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Tuesday, Apr 09, 2002

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Damayanti and the Krisis

Alex Abraham

`Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Just look at the prices sky high

Everywhere costs have risen

Unknown, the reason why!'

Dully, Damayanti sang the ditty. It was the end of another long day for her. After a dreary wait at the wet market, she had sold the 25 packets of rice and dried fish with a sliver of lime and two leaves of mint wrapped in a banana leaf. She had cooked the food long before sunrise and had walked to the market to her place beside the entrance. Now she faced the long trek back to her lean-to shack beside the canal choked with refuse in the north of Jakarta — to cook and feed the hungry family, clean the small space they called home and perhaps catch a few hours sleep before starting the long and tedious routine all over again.

Economic experts, social scientists, journalistic junkies, paranormal prophets pontificate on the myriad reasons why strong vibrant markets should turn into weak anaemic sloughs of despondency. The people were buffeted and perplexed by the problems of day-to-day existence.

Not for them even a sliver of hope from the economic machinations of dicey derivative dealers and western-oriented arrogant autocratic econo-police such as the all-powerful IMF. The people have a one-point agenda — to survive.

Damayanti reflected. For 20 years, all their tomorrows had been more brilliant than they collectively imagined. Growth followed good years of growth. Demand exploded, markets expanded and stocks moved only one way — up. Today they were staring at economic contraction, runaway inflation, and certain uncertainty. For 20 years, all their tomorrows brought opportunity, wealth, growth, and happiness. Today they looked into the deep chasm of dubiety, recession, closures, and unemployment. Damayanti thought. `Twas but yesterday that Jakarta throbbed to the electric sounds of 317 bars, 97 karaoke parlours, 139 disco's and 10 night clubs. Atlanta, Asmat, B-One, Celebrities, Ebony, Manhattan, Mawar Ceria, Million Dollar Disco, Scorpion, Sydney 2000, Tambora, Zodiac all glittered and glowed. The lights blazed, the music was overpowering, the good time girls and boys nubile and numerous. Sleek cars with affluent and generous customers rolled up, their pockets bulging, to share their well-earned or ill-gotten gains.

Damayanti reminisced. Kool Kats of the worlds of banking, commerce, advertising in natty attire, gleaming two-tone shoes and coloured suspenders had strutted from Planet Hollywood to Fashion Café spreading the moolah and nibbling of life's forbidden fruit as if there were no tomorrow. Today's ecstasy, this evening's rapture, and excitement took precedence over all else. Yet, now they stared in suspended animation at a reality that defied logic, their thoughts moved from despair to desperation.

Damayanti worried. She and her husband had committed to the purchase of their dream small unit house in Sentul, beyond the aspiring International Formula I motor sports track. Now large monthly payments bloated by the depreciation of the rupiah were due, although the value of the property had shrivelled to half the original. Both children's schools needed more money, as did the uniforms, books, and special fees. It took all her ingenuity to feed the family on even the most basic of diets. She had lost her job but they counted themselves lucky because Sigit had the good fortune to hold on to his. With no more overtime incentive or bonus, his pay had halved and its purchasing power dwindled. For how long even this would last, neither of them could tell. The threat of further depreciation and catastrophe hung over them like the proverbial Damocles sword. Nothing had prepared them for this crisis.

Damayanti prayed. For a miracle that she would one day awake from this wretched dream and find her old world restored. To help her manage the meagre family budget, where the value of money had fallen by a factor of four when prices had more than doubled!

Damayanti pondered. Four of the neighbouring families had found the paradox of joblessness and expensive urban existence unmanageable. They had returned to their villages. That was what they had said, and no one had heard of them since. Her own sister and family had moved back last week after she had lost her job in Tangerang. Each parting became an agony, slowly but surely dismantling the familiar filigree of existence, adding to the webs of anxiety, increasing the dark uncertainties. Even the rains, which in the past meant cooling off and relief, now brought a pall of damp and despair. A nagging repetitive pitter-pat, increasing the slush and squalor, dripping through crevices and holes, increasing to unbearable proportions the mosquitoes and insects.

Damayanti reflected. There must be some light at the end of the tunnel, she thought. "I will wake up tomorrow and look for the end," she resolved. She remembered a story from her youth, related by her teacher. If you pour sand into a pile it forms a mound. Add more sand and the mound grows bigger. Add even more and it reaches an uneasy equilibrium, which the physicists call critical state. Now add just one more little grain, a single grain of sand and an avalanche begins. Avalanches of every size begin with the addition of a single grain. Her avalanche had been touched off with the insufferable and unbearable weight of corruption. Her mound had collapsed and left in its wake no promise of recovery or any means to rebuild even a small hillock. Her world had collapsed all around her like a grounded parachute.

Damayanti listened. There were fresh new rumours each day. Of vested interests seeking to reinstate the powers of yesteryear. Of more military movements and of generals jockeying to grab political power. Of essential commodities cornered by a privileged few and portents of looming scarcity. Food is no longer priced per kg but per 100 grams. It does little to alleviate the shock. Rice, milk, vegetables, eggs move up in inspired unison as if with the pent-up fury of a mushrooming atomic cloud. Yesterday's necessities become today's luxuriesNothing from the past remains unchanged.

Damayanti deliberated. Stratospheric inflation drowns medicine, education, and travel. The latter is expendable but the former two inspire terror. No Wayang tale had ever captured the sudden intensity of this shock. Neither the depth of its pain nor indeed the sheer scale of suffering of the populace could have been imagined. How does one deal with a situation when day becomes night? The gnawing pain increases as assets, so assiduously built, evanesce in value like smoke in the darkening sky.

Damayanti comes out of her stupor. The voices of the young ring loud and clear. It inspires hope, then fear. Out on the streets in daily increasing numbers, they shout, they yell, they demand change. The fury of 30 years of repression, till now bottled up within, demands a hearing. There is hope in their hearts, a glistening fervour in their eyes.

Damayanti looked. Spontaneous, growing crowds of young. Large and leaderless, yet seemingly knowing what they want. Vigorous, driven, giving vent to the emotions so long pent up. `We will claw our way back' they yell. `We will. On 10,000 years of history. A rich and ancient culture. Building on our strengths. Our population, market, infrastructure, industrial base. We will exploit our geography, agriculture, and natural resources. Create a middle between extreme wealth and dire poverty. Reinvent. Unlock unproductive capital that for so long was privy to so few. Empower all people. By hard work, individual and collective effort. Kita menang. We will win. Pasti menang!'

Damayanti fretted. Into this melange of hope and despair, of screaming, of wanting and longing, walks in no saviour. Under the shade of the giant tree there had grown no leaders. None to fill the vacuum of power, none to answer the plethora of questions, none to provide succour to the struggling masses. For too long had discussion and debate been deliberately throttled. All dissent snuffed out. The pent up emotions suddenly find expression, explosively erupting into a conflagration threatening to consume the entire land. Isolated pockets of earlier dissent become major flashpoints of uncontrollable violence. Korruption adulterates the cement of unity. The binding fibres of diversity weakened by Kronyism. All hope of a clean and strong leader emerging vanquished by Nepotism. KKN, Kaa Kaa En, they called it, Korruption, Kronyism and Nepotism. Damayanti despairs. Their world begins to crumble. Damayanti looked around the corner of the shack that she called home. Only small bundles of tattered sheets remain. And one small stove. Their meagre furniture had been sold to tide over the crisis last week when there was no money to buy food. Two other families in similar straits share the little shack but there is still insufficient money to pay the landlord at month-end. Dangdut music still blared from the radio but it no longer made the feet tap out its racy rhythm. It no longer moved the heart or mind to joyous expressions. The daily news was full of sad reports, of ethnic warfare in Aceh, Ambon, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi. Damayanti is unable to comprehend the deluge of issues and problems that plague her land. She can only pray and continue to intone the words:

`Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Just look at the prices sky high

Everywhere costs have risen

Unknown the reason why!'

Damayanti meditates. `God is Great! From somewhere behind the dark clouds, relief will surely come.' Damayanti waits. Patiently. The people wait.

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