Merdeka (Freedom: a true story on drug use in Jogjakarta)

Ever since the front room of our small boarding house (kos) came available, and thus given over to the two sons of the house, Kangmas and Dhimas, a demon took over with shocking speed and accuracy. While freedom meant being only some 10 feet away from the main house, the physical distance was compounded by a complete social transformation. Each night, the boys gathered in the room to play guitar. Later, they moved in a cassette player and folk music slowly metamorphosed into Metallica. Then, innocent chatter became vulgar storytelling and guitar-picking became gambling. Soon the gambling was accompanied by alcohol. Then, the gatherings got louder and continued far into the night, sometimes even accompanied by women.

Only about a month into their celebration of merdeka, Dhimas stumbled into the house where I was sitting and talking with his mother and sister. He walked past on unsteady, rubbery legs, drooling down his coffee stained tee shirt. His language was extremely slurred and his eyes were unable to focus much on anything. His mother, meanwhile, was furiously chastising him for looking so sloppy. How could you walk in the streets wearing clothes like that? Have you no respect for your family name?? Jeez. Should I tell her?

A week later, on Saturday morning, after an extremely loud, long gathering, mother went round to the room to see if Kangmas was up and getting ready for his classes. What she found were 6 boys in various stages of dress, unconscious on the floor amidst heaps of garbage, cigarette butts, bottles, food, and more. In a fit of anger, she ran into the kitchen to fetch gas, which she then tossed onto the mattress her son was slowly reaching consciousness on. Screaming and kicking, she raved, “I’ll burn this room and all the evil in it!!” Kangmas obliged and turned his lighter on the mattress. His friends, by now aware enough to know what was going on, slowly walked out while Kangmas spread the gas around the evil room.

The room was destroyed, but the demons it harbored was not. In fact, they were barely singed. While both brothers did not come home for a few days, lots of young men stopped by looking for them and the pills they had apparently been selling from this evil room. The demons came back in full force, however, when mother left for Jakarta and father also left town on business. The notorious 6 took over the house, wielding knives and threatening anyone. We, who occupy the kos behind the main house, all became refugees in the night, running off to our various safe havens.

For over a month my kos has been taken over by children going insane over merdeka. The physical distance from their authority figures was small but the symbolic distance permitted them the freedom to do anything they liked with no intervention. The pills they were taking could be anything. The point was to swallow 20-25 of them. The high lasted for 2 to 3 days and could be controlled by milk, which lessened the effect, or caffeine and sugar, which strengthened it. In most cases, they have no control over or memory of their actions. After only about 2 weeks of this obscene possession, withdrawal was already several hours of excruciating pain. Yesterday afternoon, I watched Kangmas writhing on the floor punching himself in the head, screaming and crying, begging for someone to get him some more pills. His friends were too stoned to care. His sister and I decided it was probably best to ignore the pleas as best we could.

A few hours later while the others were sleeping, Kangmas seemed to have freed himself from the demon’s grip. Amidst the fog of his memory we helped him piece together the activities of the previous three days, the threats of violence and terror lashed at all, the knife gashes in the doors as crazed young men threatened those of us foolish enough to stay at home, the immense silence within the kampung as fearful neighbors locked themselves away from the monstrous spectacle of demonically possessed boys. Kangmas swore he’d never take pills again and that he would free us all and himself from his demon-held friends.

Just as we were about to celebrate the calm by having dinner together, from every available orifice of the house burst forth the mighty Indonesian military pointing rifles and screaming loudly and rudely. Upon sighting me, their speech immediately changed to soft, polite, formal Javanese, their tone of inquiry a gentle and friendly big-brother approach. There was no need for a show of force. There was a foreigner present and the demonic children were all sound asleep[1]. As all the ‘evidence’ had been consumed, the boys could be charged with nothing.

This morning, as I came out onto the path of my kampung, I was summoned by a group of neighbors wanting to know what happened last night. I told them what I thought would make them happy, and then asked if there were other drug problems in this kampung. They replied, only the rich families have such problems[2]. We laughed in agreement as I parted. And then I thought, they too don’t know their own children.


Laine Berman

Yogyakarta, 14 Dec. 1992

[1] Normal practice for dealing with demonic possession such as this would be to burst in in a rage, terrify those caught off guard, who would invariably run for their lives, and shoot them as they ‘tried to escape’.

2 My kampung, on the banks of the River Code, is well-known as a low income area. There are, however, well-to-do families, such as my kos family, sprinkled sparsely around the outer alleys.

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