Short Story by Anton Kurnia (The Jakarta Post, January 15, 2018)
They call me the mad man. Maybe it’s my long and messy hair. Maybe it’s my shabby appearance. Maybe it’s my habit of roaming around the city for years. Maybe it’s the fact that I am different from the socalled “normal people.” Or maybe I just look like a mad man.
Actually, I consider myself the happiest person in this town. I am a free man who has the privilege to do anything I want. My life is joyful; I have no burden — free as a bird. I’m free to laugh, sing, scream, cry, hop, or smile at nothingness. They say I’m mad, right? A mad man can do anything without punishment. The state and God forgive mad men. Adult people can understand mad men. Only children can’t. They like mocking mad men as if mad men do not deserve respect. Sometimes they throw stones at mad men without guilt.
When I was a child, a mad woman used to walk down the alley in front of my house. Her name was Aminah. She smelled terrible, because she was dirty. Her clothes were dirty rags. Sometimes I could see her flabby breasts through her shabby blouse. She was almost toothless. Her hair was long and specked with dirt. When she walked past the alley some kids in my neighborhood always followed her in a group and mocked her. They laughed at her joyfully. Sometimes they threw pebbles at her. Of course, it made her angry and she would chase them furiously.
I had never joined the others in mocking her. I pitied her, instead. There were times when I would glance at her secretly and silently from the balcony of my mother’s bedroom until Aminah’s body disappeared at the turn.
My mother’s maid’s attitude to mad people like Aminah is another story. She was a middle-aged woman who often spoke harshly toward me when my mother was not around. She sometimes used the mad woman to intimidate me and my little sister in order to make us obey her. She thought we were stupid kids. But I knew that mad people are not dangerous unless we disturb them.
I thought a crazy person like Aminah was a loner who loved and enjoyed her loneliness very much. She seemed to enjoy being alone and happy in her own little world. Her world is a world that doesn’t need other people or things except herself and anything she thought existed. She only annoyed other people if her world were disturbed by others.
But my little sister was afraid of mad people. If I was in the mood to bully my sister, sometimes I would also intimidate her using the mad woman. She was very scared of Aminah. If the mad woman by chance grinned at us when we looked at her from behind the balcony railings, my sister would panic. It was my opportunity to make her cry. I just had to intimidate her a little more by saying that Aminah would climb up to our place and kiss her. Of course, she would be very scared and then she would cry.
Like I said: I am free to do nothing except dreaming and imagining whatever I have in mind. I don’t need go to school or college. I don’t need go to work. No work, all play. Oh, how happy I am.
People often get it wrong. Their minds are very shallow. Every time they see people dressed in dirty clothes like mine, they’d label them as crazy. But sometimes the shabby one is not crazy, just as the crazy one sometimes doesn’t look shabby. Shabby is shabby. Crazy is crazy. I know plenty of people who dress shabbily, yet who are quite sane. And I know quite a lot of people who are well-dressed and who drive expensive cars, yet are quite mad and delusional.
There are people who pretend to be crazy. They do that so they won’t be ashamed about living a terrible life on the street, eating food fished out of waste bins, wearing dirty rags, or sleeping on the sidewalk.
While we’re on the subject of being crazy — we should also talk about how crazy it feels to fall in love. The French say: Qu’est que la vie sans l’amour? What is life without love? Crazy people can fall in love. And people who fall in love can be mad. I myself once fell for a mad woman; and a mad woman once fell for me.
This was the story: It was a rainy and cold afternoon and everything was wet. I was trembling on a street corner in front of a store across the town square. My elementary school uniform was very wet. My feet below my pants felt very cold. My shoes were soaked. My eyes stared powerlessly at the falling rain. Occasionally cars would pass in the rain.
In the distance was a movie poster strapped to an old theater wall. Not far from me, between a newsstand and a few becak — three-wheel cabbikes — who were sheltering from the rain, a young woman stood wearing a traditional kebaya blouse and batik cloth. She carried a cloth sling and was barefoot. Her calves were slim but her breasts looked full, peeking out of her blouse. Her half-wet hair was pulled over her head to reveal her swan-like neck.
I stared at her without blinking. She wore no make-up but, in my eyes, I could only see beauty. Suddenly my penis, which had been circumcised a year ago became erect. I felt something warm inside my body. I kept staring at her face and her body. Suddenly she caught my eyes. She glanced at me sharply. Feeling ashamed, I avoided her gaze. Then she turned to a different direction. I glanced at her secretly. I thought I fell in love with her.
She smiled at the cloth she carried. Sometimes she laughed. Then she looked sullen and sad. And then she smiled again. First, I thought there was a baby inside the cloth sling but it turned out to be an ugly doll. The becak drivers began to mock her. One of them threw a dirty joke. His friends responded and harassed the young woman. They laughed at her but she didn’t care. She just enjoyed herself and continued smiling and laughing at the doll in her cloth.
A short becak driver with a straw hat seemed to not be able to hold his desire. He approached the woman and pinched her hip, and then squeezed her buttocks. Everyone kept harassing her, but she didn’t give a damn about that. I tried to avoid watching the scene unfold, but I could see the straw-hat man pulling her hand and dragging her to a dark corner on one side of the old movie theatre. I could hear her screaming, but her voice was swallowed by the drivers’ laughter and the sound of the falling rain. I trembled in the corner. My body was wet. My eyes were red. My heart was broken. But the rain was still falling.
On another afternoon, on my way home from school, I stood in front of a picture of ice cream on a restaurant’s glass window. My friend and I talked about the colorful pictures that looked tasty. I didn’t realize that from my right side an old woman approached me and kissed my cheek very fast. I was shocked. I stared at the kisser. She smiled broadly. Her eyes shone and she was toothless. Her clothes were dirty and shabby. Well, it must have been her: Aminah!
I went from that place hurriedly, still shocked and resentful. I scolded my friend who didn’t tell me about the presence of the mad woman. He tried to defend himself with a sentence that got me feeling even more furious at him, “But I thought she was your friend!”
Time flew. At the moment, I’m absorbed in my thoughts. Sometimes I whistle happily. Sometimes I smile at people I see. A few of them smile back at me. But some just look at me with astonishment or fear. Maybe they think I’m mad, but I am actually pretty happy. The happiest person in town. I have nothing to lose. I have nothing and belong to nothingness. I have left my worldly life behind.
I live on the street. I live my life freely. I don’t need friends or connection. I live with no rules. I am not afraid of being poor because I don’t need anything. Like a dervish, I need no money, a luxurious home, a new car, fancy things, a beautiful wife, or a sexy mistress. I have no obligation to bribe a government officer to get a big project. I have no need to be involved in any corrupt schemes. I don’t need to please my boss because I am my own boss. I don’t have to live in hypocrisy. I don’t need to be afraid of hunger because I can eat anything — even leftover food inside a trash can. Plus, there are always people out there who are kind to crazy people like myself. Perhaps they show kindness because they think it will send them straight to heaven; or perhaps they do it out of sheer fun. I am not offended when someone refers to me as a mad man. If I am mad, at least I am a well cultured mad man. I know Dante’s and Rimbaud’s poems. I can understand paintings by Van Gogh and Dali. I like Mozart and Beethoven. I know about Foucault and Habermas. I understand what Einstein and Hawking talk about. Sometimes I even talk to God about the secret of creation, not at the mosque or at the church, but in the city park. Isn’t it nice to be me? I am happy. How people can label me as someone in need is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Maybe it’s my long and messy hair. Maybe it’s my shabby appearance. Maybe it’s my habit of roaming around the city for years. Maybe it’s the fact that I am different from the so-called “normal people.” Or maybe I just look like a mad man.
Never mind. It doesn’t matter. We are free. Me, myself and I.