“i would like to sing for the suppressed people
living in the wild with bereft souls…”
our minds work in a funny way, don’t you agree? one second i was looking at the snow, feeling the cold, the next second i was thinking of my old hometown and how i used to take the sun’s heat for granted. and next i thought about what my friend said one day, how most Indonesian people do take it for granted–including herself, as well–and usually say to foreigners how great life must be in the foreigner’s country, not thinking of how hard life might be there in some other aspects (going to the supermarket on foot in winter is i’m sure something that rarely crosses their minds). and then the next second, i thought about the people in Jakarta, living under the bridges & flyovers, thanking their stars for not having to suffer through winter, especially being homeless and shirtless.
and then the next second, my mind arrived to an old acquaintance i had when i was going to the university, back in my old hometown.
it arrived there, because he was one of those homeless people. how i became acquainted to him was something i don’t think i ever mentioned to anyone before.
i used to live in the south part of Jakarta, and my university was just outside of Jakarta, in Depok. my everyday commuting life back then was taking 2 bus rides, which took about 1,5 hour in total, for one direction (that made 3 hours of commuting daily). it wasn’t that it was so far away (well, it was far, but that’s not the reason it took so long), but it’s because my transfer from one bus to the other took place in one of the busiest traditional marketplace in South Jakarta, called Pasar Minggu. the buses went through the small gaps, woven between the abundance of marketplace sellers & their tarmacs full of fresh produces, and since we’re talking about Jakarta that had no clear traffic system, there were always at least dozens of different buses queuing in this area at the same time before they could finally be ‘free’ to go to their own routes. so, you can probably imagine the length of time i spent waiting and frying inside these buses everyday (my buses weren’t air conditioned, of course).
every day, as i waited in the bus, there would be street singers hopping on and off my bus. when i had extra coin or small bank note, i would give them what i could, but most of the time my budget was just enough for the day, so i couldn’t help them even if i wanted to. some of them sang just so that their bosses could see that they were ‘working’, some of them actually sang with their hearts. usually, i would wait until i found those that sang with their hearts to give what small amount of money i could to them instead of the other group.
among these street singers, one of them was a man, probably around the same age as i was back then, maybe slightly older. he was probably the only one easy for me to remember, because of his appearance. he had very dark skin, big eyes, long curly hair which was always ‘half’ bleached no matter what time of the year it was, so that it was deep black from the roots to halfway the total length and very blonde from then on to the ends. he always carried a guitar and was one of those who sang with his heart.
the first couple of times i ‘met’ him in my bus, i was running short on my money that i couldn’t give anything to him. but, he always smiled. some time after that, i finally did have extra, so i was already planning to give it to him the next time i saw him. when that time finally came, and he finished singing and started walking around the bus to collect the money in the aluminum foil bag he was holding, i was putting my money to the bag when he suddenly said to me, “hep, no, no, that’s okay, miss!” and i was baffled. he didn’t want my money.
after he completed his round, he came to sit next to me, which happened to be empty. and i, as somebody who had always disliked talking to strangers even before moving to Finland, was wary of this. oh dear, i thought, he did not want my money but wanted my company? darn it. usually if some stranger who sat next to me in the bus started to talk to me, i would pretend not to hear what they’re saying (yes, i was cruel). but i couldn’t see my way out of this one because i would still be stuck there in my transfer point for a while.
and so, he started, “are you going to school, miss?” i said, shortly, “yes”. he asked where i went to school, and i told him my university name (and cursed myself why i had to be so honest. what if he was a stalker?). he was amazed by my answer, i guess it’s because my university name does bear good quality. then he started talking about himself, mostly, i guess because he could see i was being careful and only gave him short answers. he told me that he, too, wished he could go to the university, but could only sing in buses so far. the first time he sang, he did not even have a guitar, so he had to go with others who had musical instruments, saved money until he could buy a guitar, and finally, now, he could sing alone.
the bus began to move forward and he quickly bid his goodbye, but before he left, he asked my name. i told him a fake name, because my brain was still telling me to be cautious, and that was the end of our first conversation.
that happened during my first year of college. i still had 2 more years, so you can imagine how many more times i met him in my bus. it wasn’t daily, but there were a lot of times. i gradually saw that he didn’t mean anything bad, and if he was a stalker i would already be stalked by then. i started having quite ‘okay’ conversations with him, but most of the time, just like the first time, it was him who did the talking. he told me that he was now saving up for new shoes, and showed me that the only pair of shoes he had had holes in them. and every time i offered him what little money i could, he never took it. i think at one point i told him that i had shoes i didn’t use, and if he would like them. he asked my shoe size and when he heard it, he laughed because my shoe size was a lot bigger than his! he even joked that i must be one of the ‘mountain people’, who genetically have big feet. needless to say, my offer was turned down.
sometimes he did the singing with a group of his other friends, and when his friends came near to me to collect money, he would tell them, “no, not her! she’s my friend.” pretty soon, even his friends would recognize me when he wasn’t around, and also did not want my money.
one day, i went to the university as usual and i was the one who spotted him first before i got on to my bus. i tapped his shoulder (because even then, after many of our conversations, i still didn’t know his name) and said hi. he was friendly as usual, but i told him my news: this was my last time going through this route, because i had graduated. he was so happy for me, congratulated me, and told me good luck with my life. i wished him the same, and we parted.
that really was the last time i saw him, even though i still lived in Jakarta for many years afterwards. never once did he cross my mind, until now.
i wonder if he is still around, and again, thank the heavens that he never has to feel the bitter cold of winter in his old & hole-y shoes. i wish i could have helped him more, and hope that he is doing okay. i hope he knows, that even when it may not seem so, he was actually blessed in his life, to have what he had.
remembering him makes me want to listen to this song, a song so popular among street singers in Jakarta. maybe it’s because it’s about them, the suppressed people, living in Jakarta. maybe it’s to tell each other, the street singers and beggars, to not lose hope, stay strong and be thankful for life as it is.
Serenade by Iwan Fals and KPJ (Street Singer Group), 1985, sung in Keroncong style.
roughly translated lyrics:
i would like to sing for the suppressed people
living in the wild with bereft souls
why be afraid of the sun, make a fist and block its heat
why be afraid of the night, light a fire in the heart, shoo away the darkness
i would like to sing for the rejected clans
losing their fighting spirits
complacent in a long dream in the midst of uncertain life
on the streets’ alleys of alleys
under the underside of bridges
on the street vendors’ feet
under the tower
you still cradle the suffering
i would like to sing a song without poverty and hypocrisy
without tears and misery
so we could see the heavens