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The Contract Coolies

Novita Dewi menulis puisi dan cerpen ketika SD dan SMP. Karya-karyanya dimuat di majalah Si KuncungBobo, dan lembar anak-anak yang dulu tersedia di harian Kompas dan Sinar Harapan (sekarang Suara Pembaruan). Kecintaannya pada sastra dialihkan dengan menulis artikel jurnal ilmiah tentang sastra dan penerjemahan yang telah diterbitkan secara luas. Cerpen-cerpen yang diterjemahkan dan dimuat di laman Dalang Publishing ini adalah hasil terjemahan sastranya yang pertama.

Saat ini dia mengajar mata kuliah sastra Inggris di Universitas Sanata Dharma, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Dia dapat dihubungi di alamat surel: novitadewi@usd.ac.id atau novitadewi9@gmail.com.


The Contract Coolies


The lights on the porch and in the front room were turned off. Ayah, Father, was writing in his study. And we children were gathered in our parents’ bedroom, listening to Ibu, Mother, tell us a bedtime story. Ibu told us about a pelesit, man-eater, who could transform from a human into a tiger.

To recognize a pelesit, Ibu said, look for a shallow groove at the center of his clean-shaven, upper lip; and when he walks, his heels point forward.

Ibu’s story was very frightening yet thrilling, and we, wrapped in a blanket, huddled around her, slightly scared, enormously enthralled.

All of a sudden, there was a noise outside the house, followed by our opas, gatekeeper, calling for Ayah. “Sir! Master!”

We were all startled.

Ibu stopped telling her story.

We heard Ayah open his office door and hurry to the porch.

“Oh, dear, perhaps there’s war again in one of the villages,” Ibu exclaimed.

And we followed her to the porch.

In those days, my father worked as a demang, district head, for the Kerinci Regency, in Jambi Province, Sumatra; and in the 1920s and 1930s, conditions there were like those in the Middle Ages. Simple issues, such as the distribution of irrigation water for rice fields, problems regarding buffaloes, etc., could cause villages to declare war on one another.

The weapons most commonly used in these wars were slings made with special ropes to hold stones as big as chicken eggs. The sling was swung in an arc, releasing the stone with high-velocity force at the enemy.

Just a week ago, when my father went to the Deras River to stop a war there, a stray stone hit his helmet. Luckily, it was just a scrape. But, it still gave Ayah a headache for several days.

The war at Deras River ended only after police fired their rifles many times into the air, and the two leaders from the warring villages were brought together. After hearing that one of their stones had hit Ayah’s helmet, the village heads apologized, saying that they did not intend to hurt Ayah at all, and they asked his forgiveness. Because they were deeply sorry about the errant stone, both village heads quickly accepted Ayah’s proposed solution and peacefully divided the water for their fields.

When Abdullah the gatekeeper called out for my father that night, it was almost nine o’clock. Several police officers and their commander stood in the yard outside the house. I couldn’t hear what the commander told my father, because Ayah immediately sent Ibu and us children back inside.

When Ayah came back in, he quickly dressed. He pulled on his leather boots, strapped his gun to his waist, put on his helmet, and then left.

Not long after, Ibu came into our bedroom, looking worried. “Well, all of you go to sleep now. Your father left. Some contract coolies, laborers, ran away.”

The next morning, Abdullah the gatekeeper told us that five contract coolies had fled from the Kayu Aro onderneming, plantation, after stabbing a Dutch opzichter, supervisor.


When we came home from school at noon that day, my father had still not returned. By twilight, he had still not come home.

Ibu began to worry, and she kept going outside to look down the street. Several times, I heard Ibu talking to Abdullah, who kept telling her not to worry.

Ayah arrived late that night, after we children had been told to go to sleep. I heard him and my mother talking deep into the night, and then the house was quiet.

The next day, we heard that all the contract coolies had been caught and jailed.

The prison was located at the foot of a small hill behind our house. If we climbed up the large orange tree in the fruit and vegetable garden behind our house, we could see the prison yard, where, every day, prisoners were punished.

From our garden, we could hear the singing and cursing of imprisoned lunatics. At that time, I didn’t question why insane people were put in prison instead of an asylum. Sometimes I eagerly listened to their soulful singing, which became louder when they started cursing. For me, as a young child, hearing such forbidden words was delightful.

Ibu said that Ayah and the police had arrested the three contract coolies who had taken a stand against the Dutch supervisor. There were only three contract coolies, not five, as we had been told earlier. They were caught in a forest, not far from the plantation, hungry, cold, and filled with fear. They did not put up any fight. When they saw Ayah, they immediately surrendered and said, “To you, kanjeng, sir, we surrender our fate and beg for justice.”

Ibu said that Ayah told her that the coolies had stabbed the Dutch opzichter because he was always harassing their wives. Apparently, the contract coolies had gone berserk when they could no longer bear to watch the opzichter torment their wives.

“The contract coolies are not wrong,” Ibu fumed. “Instead, they should have arrested that evil opzichter.” Ibu was furious about the coolies’ arrest.

“Why was the Dutch opzichter not arrested?” we asked.

Ibu looked at us and said softly, “The Netherlands has the power. The Dutch are never wrong.”

“But he is the evil one,” we insisted.

“I don’t understand,” said Ibu, “but don’t ask your father about this. He has been in a bad mood since he came home from the plantation.”

After Ayah finished his dinner, he called all of us to his office. Ayah looked gloomy. Something heavy weighed on him, making him depressed. After we gathered, Ayah said, “No one is allowed to go into the backyard. I forbid all of you to go there. I will be very angry with anyone who violates this prohibition.”

“Why, Ayah?” we asked.

“Just follow my orders!” Ayah said shortly.

We understood. When Ayah behaved like that, there was no point in arguing. But our heads were full of questions: Why was it prohibited? What was wrong?

We immediately pestered Ibu with our questions.

She finally silenced us by saying that the three contract coolies would be punished the next morning. Even before the case was brought before a judge, they would be whipped for attacking the Dutch opzichter.

I was saddened to hear this. Shivering, I went to my bedroom. For quite some time, I couldn’t sleep. Hearing that the contract coolies would be flogged the next morning made me toss and turn. Fear alternated with an intense curiosity to see how humans lashed other humans with whips.

The next morning, my older brothers left early for school. The rest of us, who were not yet old enough to attend school, were reminded not to go to the garden behind our house.

I heard from Opas Abdullah that the whipping would start at nine o’clock. The closer the time came, the more restless and uneasy I became. I anxiously waited to watch the lashing.

At five minutes to nine, I could no longer restrain myself. I yelled to Ibu that I was going to play next door, then I ran through the front yard and onto a big road. I continued to run on the big road as it wound behind my house. There, I entered the prison’s hospital grounds.

The hospital backed up to the garden behind our house.

I climbed the wire fence that separated the hospital grounds from our garden and jumped into our backyard. Panting, I climbed the orange tree until I reached the branch where I always sat to look down into the prison yard.

The prison yard was covered with gravel. Three wooden benches had been placed in the center.

A small group of police, armed with rifles, was lined up on the left side of the yard.

I saw Ayah walk out of the alley that ran behind the prison toward the prison yard.

A Dutch controller, the district chief assistant, a police officer, and a physician from the hospital were with him.

Then the three contract coolies appeared from another alley. They only wore shorts and had their hands tied behind them. They were accompanied by the warden and three prison guards.

My heart was pounding and fear squeezed my stomach. But I did not want to leave my hiding place. I was too eager to see what would happen.

The contract coolies were told to line up near the wooden benches. The warden then read a document.

I watched the controller nod.

Ayah stood silently, straight and rigid.

The hands of the three contract coolies were untied. The men were each placed on a bench, lying on their stomachs face down, then tied to the bench by their legs and arms.

Three prison guards, each holding a black whip, then came forward. They halted about six feet from each bench.

The warden bellowed, “One!”

The prison guards swung their arms backward. The long whip snapped into the air like a black snake about to grab its prey. It was terrifying. A sound split the air, buzzing sharply; then came the sound of the whip ripping human flesh, immediately followed by the coolies’ screams as they jerked their heads back. From their open mouths came screams that I had never heard before: the sharp, shrill screams filled the air, penetrated my whole heart, and instantly weakened me.

I was so much affected by what I saw that I missed my step as I climbed down the tree. Startled, I yelled and fell down very hard. For a moment, I lay gasping on the ground, then cried out in pain.

Opas Abdullah, who was in the kitchen, came to the backyard and found me lying on the ground.  He quickly carried me to the house.

My elbow hurt badly.

Ibu examined it and said, “Your elbow is dislocated.” She added, “Ayah will be very angry; you violated his orders. Why were you in the garden?”

I just cried. Ibu took me to the hospital.

The hospital’s doctor pulled my hand to relocate my elbow, which only added to my pain. After he bandaged my arm, he told me to rest and not to play.

My father came home from work in the afternoon.

Afraid, I just waited for him. After he ate, I heard Ibu talking to him. I feared she was telling him about what had happened.

Shortly afterwards, Ayah came to see me. He sat down on the edge of the bed. He quietly looked at me, so I was forced to lower my eyes.

“Did you see everything?” Ayah asked.

“Yes. I did wrong, Ayah.” My voice trembled with fear.

Father took my hand and then softly but firmly said, “When you grow up, don’t ever become a civil servant. No civil service! Understand?”

“Yes, Yah!” I replied.

“You’re still too young to understand,” my father said. “People who are civil servants are forced to do many things they don’t approve of at all. Even if it goes against all their personal morals. For the benefit of those in power, what is otherwise sinful becomes lawful and vice versa.”

Ayah paused. It seemed he still had something to say. But finally, he only said, “Ah, nevermind. Go to sleep.”


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