Baramulla to Bandung

Hopping on connecting flights between Colombo and Bangkok, this jet-lagged passenger reached Soekarno Hatta International airport Jakarta. No sooner the immigration officer leafed through the pages of my key travel document, and learned about my previous visits, he locked his suspicious gaze at me. I was directed to follow him to a separate room meant for probing. The officials, perhaps the intelligence boys, asked irrelevant and unnecessary questions just to prove the point. “Do you have a girlfriend here?” “How is Aadhar unique when every citizen can have it in India?” I tried to explain amicably. After half an hour, reluctantly, visa exemption stamp was imprinted on my Passport.

Meanwhile, my host, patiently waiting at the arrival lounge waived at me.  We drove to the Java province as the sun kissed the horizon. Indonesia is an endless vast land. Country with largest Muslim population is address of the largest archipelago with more than 18,000 islands. As the traffic gridlock continued, we stopped near a small eatery where I spotted a portrait of former US president Barack Obama. Curious. I quizzed the connection. I was told he is a frequent flyer to Jakarta since he was schooled here. He spent his childhood playing on the streets of the chaotic capital.

President Joko Widodo is betting to shift its ‘sinking’ capital. The plan to move overburdened Jakarta to Borneo, home to world’s greatest tropical rainforests has set the tongues wagging. Environmentalists are raising concern that the relocation decision must be taken carefully or it would result in fleeing one ecological disaster only to create another. The Guardian recently reported the coastal city is extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels and the choice of Borneo raises fears of deforestation and pollution levels. Will government finally succeed to abandon much-derided Jakarta remains to be seen?

Towering edifices don’t fascinate me, nature does. This is another strong reason I preferred to have my home-stay in rural setting. Luck favored me. Nevertheless, Jakarta is the busiest destination in terms of both tourism and commerce. Name of this city was changed five times. Asia’s top ‘Instagrammed’ city hosts grand Istiqlal Masjid, the largest in South East Asia. This national mosque was built to commemorate Indonesian independence and named “Istiqlal”, an Arabic word for Freedom. Everyone enjoys “fair share” of liberty here. Women enjoy autonomous status.  Liberal Islam is promoted and propagated by moderate modern Muslims. People are not judgmental.

Women work at par with men. Interestingly, In Sumatra, women are privileged and much ahead of men. Welcome to the world’s largest matrilineal society. Yes, According to an old custom, property and family names are passed from mother to daughter and men respect this custom called adat.  The woman owns everything from farmlands to shopping complexes to Big Bungalows. Ladies call the shots in every state of affairs. Girls are seen in malls and masjids, hotels and hospitals, banks and beaches, schools and where not. Men are also workaholic. World’s largest flower, Rafflesia Arnoldi, is endemic to Sumatra but it smells like decaying flesh, earning it the nickname “corpse flower”. World’s largest volcanic lake, Danau Toba, is located on the same Island. Borobudur temple in Java is the largest Buddhist monument in the world.

While narrating the telling tales and the chequered history of the vale, Indonesians tossed countless queries. Discussions snaked from Yemen crisis, Rohingyas, Palestine, Kurdistan, Uighur Muslims etc. I am detailing what I observed since one needs to live a place before making an opinion. My home-stay was with a royal family. The young daughter in late 20s, a parliamentarian would smoke in front of her parents and in-laws. People smoke and eat in Masjids. This is the concept of Aazadi for them. So, the definition of Freedom is variable. One thing I admire the most is that Indonesians are early risers. The day starts as early as 4:00 am. After congregational Friday prayers, devotees are served lunch in the mosque compound as the Quran recitation reverberates in the background.

On fine evening, my friend, a nurse, drove me to the supermarket. Before riding her bike, I asked her to wait as I forgot to carry my passport along. “Come on Abid, this is a free country, nobody will bother you. Our force is not trigger-happy.” I went to a barber shop to trim my beard where I was told that they don’t charge customers on Fridays. Excellent town-planning with well-planned and maintained walkways and drainage system is we need to learn lessons from. I faced certain hiccups in communication as English is still considered to be a foreign language. To deliver my message, love-filled hearts transmitted the signal and audience understood what I Intend to convey. We enjoyed fresh breeze on the banks of beaches and swimming pools.

To understand how the political system works here, I paid a visit to the Parliament. They were gearing to vote on bill to outlaw pre-marital sex. Bill includes four-year jail term for abortions except in rape cases. Bill would also see prison term for users of ‘black magic’. Insulting the president’s dignity would become illegal under bill. It would be the first change after Dutch colonial era. But it was responded by massive protests. Critics say it violates rights of women and LGBTQ+. For ethnic and religious minorities it will have a chilling effect without even enforcing it. It might affect tourism, particularly Bali, the tourist hotspot and hurt the country’s economy. The bill was delayed after backlash. The complex question is: Are the new laws an assault on human rights in Indonesia.

Indonesians want to be seen as a liberal democracy. Locals don’t like the hardline approach. Few years ago, the government had planned to close all red-light districts but as goes the belief prostitution can never be erased from earth. But a strange ritual still takes place at Gunung Kemukus. Adultery is strictly a taboo, illegal and blasphemous under Indonesia’s Criminal Code. Tawuran is the most awful practice Indonesians should feel ashamed of. Mass brawls of students equipped with sharp-edged weapons have turned uglier. Between 2012 and 2017, 130 students were killed. Video footage of the custom suggests that Indonesians need to get-up on war-footing to educate students about this evil practice. Students committing violence on streets is unacceptable and irrational. Indonesian soccer is considered to be the world’s most deadly sporting league. They believe cricket is a boring sport and turn football fields into graveyards. Over seventy supporters have been killed since 1994 in football-related hooliganism. I was told it has roots in Jakarta-Bandung rivalry. Football entertains fans elsewhere but here it bleeds red. Can they save the game?

Common citizens voice concern that corruption is top-down and bleeds into every crevice of life. The film and novel titled the year of living dangerously was inspired by a revolutionary speech by Indonesian Founding Father Soekarno and was drawn from Italian leader Benito Mussolini’s slogan “Live dangerously.” As I packed and hurried homeward, I recalled this moving line from Matt Haig’s brilliant book ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’: “The world is increasingly designed to depress us. To be calm becomes a revolutionary act.”