Novita Dewi started writing poetry and short stories during her elementary and middle school days. She published in Si Kuncung and Bobo, children magazines, as well as wrote for the children’s columns featured in Kompas and Sinar Harapan (now Suara Pembaruan). She now nurtures her interest in literature by writing articles about literature and translation for scientific journals. Novita is widely published. The short stories translated and published by Dalang Publishing are her first attempts of literary translation.
Every day, except Sundays and holidays, Gito, a child from Getas Pejaten, a suburb of Kudus, walked almost nine miles to an elementary school on Daendels Street. There were many footpaths leading to the school, so Gito could choose the route he liked most. If he felt like it, he could even choose alleys that were farther away.
Like every other child, Gito only ate one meal a day, after school. Also, like other children, Gito did not have any sandals, let alone shoes. Even the teachers were barefooted. If any of them wore shoes or sandals, their footwear was worn.
Gito’s clothes, as well as those of his friends, were shabby and covered with patches. The same was true for the teachers’ clothes. The colors were faded. Even the dyed colors — though slightly bright at first — faded away in a short time.
Gito knew how to ward off hunger. He could go fishing in the river near his house. And sometimes, when walking home from school, Gito passed the Johar market, which was not far from the train stations going to Pati, Juana, Rembang, Pecangakan, and Jepara. In that market, he could scavenge bits of brown sugar, the kind of sugar useful to fight his hunger.
Not far from his house was a peanut meal factory that produced animal feed. Sometimes Gito picked up the peanut meal crumbs, even though he’d been told that peanut meal could cause stomachaches and the mumps, which caused big swellings in the neck.
At home, after they finished the rice, Father, Mother, and Gito, who was an only child, ate corn rice, and when they ran out of the corn rice, they ate cassava.
One day, on his way home, Gito passed Grandpa Leman’s goat curry stall. The old man, who always wore a Javanese udeng, headdress, called out to him. He gave Gito some food, then, as usual, told him to cut the grass in the plot behind the stall.
Grandpa Leman asked, “Gito, did you see a barber under a pine tree?”
Turning around, Grandpa Leman took off his udeng and, parting his hair, said, “Look at this!”
There were deep scars on his scalp.
According to Grandpa Leman’s story, one day, out of the blue, a barber appeared under one of the pine trees near the three-way intersection that connected Station Road with Bitingan Road. No one knew where he came from. Some of his customers, Grandpa Leman said, also wondered why there was suddenly a barber there.
Five of Grandpa Leman’s customers had their hair cut there; three of them came away with head injuries. The barber always apologized, saying it was an accident, but all the harmed patrons were convinced that the barber had deliberately injured them.
According to Grandpa Leman, the barber claimed that his profession was the noblest job. Only a barber had the right to touch the head of another person. Anyone whose head was touched by someone other than a barber would surely feel insulted and angry.
The next day at Gito’s school, something new happened: A new teacher named Dasuki arrived. He reportedly came from a big city. Gito’s school was comprised of six grades. There were eight teachers total: six classroom teachers, one vice principal, and one principal. The principal substituted when a teacher was unable to come to work. But on that day, because all the teachers were present, Dasuki visited each classroom, and the teacher had to allow Dasuki to teach his lesson.
Dasuki emphasized that Russia was the most powerful country in the world. All cities and villages in Russia were clean, and all the inhabitants were happy and ate until they had their fill.
“Look at that buggy,” said Dasuki, pointing toward the Daendels Road. “Look! The horse is urinating and defecating while moving along. How dirty. In Russia, everything is carefully managed. There won’t be any horses urinating and defecating like you see here.”
Then, Dasuki continued talking about the other greatnesses of Russia.
Many students dropped their jaws in amazement. Some teachers were perplexed, others smiled uneasily.
Dasuki only taught for a week. He left thereafter and never returned.
One day, on his way home, Gito purposefully passed the road lined with pine trees. From a distance, he heard the barber loudly talking to himself. As soon as the barber saw Gito, he called to him.
“Come here,” said the barber. “I’ll give you a shave.”
As the barber approached him, Gito froze, but as soon as the barber got near, Gito sprinted away in full force.
The barber chased Gito, but then halted, cursing.
By the end of September 1948, it was hot everywhere and the atmosphere felt threatening. Many soldiers, wearing red headbands, appeared out of nowhere. People said they were the PKI — Indonesian Communist Party — army. They wandered around the village and mostly clustered in the sandulok, prostitutes’ red-light district, at the edge of the eastern part of the city.
Then, shots were heard. The shooting lasted twenty-four hours.
The number of stories about people gone missing, being killed, and other obscure incidents, escalated daily.
The currency of the Republic of Indonesia was declared worthless. It was replaced with a currency, issued by the Communist Government, that looked like a coupon. The prices of all goods were fluctuating.
One afternoon, there was a mystifying sight. Dressed in an army uniform and wearing his red headband, the barber, along with several other armed soldiers, entered the area behind the hospital. They were herding several people whose hands were tied like prisoners.
Gito secretly followed them. When they arrived at the open field, they stopped, and Gito hid behind the bushes. He watched, as the people whose hands were tied were tormented by the barber and his friends. The people were told to line up, then were gunned down.
The situation worsened. Electricity had gone out. Sometimes, shots were heard for twenty-four hours a day.
Tensions became even more serious when the Siliwangi troops, who were specially brought in from West Java, entered Kudus to clear PKI forces.
Several PKI soldiers managed to flee during the skirmishes.
Others were arrested. Some PKI leaders were paraded to the town square and shot under the banyan tree.
When Gito arrived at the town square, he could not believe his eyes. The barber no longer wore a PKI army uniform. Dressed in plain clothes, the barber ordered the PKI leaders to straighten up. Then the barber blindfolded them.
Again and again, the Siliwangi forces carried out the death penalty in the square. Everyone was allowed to watch.
Gito knew that, unlike the Siliwangi forces, the PKI army had done its killing in secret. During several executions, the barber was seen walking arrogantly back and forth.
According to rumors, the barber was beaten by the Siliwangi army, one day. He was accused of having made a list of people he disliked and having those people sentenced to death without proof.
Day after day, the killings continued, the atmosphere becoming more and more tense. Finally, in December 1948, the Siliwangi troops left Kudus to chase after the PKI soldiers, who were continuing to advance eastward to Pati, Juana, and Rembang, before moving on to Cepu, and Blora.
One day, after the Siliwangi forces had left Kudus, the entire city trembled. Just before the dawn, red-nosed P-51D Mustang fighter planes filled the sky. They flew very low, repeatedly flying back and forth. The red-nosed planes were the pride of the Netherlands. As soon as the sun rose, the planes bombed Kudus heavily. The whistle of hand grenades and artillery fire could be heard far and wide. Dead bodies lay scattered here and there. Parts of Getas Pejaten were also bombed. Gito’s house was hit by several bullets.
Gito’s father immediately told him and his mother to run out the back door. They crossed the road and, running through a winding alley, fled to Ruslan’s house. Ruslan was Gito’s father’s best friend.
Ruslan’s family welcomed them. They gave them earplugs and a thick piece of rubber to bite on should a bomb explode nearby.
They stayed in the underground shelter for almost two days without food. Ruslan handed out pills that stilled their hunger.
Finally, around three o’clock in the afternoon on the second day, Dutch tanks, followed by many armored vehicles and foot soldiers, entered Kudus from the direction of Demak. Kudus and the entire surrounding area was now officially occupied by Dutch forces.
For almost a week, Kudus was like a dead city. Ruslan’s family left their house; no one knew where they went.
The Dutch soldiers entered the villages and arrested all the young men who they suspected of being members of the Siliwangi army. The soldiers took their prisoners somewhere unknown.
After the situation had calmed down, Gito went back to school. As usual, he walked to school, ate only once a day, and sometimes chose different paths and alleys for his walk home.
One day, when Gito was on his way home, a jeep turned slowly onto Bitingan Road. Gito swiftly jumped into the ditch to hide. The two men in the jeep, dressed in Dutch army uniforms, were the barber, who drove, and Ruslan.
Skirmishes began occurring almost every night when the Indonesian guerrilla fighters entered the city. These conflicts continued day after day until Gito entered middle school, not far from the town square.
In December 1949, all Dutch troops withdrew, and Indonesian soldiers emerged from their many emergency headquarters, which were mostly in the Muria Mountain area.
Gito heard that the withdrawal of the Dutch army was the result of the Round Table Conference, held between Indonesian and Dutch representatives, in the Netherlands. Except for West Irian — now Papua — Dutch troops had to leave Indonesia.
The barber and Ruslan disappeared without a trace.
When Gito graduated to the second year of middle school, the atmosphere in Kudus tensed again. Many unidentifiable soldiers, all wearing a green headband and carrying guns, roamed through the city. Like before, many of them congregated in the red-light district.
The atmosphere grew increasingly gloomy. Then, very early one morning, around one o’clock, continuous artillery fire awakened Gito. Around six o’clock that morning, a deep silence fell over the city.
News spread that the heavy fighting in the former Nitisemito cigarette factory, not far from Gito’s house, was over. Some of the militia were trapped in the former factory, and some fled, possibly heading towards Mount Merapi and Merbabu. Gito found out that the militia was known as the NII (Indonesian Islamic State) army. They intended to overthrow the Indonesian government and turn Indonesia into an Islamic State.
When Gito arrived at the former cigarette factory, many people were already gathered there. The bodies of the soldiers trapped in the factory had been carried out of the building and laid on the side of the road. One of the bodies was none other than that of the barber.