It was a sultry evening in Jakarta, and the mild gust of wind rushing through the open window made the cramped bus journey slightly more bearable. There was a palpable sense of foreboding, as if something was about to happen. Earlier in the evening, I had seen students carrying a soothsayer on their shoulders: He was predicting that the end was near. Police officers guarding important buildings were smiling, but you could not tell if the smiles were nervous or indulgent.
Two young boys, both Balinese, began singing a hymn in our bus. They had a small banjo-like instrument, and while I could not make out the lyrics, one word remained in my mind. Dasomuko—the 10-headed one, a clear reference to Ravana. It seemed so appropriate. Jakarta had burned that day like Lanka must have burned after Hanuman set it afire in Ramayan. Would Ravana fall?
Earlier that morning, I had gone to the terrace of a building to look at the ravaged city. In whichever direction I turned, I saw smoke. This beautiful pearl of a city was being torn apart with apocalyptic glee by thugs and thieves. On a clear day, you could see the masts of sailboats at Sunda Kelapa, the old port, but nothing was visible that morning. In the area that used to be the Chinese electronic market called Glodok, I saw a plume of smoke.
Even Monas, the tall monument commemorating Indonesia’s war of independence, struggled to emerge from the penumbra, its hazy outline being the only evidence that it still existed and hadn’t been reduced to ashes. And to the south, skyscrapers which tended to vie with one another, trying to seem spiffier and shinier than the next, looked pale and weather-beaten that day, as if someone had smeared them with ash and dust.
Fall from grace: President Suharto stepped down from power on 21 May 1998, amid widespread protests. ( Mark Phillips / AFP)
Earlier that week, tanks had begun taking up positions at strategic locations in the city. It was eerie seeing dozens of tanks rolling in columns on both sides of the road, moving clunkily and noisily, like drunken tortoises, even as they passed the sharply-defined contours of the statue of Krishna and Arjun from Mahabharat. The soldiers tried to make us feel at ease, but it was not easy to forget that some of their colleagues had shot—and killed—six students at a campus a few days earlier.
Each night that week, a note would get slipped under the door of my hotel room, reminding me not to look outside the window, “in view of the current situation”. How oblique, how charming, how wayang kulit, as the shadow puppetry of Indonesia is known.
Ever since I had seen Peter Weir’s film The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), a dramatized account of the events in Indonesia in the 1960s—when president Soekarno decided to denounce the West and seek friendship, and weapons, from Communist China, bravely embarking upon konfrontasi (confrontation) with his neighbours—one image had struck in my mind: the lopsided nature of Indonesia. American writer Stan Sesser had described South-East Asia as the land of charm and cruelty; nowhere were those nouns more appropriate than in Indonesia.
Right alongside gleaming skyscrapers were slums mired in deep poverty. V.S. Naipaul had written about skyscrapers and chawls coexisting in Mumbai, in India: A Wounded Civilization, published soon after the Emergency of 1975-1977. The slums of Jakarta seemed more miserable, because the wealth of Jakarta’s high-rises seemed more opulent.
In the 1990s, when I lived in South-East Asia, it was easy to confuse the prosperity of Jakarta for the wealth of Indonesia. Much of Jakarta, in fact, was an expatriate bubble, of the California-style malls and gated communities in the suburbs, the swanky buildings and the seductive rustle of new money on its busy streets, flashy cars and easy availability of exotic cuisine, such as Philadelphia steaks. The older Indonesia—the perennial one, of dances such as Barong and Kecak, of gamelan and batik, of spicy nasi goreng (fried rice) and prawn lumpiah washed down with kalamansi juice on a moist night—seemed to have vanished overnight, buried under the pulsating noise of disco and the sheer weight of Hard Rock Café. A false homogeneity was being imposed on Jakarta, as parts of it looked indistinguishable from Singapore and Hong Kong, but more often, Manila and Bangkok. New skyscrapers were being built, new townships created, and most people you met were planning their summer holidays in Europe.
The benign, smiling face of Suharto was meant to conceal the ferment within. But, how quickly that world shattered.
One May morning 10 years ago, I stood in Jakarta’s most exclusive neighbourhood, seeing the smoke-filled remains of a large house which had belonged to a Chinese tycoon. Precious jade vases lay crushed, portraits were slashed, cars lay smouldering, sofas were turned upside down, and nothing seemed whole anymore.
The night the Balinese boys sang the hymn to Dasomuko, something did happen—it was the night Suharto gave up, after 32 years of dictatorial rule. He did not fall like Ravana, in a spectacular blaze of fireworks; he went quietly, unlamented. But the city was in ruins.
In the world’s most populous Muslim country, in a city with sculptures of Hindu icons, all you could imagine was the hazy outline of his shadow, like the monument in the city’s centre, like the burnt carcass of Ravana. Those Balinese musicians had got it right.
(Write to Salil at firstname.lastname@example.org )