Man of the people

by Maggie Tiojakin

 ‘IS HE HERE, yet?’ he asked, craning his neck to the left and right.

‘Who?’

‘The guy, what’s his name?’

‘The guy? You don’t remember the name of our next president?’

‘He’s not our president, yet. The election’s not until next week,’ the man said, chewing on a strip of strawberry gum.

They were standing on a bench under an angsana tree outside the public garden where the Candidate was supposed to deliver his speech in the next hour, addressing the nation on live television.

Karno, the taller of the two men, was forty. He had come to see the Candidate in person after reading in the papers about his unique campaign style – for example, how he didn’t want to have a security detail following him everywhere, and how he preferred to eat local delicacies at cheap food stalls instead of enjoying an international selection of meals at fancy restaurants. And since Karno’s old mini-van was still in the shop, he had asked his young friend, Putro, to take him to the centre of town on his motorbike. He promised to pay for the gas, plus a little something on the side.

The public garden was closed to the general public, which meant only campaign volunteers, sponsors and supporters were allowed inside the complex. Everyone else would stay outside along the periphery of the gated garden.

On the other side of the gate, volunteers in yellow shirts and red bandanas distributed water bottles and lunch boxes to sponsors and supporters who had come from all over the country to shake hands and have their photos taken with the Candidate. News reporters and photographers were there, too, with laminated press badges around their necks. A stagehand untangled cords from one side of the podium to the other, checking microphones and alerting whoever was in charge of the sound system that no sound was coming out of the speakers. The sun was high and the air muggy. It was toward the end of the dry season. You couldn’t sit or stand in the open without perspiring. That kind of day.

Karno took out his phone and aimed the camera through an opening between the gate’s metal posts, focusing on the crowd inside the garden complex.

‘Why are you taking a picture of people’s backs?’ said Putro.

‘I’m trying to capture the energy,’ said Karno, sliding his phone back inside his pocket and then, like a child, pressing his face against the opening between the posts. ‘You don’t know shit about photography.’

‘And you do?’ said Putro.

‘I know stuff.’

‘Yeah, like what?

‘I’m not telling you.’

Putro scoffed. ‘Of course you’re not.’

‘I wish we could go inside.’

‘You want to?’

Karno peeled himself away from the metal posts, stretched
his arms and looked down at his clothes. ‘I’m not dressed for this kind of event.’

‘Who cares how you dress? Just walk in like everybody else.’ Putro pointed towards the entrance of the garden where a steady stream of people was pouring in. More and more were arriving by the busload. ‘Pretend to be a volunteer or whatever.’

‘Naw,’ said Karno. ‘I best just hang out here.’

‘You sure? You don’t want to see him up close, shake his hand
or something?’

Karno gave a nervous laugh. ‘Naw, naw, man. I wouldn’t know what to say.’

‘You don’t have to say anything.’

‘Naw, I’m all right. This here is good. We can see everything that’s going on from here – without all the pushing and shoving. Here is good.’

‘If you say so.’

They spotted some of the country’s biggest celebrities and personalities going through the entrance. There was their favourite punk band that used to write songs about getting high and trashing around, but now wrote the kind of music that talked about finding God and beating the devil in the bottle. There was that famous movie director and his producer, and the crew and cast of his latest film. There was the beautiful conservationist who was always on television harping on about all the things governments weren’t doing enough of to save the earth.

‘Hey, listen.’

‘Hey, what,’ said Putro without averting his eyes from the girl.

‘Did somebody give you something?’

‘When?’

‘Whenever,’ said Karno. ‘Did you receive something at home?’

Putro raised his eyebrows, curious. He was only twenty-three, but the way he was built you’d think he was almost the same age as Karno. The long hours he spent on the road driving people around on his motorbike from morning to midnight had taken a toll on his body. There used to be meat on him when he was at school, but that wasn’t there today. A walking skeleton, some would call him.

‘What kind of something?’ he said.

‘I don’t know.’ Karno shrugged. ‘Anything.’

Putro spat his gum on the ground. ‘Did you?’

‘Maybe. Nothing, really. Just a bag of rice, a prayer kit and some money.’

‘And some money?’

‘Fifty-thousand.’

‘Not bad.’

‘Good for a couple of packs of cigarettes.’

‘Yeah, it sure is. You smoke?’ Putro asked.

‘Huh. Sometimes. When I’m bored. The problem is it came from the other guy.’

‘Ah.’ Putro grinned.

Karno seemed perplexed. ‘My wife told me to give it back, because she knows how I feel about that guy. But my kids need to eat and I could use a new prayer kit.’

‘And cigarettes, too.’

‘Exactly.’

Putro understood his friend’s troubles, though he didn’t care much about the state of the nation’s politics. He was only seven years old when the New Order regime fell so he had little memory of what life was like before that time. When he heard stories of what it was like back then, about people taking to the streets and getting beaten to death, it amused him. Why would anyone do such a thing at that particular time and even think it would end well? When he read personal accounts of people who were silenced by the regime, who were made outcasts for years and years and years, he didn’t feel anything. Not sympathy. Not anger. Nothing.

‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’ he said casually.

‘You don’t think they will force me to vote for the other guy?’

‘They might,’ said Putro.

‘I don’t want to vote for him.’

‘Then don’t.’

‘Who are you voting for?’

‘I haven’t decided.’

‘Vote for this guy right here,’ said Karno, cocking his head in the direction of a large campaign poster taped to a wall next to the public garden. The Candidate’s face blocked almost the entire space, ‘He’s a man of the people.’

‘What does that even mean?’

‘He’s one of us.’

‘So he’s poor?’

‘You think we’re poor?’

‘Well, you know. Ish.’

‘We’re middle class.’

‘We are?’

‘We’re not poor. We’re struggling. There’s a difference.’

Putro grabbed hold of the gate’s metal post to steady himself as his shoulders shook from laughing. ‘You’re killing me here.’

‘Naw, wait. You don’t understand. Let me ask you. Do you really, honestly, in your heart of hearts, think we’re poor?’ Karno was looking very serious.

Karno did not like the word poor, or being associated with it. In his mind it meant having no way of living a decent life or providing for his children. He was not rich, that was true. Everything he earned went to the family’s dinner table, the kids’ clothes, rent and his wife’s few necessities. He knew poverty once, when he was growing up. His father spent his mornings collecting garbage and evenings sniffing paint thinners in their cramped plywood shack in the middle of a slum area on the outskirts of town. Karno was just nine years old when his father’s body was found floating in the city’s murky river – and for the next sixteen years he’d pulled himself out of poverty by working every menial job available to him. He had never been to school and had taught himself how to write by reading and re-reading Kho Ping Hoo’s martial art stories. He had worked for the same taxi company for close to twenty years, and now things were looking up. There was always warm food waiting on the table when he got home and a clean bed to sleep in. This, he said, was not what poverty looked like.

‘Poverty is when you’re falling slowly underwater toward the bottom of the sea,’ he went on. ‘There’s little you can do because you’re half paralysed at that point.’

‘Listen to you getting all riled up about what it means to be poor!’ said Putro.

‘Boy, a brother’s trying to teach you a lesson here.’

‘I say you go in there now and wait for the man. When you shake his hand, look him real hard in the eyes. And I mean real hard. If he wins the election, maybe you’ll get a chance to work for him. Even better, maybe he’ll give you a job ministering or something.’

‘Why not?’ said Karno. ‘This guy, I’ll have you know, didn’t come from money. He was dirt poor. Now look at him. He’s got his name on the ticket. He’s defying all expectations. And he’s only getting stronger in the race.’

‘What was it you said about hitting the bottom of the ocean?’

‘I’m saying we’re not falling underwater,’ said Karno. ‘I’m saying we’re in the middle of the ocean with a cheap life jacket – and we’re swimming toward the shore.’

‘That’s supposed to mean we’re part of the middle class?’

‘Sure.’

‘What does the upper class look like?’

The two of them pressed their faces close to the metal posts once more and looked at the swollen crowd. People were now chanting the Candidate’s name. Black cords snaked up and across the grass toward the stage where the microphone stands were now set up, barricading the podium. The atmosphere had become so loud that the traffic around the garden seemed to be on mute.

‘Them folks are upper class, I suppose,’ said Putro.

‘You can tell by their skin,’ replied Karno. ‘Smooth as porcelain. Shit, they practically shine.’

The two men, covered in dust and smelling of exhaust fumes, shared another laugh.


A WHILE LATER, several shiny black cars turned off the road and glided past them in slow procession towards the garden. The windows of the vehicles were tinted so it was near impossible to recognise the people inside.

‘What about these guys?’ said Putro.

‘These guys, I tell you,’ said Karno. ‘They’re not from this world. They’re the ones who have been robbing us blind.’

‘Yeah? How did you guess that?’

‘Nobody gets that rich without stealing from the little people.’

‘Are we the little people?’

‘What do you think?’

Putro shrugged. ‘You said we aren’t poor, so I assume we’re not the little people.’

‘The way it works, see, there’s the little guys and the big guys.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘We’re definitely not the big guys.’

‘Right.’

‘So what are we?’

‘The little guys?’

Karno gave a solemn nod. ‘Damn right.’

From somewhere nearby, someone called out, ‘Wait, there he is! He’s getting out of the car!’

A mob of people ran toward the gate, sticking on the posts like fruit flies, pulling out their phones and taking random snapshots. Karno and Putro were no exception. They had their arms wrapped around the metal posts.

There was a jubilant uproar as the Candidate emerged from one of the cars. He didn’t have a single security detail on him. He wore a check shirt and a pair of jeans, like he was going to the movies or something. His shoes, Putro noticed, did not bounce back the light from the sun. And he was about as skinny as anything he had ever seen.

Karno had a smile on his face that stretched from one ear to another. He was elated. ‘Look at him.’

Putro turned to his friend. ‘What is it about him that you like
so much?’

‘He gets us.’

‘I don’t know, man,’ said Putro, lighting a cigarette and stepping off the bench, his back to the garden now. ‘What if it was all just for show?’

Karno gazed down at his friend. As the words hit him, his face turned a darker shade of red. ‘I wish you’d take that back. I really do,’ he said.

‘What did I say?’

‘He is a good man.’

‘I didn’t say he wasn’t.’

‘Take it back.’

‘Are you serious right now?’

‘I heard your guy is a murderer,’ said Karno. He said it with such conviction that if the conversation were to be had between two strangers, it would have been hard not to buy into it, even just a little. ‘He kills people for sport.’

My guy?’

‘He used to beat his wife, too.’

‘Wait a minute.’

‘He should stand trial and answer for all the terrible things
he’s done.’

My guy?’

‘He’s going to burn this country to the ground,’ said Karno. ‘And he’s not going to spare you, or anybody else.’

‘How is he suddenly my guy?’ said Putro.

‘If this guy here’s not your guy, then the other guy is. There are only two candidates in the race this time around.’

‘All right. Suppose I am voting for the other guy,’ said Putro. ‘What then?’

Karno couldn’t stand the other guy, or people who supported the other guy’s campaign. Worse than that, he refused to tolerate people who wouldn’t stand for, and do, the right thing. He said this to Putro, then added curtly, ‘It’s up to you who you’re going to vote for. But if it were me, I would rethink my options. I would do what is right.’

‘So it’s this guy – your guy – or nothing?’

‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ said Karno. ‘He’s not my guy, he’s everybody’s guy.’

Putro shook his head and dropped the rest of his cigarette to the ground. ‘I’m going to get something to drink, you want anything?’

‘He’s about to give his speech,’ said Karno. ‘Stay a little bit more.’

‘I’m thirsty.’

‘Fine.’ Karno shoved one hand inside his shirt pocket and took out a small bill. ‘Here, buy yourself some food while you’re at it.’

‘You don’t want anything?’


PUTRO STEPPED OFF the sidewalk and went across the street toward a footbridge, under which street vendors crouched by their food carts, their gaze fixed intently on the busy road. Putro ordered a cup of instant noodles and a bottle of ice water from a guy on a bicycle, and fish cakes from another guy who introduced himself as Aquaman.

‘Aquaman?’

‘Nice, ya? It’s from a comic book my son reads. It sounds like someone important.’

‘Well, he’s a superhero.’

Aquaman smiled, baring toothless gums. ‘I like the sound of that.’

Putro sat on a wooden stool near the fish-cake cart and ate his lunch. He could hear the applause and knew the Candidate must have taken centre stage. From where he sat, Putro could see Karno’s back. There was another man on the bench standing next to him. Karno had his arm around the other man’s shoulders and every once in a while they bounced off the bench in great excitement. Putro could not hear all the things the Candidate said, but he could tell by the reaction that he was saying everything everyone wanted to hear.

When he finished, Putro paid for his lunch and told both of the vendors to keep the change. He lit another cigarette and offered one to Aquaman. He lowered himself into a crouching position next to Aquaman and smoked his cigarette facing the traffic, away from
the garden.

‘Have you decided who you’re going to vote for next week?’
asked Putro.

‘Yes,’ said Aquaman.

‘This guy?’ Putro cocked his head in the direction of the garden.

‘Yes.’ Aquaman nodded.

‘Why him and not the other guy?’

He thought for a minute. Then, Aquaman said, ‘I think maybe because he’s funny.’

Putro did not ask his companion to explain. That was as good a reason as any. It was the best thing he had heard throughout the campaign. And if he did feel like going to the polls next week, he might use that as his guide.

Across the street, the Candidate’s voice was drowned out by a wave of cheers, and from where Putro squatted he could feel the ground shake a little. Or maybe he imagined it.

He’s funny.

That was good enough for him.

 

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 49: New Asia Now © Copyright Griffith University & the author.