[This is the first of four excerpts from a section of a novel I wrote. All four will be posted as a single excerpt the day after the fourth one is up.]
The other day I was surprised to get an e-mail from the Sultan of Java. He was a brilliant oddball I had met in the early nineties in a chat room set up by some graduate students at M.I.T., where he himself had just finished a Ph.D. in physics (I had been finishing up my Ph.D. in mathematics at Harvard at the time). After a few months of hanging out on the internet (just then starting to get cranked up), when spring finally broke some of us would get together Thursday afternoons for a few hours of informal soccer along the Charles River, and that’s how I’d met him in person.
We would all hit a well-known bar in Harvard Square after our soccer, and although he was a Muslim and did not drink alcohol, he would join us and down caffeine-free diet cokes. He and I hit it off from the start, since we both shared an interest in so-called non-linear systems and had a common dream of being able to model such phenomena mathematically (briefly, a non-linear system is a set of stochastic phenomena whose outcomes are explicable after the fact but not before – two classical examples are weather and the price movements of stocks and commodities).
He was an unusually attractive young man (I am not gay, but nor am I blind), indeed almost beautiful. He had exquisite café-au-alit skin, jet-black hair, very long eye-lashes, and he was tall and muscularly lean. He had taken his undergraduate degree at Oxford University and spoke a clipped Oxbridge English in his deep, rich voice. He came from one of the oldest and largest families in Java, and their personal history went back about half a millennium before the Dutch colonized the islands. They survived that, they survived the oil-thirsty rapacity of Hirohito’s brutal war machine during World War II, and they survived the unspeakable revolutionary chaos of the post-war decades. Under the dazzling corruption of Suharto’s regime the family had multiplied its already considerable wealth many times over and become super-rich.
But it was my friend, the Sultan of Java, who, a few years after finishing his Ph.D., had increased the family’s wealth by truly astonishing proportions: first, his interest in non-linear systems had led him to write a complex currency trading program, and he had anticipated almost to the day the implosion of the Suharto regime in May of 1998 and the consequent disastrous collapse of the Indonesian rupiah. Being right on the London Exchange about currency those crucial spring months in that 1998 ‘year of living dangerously‘ had made him (and his family) US dollar billionaires – yes, that’s right, billionaires – several times over. And it had all be entirely legal.
But you’d never know about his wealth from being around him. He was really quite unassuming, and though he dressed with a sophisticated elegance that his physique and pocket-book enabled him to push almost but not quite to foppishness, he very much wanted to be and indeed was ‘one of the guys.’ But even in the company of admittedly very bright people he stood out as something of an intellectual phenom in his own right. He had an uncanny nimbleness of mind and, I suspect, a completely photographic memory. In addition to fluency in English and Bahasa Indonesia, he was fully at ease in Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Spanish, Malay, Japanese and several other Indonesian dialects besides Javanese (and when I first met him he was meeting regularly with a fellow physics student from Beijing who was teaching him Chinese). It was actually quite unnerving for me to watch him do a Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle in about twelve minutes!
Of course he was not a Sultan of Java or anything else, but it was a sobriquet I privately attached to him the first time we met: there was something so regal about him, both physically and intellectually. And when I told him many months later of this nickname he smiled softly and nodded his head in amused agreement. His real name was Wahil.