Letter from Jakarta 2011/1: Amin’s Death

Letter from Jakarta 2011/1: Amin’s Death

by Max Lane.

(Max Lane is 2011 ASIALINK Writer-in-Residence with Majalah Historia and will be visiting Indonesia and Timor Leste several times during 2011.)

Really, in hindsight, there was a great deal of beauty in the scene. There was a kaleidoscope of wonderful colours: dark blues and greens, the red and white of the national soccer team, as well as fading browns and greys and dirty whites.  T-shirts and dresses, trousers and singlets, chequered green and brown sarongs, black pecis on black heads of hair, all coloured the scene. There was glistening silver from the sun’s steaming rays bouncing of the zinc and tin rooftops and the myriads of blacks, browns and greys among the timbers, tiles, packing cases, corrugated iron, tarpaulins and plastics that were the constructions materials for these peoples’ place of rest and life. And there was the sky, grey and brooding and dirty, with clouds of feint blue among the puffy curtains that forebode coming rain. There were the greens of scattered trees and the occasional pot plant. There were the browns of people’s eyes and skins and the whites or yellows of their smiles.

The colored beauty of the intense life of that narrow lane remains vivid to me even now, quite a while later. It is a vividness of hindsight, of memory. At the time, it registered only fleetingly, the beauty of the colour and life and movement drowned almost instantly by the sense of exhaustion which dominated the faces, the bodily movements and somehow even rose up from the potholed asphalt of the narrow road way.

Our taxi stopped immediately outside our destination – a door way into a rectangle of darkness divided by a curtain, lit only by the hot glare of the burning filament of a light bulb and a regular little shudder of light as somebody opened a door or pulled back the curtain so the outside light could steal inside. The curtain divided the room about two meters inside the door. Behind the door was a small table, waste high, a meter wide and a meter and a half long. On the table lay a baby, six months old, its asleep face covered in gauze; its body under a sheet and a piece of  simple but lovely batik. The baby – named Amin – had been dead about four hours. Amin’s mother, knelt at by his head, wiping the puss that still drizzled from his nose. The father received guests, weeping and holding back his sobs as he greeted his neighbours.

Amin had taken ill earlier in the morning, appearing to be in pain, breathing hard and with red spots appearing over his body. The relative looking after him at the time tried to get the child to a clinic and then a hospital. Lack of money for a taxi, the horrible slow traffic of Jakarta, the bumpy, impossible transport of the little Indian made motor bike powered mini-cab made the trip a horror in itself. “The child cannot be helped,” said the doctor. “He has the measles; it is too far gone and the child is too young to fight the disease.” He was right; Amin died soon after.

38,000 children a year die of measles in Indonesia.

Amin’s father rushed home from work. His mother was there; standing straight, dealing with these bitter, sad facts of their life. Sadness dominated the exhausted faces and the sobbing voices. Bewilderment was there too: “he was so well yesterday”, said neighbor after neighbor, no help to baby or those most grieving from the loss.

Amin’s father tidied the sheets. His mother cleaned again his nose with cotton a relative handed across the table.  Their eyes, which watched the child sleep, were red. The room grew hotter as more people crowded in and out. The mother, now talking outside to a friend, was sobbing.

Loss.

Stress and the weight of an unjust reality.

The child had to be buried. Paperwork had to be done. “Two and a half million rupiah,” a sturdy woman in plain, brown western dress explained would be the cost. Burial and the cemetery papers; money for the kyai to pray; to wash the baby – there was a long list. Two and a half million rupiah (US$200) was two or three months wages in this community, where saving was impossible and debt the norm. More debt loomed, except if the safety net of the extended family could somehow come into play, often indebting even more people. The state would give no real help, a fact that was like a savage, abrasive little razor in the back of mind, stirring anger.

There wasn’t much I could say except through a hug and embrace and whispered words of “so sorry”.

Sadness was the air everybody breathed; words of facing reality and “dealing with it” vibrated through that air. Moslem custom required that Amin be buried quickly, the next morning. Everything had to be fixed.  I didn’t go to the burial, but I was told the father, accompanied by his wife and their relatives and friends, carried Amin a kilometer and a half through the tropical heat and polluted air of Jakarta to his burial. They will have to pay money every month if another child is not to buried over Amin.

Grieving faces off against the reality of back to underpaid slave labour; the grief managed through the ritual of prayer and gathering together.

I write this little note because I can’t forget the incident nor the anger that I felt that poor, working people, already squeezed for their energy, for space and for money for all their minimal, basic needs of life, need bear this sadness of a baby’s death further burdened by the miserliness of a heart-hardened state that allows millions and millions of Amin fathers and mothers slave for such a life.  And hating too the soulnessness of a world structured to allow it to happen.

The only medicine for the kind of measles’ Amin suffered is to turn the world upside down and the state inside out so that all the Amins and their sisters, as they grow up healthy, and their fathers and mothers rule that world.

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