They Spelt The Begging Ban
By Ahmad Tohari
They were five street children, and Gupris was the only girl. The five of them didn’t wash very often, and even more infrequently changed their clothes. Of the lot Gupris was the most out-going and boisterous, and the most talkative too. Gupris was also the only one who had ever been to school, even if only briefly.
And now the five children had jumped onto the tray of an open-sided truck that had started to move towards the depot. Every morning they gathered at the truck depot that was surrounded by stalls, mostly stalls selling rice meals. The four boys always slept there, on the floor under the awning of the closed stalls, or anywhere they liked. At night they were used to the mosquitoes. But often they couldn’t sleep when they had empty stomachs. Gupris didn’t join them sleeping rough at the depot. She did something different. She had a small house behind the depot. Her mother was there but her father wasn’t.
Three o’clock in the morning was the time Gupris hated the most. The fragrant smell would often wake her up. Early in the morning she would often see that her mother was already washed and dressed and had put on her makeup and lipstick. Then her mother would take the hand basket and say she was off to go shopping at the market. At first Gupris didn’t care. But then she came to hate it because her mother would always return home with an empty basket, her striking brightly colored clothes and makeup disheveled. Gupris came to hate it more and more. So now every morning at two-thirty she would rise and go to the depot to join her four friends before her mother arrived home.
Gupris and her four friends sat cross-legged on the tray of the empty truck headed for the cement factory. The truck was huge, it had fourteen wheels. The tray was steel and it had no sides. One of the children played a small drum, one played a tambourine, and another played an old battered guitar. The result was a traveling dangdut* stage. The truck drivers were never angry, even though the five street kids would often make a noise banging on the floor of the tray. Gupris usually sang like a dangdut singer, but this time she preferred to play on her cellphone. She had become fond of looking at rude pictures. Gupris still wore her hair in two pigtails.
Approaching Karangasu intersection, Gupris got up and stood unsteadily. She invited her four friends to get ready to get down. If they were lucky, the traffic lights at the intersection would turn red for them. But not this time. So one of the children who couldn’t wait jumped down along the side. He slammed into the ground and immediately streamed. Gupris ran to the front pounding on the roof of the truck cabin. The truck finally stopped after crossing the intersection. The driver looked back but wasn’t angry. The other four children jumped down. They wanted to help their friend who was sitting in pain but the traffic was very heavy. Gupris took action. She moved to the center of the road, raising her hands high to motion for a chance to get cross. The sun’s heat had started to bite.
The five street children who rarely took a bath walked away from the intersection, the one being helped to a sheltered place and left there alone.
Gupris invited the three friends back to the corner of the intersection. The drum made from PVC pipe and a membrane made of tire started to pound. The tambourine and old battered guitar started to make a noise.
Gupris got ready for their dangdut show. But suddenly she stopped still. She saw something. Something had changed at the corner of the intersection. Near them a noticeboard had been erected. The writing was black on a white painted wooden board. Unlike her friends who weren’t interested because they couldn’t read, Gupris was different. She wanted to read the writing. She began to spell out. Her friends approached and stood behind her to listen.
“A-n-y-o-ne be-gg-i-ng a-n-d b-us-ki-n-g w-i-ll b-e… pu-n-i-s-h-ed b-y… i-m-p-ri-s-o-n-e-d …”.
Gupris stopped, then turned to face her friends.
“What is punished? What does being punished and imprisoned mean?” they asked.
The four boys grinned and then each shook his head. None of them knew. They just stared at each other. Gupris was annoyed and felt useless. So Gupris invited her friends to leave. But they suddenly stopped.
“Now, read that! You are wild kids who just wander around aimlessly, you have to read it. You have to!”
Gupris and her friends looked to the side at the same time. There was a watchman coming out of the food stall wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Above the right pocket of his shirt was clearly embroidered with the name Karidun. He was moving in a half run. And he stopped, puffing himself up. His loud voice sounded over the noise of the cars and motorbikes. There was still some rice or coconut pieces stuck to the corner of his lips. The left over food continued to dance following the movement of his mouth as the watchman spoke. That was the sight that made Gupris almost burst out laughing.
“Go on reading. You have to!” said watchman Karidun, hand pointing to the noticeboard there in a commanding style. “I’m a security officer, see, security from Community Services. I was the one who put the sign up this morning. For people just like you. Get it? Remember, I’m security from Community Services, right?”
Quietly Gupris stopped, her face blank. Then she looked behind her in the direction of her friends.
“Hey, why stop. Read on. I’m security. And I told you to read. Go on,” shouted watchman Karidun, voice becoming louder this time.
“P-u-n-is-he-d, what does that mean, mister?” Gupris asked in a normal tone. Although she was still a little girl, who didn’t wash often, Gupris dared to quip back to Karidun, who wanted to be called security.
There was quiet again. Watchman Karidun didn’t seem to be ready to answer Gupris’ question.
His face changed. Like somebody with a stutter, confused, but his eyebrows hardened. Then he turned himself around rubbing his forehead.
Finally he snapped back to face the five street kids as he also puffed himself right up.
“I am a security official. Right, now?”
“Yes!” Gupris answered very quickly.
“So, in my opinion, to be punished is definitely not the same as being given some money. Being punished might be the same as being convicted. Yes. Being punished by imprisonment is the same as being sentenced to confinement, put in prison, sent to jail. Get it? That’s it, so don’t you go begging and busking. You should all be going to school. So you can be like me who’s a security officer and knows what being punished means.”
Gupris fell silent a moment. Then turned back to face her friends. “You hear, we should be going to school.”
“Do you get money going to school?” interrupted one of the children.
“Seriously! Schools, see, don’t get you money, in fact you have to pay,” Gupris answered.
“Wow, that’s a problem if it’s like that? You don’t get any money? So what are we supposed to buy food with? It would be better to keep on busking, keep on begging. Then we can keep on eating.”
“Wait, what?” exclaimed watchman Karidun with a fierce face. “I have just told you. Begging and busking will be punished by imprisonment. P-u-n-ish-ed b-y i-mp-ri-so-n-me-nt for 30 days, with a fine of 50 million rupiah! Do you hear that?”
Gupris’s face sank. But then she smiled faintly as she noticed the leftover food in the corner of Karidun’s mouth dancing again.
“Why is that?” Gupris responded again. “Begging isn’t pick-pocketing, or stealing, is it?”
“Yes, but it is against the ban. Anyone who breaks the ban is definitely going to be punished, convicted.”
“Why is it like that? Who made the ban?”
“Well, I’m security. So I know who made the ban on begging, the mayor and the city council members.”
“What’s a mayor?”
“Really, you wild child. The mayor is an important official.”
“Are the city council members too?”
“Yess. Now listen. As security I want to explain everything. The city council members are the representatives of the people, so your representatives too.”
Gupris’ eyebrows narrowed. She was confused. But at least now she knew. The city council members were a type of human too. And they along with the mayor had made the ban, whoever begged and busked would be punished by imprisonment.
“Yes, yes. We beg and busk every day. But we’ve never been punished.” Gupris grinned. Her four friends laughed.
“Oh, so you’re all asking to be punished, are you?” Karidun hurriedly rummaged for his cellphone in his pocket. He muttering to himself, the leftover food still not yet gone from the corners of his mouth. Gupris and her four friends laughed again.
“Hang on. I’ll call for a city police patrol car to grab you guys. Just hang on. I’m the security who calls the city police. So they’ll be right here.”
“What’s the city police anyway?” Gupris stared up at Karidun. But there was no answer.
As Karidun was busy with his cellphone, Gupris turned to face her friends. She whispered. The four friends nodded together. Then they glanced to the side. The traffic lights was showing red. Two large empty trucks with open trays and an expensive car were pulled up. The light changed to yellow, then to green. Gupris moved the fastest, the others following. They deftly jumped up like monkeys as the big truck with the open tray began to move off. Then they waved wildly to watchman Karidun.
“Hey mister watchman, we’re off to Tegal, then Cirebon. Then to…, then, then… If you want to punish us, chase us there, OK, mister?” Gupris shouted as she laughed. The four friends danced wildly on the truck as it sped off. Gupris’ voice was still audible, but grew fainter and fainter. The cement truck drove on into the distance headed north in the direction of the city of Tegal.
The Karangasu intersection would continue to be busy but it was left behind by Gupris and her four friends. The five street kids who were still just young children had gone on a journey. They would wander through Tegal, Cirebon, and who knows where else. Watchman Karidun was still standing on the corner at the intersection. He stared at the sign that announced the ban on begging he had just built that morning. Oh, and once the sixty by one hundred centimeter sign was up it had immediately proved its potency. Five street children had left the Karangasu intersection. Watchman Karidun was proud because he felt he had done a good job. Or, had he. Because the vision of Gupris’ cute face and two pigtails continued to linger before his eyes. The voice of Gupris as she spelt in a halting voice, “…what is punished by imprisonment?…” continued to ring in his ears too.
They Spelt The Begging Ban (Mereka Mengeja Larangan Mengemis) was published in Kompas daily newspaper on 15 September 2019. (Retrieved from Mereka Mengeja Larangan Mengemis.)
Ahmad Tohari, was born in Banyumas, June 13, 1948. He now lives in the village of Tinggarjaya, Jatilawang, Purwokerto in Central Java province. His most popular work is the novel trilogy Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk. His collections of short stories include Senyum Karyamin, Nyanyian Malam, dan Mata yang Enak Dipandang. Other works includes the novels: Kubah (1982), Di Kaki Bakit Cibalak (1977), Bekisar Merah (1993), Lingkar Tanah Lingkar Air (1995), Bclantik (2001), dan Orang-orang Proyek (2002).
*On dangdut check out https://www.britannica.com/art/dangdut.
You’ll probably also enjoy the film Jalanan https://www.youtube.com/user/jalananmovie
For other stories by Ahmad Tohari click here.