Letter From Jakarta

THE kretek-smoking men lazed on the verandah.

It was morning but already there was a muggy stillness in the air. Occasional faint breaths of wind stirred the newly-drenched Rafflesia orchids that hung from the eaves.

Beyond the orchids, one could see the rugged Indonesian countryside and the green rice paddies that shimmer under the blazing sky.

I was in a desa or village in Central Java.

Coming from the sprawling urban jungle of Jakarta, the quiet backwater of Tunggak desa and its languid ways were rather disquieting at first.

It was as if I had crossed some invisible barrier and gone back in time.

Here, no one really bothered about the long, stifling mid-day hours.

If there was any hustle and bustle, it was to be found in the pasar or market.

Strolling through the pasar, I was greeted by ubiquitous chickens, and a hail of “hello mister!” by the chain-smokers and children, whose round-eyed stares suggested that I was from another planet.

The little ones spent most of their day at the pasar, running around as children are wont to do. Now and then, they would stop to admire some new gewgaw on sale: a windmill whirling on a slender bamboo stick perhaps, or a wayang figure made of paper.

The pasar is the perfect index of desa life. It lies at the centre of its human eddy and provides the first clues in searching out the mind of the people.

The market at Tunggak overflowed at its boundaries. Vendors of all kinds of goods lined both sides of the road leading to it.

Toys, cakes and packets of Indomie were peddled next to boxes of matches, hairpins, cigarettes wrapped in maize leaves, soap cut into small cubes and chunks of salt wrapped in banana leaf.

The size of the crowd at times made it difficult to see the merchandise.

Threading carefully through the throng into the roofed-in market proper, one could detect the scent of tobacco heaped in dark piles on green banana leaves.

Nearby were huge quantities of the popular tempe cake. Made of fermented soya bean and cassava flour, it is the staple food for most of the 1,000 villagers.

Huddled in the market corner was a small tokoh or shop that has piles of cotton stacked 5m high.

Men were seated nearby, sewing machines on hand to rustle up garments while the customer waits.

The pasar is not a daily event. At most, it takes place three times a week.

Through it all, the villagers of Tunggak carry on with life as they know it.

When dawn breaks, and after saying their morning prayers, more than 300 farmers make their way on foot down a road of sand and gravel to tend to their fields of rice, pepper, corn and chilli.

In the meantime, the women, young and old, go down to the river for water.

They carry it back in earthenware jars almost as big as themselves on their heads or held in place on their backs with the selendang shawl.

On most days, the travelling barber would come by, carrying his trade tools in a wooden box and a campstool for his clients. He would set up shop under a shady tree, hanging a little mirror on a nail he drove into the trunk. It costs 1,500 rupiah (S$0.28) for a haircut.

After dark, the village roads become social meeting points where food vendors set up their portable stalls and kitchens. As their customers settle down, the faint smoky yellow light from each of the stalls’ paraffin lamps illuminates dimly a ring of men.

These stalls are sometimes known as the “desa men’s clubs”. Every farmer must belong to one of them. Otherwise, he would be perceived as a loner.

The women, too, have their “social clubs”. It is normally a communal laundry or bathing place near the river protected by bamboo fencing.

Every morning, while some women wash themselves and their babies, others beat sarongs on flat stones as they stand in the gentle flowing stream, exchanging gossip in a noisy mix of splashing water and laughter.

Sometimes, all the villagers get together for an evening of gamelan music.

For the people of the desa, music is very much a part of their lives.

Thousands of desas in Indonesia are like Tunggak. It is self-contained and the worldview is insular – on the surface at least.

There is some inkling among villagers that their country is in political turmoil. They learn this, of course, from the media. Unlike the Suharto era, newspapers are easily available in the desa these days.

And so is TV.

Parabolas sprout like giant mushrooms on the rooftops of attap houses of the privileged few. They spread word of major developments in Jakarta during the desa “club meetings”.

Besides, farmers also have to dig deeper into their pockets these days.

Though self-sufficient, they complain that the prices of some goods needed to farm the land have increased by 50 to 100 per cent in the last three years.

That is not all. Unemployed labourers from the cities are returning to the village for jobs.

But they are finding it difficult to get any and are placing additional pressure on food and resources in the farms.

That explains why the pasar is bursting at its seams these days as drifters gather there looking for jobs or to steal.

But unlike the urban centres, there are no large-scale demonstrations or bloody bomb attacks in the desa.

One wonders, though, whether over time Tunggak and other sleepy hollows in Indonesia would fall prey in a big way to the creeping influence of Jakarta politics.

It did in 1965 when thousands were slaughtered in the desas of Java, Sumatra and Bali.

It was a different Indonesia then. But the imprint of the past will always remain in the mind of a people, even if times have changed in the villages with its pasar festivals, desa clubs and gamelan shows.

The soft charm of its people, as history has shown, could vanish in a savage instant.

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