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A visit to Raffles Jakarta inspired award-winning author Eric Gamalinda to write this story of love and reconciliation where the past makes peace with the present

The joy of the serpents

Words: Eric Gamalinda    Illustrations: Jackie Parsons

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A visit to Raffles Jakarta inspired award-winning author Eric Gamalinda to write this story of love and reconciliation where the past makes peace with the present

Her message to me is clear. “Flying to Jakarta. Please don’t follow me. I have to do this on my own.”

On the plane from JFK to Jakarta, I keep reading the note over and over. It could just be the discombobulating passage from one time zone to another, but everything seems to hurtle past me in a dreamlike haze.

At Soekarno Hatta airport, the immigration official asks me what I’m here for. I tell him I’ve just become engaged to an Indonesian woman and she’s flown here ahead of me.

“Markus Jansen,” he reads the name on my passport. “That’s Dutch, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I say. “My father is from Amsterdam. My mother is from Manila.”

I understand his perplexity. The intricate personal histories of biracial people have always been hard to explain without getting a little long-winded. He hands my passport back and says, “Congratulations. What’s her name?”

“Soraya,” I say. “She’s half-Dutch too.”

“It’s a lovely name,” he says. “Very Indonesian. I am very happy for both of you.”

I am in the taxi to my hotel, speeding past islands of frangipani and bougainvillea. The last 36 hours replay in my head. Soraya comes home from her studio — we’d just rented it in Brooklyn so she can create larger canvasses, something she could never do in our one-bedroom apartment. I hand her a glass of champagne.

“What are we celebrating?” she asks.

Before she can finish, I get down on one knee and offer her a ring. She places her glass down and stares at me in shock.

“Soraya Abraham,” I say. “Would you make me the happiest man in the world and marry me?”

Her hands tremble as she takes the ring. The single diamond on it glints like the tears welling in her eyes. “Yes,” she finally says, choking back a sob. “Yes, I want you to be the happiest man in the world, because you have made me the happiest woman in the world.”

Later that night, she gets up from bed. I barely stir awake, though I think I mutter something, come back soon. I hear her chuckle quietly and I sink back to contented sleep.

In the morning I find the Post-It with her note on the bathroom mirror. Only a small night bag, which we keep for emergencies, is missing. It’s not like her to disappear so suddenly. I call her phone. I get routed to her message inbox, her voice familiar, lilting and bubbly. I send her a text and wait for the three dots to appear, to give me a signal that she’s responding.

Minutes later, a notification from our credit card pops up on my phone — we’ve been keeping a joint account for almost a year now, which makes us practically married. It’s a charge for a flight to Jakarta.

Don’t follow me. She knows well enough I will.

Swarms of motorbikes, three or four abreast in traffic, surround the cab. This is Jakarta during the morning rush hour, a crush of cars, taxis and trucks. Sleek, modern high-rises soar above cramped, ramshackle store-fronts. My taxi winds through back streets lined with food carts, where construction workers in hard hats are taking a mid-morning break. We pass by granite fences marked with graffiti, roads lined with buses, mall after mall after mall.

There is no way I will ever find Soraya in this sprawling city. But I am keeping my eyes wide open, hoping to see her somewhere, maybe on a motorbike taxi, or walking down a street, or stopping at one of these carts.

I catch the driver looking at me in the rear-view mirror. “Kota Tua?” he asks. “We are here.”

“Could you drive around the square a bit?” I ask.

We drive in a loop, and then I ask him to park by an entrance to the Taman Fatahillah square. We are in the Old City, once the pride of Dutch Batavia. There’s a tent with a couple of cops standing by.

It’s still early, and the food stalls the square is famous for have not been set up yet. There’s a guy preparing a table for henna painting, and next to him another guy who can do tattoos on the spot. One is temporary, the other permanent: I like the juxtaposition, and wish I could see both of them in action. A souvenir shop is opening for the day, its owner hanging wayang masks and puppets outside on strings of wire, like festive buntings. Other than that, the square is desolate, an empty expanse in the searing heat.

“I will wait for you?” the driver asks.

“Yes, if you could,” I say. “I won’t be long.”

I duck into Café Batavia, which Soraya once told me about. It’s like entering a time warp, the interior lovingly kept or restored to reflect its heyday as one of the Dutch quarter’s premier watering holes. Ceiling fans whirl lazily overhead. Big band classics play unobtrusively in the background. The waiters are just setting up, one of them assiduously pricking a toothpick into the holes of salt shakers to push the salt in. I take a table on the second floor overlooking the square. A few people have come out to stroll, a woman in a black hijab, a tourist couple lugging backpacks and a map. I can’t help feeling Soraya is somewhere close by. She had told me a lot about this quarter, the vestiges of the Dutch colonial era, the hallmarks of our other people, she teasingly told me.

I have never thought much about my own ancestry, but it was one of the first things Soraya and I talked about when I first met her. She was half-Indonesian, I was half-Filipino, and we were both half-Dutch: I told her we were practically incestuous. We would soon learn we had much in common. I was looking for a story about fresh, exciting new faces in New York’s art gallery scene. I saw her work at a group show — her paintings stood out among the others, with their vivid colours, bold brush strokes and distorted figures, eerily beautiful and disconcerting, like characters in a wayang shadow play. I asked her if she was Indonesian.

“By birth, yes,” she said. “Culturally, that needs to be worked on.” I told her I wanted to write about her and she would be famous because of me.

“Is that a promise?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I said. “And I never break a promise.”

I was true to my word. My feature got her a lot of attention, and soon after, a solo exhibition, where she sold a number of paintings — enough to convince her this was all she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She quit her job at a web design studio, thanking me for helping her make that decision. I, for my part, got a lot more writing assignments, but I never found anyone as interesting as her.She had told me, in my interview, that her grandfather was a painter back in Jakarta and though she never met him and didn’t really grow up there, her father told her all about the city he left before she was born, the city she knew only through his stories, distant and mythical. Her father wasn’t an artist but a businessman and he often wrote to her to say he regretted never having followed her grandfather’s footsteps, but he saw she had inherited the artist’s genes.

“He told me I should follow my heart, at any cost, just like my grandfather did,” she told me.

“And you did,” I said.

“Thanks to you.”

We went to Amsterdam together, where we wandered around the canals and ate a lot of carbs — fries and waffles — and spent half a day at the Van Gogh Museum. But she told me she would rather show me Jakarta. She always had this ineffable link with that part of her family history, irresistible and inerasable, because of the stories her father told her, especially about this neighbourhood where I have found myself today — the languid air of the café, the beautiful people who came for lunch or tea, the graceful buildings by the port that would live forever, ageless and inured to decay.

Her father came back to this city when she was about four, and stayed. He wrote to her every week, telling her about the square, the blinding light in the wide open space, the relentless heat, the river that was grimy but refused to die, and the welcome respite of the café, where he sat every day, at the same table, by the same window, writing his letters and watching people pass by. It was the only place in the city where time stood still, he wrote. The letters stopped coming after a while, but she knew there was a missing piece to his story that had not been told.

Above: A Jackie Parsons illustration (Jackie Parsons)

“One of these days,” she told me, “I will have to go back to Jakarta to get the entire picture.”

And because she wanted to, so did I.

This is that moment, I realise now. But I am going to find out it was never the story I had imagined.

As I step out of the café, five teenagers, students from a nearby university, suddenly surround me. One of them, a boy wearing an I heart Brooklyn T-shirt, asks me if he can interview me for five minutes for a project they’ve been assigned for their Bahasa Indonesia class. He has a chubby face framed by black-rimmed spectacles. He’s been assigned to write a story about some random person they meet on the street, preferably someone foreign. I’m pretty sure it’s a scam. I’ve been warned at the hotel to be careful, especially around this neighbourhood. They all look pretty much like young kids out of school, which makes it even more suspicious. They even have notebooks with them and a girl politely asks if she can record my answers as she pulls out an iPhone. They’re good, I tell myself. They know how to look the part. I look towards the cops under the tent for help. They’re watching us with a mix of boredom and amusement.

“What are you doing in Jakarta?” the boy asks.

The question takes me aback. It takes me a minute to respond.

“I’m thinking of writing about the city,” I say. “I’m a writer.”

“Oh!” he exclaims. “Do you know much about Indonesia?”

“Well, I know a bit about your history, Sukarno and Suharto and all that. I know about batik and wayang.”

He appears even more delighted. “Would you like to learn Bahasa?”

I remember Soraya asking me the same question, months ago, when the story of her father came up again. I took one look at her phrasebook and gave up after the first few sentences.

“Someday soon,” I tell the boy.

“Any special reason?”

“I’m getting married to an Indonesian girl.”

“Oh! She is here with you?”

“No, I don’t know where she is. That’s why I’m here.”

“Maybe in the café?”

“No, I’ve just been there.”

“You didn’t find your friend?”

“She’s somewhere in the city and I have to find her. We didn’t come here together. I’m sort of looking for her.”

“She is lost? Maybe they can help?” He points to the cops under the tent.

“No, it’s not that kind of lost. It’s hard to explain.”

He seems puzzled, but at the same time I get the sense that he understands. There’s a sad, cognisant look of sympathy on his face. “Maybe you will find her soon,” he says.

“Maybe you can help,” I tell him. “If someone, say an Indonesian woman born in the States, came back to see Jakarta for the first time, where do you think she should go? Do you understand the question?”

“Yes.” He thinks about it for a while. “She wants to find Jakarta?”

I must have asked him a provocative question. Suddenly they’re arguing in Indonesian, and I hear words like Kota Tua and Merdeka Square, the usual places a tourist would be advised to go to. But the boy shakes his head and seems to disagree with anything his friends suggest.

“She wants to find her home?” he asks me.

“Yes,” I say. “You could say that.”

Another quick conference follows. The boy keeps shaking his head, rejecting anything his group suggests. He finally turns to me and says, “Before she finds her home she must find her soul.”

“Her soul?” I’m rather impressed by his answer, vague though it may be and a tad too philosophical.

He scratches his head, smiling. He means something else and searches for the right word, but is unable to come up with anything else and gives up, obviously feeling a little frustrated.

“Where would she find her soul around here?” I ask.“Masjid Istiqlal,” he says.

“That’s the mosque, right?”

“Yes,” he says. “She should visit the mosque.”

“Why?”

“Because if she finds her soul she is never lost.”

“Hmm. Okay. I like that. Is that from the Koran?”

“No, it is from me,” he says. “I mean, only I said it.”

“Yes, I get it. You’re pretty deep.”

“So you will go to the mosque?”

“Yes, maybe. You’ve convinced me.”

“Maybe I can help you look for her?”

“Why?” Once again my survival instinct kicks in, but for some reason his cheerful face, his earnest questions and the obvious note of concern in his voice prevents me from doing so. “Why do you want to come with me?”

“Because the interview is not finished.”

“You said it would only take five minutes.”

“Your story needs more than five minutes.”

“So you want to write my story?”

“Yes, I would like to.”“Why?”

“Because I need my project. I need a good grade.”

“Don’t you have enough for your project?”

Another discussion among them follows. I look towards the taxi. My driver is patiently watching and waiting.“When you find your friend, my story will be finished,” he says. “There is a beginning and there is an end.”

“Right,” I say, and walk back to the taxi. It’s almost noon, and the heat’s making me grumpy. I turn back to look at him. He’s not a bad kid and I feel guilty about not being nicer. He’s staring at me, pleadingly, hopefully. He’s much too earnest to be a ruffian. I know I’ll regret this but I call back to him. “What’s your name?” I ask him.

His face lights up. “Wasiran,” he says. He pulls out a university ID and shows it to me.

“Okay, Wasiran,” I say. “My name’s Markus. How well do you know the mosque?”

“Very well, Mister Markus.”

“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go get your project done, Wasiran. Let’s go find my friend.”

“Your Indonesian friend is American too?” Wasiran asks me as the taxi weaves its way towards the mosque.

“Yes, she was born there. But her father was born and raised here.”

“Why is she looking for her home here?”

“Oh, she’s always felt connected, in some way. I just don’t understand why she left without me.”

“Maybe you had a fight?”

“No, that’s not it.”“Maybe something very important?”

“Obviously.”

“But something she cannot tell you?”

“Yes, that’s what bothers me.”

We have reached the mosque. We enter through a back door and I follow Wasiran’s example and take my shoes off and carry them with me. We walk through a maze of empty corridors, past a library starkly lit by fluorescent lights, where a couple of men are intently reading. There’s a pervasive smell of incense, something like patchouli. Finally we reach a lobby where a receptionist welcomes us. Wasiran speaks to him in Indonesian while I look around. Young boys, perhaps eight years or younger, are rushing up and down the main stairway, dressed in red and white uniforms. They’re students at the mosque’s madrassa, the school for learning the Koran, and they’re chatting and laughing loudly as boys do, vanishing quickly into one of the corridors. Wasiran tells me we have to go change in the guest room.

“Change?” I ask.

“Visitors have to wear the traditional Muslim clothes,” he explains.

I follow him to the room, where we leave our shoes on open shelves. The guide hands me a silk robe that reaches below my knees. It’s in a rather lurid green with golden batik prints.

“How come you’re not wearing one?” I ask him.

“It’s only for visitors,” he says.

We walk out to the vast open area dominated by the muezzin’s tower. Along one of the surrounding passages, a photo exhibition is being put up, a collection of photographs from Barack Obama’s visit to the mosque some years back. Wasiran tells me people adore him here, where he’s considered a local boy, having attended school at a couple of institutions in the city.

We head up the stairs. Men and boys stare at me, and I realise the robe marks me as foreign and I am the only one wearing it. I feel so self-conscious I can’t focus on anything else, so that when we finally reach the balcony of the prayer hall, I seem to have just entered a jaw-dropping dream.

The hall is five storeys high, its dome held up by stainless steel pillars. Wasiran explains that the entire architecture symbolically represents important numbers, from the five pillars of Islam to the year of the country’s independence. An entire cosmos opens up to me, a place whose meanings can only be revealed to an outsider through the intercession of one who has special access to them.

A muezzin is reciting the Koran, the plaintive reading echoing through the cavernous hall. Wasiran tells me it is the eve of Eid al Adha, the feast of the sacrifice, one of the biggest festivals of Islam. Tomorrow, this mosque will be filled with devotees and dignitaries to commemorate Abraham’s supreme sacrifice, offering his own son to God. He points to the segregated prayer areas below. There are four men prostrate in prayer on the carpeted floor. To the left, there is a smaller section cordoned off, where one woman is lost in prayer.

Above: A Jackie Parsons illustration (Jackie Parsons)

We head down to the prayer hall level. I am not allowed to enter the hall itself, which is only for Muslims. We pass around the women’s section. The woman praying there gets up and gently tugs at her hijab, wrapping it tightly around her head. She must have spent a long time in contemplation and suddenly notices people passing by. She stares at me, at the hard-to-miss figure of the lone outsider in this vast, placid space. Our eyes lock. Beneath the hijab, I detect a smile, radiant, puzzled, overjoyed.

“Do you want to go to Merdeka Square?” Wasiran asks me. “Maybe your friend is there.”

“We’ve just found her,” I tell him.

Soraya walks to me and says, “I’m dying to hug you and kiss you right now, but public displays of affection are frowned upon around here.” She takes my hand. “I’m so happy to see you.

Soraya wants to go to the art gallery at Raffles Jakarta. “There’s someone I’d like you to meet,” she says. “Why was that student shadowing you?”

“He’s writing an essay about me,” I tell her. “Maybe he’ll make me famous some day.”

“Or he’ll be an equally famous writer,” she says.

I look at the piece of paper where Wasiran has scribbled his mobile number. “Maybe I’ll look him up when he does become one. You never know.”

We walk past an exhibition of contemporary works by local artists. I can’t pull myself away from them, but she insists that we head straight to the back of the gallery, where there is a permanent collection of the works of Hendra Gunawan. I have heard of the artist, of course, but have not seen many of his works in one collection. His paintings of simple, rural life are filled with kinetic energy, the figures of farmers and village women bursting to life in vibrant, vivid colours.

“He was jailed for 12 years during the dictatorship,” she explains. “He created all these works in prison. His early works were dark and bleak, but he started using more colour when he met his wife.”

“The power of love made visible,” I tell her. “That’s very touching.”

“My grandfather attended one of his workshops,” she says. She’s talking about the sanggar, the workshops Hendra established, which encouraged young artists to embrace and celebrate Indonesian life and culture. “This man opened my grandfather’s eyes to the beauty of his own world and he never was able to see it any other way for the rest of his life.”

“Are we going to see your grandfather’s works too?” I ask.

“He adored Hendra,” she says. “But he never learned Hendra’s strength of spirit. He was jailed too, because he was part of the workshops where they studied not just art, as you can imagine. Unlike Hendra, my grandfather stopped painting. Prison totally broke him. But he said one day one of his descendants would pick up where he left off.” She grabs my hand. “Oh Markus, there’s so much to tell you. Let’s go and talk.”

We take a table at the hotel’s café, where she asks for two special items not found on the menu.

“How do you know all these things?” I ask her.

“People told me about it when they learned I was going to the gallery,” she explains. Minutes later, two plates of rendang bun arrive at our table. The dough is sweet, the crust fried to a golden brown, perfectly complementing the slightly spicy shreds of beef inside and the glistening veloute, mildly spiked with ginger and chilli, on which the bun is nestled. The hotel’s signature shake follows, a glass of mango purée topped with coconut cream and cubes of fresh mango.

“You’re pampering me,” I tell her.

“So you’ll forgive me for leaving so abruptly. I didn’t want to alarm you.”

“But it was alarming, you have to admit.”

“I know, but bear with me. It’s just something personal that I need to wrap up.”

“Is there something about you I should know? Are you some kind of double agent?”

“Okay, now I know you binge-watched those movies on the plane. You always do that.”

“But I need to know, Soraya. We can’t be engaged and have these secrets.”

“There will be no secrets, Markus. I wanted to take you to the gallery to tell you what happened to my grandfather and my father.”

“I know your father left your family and came back to Jakarta when you were a child.”

“Yes. When my grandfather was jailed, my father decided it was best to leave Jakarta. Those were difficult times and he had no choice. He met my mother in America. Mother knew he never stopped feeling guilty for leaving Jakarta while my grandfather was in jail. Years later, when he found out that my grandfather had been released, he decided to come back and look after him.”

“So he left you,” I say. “He left his family in America to look after his family in Jakarta.”

“He made a hard choice,” she says. “But he always wrote to me when he was here. He wrote about the mythical city of the past, which I think was the city he imagined in the future, beautiful, elegant and happy. He kept hoping I would come and join him one day.”

“So you came here to be with him?”

“No,” she says. “He died five years ago. I came here to finish something I had promised him. But it’s something just between him and me, and I can’t talk about it until it’s done.”

“Come on, Soraya. I need to know.”

“I need you to trust me. I will tell you everything soon.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow, I hope.”

“Are you in trouble? Because if you are—”

“I’m not in trouble.”

“—You know I’m here for you.”

“I know, Markus, and that’s what I love about you.”

I lie awake most of the night, watching her sleep. She seems so calm, so peaceful, more than I have ever seen her. I want to dispel the doubts that are haunting me, but I’m having a hard time. Yet I can’t deny that I feel relieved to be by her side. Jakarta seemed hopelessly alien to me when I arrived, but now that I’m with her, I suddenly recognise the similarities between her culture and mine. There are similarities in the food, of course, and I could easily be mistaken for Indonesian myself. But the words — the intersections of language — are what I find surprisingly familiar. Our languages flow into the other the way rivers drift to a wide and endless sea. I would be shipwrecked without her.

Early the next morning, her mobile phone rings, waking us up. She takes the call, bolts out of bed and gets dressed.

Above: A Jackie Parsons illustration (Jackie Parsons)

“You’re not leaving again, are you?”

“Just one more thing to do, Markus.”

“What one thing?”

“I’m going to meet someone in the Old Town and then I’m going to Menteng. That’s all I can say for now. Do you trust me?”

I keep silent.

“Oh, Markus,” she says. “You absolutely must. It will be over soon. I’m dying to tell you everything.

”Right after she leaves, I call Wasiran.

“Mister Markus!” he says. “You and your friend are all right?”

“Not yet, Wasiran.”

“What do you mean?”

“I need you to guide me back to the Old Town and later to Menteng.”

“Okay,” he says. “Why?”

“Because the story you’re writing doesn’t have an ending yet.”Wasiran and I are in a taxi driving around the square in the Old Town when I spot Soraya along one of the narrow streets. She’s walking with an old woman hobbling along on a cane. She hails a taxi, helps the old woman get in and they drive south.

“Let’s follow that taxi,” I tell Wasiran, who gives instructions to the driver.

“Do you think something not good is happening?” Wasiran asks me.

“Something’s happening all right,” I tell him.

“Don’t worry, Mister Markus,” he says.

When we reach Menteng, I’m surprised to see a quiet, genteel, tree-lined neighbourhood. We find Soraya’s taxi stopping at a house. The old woman has a key and lets them in. Wasiran and I follow closely.

I press the doorbell. The old woman answers the door. She doesn’t look surprised or concerned at all, but looks in the direction of an inner room. I hear Soraya’s voice: “It’s all right, Intan, you can let them in.”

I follow her voice to the room. Soraya is kneeling before a coffee table that has been turned into an altar. On it, there are two framed photographs, one of which I recognise as her father. There’s a teapot with several teacups around it and a bamboo tray of food — yellow rice piled in the shape of a cone, surrounded by sliced vegetables, chunks of chicken and beef, peanuts and boiled eggs. In the centre of the table is a wooden image of the deity Garuda.

“It’s slametan,” the old woman tells me.

I have heard of the offering before. It’s a communal feast usually held on the occasion of a birth, marriage, or death, or any other significant event. I kneel beside Soraya. She smiles at me. “This was supposed to be a private ceremony,” she says. “But I’m sure my father won’t mind.”

“What are we doing?” I ask her

.“This is the house my father moved into years after he returned,” she says.

“He did pretty well.”

“Yes,” she says. “He looked after my grandfather here. I always wondered why he left us, but now I understand. He had to make a sacrifice in order to repay his debt to his father. He kept my grandfather’s paintings here. You can see some of them on the walls. They’re not very good, but my father always told me I had inherited the passion and the gift saw its full flowering in me. I always thought those were lovely words.”

“Is that your grandfather?” I ask, pointing to the other portrait.

“Yes.”

“Who is that woman who came here with you?”

“She’s Intan, the caretaker who looked after my father. She stayed with him till the day he died. She looked after this house as if it were her own. I’d been searching for her for days. She brought me to their graves.”

“So you came here to commemorate them?” I ask.

“No, I came back to fulfil a promise.”

“What promise?”

“When my father left us in America, he promised to do one thing for me, to find me a suitable husband, as fathers must. The man he chose came to see me in New York. He was a nice, decent fellow, but it didn’t work out. An arranged marriage just wasn’t for me.”

“Did he get mad at you?”

“It broke his heart. He thought he had failed me. But I promised him I would let him know once I found the man I really wanted to spend my life with. He wrote to me to say he would keep me to my promise and that he wanted to give his blessing when that man finally showed up in my life. He said he would give me his blessing even after his life on earth had passed, but I must promise to come and ask for it. I’ve come here to mend his heart.”

“You could have told me.”

“I was afraid it would change the way you looked at me.”

“I’m not afraid to know everything about you.”

She lights an incense stick, letting the spicy aroma fill the room.

“What’s the Garuda for?” I ask her.

“Intan told me about a legend,” she says. “Garuda devoured a bunch of serpents and a monk castigated him and taught him the virtue of respect and self-denial.”

She holds my hand and addresses her father’s portrait. “Father, I made you a promise and I have come back to keep it. This man beside me has followed me from the other side of the world. I waited a long while and you never had a chance to give me your blessing. But here he is and he is the happiness I’ve been looking for. I cannot live in a world without him. Be kind to him and be happy for me.”

I look behind me and see that both Intan and Wasiran are moved to tears.

“How do we know we have your father’s blessing?”

Intan overhears and says, “He will give a sign.” She starts serving the food. She has a kind and gentle face and when she smiles at me she looks much younger than her 80 years. She saves some food on a separate plate. Soraya explains that Intan wants to offer it to some poor folk she knows in the Old Town. “On Eid al Adha, we share with family, friends and the poor,” she says.

“What happens after Garuda learns his lesson?” I ask Soraya.

“Garuda is the saviour of souls,” she says. “His action brings the serpents back to life and they come back as joy.”

Wasiran has been quiet all through the ceremony. I realise he’s been jotting notes all along.

“Have you found your ending, Wasiran?” I ask him.

“Yes, Mister Markus,” he says. “And I want to share something too. I have decided to be a writer.”

“Good for you, Wasiran. Remember me when you win the Nobel Prize.”

“Of course.”

It’s sunset and Soraya and I are going to head back to the hotel, pack and fly back tomorrow. I give Wasiran some money for a cab fare. He refuses, but I insist it’s the least I can do. Soraya hails another taxi for Intan. But before Intan gets in, she says one last thing, addressing us both in Bahasa. It sounds like an admonition and I’m hoping she, too, is giving her blessing. We watch her taxi weave out of the slow traffic of Menteng. I ask Soraya what Intan’s parting words were.

“She said the legends of old teach us the same thing,” Soraya told me. “That we all emerge from our own darkness. The important thing is to heal and that takes a lot of learning.”

“That’s beautiful, Soraya,” I tell her. “What an amazing woman.”

It takes us a while to hail a taxi. It’s rush hour and traffic in the city is getting dense. The sky is a fiery red, that shock of tropic sundown that happens ferociously, a burst of intense colours that disappear as quickly as they form. A taxi finally careens towards us. Just as we are about to get in, a spotted dove lands on its roof. We are both startled and stare at it in disbelief. I have never seen one up close. I can clearly see the speckled mantle of black spots under its neck. The driver notices what’s keeping us, gets out of the cab and tries to shoo the dove away.

“No, wait,” Soraya says. “Let it take its time.”

It waddles on the roof of the cab, its beady black eyes staring at us. Then it spreads its wings and disappears into the cityscape of cable wires and red tiled roofs.

“Maybe lost from Merdeka Square,” the driver tells us as we drive back to the hotel.

“Maybe the sign we’ve been waiting for,” Soraya says. “Why don’t you write this story yourself?”

“I can’t,” I tell her. “Too much serendipity. No one would ever believe it. I’ll let Wasiran do it.”

“I believe it,” she says. “I believe it if you do.”

The taxi is heading down south of the city, to the new, gentrified part of town, the other half of Jakarta, so different from its older neighbourhoods. We have spent the day in the city of the past where dreams began. We are looking at the city of the future, where these same dreams live, but only if we let them.

“Okay,” I tell Soraya. “I’ll give it a shot.”

An accomplished writer of novels, short stories and poetry, Eric Gamalinda’s 2009 novel, The Descartes Highlands, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize, and he has won the Philippines’ top literary prize, the Palanca Memorial Awards, several times. When not working on his own creative projects, he can be found teaching at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.

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