties and I am still not bored with it. There's so much fun and philosophy to be distilled from that movie.

Why do men and women indulge in these infidelity games? Is perhaps marriage part of that game too? Maybe the reason is, as Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) expressed succinctly in the movie,
"It's beyond my control"