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Notes from Jakarta on the death of Suharto

Not what what

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Motorcycle riders in the middle of a traffic jam in the main street of Jakarta during morning rush hour. - PHOTO BY EDY PURNOMO/ JIWAFOTO
  • Photo by Edy Purnomo/ JiwaFoto
  • Motorcycle riders in the middle of a traffic jam in the main street of Jakarta during morning rush hour.

Say you buy something in a shop in Jakarta. Under the unseen but watchful presence of the proprietor, the salesgirl who assisted you gives your purchase to the cashier, who rings it up and gives you two or three receipts, and perhaps a coupon or some other printed matter. Someone else wraps, bags and double-tapes the item and bestows it to you. Another shop assistant offers to find you a taxi. You accept, even though you can't swing a dead rat in Jakarta without hitting a cab for hire, and you tip the assistant for the procurement service.

You watch your cabdriver pay two kids: the one who guarded his taxi while the driver went for a bite of street food, and another whom he sent for a newspaper and cigarettes. You get in the taxi, and one of the kids guides the driver needlessly out of his ample parking space (kirikirikirilurusluruslurus). The driver might get lost and have to hire a motorcycle escort to get you where you want to go. That surcharge will be added, apologetically, to your fare.

Later, arriving home hungry after a day of jalan-jalan (going all about; not easy in congested, chaotic Jakarta), you buy dinner from one of the vendors who ply your neighborhood nightly with carts of made-to-order saté, mie goreng, bakso; and the pembantu (not exactly a housekeeper; both more and less) does the dishes and puts away the food before you're done eating. Exhausted, you go to bed without opening your purchase—it's been forgotten in the day's errands. You might neglect to open it tomorrow too. Wait long enough, and you'll forget about it completely: where you got it, how much it cost, even what it is, and that you went out and bought anything at all yesterday.

The result is that it's easy to feel removed from your own life here, especially as a white person who is expected to pour money into the informal ancillary economy on which most Jakartans seem to depend. Drivers are shocked, almost offended that I decline every offer of an ojek (motorcycle taxi) on my way to the gym, even though it's only a 15-minute walk from the house. That a person of means would transport himself anywhere—on his own legs, no less—bewilders Jakartans, who assume that I will pay someone to do it for me.

People praying at the At-Tien Mosque in East Jakarta. At-Tien was built by a foundation operated by Suharto's wife, Ibu Tien. The Suharto family's wealth is said to be hidden through nonprofit foundations that focus on health and education. - PHOTO BY TOTO SANTIKO BUDI/ JIWAFOTO
  • Photo by Toto Santiko Budi/ Jiwafoto
  • People praying at the At-Tien Mosque in East Jakarta. At-Tien was built by a foundation operated by Suharto's wife, Ibu Tien. The Suharto family's wealth is said to be hidden through nonprofit foundations that focus on health and education.

Walking to the gym on the afternoon of Jan. 27, about an hour after the news came that ex-President Suharto died, the streets of Jakarta were eerily quiet and empty. I could cross the usually murderous thoroughfare Jl. Rasuna Said with barely a glance in each direction, and no one tried to sell me anything.

It wasn't until I got to the gym—also deserted—that I remembered it was Sunday. Sundays are always quiet here. It had nothing to do with Suharto. Very little here did: On Monday, Jakarta was bustling again. The usual penitents crowded the gym after their weekend diet violations, and Jl. Rasuna Said was clogged with traffic and pollution. I was again solicited at every block: ojeks, fried tempeh, magazines, cigarettes. The only sign that the current president had declared a "National Week of Mourning" were the half-mast flags, which promptly rose again after seven days. The shrugging response to Suharto's death was nothing like the pointed obituaries published in the West, which emphasized his regime's notorious corruption and genocide.

Tidak apa apa, goes the classic Indonesian phrase. The literal translation is "not what what," but it means something like "don't worry about it" or "it doesn't matter." Which is to say that Indonesians are good at taking in stride what rankles most Westerners. Jakarta's unconscionable pollution and litter? Taxi drivers amiably getting you lost? Suharto's daughter pocketing the airport road tolls, and his army lighting the fire that recently rekindled in East Timor? Tidak apa apa. Jakartans don't seem much affected by the death of the man who ran their country for more than half its sovereign life, and the media here didn't show the grisly photos more likely to be found in the Western media. Perhaps it's not that Indonesia forgives Suharto, but that it is already forgetting him.

Maybe it has to do with all that packaging and insulation. If every item is wrapped and every task delegated, you can never get to the things and the acts themselves. Between the heights of power and the congested street is the batting of bureaucracy, subalterns, go-betweens, cat's-paws, kids who hail your taxis and buy your cigarettes. Actual things, actual deeds and actual crimes are bundled up and obscured in dense, arcane procedures. By the time you remember, if you remember, to open the package—after it's been handled and wrapped and lost (and you lost with it) and rendered irrelevant—it's empty. Tidak apa apa.

Adam Sobsey, a regular contributor to the Independent, is temporarily living in Indonesia.

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