My sister returned back from Indon today. The first thing she did once she reached home was complaining about the road congestion near the airport. The road just never got repaired after some damage by a fire incident few months ago.
Her complain brought me back to that moment, when the accident happened. I was there, passing the location, in a highly populated area in Chinatown. The blaze was visible from quarter kilometers away from where the fire began. The smoke raised high, blackened the Jakarta sky which has been polluted from God knows what. Damage was uncountable. Thousands of people lost their place of living, their place of work, their most precious treasure. Half of them or more might not be able to return to their normal state of living. Half of them or more might even not able to return their normal state of mentality due to unbearable stress.
Fire was a sad story and none should laugh at it. But I laughed at a joke my aunt threw on that striking hot afternoon, right next to the flame.
Gazing over that horrifying view from my car window, everything seemed to be unreal for me. I said, ouch, that was scary but as the car I was in passed the incident area and moved to a bay area of the city, I couldn’t remember vividly the harshness of the fire. Just like one minute break news in television, now I continued to watch entertainment programme. Rows of malls and luxurious apartments awaited me. Soon, I could no longer think about people sleeping in their unwelcoming relatives or on the street after the fire hazard. I returned to my beautiful life and researched on suffrage in Laos, far away from my house.
In the morning, picture on the devastated land appeared on the first page of national newspaper. “Hey dad, this was the fire I saw yesterday,” I told my dad. “Oh ya, seemed serious…” my dad replied, while getting himself ready for work. “Yeah, it was a big fire,” I commented and drank my milk.
Was that my fault of not showing empathy to the victims? I was born in a middle class family. Most of my childhood spent in a beautiful and tidy quarter in North Jakarta. My family took care of me, protected me from places too dangerous for the little princess. I was not even able to ride bicycle due to the threat of the street. The only fire story I can recalled was arson happened to a minimarket in our neighborhood. The owner conspired to burn his not-so-profitable and run down shop to get insurance gain. None was hurt in the hazard. The owner even could gain profit from it; managed to build two more malls afterwards. Only insurance company suffered insignificant lost. Although the remains of the incident were still there, no one remembered it as a tragic tragedy.
Moving to Singapore just worsened my sensitivity. Throughout my 3 years stay there, I hardly ever heard news on fire hazard. The only smoke I smelt was from forest burning far far away in Sumatra. The only fire story I wrote was a mock up incident happened in USA, given as an exercise in our newswriting class. Possibility of a wake up in a burnt house just seemed to be far away from reality.
Story on fire hazard in local newspaper tried to evoke my awareness of the reality. I read it daily, in a small column about a house burnt, to the first page headline news on a huge market turned into ashes. There were a lot of stories on it. I myself saw the fire flame reaching more than two storey house at the same place, twice in less than 3 months. Too many that I started to undermine the significance of it. And when I looked at the REAL fire, with REAL suffering with my own two eyes, everything just looked like a television piece for me. I hardly heard people crying over their death families and friends. I could barely sense the heat caused by such strength of fire. I was not able to link myself with people affected with this incident. Still, in my life, it seemed unreal to be caught in the same situation.
I doubted if I was alone. Thousands of Jakarta citizens, living in such a great life had deafened their ears to stories on human sufferings. We didn’t live in an equal condition with the least fortunate. We couldn’t empathize enough. I remembered in the past, I could have nightmares in a whole week after a funeral of my friend’s father. Everything was so real I was afraid the same thing happened to me. But there were too many children losing their fathers in Jakarta. And once I grew up, I blinded my ears of the fact that my family members are mortal. I began to lose my empathy to those losing fathers.
Probably that was exactly the reason why I didn’t feel anything towards the fire. There were too many sad stories happening in Indonesia. People got robbed, murdered, sacked in every minute of our live. Fire, earthquake, flood, deforestation happened daily. We, the middle class were not able to change the fate. Had we not stopped our sense to blend with such sorrow, we would not be able to enjoy our life. And enjoying life, I found, was my only way to show how grateful I was with the live I had.
I was sorry for the fire incident. But more, I was sorry for not being that sad for the victims. That was why I wrote this piece. Just in case I forgot about them, I had reason why I had to do so.