Tag Archives: Gerson Poyk

Short Story: Sandalwood Fan

By Gerson Poyk

I live completely alone, but I can still live well enough because 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 there’s a covering roof that extends a long way out where I can store the cooker, dish rack, bucket and bike. There’s a second-hand television in my main room that 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 because she would have been able to take care of 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 back to sell for a little income. She would cook spiced fish, uduk rice, chili soybean, grilled fish, grilled eggplant and a chili sauce that 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 my sales at the traditional markets and the multi-story project sites where day laborers work.

But after my wife passed away everything became a mess. My daughter was forced to drop out of school in the tenth grade 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 for half a day which meant that the food was not 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 the 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 continued.

“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 can 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 next to my daughter’s stall. Every day very early in the morning, my daughter would sell by herself in the market without me for company. After sleeping till eleven o’clock in the middle of the day, I pedaled my bike to the market and collected some of the food my daughter was selling. I rode around to the busy construction sites, the fences of busy factories 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, sat down 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 woman from Madura prominently in his tabloid. The story was long and detailed and described the New Order-era government program called “candak kulak” that had provided small-scale capital. The program was long gone, vanished without a trace.

My daughter would go on to marry the journalist from the Voice of the Market.

Her friend the woman from Madura would hawk up and down the market until one day several months later a minibus driver also proposed to her.  

Not long after that, my new son-in-law moved to the Middle East to work as a journalist for an oil industry magazine called Oil.

True neither of them did help me much as they studied while they worked there. My son-in-law was at university and my daughter finished her secondary school finals before going on to university. But they didn’t forget to think about my financial situation.

My daughter did sent me some money to use as start up 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 the sandalwood and agarwood offcuts that are 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 all these small things, I was involved in a world that was wide and big! Although sales of sandalwood fans were brisk enough for me to be able to buy a block of land in Jakarta, my children urged 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 for coffee or a bite to eat.  

The owner of the food stall Misses Agus was being helped by her daughter who had a younger brother. He hadn’t been through the Islamic circumcision ceremony yet, called khitan. At first, I would only have breakfast there. Then I would visit every day to have lunch, and then dinner. Young uncircumcised Agus was very pleased whenever 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 heavy little piggy bank. It was full of the coins I had given him. It was a real surprise for me to see a child who had apparently been left by a father who had passed away. Young Agus’ older sister Julie had been a wonderful help to her mother. Almost every day she would work in the small food stall unless she had to wash clothes at home, sweep or hang out the washing.   

“Where do you work, mister?” 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, “So when you go to work, you first have to turn into an ant!”

“Ah, don’t be silly,” I joked.

“Well, don’t underestimate ants. They have a lot to teach humans. They work together and cooperate without anger, without becoming emotional, like…”

“You’re having a go at me, aren’t you!” called her mother.

“So you’re emotional?” I asked.

“No, my mother is born from noble Javanese descent, but she’s now working in this humble little food stall,” said Julie.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s small, so long as it turns a dollar and makes a profit and hopefully turns 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 joked. “Small people like us have to start small.”

“A post office box can not 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 city depot.”

One day early in the morning when I arrived at the post office, I saw Mrs. Agus arguing. Two large men were carrying plates, pots, woks, cookers and other utensils and piling them into a pickup. It seemed that Mrs. Agus owed money to a village money lender. She just sat silently, staring blankly, with bright red eyes.

Although it was none of my business something inside me made me ask, “How much money do you owe?”   

“Only three-hundred thousand rupiah. How could they do something like this! And after the agreement was to pay one thousand rupiah per day. Suddenly, he asks me to repay the whole loan because he says his house was flooded,” explained Julie.

“Where is the money…”

“I actually had the money, but yesterday I paid the doctor and bought blood pressure medicine,” said Mrs. Agus.

I was no longer being rational. I called out at once, “Man, 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, and what about the interest? It’s been three years now and my money’s been locked up in this food stall. Five hundred…”

“No way…”

“Why not?”

“There is no more money. Only three hundred. All right. Here’s the money.

“Yeah, well, here are your things back,” they said.

A short time after the debt collectors had gone, young Agus arrived home from school. The small, first grade child was surprised most as there was no food. I told him to buy packets of cooked rice for four people and then to help set up the stall so it didn’t look like a wreck.

After that incident, Julie would always visit my boarding room with food. She cleaned all the dirty things, and washed my clothes. She helped me pack the sandalwood and agarwood fans and helped cut up the pieces of agarwood. Then, when that was in order, she would help put them into boxes, write the senders’ and receivers’ addresses, before helping me carry them to the post office. She would also always check the post box and collect any mail from my daughter from overseas.

Julie became my assistant. Although she had only finished junior secondary school, she was a good writer and she was quick with numbers.

But after six months, there was a disaster. The fatherless child Julie now all of a sudden found that 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 was not right. Poor Julie. But she was steadfast in wanting to become my wife. For me this was not love that was normal. It was all because of the sandalwood fans, the aromatic agarwood fans that meant money. If I had not had any money, the young woman would not have wanted this. Ah, sandalwood fans, the beautiful aroma of agarwood fans had preserved an old man who already smelt of the earth. It wasn’t right for Julie to marry this ancient one from Jakarta.

Hanging about my neck hugging me, Julie said, “I will look after you until you have to use a walking stick. You will 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 just walked 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, the bright red of her lipstick made me feel as if I was being approached by a tiger.

It is not right for Julie to become your wife,” she said. “I am 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, thankfully Mrs. Agus was no longer anywhere to be seen.

Since that, 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. Sitting down, 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 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 I have a husband,” said Julie, cradling the baby.

I couldn’t say anything. My eyes filled with tears.

One day around a year later as I was pedaling my bike, I spotted Mrs. Agus shuffling along dragging a half-filled sack. I stopped. But she had forgotten who I was, and this shocked me deeply. Looking at the sack I realized. It was just full of plastic water bottles and old newspapers. Mrs. Agus had become a garbage collector. Jakarta had given her nothing but garbage.   

“Where’s Julie now?” I asked.

“Julie passed away,” she answered.

“And where’s young Agus?” I asked again.

“At the intersection selling bottled water.”

“Where are you living?” I asked next.

“In doorways. There are plenty of doorways. You can just curl up anywhere.”

I was shocked.

“Who are you, mister?” she asked

“I’m a sandalwood fan trader.”

“Oh, my son-in-law, my son-in-law. Could you just give me a ride on the back of your bike!”

Straight away I gave her a ride to my room after getting rid of the sack of garbage. I told her to wash. I fetched her something to eat.

The following day I went with her to the psychiatric hospital and admitted her to 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 credit: Back cover of EAP153/13/40:  Syair Raksi Macam Baru [1915] https://eap.bl.uk/archive-file/EAP153-13-40

Short Story: Motorbike Taxi

Motorbike Taxi

By Gerson Poyk

Late one evening as I was studying for my semester exams, my nimble-fingered father called out to me from the living room. Without looking up from the old radio he was repairing he said, “Come and sit here a moment, son.” I sat down expecting a request for help to hunt on the cool ceramic tile floor of our house for some nut or screw he had dropped.

But I was wrong.

“Since your mother passed away I haven’t been able to concentrate, son,” said dad. “I haven’t been doing a good job on these radios either, and well, the customers, they’re going other places. My small pension isn’t really enough; I’m not making as much as I used to from the radios and I have no idea how I’m going to pay for your little sister to go to university.”

Politely I said nothing as my father continued.

“What do you think if I withdraw the last of our savings from the bank and buy a small second-hand motorbike?”

I was puzzled. “A motorbike?”

“A motorbike. You could make a little extra money for us by taking pillion passengers. By becoming an ojek (1).”

“You mean like all those other ojek who give people rides for a fee?” I asked.

 “If you don’t mind spending the time on Friday evenings or in the afternoons you could get a few fares. Even one or two would be a help with the household budget. Rather than getting a job as a bus driver like some of your friends, it would be better to just become an ojek,” said dad, screwdriver still inserted into the radio.

“No problem,” I said straight away, getting up to go back to my desk beside the kerosene stove at the back room of our fourteen tile-wide three-room house. There weren’t any doors between the rooms so I could talk to dad in the living room if he raised his voice slightly. “Could I use the bike to go to university, dad?” I asked.

“No, don’t do that,” was his reply. “What you need to do is stay away from the main roads. Just wait on the bike at the intersection of the main road and the road leading into our kampong. You have to offer to take people places they can’t get by public transport,” suggested dad from our all-purpose living room cum electronics workshop.

My younger sister was worn out from playing volleyball with friends from the neighborhood and was in bed. When she went out to play volleyball in the afternoons she would usually take a couple of thermos flasks full of ice blocks which she would place by the edge of the court. Once her friends were thirsty she would shepherd them over to the thermos flasks and sell them ice blocks. She not only got a little physical exercise but she also made a little money, her own little contribution to the household. Our tiny house was, in fact, a highly productive place, serving as both a radio repair workshop and a factory producing the ice blocks my sister sold to weary neighbor children and school friends.

 ***

I busied myself, first arranging a motorbike license for myself and then with the last of dad’s savings, looking for a second-hand motorbike.

I would come home from lectures in the afternoons and wait at the top of the road leading down into the densely built kampong with its labyrinth of capillary small lanes and paths which were impenetrable to public transport.

On the first day, I made a fortune, five thousand rupiahs! This encouraged me greatly and after a week I had made a tidy little sum. Dad urged me to put the money into the bank account he helped my sister open a long time ago when she started selling ice blocks.

The money brought its own pleasure. But there were also the pleasures of the odd little things that happened from time to time not to mention the life-threatening risks. At first, I couldn’t care less about the passengers, what they looked like, or what state they were in, as long as they handed over the fare. Old, young, clean, dirty, healthy, sick (so long as they were still healthy enough to sit on the back), I took anyone, anytime they wanted, anywhere they wanted to there.

But it was the young women I enjoyed the most, and there were plenty of attractive young women wanting to be taken home to their houses deep in the kampong, far from the main road and public transport. But as an ojek, I knew my place and never tried starting a conversation.

One day a beautiful white woman walked up to me wanting a ride. The problem was she was so amazingly tall and so large that as we traveled the bike swayed wildly and she almost caused me to lose my balance. And then it had to happen, right as we descended a small hill, my front tire blew out! I jumped on the brake – and over we went! Small dark me and the beautiful giant both went sprawling across the road. Fortunately, she wasn’t hurt. As the bike went over, her vast figure landed on scrawny little me, right on my head! And as my helmet had no chin protector, my chin was driven into the gravel road, almost breaking my chin and sending dazzling sensations through my jawbone as it was pushed back into the base of my ears. Happily, the feeling didn’t last too long.

I apologized to the white woman, hailed a friend passing on his way home from taking someone else and asked him to drop off my huge white passenger.

It was some time before I saw the white woman again. Then one day while I was waiting for passengers she went past this time driving her own car. An Indonesian woman was sitting next to her. I wondered where the beautiful giant and her attractive Indonesian friend with flowing black hair could be going. I was desperate to know so I turned the ignition key and set off after them. Dismay swept over me when eventually the car pulled into an immense two-story house which compared to my fourteen tile-wide house was a castle. I just rode past satisfied that I had found where the attractive white woman lived.

It was sometime later before I saw the Indonesian woman again and in the meantime, I continued with my business ferrying passengers on the back of my bike. I lost count of the number of fares I had, anyone at all wanting a ride, young or old, male or female, not to mention all the children. I took no notice of them, just the money they held out.

At home, three things filled my mind: my father, my little sister and my study, while at the university campus I would revert back into a hard-working university student.

Several months later I did notice the woman with the flowing straight black hair again as she crossed the road at the bus stop. This time she was wearing a high school uniform. I waved and as she headed in my direction I started the engine. She jumped on and we roared off.

“Who was that good looking white woman you were with?” I asked without wasting time.

“Have you ever given her a ride?” she asked in reply.

Once. But I got a flat and we both came off. She landed on me and almost crushed me!”

The high school girl on the back laughed and said, “She’s my after-school tutor.”

“Well, that explains why you were in the car together, doesn’t it. And what does she teach?”

“She teaches English,” answered the girl.

“Cool. By the time you’re in university you’re English will be good,” I said encouraging her. “Which stream are you in at school?”

“I took sciences.”

“And what do you want to do at university?” I asked.

“Mathematics…”

I began to say how wonderful I thought that was but suddenly she shouted ‘stop’, seriously startling me. Without realizing it we had reached her large house.

She held out a ten thousand rupiah note and said, “This is all I have, sorry.” I didn’t flinch and she continued, “Ah, keep the change.” She strode off towards the imposing wrought iron gates leaving me clutching the note.

I stopped working as an ojek so I could concentrate on my final major paper at uni. In the meantime, I lent my bike to a friend whose own motorbike had been repossessed by the owner. We agreed to split the profit fifty-fifty and even though he’d only finished primary school, he turned out to be completely honest. He dropped in every afternoon to deliver half the day’s takings. My friend’s honesty encouraged me to look on him as a younger brother and my father too became quite fond of him. Orphaned when young, he had no home and sometimes slept on benches at the bus interchange, sometimes in shop doorways. When dad found out about this he rented a small room in a boarding house for my friend.

Late one night he picked up a passenger and that was the last time his friends saw him. His lifeless body was found dumped in a river, my motorbike stolen by his cruel thieving killer. My friend’s life had been extinguished for nothing more than a decrepit second-hand motorbike. Sorrow settled over our hearts and remained with us always, along with the memory of the friend who had been so good to us.

My friend’s death also caused the more mundane problem that we had to deal with the police, but we were satisfied they had taken his murder seriously.

  ***

After so much hard work I eventually graduated and the day I received my results, a satisfactory level pass, I was overcome with anguish thinking about my murdered ojek friend. He had contributed so much to pay for my way through my now successfully completed uni course, and I was overcome with grief and emotion.

In my poverty in that small house with a widowed pensioner scratching out a living by repairing radios and my little sister carting ice blocks to school to sell to friends the Almighty had granted that I should complete my degree, me, a university graduate, born of poverty and the faithful friendship of a homeless ojek whose life was torn away by a savage robbing killer.

My sister started uni and dad continued repairing his radios. He even surprised us by quietly learning how to repair television sets. My sister and I were amazed one day to find a television in the living room.

As soon as I graduated I was offered a job as a teacher at the uni and one day while teaching a class of first-year students I noticed one of the female students with a surprised look on her face. At once I recognized the woman who was gazing not at a teacher but at a young ojek and the question was obvious, how could he be one of my lecturers!

Unfortunately, it didn’t take her long to fail the semester examination and stop coming to lectures. Before she stopped attending, however, she sent me a letter politely asking whether she could visit me at home to arrange private tutoring, at whatever price I liked. She was even prepared to become my girlfriend, so long as I faked her results so she passed the examination.

Saddened I reflected on the fact that my degree had cost the life of my ojek friend and that if I did tamper with her results, the reputation of the university would be worthless. The answer was, no.

 


1. Ojek are informal motorbike taxi riders who earn an income by carrying pillion passengers to their destination for a fare.

2. Motorbike Taxi (Ojek) was published in the national daily newspaper Kompas in June 1988.

3. On Gerson see http://idwriters.com/writers/gerson-poyk/; http://gersonpoyk.blogspot.com.au/; https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/992956.Gerson_Poyk.  

4. Featured image credit: https://adinparadise.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/wordless-wednesday-hitching-a-ride/