Wednesday, December 5, 2012

hustling odd jobs, catching crickets, battling swift kites with razor-sharp lines-the loser watched his kite soar
off with the wind, and knew that somewhere other children had formed a long wobbly train, their heads
toward the sky, waiting for their prize to land. With Lolo, I learned how to eat small green chill peppers raw
with dinner (plenty of rice), and, away from the dinner table, I was introduced to dog meat (tough), snake
meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy). Like many Indonesians, Lolo followed a brand of Islam
that could make room for the remnants of more ancient animist and Hindu faiths. He explained that a man
took on the powers of whatever he ate: One day soon, he promised, he would bring home a piece of tiger
meat for us to share.
That’s how things were, one long adventure, the bounty of a young boy’s life. In letters to my
grandparents, I would faithfully record many of these events, confident that more civilizing packages of
chocolate and peanut butter would surely follow. But not everything made its way into my letters; some
things I found too difficult to explain. I didn’t tell Toot and Gramps about the face of the man who had come
to our door one day with a gaping hole where his nose should have been: the whistling sound he made as
he asked my mother for food. Nor did I mention the time that one of my friends told me in the middle of
recess that his baby brother had died the night before of an evil spirit brought in by the wind-the terror that
danced in my friend’s eyes for the briefest of moments before he let out a strange laugh and punched my
arm and broke off into a breathless run. There was the empty look on the faces of farmers the year the rains
never came, the stoop in their shoulders as they wandered barefoot through their barren, cracked fields,
bending over every so often to crumble earth between their fingers; and their desperation the following year
when the rains lasted for over a month, swelling the river and fields until the streets gushed with water and
swept as high as my waist and families scrambled to rescue their goats and their hens even as chunks of
their huts washed away.
The world was violent, I was learning, unpredictable and often cruel. My grandparents knew nothing
about such a world, I decided; there was no point in disturbing them with questions they couldn’t answer.
Sometimes, when my mother came home from work, I would tell her the things I had seen or heard, and
she would stroke my forehead, listening intently, trying her best to explain what she could. I always
appreciated the attention-her voice, the touch of her hand, defined all that was secure. But her knowledge of
floods and exorcisms and cockfights left much to be desired. Everything was as new to her as it was to me,
and I would leave such conversations feeling that my questions had only given her unnecessary cause for
So it was to Lolo that I turned for guidance and instruction. He didn’t talk much, but he was easy to be
with. With his family and friends he introduced me as his son, but he never pressed things beyond matter-
of-fact advice or pretended that our relationship was more than it was. I appreciated this distance; it implied
a manly trust. And his knowledge of the world seemed inexhaustible. Not just how to change a flat tire or
open in chess. He knew more elusive things, ways of managing the emotions I felt, ways to explain fate’s
constant mysteries.
Like how to deal with beggars. They seemed to be everywhere, a gallery of ills-men, women, children,
in tattered clothing matted with dirt, some without arms, others without feet, victims of scurvy or polio or
leprosy walking on their hands or rolling down the crowded sidewalks in jerry-built carts, their legs twisted
behind them like contortionists’. At first, I watched my mother give over her money to anyone who stopped
at our door or stretched out an arm as we passed on the streets. Later, when it became clear that the tide of
pain was endless, she gave more selectively, learning to calibrate the levels of misery. Lolo thought her
moral calculations endearing but silly, and whenever he caught me following her example with the few coins
in my possession, he would raise his eyebrows and take me aside.
“How much money do you have?” he would ask.
I’d empty my pocket. “Thirty rupiah.”
“How many beggars are there on the street?”
I tried to imagine the number that had come by the house in the last week. “You see?” he said, once it
was clear I’d lost count. “Better to save your money and make sure you don’t end up on the street yourself.”
He was the same way about servants. They were mostly young villagers newly arrived in the city, often
working for families not much better off than themselves, sending money to their people back in the country
or saving enough to start their own businesses. If they had ambition, Lolo was willing to help them get their
start, and he would generally tolerate their personal idiosyncrasies: for over a year, he employed a good-
natured young man who liked to dress up as a woman on weekends-Lolo loved the man’s cooking. But he

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