The Laughter of the Girl from the Garbage Dump
By Ahmad Tohari
Korep, Carmi, and Driver Dalim are three of the many people who often visit the garbage dump on the outskirts of town. Dalim is definitely an adult, the driver of one of the yellow garbage trucks with a crew of two. He is a civil servant, and he likes to take his thick-framed glasses off, and then put back on again. Carmi is really still too young to be called a young lady. Korep is a boy with a scar from a past injury above his eye. The two of them are the youngest of the garbage scavengers among the residents of the garbage dump.
Driver Dalim is actually a garbage scavenger too. He manages his two assistants so they scavenge the best second-hand goods when the garbage is still on the truck. The instruction is given especially when his truck is transporting the garbage from the mansions on What’s It Called Street. The leather belt that Driver Dalim is wearing is also scavenged. He says it was made in France and was thrown away by its owner just because it has a small scratch. He also says most of the people living in those mansions only want to use the best things without the smallest mark whatever.
When Korep and Carmi arrive at the garbage dump the stench is not so noticeable yet. The sun’s rays are still being blocked by the trees on the eastern side so the garbage dump isn’t sizzling yet. Later just before midday the garbage dump will be boiling as the stench rises and fills the air. Driver Dalim often reminds Carmi and Korep not to hang around in the middle of the dump. “A lot of scavengers have died from sickness. Their lungs become diseased,” he says. Who knows why, but Driver Dalim feels the need to remind Carmi and Korep. He himself doesn’t know why he feels close to the two children. Maybe it’s because Korep and Carmi are the two youngest scavengers at the garbage dump.
Dozens of scavengers are already standing gathered on the south side. They are waiting for the garbage truck to arrive. A female scavenger puts a cigarette butt between her lips, then moves in and out of the others asking for a light. A hand stretches out towards her mouth. A match lights and smoke starts to unfurl. But the woman then screams. Apparently the hand of the man holding out the match has then tweaked her cheek. She chases the man and pinched his back. They wrestle. All of a sudden there appears a happy spectacle. Korep and Carmi join in the shouting. There are bursts of laughter and rowdy shouting. It becomes so noisy the sparrows foraging for food on the ground suddenly all fly away together into the air. A dog that feels disturbed disappears quickly behind a garbage excavator long since broken down, now also garbage.
Driver Dalim wheels in his truck. And in an instant the atmosphere changes. The crowd of garbage scavengers scatters. They run behind until the truck stops. The moment the rubbish is tipped out there erupts a chaotic noisy scene. Dozens of scavengers including Korep and Carmi transform into something akin to a pen of hungry chickens tossed feed, struggle, jostle each other, shove and push past each other. They scramble to scavenge through the garbage for anything at all, anything except for diapers, pads or dead rats.
Korep finds two half-rotten mangoes. Carmi has a different story. Carmi’s eyes are struck when an object falls from the back of the truck onto her head. It’s the right-hand shoe of an expensive pair of shoes of a reasonable size. Carmi picks up the shoe straight away. Oh, she often dreams of wearing shoes like this. In her dream, Carmi sees her calves are clean and large, and more beautiful because of the shoes. Carmi is really excited. Ever more excitedly she picks through the pile of garbage with her hands looking for the left shoe. Sweat runs down her forehead and cheeks but Carmi fails. So she straightens her back and looks around. Maybe the other shoe is over there. Or maybe it’s been found by one of the other scavenger. She fails again. So Carmi stops and leaves the rubbish heap. She even throws back the three plastic glasses made from used bottled-water containers she has found.
At the edge of the garbage dump she tries the shoe on her right foot. Her heart flutters again because the shoe feels so comfortable on her foot. She takes it off again, and cleans it with crumpled up newspaper. When it is a little cleaner, she puts it back on again. Carmi stands up, turns, and lifts her right foot so she can inspect carefully how the shoe looks on her foot. She really hopes that tomorrow or whenever the left shoe arrives at this garbage dump. Who knows. Yes, who knows. Can’t anything at all turn up here?
Korep comes over and straight away laughs at what his friend is doing. Carmi disapproves. She is offended, but does not want to respond to Korep’s behavior. Or Carmi’s eyes are attracted more to the two mangoes in Korep’s hands. Carmi is relieved that Korep responds. What’s more Korep does not continue talking about the shoe on her right foot.
“Let’s just eat mangoes. Come on,” Carmi suggests as she places the single lone shoe into a yellow plastic bag. Korep grins but he too is interested in Carmi’s idea. So Korep and Carmi move to the eastern side where there is a shady tropical almond tree. Korep takes out a small knife he was given by Driver Dalim. He has one mango in the left hand. In one smooth action the mango is cut open right up to the part that is rotten. Carmi stares at the freshly-cut, bright yellow surface. Carmi salivates, but then shudders as two maggots emerge from the open surface. Korep laughs, then makes another incision, deeper. This time the rotten part of the mango is completely gone. “Who says half-rotten mangoes aren’t delicious to eat, right?” says Korep offering a slice of the mango flesh that is not rotten to Carmi. “Yeah, right?” Carmi just laughs. Korep stares at Carmi’s straight teeth that are really nice to look at.
Every day Carmi carries a yellow plastic sack containing the right shoe. Eventually everyone finds out that the little girl is still waiting for the left shoe. They feel sorry for her. It’s almost impossible. But all the garbage scavengers promise Carmi they will help her. Driver Dalim even has a wonderful idea. He is going to instruct his truck crew of two to go to every house in What’s It Called Street. He is going to tell both of them to ask the maids, the drivers, and the gardeners there whether they know where the left-hand shoe is that Carmi is waiting for.
But Driver Dalim’s brilliant idea does not need to be put into action. A few days after Carmi discovers the right shoe, Driver Dalim is tricked by his two assistants. At the time he is driving the truck along the highway. Suddenly in front of his eyes outside the cabin window there is a left-hand shoe bobbing up and down. Obviously the shoe is tied to a long rope with the end being held by his assistants on the back of the truck. Driver Dalim immediately presses the brake. The tires screech on the surface of the asphalt road. On the back of the truck his two helpers sway and tumble forward.
Driver Dalim jumps down, taking off his glasses straight away. The truck’s crew of two also climb down. One of them handed the left shoe to Driver Dalim who then smiles broadly. Holding the handle of his glasses, he gives praise to God as many as three times.
“Where did you find it?”
“Well, in the garbage bin in front of the houses on What’s It Called Street. Forget what number it is.”
“That’s enough. Where you found the left shoe isn’t important.”
Driver Dalim stops talking because he wants to remove his glasses and put them back one again. Now he rubs his forehead, apparently thinking hard. Driver Dalim’s behavior makes his two helpers wonder. What else is he thinking about? Isn’t there only one thing left, to deliver the left shoe to Carmi?
“Later you be the one to give the shoe to Carmi.” This is Driver Dalim’s instruction to the helper wearing short pants. The person appointed glances up because he’s a little surprised.
“It would be better for you to do it, Mr. Dalim.”
“Yes right. It would be better if it were you, Mr. Dalim,” says the helper wearing trousers, supporting his friend. Driver Dalim sighs then removes his glasses. Before replacing them once more he speaks in a hushed tone.
“Look, you don’t know. The problem is, I didn’t have the heart to see Carmi the moment she receives the shoe. Carmi might jump up and down, laugh and laugh, or even scream because she is so happy. Her eyes might sparkle, or on the other hand, she might become teary. Well, just over a second-hand shoe taken from a trash can Carmi’s heart will be over joyed. I don’t have the heart to watch. It would be so hard. Do you have the heart?”
Without waiting for an answer Driver Dalim changes his mind. The left shoe will be placed beneath the tropical almond tree on the east side of the garbage dump. Carmi and Korep often rest there in the middle of the day. Everyone agrees, so Driver Dalim jumps up into the cabin with the left shoe in his hand. The two helpers climb up onto the back and the truck pulls out headed for the garbage dump.
When the sun is right over the garbage dump all the scavengers move to the four sides to arrange the results of their scavenging, placing it into sacks or tying it up with nylon rope. Carmi also moves to the side. She has found dozens of plastic glasses made from used drinking-water containers, arranging them neatly so they are easy to carry. In her left hand there is still a yellow plastic sack containing the right-hand shoe. Along with Korep who is carrying a bunch of half-rotten mangoes, Carmi heads for the eastern side towards the shade of the tropical almond tree.
When the air at the garbage dump is extremely hot, without any wind, a foul odor spreading out everywhere and the sparrows flocking in along with dogs, who then hears Carmi laughing loudly then crying hooray over and over again? Does the loud laughing sound like the outpouring of overwhelming joy that is heart warming?
The people who hear Carmi’s laughing are the dozens of garbage scavengers in the garbage dump. And it is only they who can really understand and fully appreciate the laughter of the young scavenger girl. So look, the scavengers stand up and smile when they watch Carmi and Korep leave the garbage dump. Carmi laughs, of course because there is a pair of shoes on her feet. But where could the two garbage scavengers be going? Everyone at the garbage dump knows that Carmi and Korep don’t have a home to go to. (*)
The Laughter of the Girl from the Garbage Dump (Tawa Gadis Padang Sampah) by Ahmad Tohari was published in the daily newspaper Harian Kompas on 21 August 2016. [Retrieved from https://lakonhidup.com/2016/08/21/tawa-gadis-padang-sampah/.]
Ahmad Tohari was born in Banyumas on 13 June 1948. He now lives in the village of Tinggarjaya, Jatilawang, Purwokerto in Central Java province. His most popular work is the novel trilogy “The Ronggeng Dancer of Paruk Hamlet” (Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk). His collections of short stories include “Karyamin’s Smile” (Senyum Karyamin), “Night Song” (Nyanyian Malam), and “Eyes Lovely to Behold” (Mata yang Enak Dipandang). Other works include the novels Kubah (1982), Di Kaki Bakit Cibalak (1977), Bekisar Merah (1993), Lingkar Tanah Lingkar Air (1995), Belantik (2001), and Orang-orang Proyek (2002). The short story “They Spelt The Begging Ban” (Mereka Mengeja Larangan Mengemis) was also published in Kompas daily newspaper on 15 September 2019.
Source: Tajuk Rencana Bukan Perwakilan Koruptor. Image credits Detik Ini 17 Tahun yang Lalu Reformasi Dimulai and Masinton Ungkap Proses Konsolidasi Mahasiswa Untuk Jatuhkan Soeharto. Members of the House of Representatives http://www.dpr.go.id/anggota.
Over recent years, concerns about Indonesia’s food security have seen a sharp increase in industrial-scale agriculture across the country, including into the forests of West Papua. At the same time, the environmental and social ramifications of monocropping, particularly palm oil, are becoming well-known. (Read more at https://indonesiaatmelbourne.unimelb.edu.au/talking-indonesia-palm-oil-and-indigenous-peoples-in-west-papua/)
By Seno Gumira Ajidarma
A discrete young couple is engrossed in an animated argument about bitter beans. In fact they have just finished a dinner that consisted largely, among other things, of bitter beans.
“Just imagine if there were no bitter beans in the world,” muses the young man.
“Well, what about it?”
“If there were no bitter beans in the world, the poor wouldn’t have anything to make them happy. Imagine! Wouldn’t it be dreadful if the only thing that made the poor happy was owning a Mercedes Benz and working in an office? We’re lucky to have bitter beans! Every individual bitter bean makes a huge contribution to the total sum of human happiness. It’s about time we realized that the bitter bean is one of Indonesia’s most important national resources.”
“But the image of the bitter bean doesn’t fit the image of the newly rich city dwelling office worker, the collar-and-tie look. It’s obvious that the bitter bean just isn’t, or at least isn’t very, well, cool. You can hardly be proud of the smell! After all these days people are only happy if they have something to be proud of.”
“To be proud of, or, to be arrogant about? Look at us. We’re happy eating bitter beans. Try smelling my breath.” The young man exhales. “Phew!”
The young woman waves a hand in front of her nose. “Yuck! What a revolting smell!”
“Well, of course it smells! But the embarrassing smell of bitter beans is only an image problem. Something has to be done to change its image. You can’t deny it. It does bring joy to millions of people, people who can only afford to find happiness in eating bitter beans. That’s the first thing. And another thing. Aren’t they also good for you? According to a friend of mine they’re good for your kidneys. They help you piss. And the problem of the smell? Ah! The smell can even be turned into… a unique national symbol! I might even write a letter to the newspaper suggesting, yes, that the Director General of Tourism start an advertising campaign promoting the smell of bitter beans as, `The Smell of Indonesia’. What do you think? Do you like that?”
The attractive young girlfriend is silent. She blinks and listens to her excited boyfriend’s ideas. Out of affection she usually tries to agree even though she does think this suggestion sounds a little odd. There is no way in the world the bitter bean is ever going to amount to anything of world importance. Not like crude oil, or nuclear energy. It’s just a fact that bitter beans will probably only ever be important for the little person, to the ordinary man and woman in the street.
“I don’t think you’re actually wrong,” she says, “but do you really think many people are going to be able to follow what you mean?”
“Well, of course. What’s so hard about it? It isn’t complicated. It’s getting harder and harder to make a living. The measure of success is becoming more and more difficult to achieve. And that means too many people will feel like they have failed in life, that their lives are worthless if they can’t live up to this measure of success. These are the defeated people, the unfortunate, those who despite having worked and worked are never going to strike it big. These people have to be entertained…”
“And how is that going to happen?”
“Oh! I can’t believe you haven’t got it yet!”
“You mean they have to be made to realize that happiness can be achieved, not by having a white-collar job, but by.. eating bitter beans?”
“You mean grilled bitter beans, don’t you?”
“They could also be fried.”
“What about raw bitter beans?”
“Not interesting enough.”
“Now that’s a little better. But what would be exciting is beans mixed with milk.”
“A bitter bean nog! Not milk, egg, honey and ginger, but milk, egg, honey and bitter beans! Ha ha ha!!” they laughed together.
“Then, you could also have bitter bean juice.”
“Wow! That’s a great idea!”
“Now you’re getting silly!”
“If the meaning of life can only be found in eating bitter beans, what would be the point of going to school and getting a good education? Surely the achievements of human civilization can’t be measured by the happiness someone finds in eating bitter beans. It wouldn’t be right for bitter beans to be so important that nothing else made people happy.”
“Hang on! Do you actually believe that? Look, the central business district of Jakarta, Jakarta’s ‘Golden Triangle’, is just the tip of an enormous pyramid and just a mere handful of people ever get to enjoy the bright lights. If everybody tried to climb to the top of the pyramid it would be a disaster! Most people are going to roll back down again, or fall off, or get pushed off and become poor again and then they’re going to end up believing there isn’t any point to life.”
“You’re so cynical.”
“What do you mean, cynical? I have great hope.”
“You mean hope in bitter beans, that the only thing that will make Indonesians happy is eating bitter beans?”
“You can make an Indonesian happy with a tie and you can get millions of ties from Sogo department store.”
The couple chatter away excitedly as the distinctive aroma of bitter beans sprays from their mouths with every enthusiastic breath.
They explore every aspect of the bitter bean for more than an hour then finally they realize they’re very tired.
Eventually, all that is left is for them to kiss passionately.
“You reek of bitter beans,” says the young man.
“You smell of bitter beans yourself,” replies the woman, as they each depart for their homes.
Arriving at his home, the young man kisses his wife.
“You smell of bitter beans,” she greets him.
“Yes, I did have some at a food stall.”
“You are always eating those things!”
“No, I’m not. Only now and again.”
“I am amazed. I have told you before but you just don’t learn, do you?” says the man’s wife. “If you eat bitter beans everyone in the house has to put up with it. You know no one else in the house likes them besides you. I don’t like them and neither do the children. Whenever you eat bitter beans the smell goes everywhere, from the toilet out back to the gutter out the front of the house. The smell gets into everything. It’s embarrassing! The neighbors will say, “Err. The people next door are eating bitter beans again!” Try to cut down a little, will you? Try to show a little consideration for someone other than yourself, all right! So you honestly enjoy them, but you have to realize, only poor people eat bitter beans, darling.”
After that she doesn’t say anything else. But before going to bed she suddenly remembers that her bitter bean munching husband in fact gave them up before they got married fifteen years ago. Lately, however, over the last few months, she has noticed he has started eating them again. She can’t understand why.
“Maybe he needs a little variation,” she thinks.
(Jakarta, October 1990.)
Bitter Beans (Petai) was published in the Jakarta national newspaper Kompas Daily in December 1990.
The author’s blog is available at The World of Sukab.