Kaptain's Blog

The writings and musings of The Kaptain

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Through The Godless Hours (7)

“…By the grace of God, ’Pak Kapten. Please. Please show us some mercy,” the father of four had begged. His hands were clenched before him, the words choking in his throat. “We’ve been on this site more than twenty years, insya’allah. If you kick us out now, where will we go? Where will my children sleep tonight?”

Dressed simply in the white robes of one who had willingly submersed himself in his faith, the man, his wife and four bedraggled urchins of descending height had been forced by the army squad to line up in front of their decrepit, tin-roofed shack. His expression a curious mixture of sheer terror on the one hand, and a resolute belief in divine justice on the other, the man pleaded with the most senior ranked officer among the group of soldiers that had arrived out of nowhere to encircle the small dust-bowl surrounding his home. And as he spoke he shielded the youngest of his children – probably a five-year-old – who, frightened by this unexpected incursion into their simple but peaceful existence, was now beginning to blubber. Small wonder, given the menacing posture of the uniformed men who surrounded this impoverished family, their weapons armed and ready. “Show me your ID cards,” the Captain had then snapped, curtly. His steely glare was aimed directly at the dishevelled man’s eyes as he spoke. “W-we…we don’t have any,” the man stuttered his uncertain response, while avoiding the officer’s stare. “Then you don’t exist,” came the cold reply. Then soundlessly and entirely without warning, the Captain simply drew up his pistol and pumped a round into the man’s face, the back of his victim’s skull instantly peppering the flimsy wall behind. The swiftness of this unexpected turn of events took even some of his fellow soldiers by surprise, one or two of who shared sideways looks, their eyebrows raised. And then with an earsplitting wail that contained a whole spectrum of emotion: shock – terror – dread – surprise – grief – the dead man’s wife collapsed on to her husband with a gut-wrenching cry of disbelief, while her hysterical children fled back inside the shack, tripping over each other in their hurry to close the door behind them and pretend that what they had just witnessed was not, after all, real.

“Nooooo!”

Silence.

A cockerel crowed.

“Nooooo!” she screamed again, at an impossible pitch. But no-one was listening, not even her God. “Suamiku!… My husband!… Why?… Why?” she sobbed, her heart for evermore inconsolable – the feeling like someone had suddenly sucked out her insides.

The woman’s face was now buried in the rags covering her husband’s warm but slowly cooling body, around which a lake of bright red was quickly spreading. Then, without hesitation, Captain Farid took half a step forward before calmly firing three bullets into the back of her head, from point-blank range. And in the aftermath of this atrocity it was he who, before departing with the rest of the squad, poured petrol over the makeshift hovel within which the family had until today lived out an unremarkable, but wholly law-abiding, existence. And it was also the Captain who then threw the match, knowing that the cowering children – frightened, wide-eyed and innocent – were still inside, their whimpers clearly audible as the cardboard and wood of the shack began to crackle in the flames…

Soon, the hit of this new and exciting drug called arms dealing had Captain Farid hooked. And like any addict, he needed an ever-increasing supply. He was, by now, also beginning to visualise the considerable bank of cash he would soon be amassing – a factor that served to further fuel his lust. Better yet, he had developed a more efficient, risk-averse system of obtaining each new cache – even cultivating something of a code of honour among his accomplices. And although this was achieved more through terror than any sign of genuine loyalty it was, when added to the significant sums he paid out to his runners, more than enough to ensure their silence. Now giddy with the instant success of the venture, his confidence in the operation soared. But as the Captain’s illicit activities grew he began to attract the attention of some of the professional arms dealers operating in the region, into whose dominion he had strayed – and whose trade he was, therefore, effectively stealing. This was an unforeseen and essentially invisible development, the attendant threat of which he remained unaware. But the danger these unscrupulous mercenaries represented was quick to reveal itself in another quarter, when an anonymous tip-off was received at police headquarters in the capital. Initially, Jakarta’s serious crime unit had somewhat lethargically filed this first transcript under ‘pending’. For informants such as this one had often led their over-stretched resources up a succession of blind alleyways. In any event, they were scarcely incentivised to summon up the courage to chase down what would doubtless prove a dangerous and well-connected adversary. This particular grass, however, was persistent and several more calls were made, at an increasing rate. And so when a fifth, sixth and then a seventh tip-off was received, the Chief Inspector could no longer ignore the desktop dossier that was growing by the day, and resigned himself to act. Knowing that to successfully crack the case would require a great deal of guts and no small amount of guile, he assigned the project to one of his brightest, but maverick, young Detectives. And the name of this Detective was Adi Dharsta.

posted by Kirk at 8:02 pm  

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Through The Godless Hours (6)

Anath’s fear of the army officer might have been based purely upon instinct, but it was nevertheless justified. In fact, he had done well to avoid taking the bait and rising to the jibes this cruel aggressor had tossed his way. For Captain Farid Azasti was a heartless character, sent straight from central casting. He was the boxer whose unflinching stare won the fight before the first bell had been rung: the merciless assassin who pulled the trigger of the gun rammed into his victim’s mouth, ignoring all pleas for clemency. And as a young cadet, Farid had also been the volunteer from his company who crushed life from the nestling in his fist, before wiping the gore on his uniformed leg, grinning all the time. It was not easy to connect with this cold impostor of humanity, who at the deepest level was driven by confusion, self-loathing and a monstrous rage that only jealousy could know. Seated opposite him in Sate Blora’s cavernous dining hall, the Captain’s father had already taken worrying note of his elder son’s increasingly hostile attitude. He was aware that there was something very wrong with his troubled heir, but so far had not found a way to address the issue – whatever it was. Inwardly, the General chastised himself for not seeing some kind of problem coming: especially when his other son was accelerated through the ranks, ahead of his time. Significantly, Yudi’s military career was developing at a much faster pace than that of his elder brother. The General understandably sought to protect his first son from criticism, refusing to talk openly about a problem that had become obvious to all around him. Essentially in denial, he would not even discuss the matter on those occasions it was quietly aired by one or other of the senior figures from within the extended family. But while he had yet to find a solution, or decide how he was going to deal with what he knew he eventually must, he was also unaware of the extent of the problem his elder son had engineered for himself. For Captain Farid Azasti was in deep, deep trouble. In a bind so tight it would later become clear that it had only ever been a matter of time before he self-destructed. This cruel abuser of privilege was up to his neck, in fact, in illicit arms dealing.

It was in the quiet seaside resort of Parangtritis that the Captain first met the Colombians. Ostensibly the backdrop to a reunifying, second honeymoon with his barren wife of ten years, this relaxed and unfashionable locale provided a perfect cover for the trade he intended to commence. He had even reminded ’Bu Mira, as she was known, not to pack any green clothes, lest Nyai Loro Kidul came in the night to claim one – or both – of them. The stuff of folklore, this mythical ‘Queen of the South Sea’ was unable to resist the allure of her favourite colour. Over the centuries, innumerable drownings off the south coast of Java had erroneously been attributed to her avarice, as Farid now teased his wife. But such romantic small-talk was intended only to create a diversion from the real purpose of their excursion to this coastal backwater. It offered, essentially, a form of camouflage. To him, the scheme was beautifully simple and – better still – of vile ambition: the drug wars of Central America fought out with stolen guns from the Orient, and a handsome payout for the facilitator. Fifty percent up front, the balance on completion. US dollars, cash. Used notes. Effortless. All he now had to do was arrange for the weapons to be ‘uninventorised’ – stolen – and then deliver them to a vessel lying at anchor at the rendezvous point. It sounded risky, but for an officer with his terrifying reputation – and sudden liquidity – the arrangements would be relatively easy to make, and orders carried out without question.

Like so many with his mindset – reinforced by the narrow teachings that served to reaffirm his elevated status in some man made spiritual hierarchy – Captain Farid was able to convince himself that if he failed to make full use of this opportunity, then God might look down upon him less kindly. It would be as if he had spurned a once-in-a-lifetime offer from the Lord himself. But perhaps he felt also that his manhood might be disputed if his courage failed to act upon what his mind now told him he could – and should – do. That this would somehow suggest he had backed out of a challenge, revealing an inherent flaw, or fear-induced paralysis at some vital moment, coming at a time when assertive action was most required. But whatever false grounds the Captain wished to invent for his own, cosmetic reasons, in truth the real motivation for putting his career – and maybe even his life – on the line was that he craved desperately to be noticed. Was driven to achieve something that totally outflanked the accomplishments of his clever young brother who was of senior rank, and who already had two sons to his name. But, most of all, was the kid who had always been the apple of his Daddy’s eye.

And if this meant he gained notoriety in the process, then so be it.

The first weapons drop was planned to perfection and executed without a hitch. And although at no time did he personally handle the guns, the thrill he felt at the mission’s conclusion was like the buzz he experienced after his first ‘official’ kill. When he had ruthlessly carried out the order to evict a peasant family from government land. An instruction he had followed with pitiless indifference…

posted by Kirk at 10:15 am  

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Through The Godless Hours (5)

Once the slowing screech of brakes had halted the train with a mild jolt, Daman rose from his seat and alighted on to the platform. His monthly visit to the plantation required a series of connections by road, rail and – of his own choosing – a final stretch of dirt track. Although his elevated status at the family firm granted him use of the company car he shunned this benefit; opting instead to arrive at the rural headquarters on an antiquated bicycle, by way of a circuitous countryside route from the station. He usually found this last leg of his journey therapeutic, following as it did the chaotic scrum of the capital’s busiest railway station and the discomfort endured throughout a tortuous train ride – for most of which he would be forced to stand, pressed up against a wall of equally hot bodies. His head slightly bowed, Daman surveyed the wooden planks along the platform as he walked. By the gate at the other end, a deceptively frail looking old man stood guard over the well-maintained machine that had faithfully conveyed the heir-apparent to the family business on countless previous rides.

The old man greeted him with a toothless smile, when he silently laid an affectionate palm upon his stooped back. His expression today lacking any hint of its usual cheer, Daman nonetheless politely returned the warm acknowledgement of this loyal company servant of many years. “Thanks for coming to meet me, old friend,” he said. “And how is she?” He gestured to the bicycle. “Good as new, ’Pak. Fine. Just fine. Everything in perfect working order, just as always.” The old man stroked his hand along its shiny crossbar, fondly. “And how’s Bapak these days?” he then enquired, looking up. “My father? Well, he’s getting on a bit, as you know,” replied Daman. “But aren’t we all?” They shared a forced chuckle as Daman then searched in his briefcase for the bicycle clips he had put there before departing his Jakarta home. “He’s got a bit of a cough, but basically he seems to be doing pretty well for his age. I think he’d like to get out here more often than he does, though,” he added, now bending down to affix the clamps to his trousers.

Like his father, Daman was highly respected – adored, even – by a workforce that had consistently benefited from their employer’s uncommon generosity. And from the time his father had acquired the oil palm business, he could scarcely recall any of the staff voluntarily leaving the firm. That Daman also knew most of them by name was further testament to the caring culture that was a trademark of this respected family concern. Closing his briefcase he then passed it to the old man, who slipped away to slide into the waiting car. Then, with his mind still lost in some distant time and place, Daman pushed off through the exit gate to begin his quiet ride past the village and further, to the plantation beyond.

The journey of about an hour through sparsely populated arable land provided ample opportunity for him to collect his thoughts before the monthly production review began in the company’s boardroom. But his mood today was such that he struggled to focus on his work agenda and after a while he instead squeezed on the brake, slowing the bike to a juddering halt. Dismounting to confront the anxiety that had occupied him all morning, he squatted to sit on lush grass of an unnaturally vivid green. Although turned fifty, Daman had been fortunate to retain an essence of his youthful good looks and, somewhat absently, he now ran his fingers through thick, dark hair. But the appearance of this sensitive man betrayed a mind that was aging fast with worry. A mind insistent, it seemed, upon conjuring up recollections that once more filled the deep wells of his eyes with some hidden, unbearable sadness. As he sat in teary contemplation beside the roughly hewn track, his overwhelming feeling was one of guilt: guilt that he had not fulfilled his father’s ambition for him; guilt that he did not love his wife – a loyal, caring companion who had always been so supportive. And another, supreme guilt from a past he had tried to leave behind – from which he thought he could simply walk away, but that had continued to visit him ever since, just as it had today.

It was during one of his early trips to the plantation, when his father was still active in the running of the business and he, fresh out of university, was still cutting his teeth, that Daman first rode his bicycle into the village, in exploration…

posted by Kirk at 11:19 pm  

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Glimpse Of Heaven – Soko’s Transit From Subic Bay To Hong Kong

Our position was 18°N, 116°E when the dolphins visited, their juvenile play around Soko’s bow at once uplifting and humbling. Six or seven of these stunning creatures sped effortlessly alongside the hull, accelerating on occasion to leap ahead of the yacht and tease her bow, before veering away. 150 miles into our journey, the crew of six welcomed this playful incursion and wished the pod had stayed longer. The 580 nautical mile transit from Subic Bay in the Philippines to Soko’s home port of Hong Kong had begun the previous day when, after stowing aboard ample provisions, we set off at around 1100. Initial winds were unfavourable and we laboured to round the promontory. Before long, though, we were making over six knots on a steady course over ground of 320°. But in mid-afternoon we saw dead ahead on the horizon the black sky of a major storm system and knew at once that we would be experiencing some interesting sailing over the hours to come.

As we neared the storm it became clear that there were two systems, each of considerable width. The larger was dead ahead, the other 25° to port. With no opportunity of rounding either, the decision was made to head for the gap between them, despite the knowledge that they appeared to be converging. There were few, if any, real options. A considerable amount of lightning was active, right across the horizon’s span and as a precaution we laid an anchor chain along the full length of the deck, wrapping it around the backstay before trailing it in the water astern. Coming closer, we witnessed from a distance of perhaps two miles the formation of a waterspout at 20° to port, which seemed to grow from top and bottom before joining in the middle. By now there was lightning at every point of the compass and the wind was gusting at up to 35 knots, although surprisingly there was little rain. The six crewmembers remained calm throughout, in the knowledge that informed decisions had been made and every possible precaution taken. There was a philosophical acceptance that whatever happened next was a matter for fate to decide. Happily, our number in this dark lottery did not come up and after an hour or so – it is hard to keep an accurate track of time in such circumstances – we knew we were through the worst. Looking aft at the receding blackness as we continued on our way a silent, conciliatory electric storm played out horizontally in the clouds, as if in tribute to the survivors.

The oppressive heat over the next few days saw us huddling together under Soko’s awning to avoid the scorching sun. These quieter moments gave opportunity to reflect that the art of sailing may be thought of as lying in the alchemy of a number of sciences – the nature of the vessel and characteristics of her hull; sea conditions; wind and weather among them. Then also what is perhaps the least tangible component, which might be termed ‘sail science’ – but something, in fact, that is more of an art. For throughout Soko’s 90-hour transit the crew wasted no opportunity to adjust the mainsail or tweak the jib, seeking always to capture the most of what was offered by the winds, whether moderate or strong, and coming from aft or on the port beam. At around 1830 on day two we were treated to a spectacle that may only be witnessed at sea, where the broadest of all panoramas provides an uninterrupted view of the breadth and depth of nature’s finest exhibition – sunset. On this occasion not the textbook orb dipping with increasing pace into an azure sea, but beautiful in its lack of orthodoxy, nonetheless. A huge black thunderhead rose up in the foreground with layers of nimbus, alto and cirrus nestling above. A range of blue hues surrounded these clouds, themselves backlit by the dramatic orange fire of the sun. The whole composition appeared at once to leap towards us in 3D, projecting as if a page from a child’s pop-up book, opened momentarily for us to view. But within seconds, the vitality of the image was sadly gone: the book closed, its illustration flat again. Our glimpse of heaven was over for now, perhaps to return tomorrow. Then, in the silence of the night and under the reflected light of a nearly full moon, Soko seemed to produce a music of its own – the creaking of its halyards and sheets creating a discordant sirensong, calling those on watch to stay vigilant. The ‘three on, six off’ system meant that night and day were no longer relevant, the only matter of importance being preparation for one’s next stint in the cockpit. It was vital to ensure that enough rest had been taken to remain sharp throughout. The watch partners were staggered like bricks laid in a wall, meaning each would have two associates – one replacing the other – during each watch. They would swap anecdotes or snack on high energy food bars (and, as a special treat, a limited supply of some truly sensational Philippine pineapples!) in order to comply with the siren’s haunting appeals for continued vigilance.

Next day, a ‘letterbox’ rainbow hung in the sky – a strange apparition that was content to float, cloud-like, without seeking earth at either end. By now we were approaching the busy shipping lanes where tankers, container ships and other large vessels ply their trade, meaning that extra attentiveness was required – particularly at night. On one occasion a fishing vessel lying about a mile dead ahead made a series of movements that were at first hard to interpret. As we neared her it appeared she had been mapping out the extent of her nets, where small auxiliary boats were attending each extreme. Another time, nearer to Hong Kong, a large vessel was cruising at night a mile off our port beam showing no navigation lights at all. From the row of windows running the length of her hull we presumed she was a cruise ship, or perhaps a floating casino. For two days now we had been trailing a lure in the hope of catching a tuna or other fish large enough to eat, which we planned to do raw, sashimi-style. Our patience was finally rewarded when a brilliantly-coloured fish took the bait and we hauled its vivid green and yellow body on board. It appeared to be a young dorado, too small to feed six grown men, and so we gave it another chance at life, tossing it back into the sea. Perhaps in repayment for this gesture we were subsequently treated to the arrival of another pod of dolphins, larger this time, advancing on the starboard beam. Their amazing speed of movement as they leapt and ducked towards us gave them the appearance of a predator pack from prehistory – a marine Jurassic Park, perhaps. This pod was clearly on a mission and did not stay with us for long, teasing us for just a short while before continuing on its way, in the original direction. It was suppertime in the fishing grounds, we presumed.

We were now just 70 nautical miles off Hong Kong and soon we crossed what seemed a line in the sea, where the pure blue expanse of the lapping ocean gave way to the soup of the oily, clinging industrial waters nearer home. The closer we came to port the more our perspective was challenged – after more than three days at sea, coastal features that should have been easy to recognise seemed to take on an unfamiliar look. Everything appeared to exist on a smaller scale when compared with the vastness of the ocean we had traversed. Upon finally gliding Soko into her berth at her home port, we knew we had seen our last glimpse of heaven for a while. But the camaraderie, trust, togetherness, wit and laughter the crew had shared throughout the transit would remain permanently etched in our minds.

Dolphin Teasing Soko’s Bow

posted by Kirk at 9:59 am  

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Through The Godless Hours (4)

When, at the age of seventeen, Anath had first aired his intention to look for work in the capital, his mother would hear none of it. Fearing she might forever lose the sole companion who gave meaning to her existence, she continued to insist they could get by on the money earned from the menial labour she undertook. But however diligently she worked as housemaid for a small group of neighbours – those few who were steadfast enough to advertise their enduring sympathy for her situation – Ramani secretly knew that her limited earnings would increasingly fail to meet the needs of the handsome young man into which her son had grown. Moreover, she realised that Anath needed the experience of a broader reach of life – one stretching far beyond village horizons. That most of the Kampung’s blinkered inhabitants had persistently rejected her outstanding boy made it finally easy for her to relent. So as he turned nineteen he was permitted also to take his first steps towards becoming a man. Late one balmy summer evening, he kissed the tears from his mother’s cheeks and set off confidently for Jakarta with no plan except to return news of his situation within a week of arriving there. The overnight bus ride was mercifully uneventful considering the terrain traversed, over poorly maintained hillside passes and across ramshackle bridges. On several occasions, however, the driver was forced to demonstrate his surprising agility when skilfully avoiding collisions with a succession of oncoming vehicles that were recklessly taking up both lanes. In his excitement at finally embarking upon his great adventure, Anath slept not a wink until just before arriving at the city’s main terminus, when a fellow passenger gently shook him from the deep and instant sleep to which he had surrendered only moments before. Dazed and blinking, he stepped down from the dilapidated bus and into his new life, with no immediate idea of what he was going to do.

It was at the stroke of noon that Anath’s body suddenly tensed, as he saw the surly officer emerge from his green army-issue car. A second figure – female – was quietly getting out of the other side of the vehicle as the soldier, bedecked in full combat fatigues, began marching briskly towards the newsstand. The hairs on Anath’s neck bristled at the chilling prospect of having once again to face this embodiment of evil. Strangely, the Captain’s chauffeur – a bubbly character with whom he had often joined in conversation – did not appear to be driving today. But although he considered this odd, Anath quickly dismissed the thought and steeled himself for the encounter he had subconsciously anticipated all morning. Since waking, a mild dread had been lying in the pit of his stomach and it was perhaps this, he now reflected – and not the lingering memory of the vagrant’s sickening odour – that had impaired his early morning appetite. For of all the restaurant’s customers, it was the uniformed man now approaching him that he instinctively feared, with whom he connected the least. Whatever the reason, the Captain was the sole person that seemed able to break through Anath’s wall of confidence, who so easily unnerved him. And now, as he moved in on the newsstand, the officer’s lifeless eyes did nothing to disguise his contempt for the ‘ignorant’ country boy who stood before him. Effortless, he thought to himself, as yet again he sensed the terror he could create by just standing there, by just being – his inaction challenging the other to make what might easily prove a costly first move. Anath busied himself instead, needlessly rotating the stacks of papers while trying his best to avoid eye contact with the uniformed man. Even during his darkest village days, when goaded by hate-filled bigots, not once did he sense the presence of evil such as a close encounter with this reptile of a man could suggest. The Captain was at once handsome and lifeless, a facsimile of the perfectly chiselled male, but someone who ultimately disappointed for his lack of soul. A man, it seemed, who was in the grip of an evil spirit that had taken up residence in a cold place within, where his heart should rightfully have lived. And what Anath wanted more than anything at this moment was to slip away on some false errand, to swiftly put as much distance between him and his icy adversary as possible. Visibly spooked, he continued to fuss over his wares, ignoring the vacant glare that was now directed, aggressively, at his back. But today the Captain was not prepared to allow the young Kampung dweller to ignore him. Knowing that on previous encounters the kid had been enraged by his taunts, he now attempted to raise the ante by doling out another typical insult: “Well, well, well. Take a look at this, would you? Ironic, isn’t it? An illiterate peasant selling newspapers. Can you read then, ’Nak? What’s today’s headline? Eh?”

A small part of Anath would have liked to take him on, to unleash the spiteful side of his nature – something out of character but which was real, nonetheless, it having been fed for years on the cruel barbs thrown at him back in the village. But as on earlier occasions, he managed to suppress his quick and youthful anger, remaining tight-lipped despite the fury that burned inside. Sensing this, the Captain grinned a sickly smile, certain that the moment would someday come when the boy finally lost his self-control, allowing him to mete out some cruel yet undeserved punishment. Appearing from behind the officer and aware of the game being played, the same unremarkable woman that always accompanied him now tugged smartly at his sleeve, urging him to give it up, to move on. Anath watched as the couple then silently disappeared into the restaurant, noticing that the woman cast a glance in his direction before entering behind the Captain, whom he presumed was her husband. And this was no casual gaze, more a deliberate attempt to convey some kind of message. Be careful of this man… He can be even more terrifying than you imagine… And so it was with a mild frown, but considerable relief that this latest encounter had passed once again without serious incident, that he drew in a sharp breath, puffed out his cheeks and slowly exhaled.

posted by Kirk at 12:06 am  

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Through The Godless Hours (3)

…Staring absently into space as he went about his routine, Anath drifted away to an earlier time in another place… An image that was lodged somewhere deep inside his mind slowly emerged until this, and not the familiar backdrop of his freshly assembled newsstand, was what he now saw… There was a man riding a bicycle over a bridge traversing the small brook on the outskirts of the village of his youth… Hiding among the reeds in the belief this made him invisible, the kid he once was sat on his haunches, observing…

…Barely understanding that he was on the cusp of an understanding that stretched far beyond his tender years, the boy marvelled at the shiny spokes glinting in the low afternoon sunlight, as the man’s feet pedalled in circles… Spellbound, a smile slowly began to stretch across his face… And, processing the information set out before him, he sensed he had embarked upon a voyage of discovery… For in that moment, the realisation came to him that this moving object was more stable than when at rest… Yet how..?

It was mostly during these quiet moments of automated physical activity that Anath was visited by daydreams – flashbacks to a boyhood of discovery and wonder, where every day seemed to take another eternity and even the setting sun appeared willing to oblige its grateful onlookers by hanging an extra while, for maximum joy. His subconscious thoughts this morning returned him to an encounter with the man who sometimes rode past the outskirts of the village, on his way to the nearby plantation. Mostly concealed by the reeds along the bank, Anath had been squatting at the river’s edge watching the current carry leaves downstream when the man rode towards him across the small wooden bridge. He had often observed the visitor from this vantage point, noting that he would occasionally affect an unusual movement with his head. Not quite a twitch, but a motion he would use as a device to convey a greeting, or emphasis. And there was something familiar about this undeniably handsome man, whose deep tenor boomed as he spoke, as if in resonance with nature itself. Yet on this particular occasion the object of Anath’s interest was not the rider, but the bicycle itself. For it seemed clear to the young inquisitor that the stranger’s frail conveyance was much easier to balance whilst moving: it was, in fact, almost impossible to balance when still. And although there was no guiding light in his life – no father figure to help him analyse such thoughts – this gifted boy patiently filed away the information in his developing mind which, free from the constraints that conventional rote-learning would otherwise progressively have imposed, grew without borders.

With his newsstand assembled and the dailies, weekend supplements and glossy periodicals arrayed, Anath paused to sit and take his first nourishment of the day: a simple meal of rice and a boiled egg, prepared under bulb-light in the pantry before he had departed his lodgings. The pangs in his stomach had already asserted their growing impatience, but he nibbled at his food with little enthusiasm, returning over half to its packaging. In the first light of dawn he knew there would be a long day ahead, during which the heat would soar to its unbearable afternoon peak. Well accustomed, at such times he would while away the sweltering hours by reading from the transient library that constituted his wares, or striking up banter with some of his more affable regulars. It was Sunday, which meant a busy day for the staff of Sate Blora, as a legion of families from the city’s growing middle class assembled to gossip about the week’s events, while taking advantage of a buffet that was famed for its succulent generosity. The gathering’s excited babble was commonly audible from without the restaurant’s external walls as secrets, rumours and lies were eagerly traded around the large dining hall. Anath had sometimes been fortunate to be slipped a small package of food by one of its fawning waitresses, which he would savour whilst eavesdropping on the tittle-tattle of Jakarta’s foremost families. Recalling these sporadic treats his hunger pangs announced their return, so that he was relieved when his train of thought was broken by the arrival of the day’s first customer. “Morning, ’Pak,” he respectfully acknowledged the anonymous man who, bleary-eyed and vacant, simply picked up a copy of The Jakarta Post, tossed some coins on top of the remaining pile, and moved off without so much as a grunt.

As the light continued to improve and the day slowly creaked into life, the busy street in front of his stall began to fill with an armada of motorised vehicles that brought their own inimitable cacophony of horn-blowing, bell-ringing and – of a particularly harsh intensity – the shrill and incoherent yelling of the coarse men whose job it was to garner business for the cramped municipal minibuses. Sat at his stool, Anath watched in fascination as these rowdy crewmembers leaned from the narrow doorways of moving vehicles, bawling abbreviated place-names and routes at their long suffering would-be passengers. A moment’s hesitation and the unsuspecting traveller was collected up, pushed inside and en route to what was perhaps an unintended destination. Whilst each bus was almost identical in appearance – suggesting some kind of organised public transport system – Anath had come to know that the individual vehicles were rented daily by each crew, whose motivation in consequence was the collection of as many fares as possible during the short course of their tenure. From his roadside location he would frequently overhear their complaints of successive rent hikes that meant it could now take all day for them to collect sufficient fares to just break even. In their unending search for passengers, these minibuses raced one another along the city’s main thoroughfares. Generally ignoring official bus stops, they would instead slow to a crawl anywhere a prospective customer was sighted. Routes that were too remote were neglected, meaning a long walk or rickshaw-ride for many commuters to the nearest main road. And once scooped up into the worn-out vehicles, the passengers were then subjected to a frightening ordeal, risking life and limb as their drivers hurtled along pot-holed streets in pursuit of what amounted, ultimately, to a paltry reward. And all of it, Anath reflected, conspiring to create the maximum dose of misery in the daily commute of thousands.

posted by Kirk at 8:52 am  

Monday, November 19, 2007

Through The Godless Hours (2)

Nothing in Anath’s schooling had ever provided answers to the myriad questions in his mind. Refused entry into the famed religious academy in the rural town of his youth, he was fortunate as a result to avoid indoctrination. In consequence, however, he found himself cohabiting with a comparative mental underclass for much of his school life – his teachers included. There was, in fact, not a single villager of sufficient wisdom to detect the prodigy that so obviously stood in their midst. To any trained eye, Anath would have appeared like Venus in the early evening sky. But the villagers shunned him, in part through peer pressure. For as well as sheer ignorance, there was a second reason why they were reluctant to recognise anything special about the boy. Those who were still willing to risk the ire of the elders by maintaining relations with his mother were among a small minority. After the scandal she visited upon the community, only the closest of neighbours had publicly declared their continuing support for her family. Others would covertly offer sympathetic smiles that nevertheless confirmed a groundswell superstition: any forbidden relationship such as she had entered into could only ever produce a misfit. For their part, the village elders never missed an opportunity to affirm their enduring prejudice. No ‘love child’ deserved access to what they considered the purest form of education: the total submersion in His teachings at the expense of all other forms of learning. And so it was that the brightest mind of his generation was passed over for entry into the prestigious academy, and forced instead to take his lessons alongside the illiterate and poor. So much, then, for the benevolence of the God-fearing village elders. But this gifted boy was in any event to prove that he was without need of their charity.

Anath’s mother was a classic rural beauty, a girl with an unforgettable look that cosmetics could do nothing to enhance. On the contrary, it was the unblemished purity of her natural features that formed the essence of her allure. Ramani had a head-turning presence that would have been the envy of catwalks worldwide, had she been born in another time and place. But more than this, she possessed a strength of character that was almost incongruous beside her soft femininity. And any shortcomings that resulted from her lack of academic education were nullified by a powerful set of instincts she commonly used to guide her through moments of doubt, or unease. From her mid-teens onwards, Ramani’s steely determination had made it possible for her to reject the advances of a succession of local suitors, despite the entreaties of her parents. So it was perhaps inevitable that most in the village considered it inauspicious when she did finally fall for the man of whom she had long dreamt. For he was chosen not from among the finest village stock, but from outside. Once exposed, her illicit affair with the stranger sparked a hate campaign of an intensity found only in closed communities, where intolerance finds easy, abundant fuel. Ramani’s spurning of the local male population ensured that her expectant months were a journey through intimidation and curse, spat sometimes from the gaping mouths of the Kampung’s resident hags, or otherwise left outside her door as scribbled hex. But her strength was such that this trial by ordeal could not defeat her inner happiness and – notwithstanding her disgust at the deal that had been struck without her consent – she continued to walk to market each morning, stiffly resolute and inwardly beaming, her simple elegance in spite of the small but visible bump in her midriff parting the throng of fools like waves. And later, in the rainy season, when the child she called Anath emerged from the still slender body of his exhausted, eighteen year-old mother, it was also immediately clear that none of the spells cast had made any impact on his near-perfect infant form.

From the moment her son was born, Ramani showered Anath with the affection she knew she would forever be denied from bestowing upon her lover. Her intoxication with the boy was fuelled as much by the striking resemblance he bore to his father as it was by her maternal nature. Every atom of love in her soul was now devoted to what she saw as the embodiment of the father, as much as the son. During those rare, black moments that would visit her consciousness, one look at this child was enough to snatch her away from those uninvited demons. Whilst she could not have the man, she could still love him through the boy, and this she did with a rare intensity. And as he grew and became ever more like his father, Anath increasingly filled the void in his mother’s heart: not that she could ever forget the man who had been her only lover. How ironic it was, then, that she was made to suffer the taunts of blinkered villagers, obsessed with her rumoured promiscuity. For in truth she had rarely felt love’s physical caress, and when she had it was always with the same man. The same, beautiful man.

posted by Kirk at 6:51 pm  

Friday, November 16, 2007

Through The Godless Hours (1)

A dusty street in the heart of the Indonesian capital, pre-dawn. In the steamy Jakarta air, Anath stooped to rouse the sleeping vagrant. Once, twice – and then a third time – he ducked down to tug gingerly at filthy rags that adorned the skin and bone lying motionless at his feet. He had no desire to startle the man, but was keen to send him quickly on his way, so that he could begin his work. For five years, the young émigré from the country had fulfilled a mundane role as purveyor of news to the residents of this urban backyard. It was a simple service that was nonetheless relied upon – taken for granted, even – by the scores of busy commuters that filed past daily, as if in procession. Anath observed that there was rarely any sparkle in the eyes of those rushing to claim their stakes in the city’s emerging wealth. And even less etched on the faces of the tired and dispirited workforce as it returned home after another day of frustrated enterprise. “Come on, ’Bang. Let’s go,” he urged, encouraging the tramp to rise. And then, as the outcast’s eyelids began to unstick, he pointed along the road to nowhere in particular, adding: “Go. Go now, my friend.” Ever sensitive to the plight of the less fortunate, Anath’s awkward prodding at the prostrate bundle of rags signalled not a reluctance to engage the vagrant, but instead a profound sympathy for the man’s situation. For he knew himself what it was to feel the pain of society’s rejection, to be cast out. And as well as sympathy, he was also experiencing a sense of guilt: guilt that it had first been necessary to wake the beggar; guilt that he was now sending him on his way. And to where? he thought to himself. Another dusty patch of earth from which he will similarly be hounded? But as the stench of the man’s soiled garments then caught him unawares, neither of these compassionate instincts was sufficient to prevent the reflex that jerked up from the pit of his stomach and his head twisted sharply away, as if tugged by some invisible string.

Once the tramp had at last shuffled off in search of his next temporary home, Anath began the routine that had defined every morning since he came to the city. The square of dust he shared with the other roadside vendor was his from dawn till dusk. Then, stirred by the cooling evening breeze, the rustle of papers atop his newsstand would make way for the crackle and spit of nighttime’s frying gluten, as the portly Tukang Warung fired up his row of woks. For the dusty patch of city earth on which Anath now busied himself was worked almost around the clock, his dailies replaced each evening by the sweet and savoury bouquet of fried tofu that wafted up and down the street in lure of passers-by. To the rear, the shared concession was abutted by the façade of Sate Blora: a popular restaurant where families would gather at weekends to chew on skewered goat flesh, Kampung chicken and a range of local vegetable preparations, all smothered in the spicy peanut sauce that was the restaurant’s trademark. Situated just to the right of its main entrance, Anath’s newsstand was ideally placed to attract the attention of its patrons, many of whom took the time to strike up polite conversation with the personable young man from the country. As with each morning, his first task today was to sweep away last night’s refuse, discarded without care or thought by the richer – yet somehow poorer – early hours’ frequenters of the food-stall. Their nightly detours on returning home from one of the city’s famous nightclubs were now ritual, although it was evident that this ‘cultivated élite’ was still reluctant to use the trash cans. No doubt the greasy detritus that now covered the ground in this quiet, pre-dawn twilight had also lured the other, less affluent visitor. Anath smiled to himself, happy in the knowledge that the rich kids’ leftovers had at least provided the unfortunate beggar with sufficient nourishment to usher him into a temporary spell of peaceful slumber. After sweeping up the wrappings and their partial contents, he then watered his pitch in splashes, using a ladle from the small bucket of untreated water he had brought from his nearby lodgings. With the area cleaned and damped down, he then went about setting up the rudimentary newsstand that had provided his sole source of income these past five years. Dawn was the only hour of the day this simple preparation could be undertaken without an accompanying tide of sweat, and for this Anath was grateful. In a city whose sub-tropical heat had always been relentless, the West’s obsession with ‘global warming’ seemed ironic: the concept arousing little interest among even those possessing the time and inclination to pause for thought in the chaotic metropolis that Jakarta had become.

posted by Kirk at 8:58 pm  

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Kaptain

The Kaptain

posted by Kirk at 10:24 am  

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