AWAY WITH WIJI THUKUL I The sun was orange in the summer. The grass smelt like fresh bread. Wiji Thukul didn’t like bread; he spent every morning boiling rice in a dented saucepan. The water always spilt over the edge of the single-serve pan, bubbling like soap. Wiji would lean over his rice like a question mark. His head looked heavy, as if someone had drawn him with a leaking fountain pen. I like watching the rice cooked, he said. Reminds me of my mother, he said.
Wiji had to read 100 pages of Lenin’s Collected Works everyday. He didn’t see the point. He only understood half the words. He’d rather watch his rice cook.
AWAY WITH WIJI THUKUL II Wiji leans his head against my left shoulder, his wavy black hair tickling my ear. His right arm reaches across the knuckles of bones on my back and his hand grips the point of my right shoulder. I can see the black dirt under his fingernails, the peeling clear skin under them – little sails on a sea of brown skin.
Wiji’s arms, hands, head – his whole body – are small and thin. They tell me he drives becak for a living, but I look at his calves and they’re thin like a ballerina’s. His calves are thin and dead, not like the calves of becak drivers who used to drive me to school, which grew sweaty, brown flowers of muscles.
“I want to write. But I drive becak instead,” he said. “I don’t want my muscles to grow faster than my brain,” he said.
AWAY WITH WIJI THUKUL III Wiji didn’t like buying his rice at the cornerstore with the blue Art Deco signage, the one that just said Cornerstore – nameless like a rock. Inside it was dark and smelled of wet rags. The rice was packed in little plastic packs wih red, blue and yellow writings. Mahatma Basmati, Thai Jasmine, Italian Arborio. Wiji hated not being able to feel the grains of rice in his hands. When he was a child he said he loved to stick his brown hand like a bayonet into the small mountains of rice at his grandma’s rice stall. He’d pull his hand out, and it would be blanketed in the grains’ smooth white starch. He’d clap his hands and white dust would fill the air, like dreams.
AWAY WITH WIJI THUKUL IV Wiji cut his nails with a pair of big black scissors. The same kind kept inside the wooden draw of his grandmother’s Singer. Yellow vines streaked the shiny black machine like fogs. I used to wonder who painted the vines and if he had to paint the same vines on every machine, he said.
The big black scissors missed a nail and cut into flesh. Thin crimson rivers of blood ran onto the grey wooden floor. You cut yourself, I said. Yes, I did. What does it matter, he said. You should clean the floor before they get back, I said. Don’t worry, no one is paying any attention to anything in this house, he said.
The sky was white from the morning sun. We were in the veranda and the sun focused its attention on Wiji’s scissors. It glistened like a new car. Needles of heat pricked my scalp and the skin on my back. I wonder if the sun ever drew blood from a man.
AWAY WITH WIJI THUKUL V The winter air is sharp, like a butcher’s knife sticking into his nose. His Daimatu rubber thongs scrape black pimples of exposed stones on the pavement. The sound echoes up to the unblinking sun. Wiji’s eyes follow the sound and let themselves go blind from the white light.
Wiji’s walking into the unmanned train station. The trees bend from the strong wind, trying hard to not let go of their blue-green leaves. The leaves flutter wildly like flags. The trees are strange: they all have eczema, Wiji says to himself. They shed their skin like snakes.
The wind blows the blue skirt of a young girl leaning on the wall below the Station Master sign. She must’ve bought the skirt for its cute pattern of bright red roses and green thorny stems, Wiji thinks. The girl’s right hand quickly comes down to push her skirt down against the wind; her left hand clutches tightly at a red handbag. Wiji marvels at the whiteness of the girl’s thighs. She must like the color red because her hair is red, Wiji says to himself. She’s as strange as the trees.
Everything in this country is as strange as a new discovery.
AWAY WITH WIJI THUKUL VI Wiji followed the red-haired girl up into the upstairs compartment, his eyes fixed on her naked calves. He could see the white of her calves was broken by small, irregular, brown freckles which reminded him of the moon’s craters – timeless and eternal. Like they were always meant to be there. Not like the scars on his legs, shiny black circles the size of 100 rupiah coins, which he hated. That one on his left shin, from the psoriasis the local Puskesmas doctor prescribed tobacco leaves for. The one on his right calf, from the burn he got from the exhaust pipe of his uncle’s Honda Astrea. The blackest of them all, the one on his left thigh, which he scratched in his sleep for a year when he was ten. No, I want to spend the rest of my life with this girl, Wiji thought. I’ll stroke her calves before we go to bed and I’ll ask her to tell me stories about the freckles.
The upstairs compartment was empty. Wiji sat three seats behind the red-haired girl. The train had started to move before he found where he wanted to sit. Cool currents of air blew strands of the girl’s red hair into horizontal lines behind her head. Wiji felt like they were hot forks aimed straight into his heart.
The tang of this morning’s peak-hour sweat reminded Wiji of his idleness. I have no reason to be here, stalking this nice girl, Wiji thought. I should read my Lenin. He looked out of the window, at the abandoned train tracks overgrown with grey winter grass. He smiled at the absence of people. He smiled again, a big boat of a smile, at the monuments the absent people had erected: warehouses with square glass windows which had been smashed into abstract shapes by juvenile delinquents, fading signs for the Tip Top bread factory and wire fences, which seemed to grow out of the soil in this country.
AWAY WITH WIJI THUKUL VII Wiji envies the greenness of his new country. It’s everywhere: on every blade of grass, on the shiny skin of tree-leaves, even diluted in the blue of the sea water. The green is everywhere and comes in all shapes and sizes: in large ovals of manicured couch grass with their pancake criss-cross pattern, in small rectangles of nameless grass next to grey pavements, in boundless hills he sees outside the windows of his car.
Wiji remembers the late-afternoon search for green grass when he was a kid, the shirtless brown boys tossing a plastic football to each other, joking, pushing each other as though they were enemies, walking bare-footed on the warm asphalt looking for any space with grass. Grass on the edge of a field was the best, then they could set the goal posts on it (two small piles of rocks six jumps apart) and Wiji, a goalie, could throw himself around like Dino Zoff.
The green of the grass in his old country would last only as long as the game. The kids would play on until the sun set and the ball flew around like an invisible, fast-moving, bat and struck someone on the head, and then they went home – happy and smelling of the sun.
The game left only blond stalks of grass – uprooted from its soil and kicked around the field like the dead in war. Now in his new country, the greenness is immortal.
*I spent the summer of 92/93 in a house in Dulwich Hill, suburban Sydney. Wiji Thukul was there, along with a few other Indonesian political activists, historians, and a cukil kayu artist. This poem-cycle was part of my first book We Are Nowhere And It’s Wow, published in 2008.