Travel | People | Culture

The Painter of Lost Souls

Formerly a journalist for the BBC and chief editor of the Far East Economic Review, Michael Vatikiotis has worked as a writer/journalist in South East Asia for 25 years. This is an extract from his novel, The Painter of Lost Souls, which will be launched at the 2012 Ubud Writers Festival.


Warsito the artist walked alongside the thin crust of humanity that clings to the uneven paving along Malioboro Street. Here, past midnight the wretched of Java lie, wrapped in filthy burlap sacks to ward off the night’s chill. Sound asleep, they briefly escape their misery. Further up the human misery chain, the trishaw drivers, their sinewy legs folded like insects, make beds of their sturdy red rides. Beside the few food stalls that remained open, kettles boiled on charcoal fires and women watched with heavy eyelids for hungry night owls. At one, a five-piece band, complete with electric guitars, a grimy set of drums and a battered double bass painted blue, bashed out a popular folk song. A couple of late diners picked their teeth and smoked sweet kretek cigarettes to digest a frugal meal of stringy fried pigeon, rice and chili. They nodded as the artist in his shabby clothes passed by. For all who walk the street this late at night need acknowledging. Sito contemplated joining them to while away the length of a cigarette and listen to the band. The bass player cocked him a watery eye and managed a weak smile. Not strong enough to lure him, though. He passed along, ducking under a low-slung banner declaring a special fair to mark National Awakening Day sponsored by a cure for piles.

Down past the city market with its sharp stench of ripe fruit and shrimp paste, a group of drug addicts wallowed in discarded fruit peel and used plastic bags.  A girl with violent glaucoma stared up from a concrete bench like a malevolent ghost. Her friend beckoned him languidly.

‘Hey mister. Have a drink?’ Sito walked on.

‘Mister, mister,’ the girl persisted. ‘Hey, want to stick your needle in my tea-cup? Ha, hahaha…’ her maniacal laugh followed him like a persistent nightjar.  Nearby, a youngster with a filth-streaked face and long hair strummed a broken guitar and leered up at Sito with glassy glue-sniffer eyes and a runny nose. He patted the ground.

‘Come sit, friend. Join us.’  The bold motif printed on his t-shirt was arresting: Osama bin Laden in front, Che Guevara on the back. A companion sat in a wheelchair, rolling his neck to the broken rhythm of a poorly played Iwan Fals ballad. ‘Burn, burn, burn,’ he started singing. A string broke in mid chord. ‘Shit, man,’ said the youngster in the provocatively emblazoned t-shirt.

Suddenly an older man wearing orange silk pajamas and a felt cap loomed out of the gloom, striding with purpose towards the palace where a feudal king still reigns over this ragged city of charm and charnel.

The night air was cool and refreshing, marking the onset of a brief Southerly cold season. Sleep had eluded Sito and pushed him out of a sweat-drenched bed and onto the cool street in search of nocturnal distraction. Earlier, he’d enjoyed a simple meal of jackfruit curry and fried banana. He had taken to wandering the streets early in the evening armed with paper and pencil offering to sketch outdoor diners. The money he earned this way was barely enough to cover the cost of painting materials, which were mostly imported and expensive. But this evening there’d been no takers. Afterwards, he felt drowsy and thought of going straight to bed in the hope that, like the homeless wrapped in their sacks, he might escape the misery that enveloped him, amplified by his solitude. Having reached the end of Malioboro, he paused, deciding whether to seek out a bowl of steaming chicken broth from one of the wheeled stalls shaped like boats that line the north facing open field in front of the royal palace, or to head back up to his garret in Dagen Street. Nearby another group of youngsters were laughing and singing, only the guitar sounded better tuned and more professionally played. This group seemed less intoxicated and more inviting. Sito made out the long hair and sinewy limbs of the guitar player and was drawn towards him. Only he was surprised to see that the person who looked up as he approached, was in fact a girl.

The song came to an end. It was a particularly raucous rendition of another old Iwan Fals ballad and the girl lowered the bridge of her guitar, wiping a shock of limp black hair from her brow. She caught Sito’s eye as he hovered on the edge of the group, which sat on a cheap plastic mat under a street lamp, and she smiled.

‘Hi friend, where are you going?’

‘Nowhere, just walking,’ Sito responded casually with a wave of his hand.

‘That means you’re lost.’

‘No, not at all,’ Sito felt the blood rush to his face as he spun around to point in the direction from where he came.

‘Lost in a different world, perhaps.’ Now everyone in the group laughed. Sito laughed as well and drew closer.

‘Please sit down. This is a free society – at least for those of us sitting on this mat.’ There were more laughs. Then everyone in the group of around six shuffled along to make space for the lanky stranger with curly hair. Sito sat directly opposite the girl with the guitar. She wore a black t-shirt with a picture of Bob Marley stenciled on the front. Her faded jeans were tattered with holes in the knees exposing a pale complexion and a delicate bone structure. What was he doing? The police patrolled this area pretty regularly and picked up those they suspected of drug abuse, and then squeezed their families for money. Here he was; dirt poor from the village and with no connections in case of trouble. He had visions of his poor father and mother sinking more deeply into debt over a petty fine, or even worse being more obliged to his uncle forever. The girl with the guitar strummed a few chords then fiddled with the tuning keys. Beside him two of the young men in the group were arguing.

‘I told you not to fuck with Dede. He’s your meal ticket, man. I mean, who else will give you a solo show in Jakarta.’

‘I wasn’t fucking with him, man.  I was unhappy with the cut.  He wants more than 25% — and he wants only the big canvases, none of the installations. He won’t let me do the goat thing.’

‘What goat thing? You mean the one with the freezer?’

‘The ice block, stupid. The melting carcass.’

‘Yuck. How gross, not to mention being cruel to goats.’

‘Already dead goats, you mean. I get them cheap from the market.’

‘It’s still a goat. Gross.’

‘You guys are artists?’ Sito cut in excitedly.

‘Sure are,’ said the fellow immediately next to him, pausing to lift a pair of wire framed aviator sunglasses to observe the intruder more closely.

‘Whatever that means,’ said the man who did the goat thing. He had hair that was tangled and matted and tied up with string.

‘We belong to the Republic of Dreams,’ said the girl with the guitar.  She strummed a minor chord with a Spanish flourish just for effect.

‘What’s that?

‘It’s an art cooperative. We’re all artists. We combine and help each other.  It’s tough out there beyond the mat, so we have to help each other. What are you, a student?’

‘An artist too actually, I paint….” Sito was cut off in mid-sentence by a gruff fellow older and more portly than the others and sitting next to the girl. He lunged towards Sito in a menacing way, cuffing one hand playfully in front of his face and then smelling the air.

‘Nah,’ the portly fellow said. ‘No artist, this one. Can’t be; smells too good.’

Everyone laughed and the girl nearly dropped her guitar.  Her eyes sparkled and seemed to invite Sito to stay a while longer.

They all sat and sang more songs. It grew late and quite chilly. An old woman came and served tea and boiling hot steamed corncobs. They smoked one cigarette after another and brayed in the chill night air the words of one forlorn love song after another. Finally, the early morning street sweepers appeared and the first pale hint of dawn outlined the great ficus trees behind them.

‘Where do you stay my painter friend?’ asked the girl. ‘My name is Arda, by the way. Arda Rahim.’ Arda held out her hand across the mat. Beside her the portly artist sat cross legged with his head bowed in a semi-stupor.

‘Sito is my name. I’m from outside the city. Kobokan. Do you know the Wonosari area?’

Arda looked up at Sito and smiled. She’s thinking: village boy, mud between the toes.  Sito was embarrassed. His Indonesian was better than his Javanese. At least Teacher Anggito had taught him how to speak politely in a language that did not need to denote status in the course of ordinary conversation, even if he sometimes mangled the words with the thick guttural accent his Javanese mother tongue bequeathed him.

I’m not from around here either, I’m afraid,’ said Arda as she started packing her guitar in a battered plastic cover. ‘I’m from East Java, Malang, just studying here.’ Arda finished zipping up her guitar case and looked at Sito more closely in the growing light of the dawn. Then she said: ‘Hey, you really look lost. Come along with us to our ashram, if you like. It’s nearby and we can find you somewhere to crash.’


Extract from The Painter of Lost Souls (Lontar, 2012) by Michael Vatikiotis, first published in Kabar Indonesia 2010.

The novel will be launched at the 2012 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, on Friday October 5th at 17:00.




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