Published: Jul 29, 2007


Duncan Graham

Half way along Jalan Joko Dolog, opposite a high fence shielding a building site, is a small shop. Well, really just a glass counter facing the dusty street and more often behind shutters than exposed. For few people now livein the area, and the lane has become a short cut, a speed track between Basuki Rakhmad and Pemuda, the two great bitumen rivers trisecting the centre of East Java's capital Surabaya.

Apart from the spray-painted number on a battered iron gate, there's only a small chromed dome squatting unhappily on the pavement to catch the eyes of the Grand Prix wannabees. Should the sun ever penetrate the smog this artefact might glitter and mesmerise like a spinning night-club globe.

Once Nyonya Rizza's shop sold domes to the faithful for their personal mushollas. Then came the monetary crisis, and demand tumbled along with the rupiah. Now she markets half litres of lamp oil decanted from backyard drums into stained plastic bottles; tiny packets of washing powder, needles, thread, batteries pulled from under the splintering shelves, single cigarettes.

Also on the counter is a dictionary and a monster exercise book buffed brown, rusting staples losing grip against a stuffing of clippings, brochures and postcards. Most show distant lands and cities shimmering in the gloss of sunrise, the promise of heavenly locations free of crime and grime.

'Of course I'll never visit these places,' Rizza sings in rapid and sometimes scrambled English. 'No money. What does it matter? I can see what they are like, and people tell me. I can imagine. It's my vision.'

There are also photos of tiny Rizza standing alongside hulking Australians, broad as their accents. Her face is always open and laughing, theirs bemused. Only their mouths smile. No pictures show plump white male arms around her slender and inviting olive shoulders, her fine 44 kilo frame.

Although a mother, grandmother and widow, Rizza gets angry when addressed as Ibu, the standard Indonesian honorific for women of her status. She is 56, and claims a unique name, though Germany has a Rizza ice cream, which she thinks a hoot. She has John Howard's eyebrows, wears no make up but dyes her manic hair in copper tones. Her dress is mainly a torn skirt and marquee-size T-shirt.

She could pass for 40 despite a doctor misdiagnosing a heart attack in 2001 and prescribing treatment which put her in hospital with a serious illness. Her appearance, a voice which could stir possums, and up-front approach make her a stand-out among conservative customers and coy neighbours.

But it is her skill with English which provides the extra dazzle, for the nimble-minded and effervescent Rizza is one of the numerically large, but proportionately small number of poor Indonesians who have taught themselves our complex tongue.

Born in Malang of Madurese parents, Rizza was the fifth of nine children. Like his daughter, her businessman father was clearly smart and different, covertly listening to broadcasts from Australia and Malaysia during the dark days of Sukarno, when such behaviour was suspect. Rizza loved the foreign voices, did well at school and left at 17 to work in a bookshop in Surabaya.

Even now many Indonesian bookstores are sad affairs. Dominated by religious texts, comics and dictionaries, most volumes are bound in plastic to stop browsing and keep covers clean. In the dangerous days of Suharto's rise, when even the mildest comment could be interpreted as radical dissent, bookshops must have been even more sterile.

Unable to make such comparisons, the teenage Rizza found herself in Aladdin's Cave. She didn't just dust the wares, she hoovered them whole, particularly those in English. The occasional foreign buyer was quickly sucked into conversation. Their requests were taken seriously. 'I remember everyone wanted The Happy Hooker-r-r,' she said rolling the final syllables like a Scot. 'Very nice book. I think the publisher Macmillan.'

The shop used her sparkling personality and lovely voice to spruik the wares. Customers were not the only ones seduced. At 18 she married the manager, and sadly her love affair with language came to a shuddering halt. 'He did not like me always talking to the customers,' Rizza recalled. 'He very jealous. One day he threw a book at me. For ten years I did not practice English.'

One daughter was born. Twenty years ago her husband died from 'post-power syndrome', Rizza's label for inactivity after retirement. Photos show a small, neat Javanese with regulation moustache nonplussed besides his volatile wife with wild hair and giant spectacles: 'Jacqueline Onassis, ya?'

'Of course I was not sad. He was a good man, but why should I be sad? If I am, I will lose myself.' So despite the many lustful overtures from Indonesians and foreigners drawn by her magnetic personality, Rizza is determined to stay single and independent.

'If I married again I become sad, difficult with life,' she says. 'I must honour husband, smile-smile. It is a must in Indonesia as a wife, or it is a sin.'

'It is easy to fall in love, I have to strive to be strong. I say to men: 'Don't touch me. I am afraid of myself. This is very heavy for me, it is a danger for me. I don't want someone pity for me. I am a strong woman.'

Twice a week she goes to the mosque wearing a bonnet or scarf. Conscious of Western hang-ups about Islam, she stresses 'pure religion - no ideology'. At other times she meditates, listens to short-wave, translates English into Indonesian and vice versa. 'I love English,' she says and means it. 'Writing in English is a beautiful and profound experience. If I have troubles I write them down in English. Then they get better.'

Occasionally she spots a foreigner and cheekily calls: 'Welcome to my country', a greeting which takes many aback, particularly those who anticipate a con artist though her motives are altruistic. 'I want harmony everywhere,' she says earnestly, 'between friends, families, nations. Otherwise we are finished.'

At times her enthusiasm and humour overtakes itself. After hearing a German tourist recite the many marvels of his country she asked with feigned naivety: 'And how is Mr Hitler?' As a conversation stopper you don't get much better than that.

For Rizza the idle gossip which fuels Indonesian life is a waste of time. 'I don't like talk meaningless,' she says, famished for facts to be transcribed into the Big Book. 'What is the point? There are so many things to learn. I want to know about other countries, everything.' In exchange she offers fierce condemnations of her nation's leaders and their penchant for corruption. She says she was equally fearless during the days of Suharto when criticism was equated with communism.

If so, then the authorities must have overlooked the transgressions, for Rizza behind bars would have been more of a headache than behind the counter.

There is no chance Rizza's skills with English will be put to good use. Her vocabulary is vast and her ear sharp. Conversationally she can out-run many university English teachers and out-wit the rest, but her grammar is a dog's breakfast.

Indonesian schools teach tense to the point where enthusiasm is anaesthetised, so a poor self-educated woman who is a wiz with words will never get the opportunity to galvanise the next generation with her unquenchable lust for language.

Which is Indonesia's great loss and no-one's gain.

Perth journalist Duncan Graham (wordstars@hotmail.com) slumps in awe of all self-taught linguists.

Inside Indonesia 72: Oct - Dec 2002