“Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” which I will roughly translate into “This Boy Wants to Piss on Jakarta?” is Ahmad Tohari’s newest short story. By newest, I do mean new. It was published a mere five days ago in the Sunday edition of Indonesia’s Kompas newspaper. The plot is simple. In fact, you could argue that there is no plot. “Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” is a slice-of-life portrait of a poverty-stricken family living near the Jakarta railroads.
It was never my intention to read this straight after work on Friday, leaning upon pillows and sipping tea, but how perfect! I’m ashamed to say this, because of course I know poverty shouldn’t be a source of comfort, but “Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” was comforting to me. I assure you, my reaction has more to do with Ahmad Tohari being the short story’s author than sadistic inclinations.
I so love Tohari’s prose. It’s beautifully-written, almost formal in its beauty, but very much approachable. More than any Indonesian writer I’ve read, I find that Tohari is the one who gets the balance between density of theme and accessibility to the reader just right. Which is why whenever people ask me for recommendations of Indonesian literature, my first answer would be Tohari’s most famous work Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (The Dancer in English translation). I have even given copies of The Dancer as gifts.
“Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” is typical of the Tohari stories I’ve read. The characters lack material things but Tohari never romanticizes such poverty nor does he wallow in their grief. Neither sentimental nor poverty porn. His approach is more “Here are the characters. They lack things and they know it sometimes. But other times they are unaware of it. They don’t dwell on it and just move on with their lives. Just like we all do.” The prose is still formal yet readable. And Tohari’s imagery, which is his greatest strength in my mind, is on full display. Poets would pay to have his skills at creating imagery. In “Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” there is a scene of a father making instant noodles inside the packet – sans bowl and other utensils. Through the descriptions, I can see, smell, sense the scenes.
Within the confines of a short story, Tohari added another poetic device – repetition. There were phrases repeated over and over again. The usage of repetition could have been annoying in the wrong hands, but I thought it felt appropriate here and gave “Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” a poetic touch. I think it’s important to note that Tohari uses poetic devices in his writing rather than poetic style. His prose may not be mellifluous, but his writing still feels like poetry. Mainly because of his strong image and, specifically here, the use of repetition.
Ultimately though, readers hoping for something new may be disappointed. I don’t think Tohari treaded new ground here. He utilized the same themes and characters he had used before. Even the grotesque/innocent image of a five-year-old boy pissing is practically lifted from the opening scene of Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (The Dancer).
I know it’s the same old, same old. But if it’s an author you love, you let it pass because those are exactly the traits that made you fall in love in the first place. It makes you feel like coming home. And since I did read this coming home from work on the eve of a weekend, the comfort was doubled.