By Gerson Poyk
I live completely alone, but I can still live well enough since I don’t depend on anyone else. I can eat three meals a day. I can live in one rented room where there is a couch, a bathroom, and a kitchen. At the back outside it’s covered by a roof that extends a long way so the cooker, dish rack, bucket, and bike can be stored there. There’s a second-hand television in my room which keeps me entertained every day.
If only my daughter hadn’t married a man who worked in the Middle East. Maybe I wouldn’t be living alone as she’d have been able to look after me, and my two grandchildren could have entertained me. But thankfully my daughter can help me out a little financially. For a long time since my wife passed away our situation has been pretty tight. My wife used to cook food out the back to sell for a little income. She’d cook spiced fish, uduk rice, chili soybean, grilled fish, grilled eggplant and a chili sauce which I liked to call ‘chili Inul sauce’.
Every day I travel around on my bike selling food. I pedal from before dawn, sometimes till afternoon, and sometimes till late in the day. I target selling at the traditional markets and the multi-story projects where day laborers work.
But after my wife passed away everything was a mess. My daughter was forced to drop out of school in year ten because she had to help me. Every evening I had to cook, carrying on as my wife had shown me. However, after cooking I had to rest half a day which meant the food wasn’t all sold every day. Luckily my daughter knew a young woman from the island of Madura who sold drop cakes.
“Dad, I want to do what that woman from Madura is doing,” said my daughter.
”She dropped out of primary school but she could still get to run a business,” she said.
”Ah, you shouldn’t make fun of her,” I said.
”The only assets she has is a small cooker and one rice flour dough pot. She runs a business selling drop cakes. She’s very busy, dad,” said my daughter. ”I want to sell drop cakes like her,” she went on.
“But what about the food business your mother left behind? Do we have to forget about that? Would the income from that be enough for the two of us to survive?” I asked.
”That’s easy. All it needs is one table. Some of the food you cook could be displayed on that one table and you can sell some of it from your bike. What do you think?”
So three days later, there was a small food stall in the traditional market. At the side of the table was a hissing cooker wafting the aroma of fresh drop cakes. My daughter’s drop cake “lecturer”, the woman from Madura, was selling not far away beside my daughter’s stall. Every day very early in the morning my daughter sold by herself in the market without me for company. After sleeping till eleven o’clock in the middle of the day, I pedaled my bicycle to the market and collected some of the food my daughter was selling. I rode around to the busy building construction sites, busy factory fences and other places like that.
Early one morning a young journalist from the tabloid Voice of the Market, no stranger to staying up all night, squatted in front of my daughter’s drop cake cooker. The young journalist fell in love with my daughter. He published a photograph of her and the girl from Madura prominently in his tabloid newspaper. The story was long and detailed and described the “candak kulak” program which was a government program from the time of the New Order Government which had provided small-scale capital. The program was long gone, vanished without a trace.
Later my daughter married the journalist from the Voice of the Market.
Her friend the girl from Madura sold up and down the market until one day, several months later, a minibus driver proposed to her.
Not long after that my son-in-law moved to the Middle East to work as a journalist with the magazine Oil which is part of an oil company.
Nevertheless, neither of them did help me much because they were studying while they worked there. My son-in-law was at university and my daughter finished her high school matriculation and then she went on to university.
But they did not forget to think about my financial situation. My daughter sent some money for me to use as capital to buy sandalwood and agarwood fans to sell in the Middle East along with necklaces made from sandalwood and agarwood beads. Later they also asked for offcuts of sandalwood and agar wood used for burning in the incense burners of wealthy middle eastern people.
So I was busy with my new business as a sandalwood fan trader. Each month I would freight the aromatic commodity. I rented a small post office box to support my business activity. Everything was small. The post office box was small, the bedroom was small, but with these small things, I was involved in a world which was wide and large! Although sales of sandalwood fans were brisk enough for me to be able to buy a block of land in Jakarta, my children told me not to buy land to build a house in the city. My daughter thought it would just be destroyed by floods of both water and people.
Their thinking seemed pretty strange to me.
Every time I went to the post office to send products I visited a small open-air food stall in the grounds of the post office to have coffee or a bite to eat.
The owner of the food stall Misses Agus was helped by her daughter who had a younger brother who hadn’t undergone the Islamic khitan or circumcision ceremony yet. At first, I only had breakfast there, then I visited every day to have lunch and dinner. Master Agus who wasn’t circumcised yet was very pleased when I did drop in. Usually, if I had any spare change I would give it to him as a present. Suddenly one day he showed me a piggy bank that was heavy. It was full of the coins I had given him. It was a real surprise to me to see a child who had apparently been left by a father who had passed away. Master Agus’ big sister Julie had been a wonderful help to her mother. Almost every day she worked in the small food stall unless she had to wash clothes at home, sweep or hang out the washing.
“Where do you work, sir?” Julie asked one day.
“I work at home,” I answered.
“Where’s your office?” asked Julie.
“My office is as small as a box, a post office box!”
Julie laughed. “When you go to work, you first have to turn into an ant!”
“Ah, don’t be silly,” I said.
“Ah, don’t underestimate ants. They have a lot to teach humans. They work together and cooperate without anger, without getting emotional, like…”
“You’re having a go at me, aren’t you!” said her mother.
“So you’re emotional?” I asked.
“No, my mother is born from noble Javanese descent but now works in this humble little food stall,” said Julie.
“It doesn’t matter that it’s small, so long as it turns a dollar and makes a profit, to turn this food stall into a building. This shop is larger than my post office box. That’s my shop. It only returns a little, but fortunately I’m an ant so I don’t eat much,” I said. “Small people like us have to start small.”
“A post box can’t be bulldozed and relocated but it seems that even if the rent is paid this food stall can be taken away in a truck and piled up in the municipal depot.”
One day early in the morning when I arrived at the post office I saw Mrs. Agus having an argument. Two large men were carrying plates, pots, woks, cookers and other things, and piling them into a pickup truck. It seemed that Mrs. Agus owed money to a village money lender. She just sat silently staring blankly, bright red eyes.
Although it was none of my business, something inside me compelled me to ask, “How much money do you owe?”
“Only three-hundred thousand. How could they do something like that! And after the agreement was to pay a thousand rupiah a day. Suddenly he asked me to repay the whole loan because he said his house had been flooded,” said Julie.
“Where’s the money…”
“I actually had the money but yesterday I paid the doctor and bought blood pressure medicine,” said Mrs. Agus.
I wasn’t being rational any more. At once I called out, “Mate, put those things back in the food stall. Here, I’ll pay what Mrs. Agus owes you.” Then I pulled out three-hundred thousand rupiahs from my wallet.
“Wow, three hundred, only what about the interest? It’s now three years and my money’s been locked up in this food stall. Five hundred…”
“There is no more money. Only three hundred.”
“Ah, all right. Here’s the money.
“Yeh, and here are your things back,” they said.
After the debt collectors had gone, a little while later Master Agus arrived home from school. The small, first-grade child was surprised mainly because there was no food. I told him to buy packets of cooked rice for four people and then help get the stall set up so it didn’t look like a wreck.
Since that incident, Julie would always visit my boarding room with food, cleaned all the dirty things, washed my clothes and helped me pack the sandalwood and agarwood fans and also help cut up agarwood pieces. Then, when that was in order, she would help put them into boxes, write the sender and receiver addresses, and help carry them to the post office. She would also always check the post box and get any mail from my daughter overseas.
Julie had become my assistant. Although she had only finished junior high school, her writing was good and she was quick with numbers.
After six months there was a disaster. Julie the fatherless child suddenly found she had a father in me, and at the same time, fell in love with me. I was racked by conflict. I was fifty-five years old and Julie was just twenty. It wasn’t right. Poor Julie. But she stubbornly wanted to be my wife. For me, this was not love that was normal, it was all because of the sandalwood fans, the aromatic agarwood fans meant money. If I hadn’t had any money, the young woman wouldn’t have wanted this. Ah, sandalwood fans, the beautiful aroma of agar wood fans had preserved an old man who already smelt of the soil. It wasn’t right for Julie to marry this ancient from Jakarta.
Julie hugged me, hung around my neck and said, “I’ll look after you until you’re using a walking stick. You’ll live again, become young again, through our children.
I became weak and fell onto the bed.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door and as it wasn’t locked Mrs. Agus walked right in. Her eyes were red. Maybe her high blood pressure had come back. Anyway, she appeared to have tidied herself up and was thinking herself pretty. In fact, because of the bright red of her lipstick, I felt like I was being approached by a tiger.
It isn’t right for Julie to become your wife,” she said, “I’m the right one for you.” As she spoke she moved towards Julie then she slapped Julie.
As Julie ran out I made a run for the back door and then into the bathroom. I hid there for an hour. When I emerged into my room Mrs. Agus was thankfully no longer in sight.
Since then I haven’t appeared at Mrs. Agus’ food stall. I closed down the post office box and moved to another post office.
About three months later, Julie arrived at my room. She sat down as she slid a baby bottle into the lips of the baby in her arms. I was dumbstruck. Surely she wasn’t going to try it on me. I hoped she wasn’t about to go to the police station and report that her baby was my child, the child of a humble sandalwood fan trader.
“I’ve been living with a minibus driver,” she said.
“And had a baby right away?” I asked.
“No. His wife has left him, and she handed the baby over to me. I just took her. After all, where else was I going to go? My mother has high blood pressure. The important thing is that I have a husband,” said Julie, cradling the baby.
I couldn’t say anything. My eyes missed over.
One day about a year later as I was pedaling my bicycle, I saw Mrs. Agus shuffling along dragging a half-filled sack. I stopped but she had forgotten who I was which shocked me deeply. When I looked at the sack I realized. It was just full of plastic water bottles and old newspapers. Mrs. Agus had become a garbage collector. To her, Jakarta had given only garbage.
“Where’s Julie now?” I asked.
“Julie passed away,” she said.
“And where’s young Agus?” I asked again.
“At the intersection, selling bottled water,” she answered.
“Where are you living?”
“In doorways. There are plenty of doorways. You can just curl up anywhere.”
I was shocked.
“Who are you, sir?” she asked
“I’m a sandalwood fan trader.”
“Oh, my son-in-law, my son-in-law. Please, can you just give me a ride on the back of your bike!”
Right away I gave her a ride to my room, after getting rid of the sack of garbage. I told her to wash and fetched her something to eat.
The following day I went with her to the psychiatric hospital and put her into a nursing home.
Depok, 10 February 2008
Sandalwood Fan (Kipas Cendana) was published in Kompas Daily in March 2008. Retrieved from https://cerpenkompas.wordpress.com/2008/03/30/.
Featured Image: Back cover of EAP153/13/40: Syair Raksi Macam Baru  https://eap.bl.uk/archive-file/EAP153-13-40