The Barber

By: Budi Darma

(source text:

Gito, a boy from Getas Pejaten, a suburb on the outskirts of Kudus, every day, except for Sundays and holidays, walked almost 14 km to and fro between his home and school, a Primary School in Daendels Road. As there were many roads leading to his school, Gito had the luxury of choosing which roads he liked best. If need be, he also took small streets that stretched farther, just for the fun of it.

Like other kids, Gito only ate once a day after school. Just like other children too, Gito had no sandals, let alone shoes. Even the teachers were barefoot then. If there was any teacher wearing shoes or sandals, they must have been timeworn.

Gito’s clothing, likewise his friends’, was completely ragged, patched, just the way the teachers’ clothes were. All the clothes’ colors had faded, and if the clothes were dyed again, they could look a little bit brighter, but they would soon fade again.

Gito knew too well how to stave off hunger. If he wanted to, he could go fishing in the river not far from his house. Coming home from school, sometimes Gito passed through Pasar Johar market, not far away from the station with trains heading for Pati, Juana, Rembang, and Pecangakan, Jepara. In the market he could pick up crumbs of brown sugar, which was good for beating off hunger pangs.

Not far from his house was a work shop of peanut meal, used for feeding livestock. Sometimes Gito also collected crumbs of peanut meal, even though he was aware that peanut meal could cause stomach ache and goiter, in which his neck could swell a good deal.

At home, when they ran out of paddy rice, Gito’s father and mother and him, their only son, used to eat sweet corn cooked as rice, and when that ran out too they would have cassava meals.

One day when Gito headed for home and walked past the curry goat stall of Kakek Leman, an old man who always put Javanese turban (udeng) on his head, the old-timer called out to him. He got fed and then, as usual, was told to clear overgrown grass in the backyard of the stall.

Kakek Leman also asked him: “Gito, did you see the barber under the pine tree around?”

Kakek Leman removed his udeng, then turned around and said: “Look at this,” while pushing his hair aside.

There was a visible scar, ain’t no ordinary cut, but a rather deep one.

Kakek Leman told him, one day out of thin air there was a barber suddenly plying his trade under a pine tree near the 3-way junction connecting Jalan Setasion with Jalan Bitingan. Some of Kakek Leman’s customers, according to the old hand, also wondered why all of a sudden there was a barber there.

Among five of Kakek Leman’s customers who had their hair cut there, three had their heads carved. The barber apologized for those incidents, saying they were pure accidents, but all three believed the barber did it on purpose.

According to the barber, said Kakek Leman’s customers, barbering is the noblest profession. Only a barber is allowed to hold other person’s head with his hands. If it isn’t for a barber, surely the owner of the head would feel humiliated and thus flip out.

The next day something new came along, which was the arrival of a new teacher in town whose name was Dasuki reportedly coming from a big city, though not sure which one it was. Gito’s school had six classes, from first to sixth grade. There were eight teachers, consisting of six classroom teachers, one vice principal and the principal. If a teacher was absent, one of the two had to replace the teacher who didn’t make it to school. Since that day all the teachers came to work, Dasuki entered all classes, and the classroom teachers who had Dasuki entering their classes had to attend a session with him.

In his classes Dasuki kept saying that Russia was the greatest country in the world. All the cities and villages there were thoroughly clean, all of its people were happy and had nice meals until they were full up.

“Look at that horse cart,” Dasuki said while pointing his fingers toward Daendels Road. “See, that horse takes a leak and shits while on the run. That’s gross. In Russia, everything is arranged in good order. There can be no horses making water and taking a crap the way they do that here. ”

Dasuki went on to tell stories of other Russia’s great achievements.

Many students were spellbound listening to him, their mouths slightly gaped. The teachers were also left in awe, with some of them wearing uneasy smiles and others pretended to listen to him, but their minds conjured up images of tasty foods, as Dasuki described to them.

Dasuki only spent a few weeks teaching there, after that he left and never returned.

One day, on his way home, Gito deliberately took the road with many pine trees on its sides. From a distance the barber seemed to be talking to himself, with audible cussing. When he saw Gito, the barber called him out.

“Come here,” said the barber. “I’ll give you a haircut.”

The barber came over, Gito stopped dead in his tracks, but when the barber drew near, Gito broke into a gallop at full strength.

The barber initially meant to chase him, but then gave it up while uttering profanities.

End of September 1948 came, and a tense, menacing situation ruled everywhere. Many soldiers wearing red neckerchiefs came out of nowhere. People said they were members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) armed forces. They were wandering around, in and out of the hamlets, and most huddled in a sandulok (red-light district) located in the eastern part of the suburb. After that, for the entire 24 hours, the sounds of gunfights were heard several times.

Days went by with even more stories circulating about people went missing, people got murdered, and everything else which was anything but clear.

The currency notes of the Republic of Indonesia were declared invalid, replaced by that of a Communist installed regime, which looked like a coupon. The prices of all goods increasingly fluctuated.

One afternoon, there was an amazing spectacle: the barber dressing as a soldier, wearing a red neckerchief, carrying a gun, went to a space behind the hospital with several other soldiers, herding some people whose hands were tied.

Stealthily Gito trailed behind them. When they reached the open they halted, and Gito took a hiding behind the bushes. Gito fixed his eyes on those who had their hands tied, being intimidated by the barber and his comrades, lined up neatly, and then peppered with a burst of shots.

The circumstances were more and more hostile. The electricity remained down. Sometimes gunshots could be heard for 24 hours a day.

Situations became increasingly grave when, as rumor had it, Siliwangi troops especially drawn in from West Java entered Kudus, to destroy PKI forces. In various skirmishes, the PKI troopers fled the battlegrounds.

PKI guys were arrested, and some of its leaders were paraded into the square, brought under a banyan tree and then shot down. Gito came to watch those things unfold too and witnessed an unbelievable thing: the barber, in casual dress, no longer wearing a PKI trooper’s outfit, barked out orders to people waiting for the death sentence to stand up straight and in order, then wrapped a cloth around their faces so they couldn’t look at the firing squad.

Siliwangi troops carried out the death sentence in the square several times, and everyone was allowed to bear witness to the execution. Gito knew, PKI troopers killed silently and in secretive manner, unlike the Siliwangi soldiers. In some of the executions, the barber was seen pacing around with triumphant poses.

Hazy words got around, one day the barber took some beatings from Siliwangi soldiers, with accusations that he made a list of people he hated to be put in front of the firing squad, without any evidence.

Days continued to go by, the situations grew ever more tense, and finally December 1948 arrived. Siliwangi soldiers had left Kudus, hunting down PKI troops who were increasingly cornered to the east in Pati, Juana, Rembang, and across Cepu and Blora.

After Siliwangi troops departed Kudus, one day, when the dawn approached, the entire Kudus was shaken to the core as red-nosed aircrafts hedgehopping over the town’s sky, coming and going, over and over again. The red-nosed aircrafts, known as cocor merah among the locals, were the pride of the Dutch air force. As soon as the sun rose, the planes started shelling the town with ferocious shots. Heavy artilleries whizzed here and there. Bodies were scattered all over the place. Some parts of Getas Pejaten were also under heavy fire, but it was limited to certain places. Gito’s house also took several hits.

Gito’s father took him and his mother to escape from the back door straightaway, crossing the street, going into a winding alley, fleeing to a house belonged to Ruslan, a friend of Gito’s father.

The Ruslans gave them a warm welcome, providing them with thick rubbers to bite on in case of bomb explosion, and also earplugs.

They stayed in the underground shelter for almost two days without eating. Ruslan gave them some pills to make them sated.

Finally, around three in the afternoon, a convoy of Dutch tanks, followed by their many armored vehicles and trotting foot soldiers, made an entry into Kudus from the Town of Demak. Kudus and the whole surroundings were officially occupied by the Dutch forces.

For almost a week Kudus felt like a ghost town. Ruslan’s family left their home, went unknown. The Dutch troops went into villages, capturing all the young men they had their suspicions on, who were then taken somewhere else.

When all the dust settled, Gito started to go to school again and, as usual, he went on foot, ate only once a day and sometimes, when he came home, took different roads and alleys.

One day, on his way home from school, there was a jeep running slowly at Jalan Bitingan. Gito swiftly jumped into a ditch, hiding himself. Inside the jeep were two people wearing the Dutch army uniforms, they were the barber who drove the vehicle, and sitting next to him was Ruslan.

Gunfights broke out almost every night: Indonesian fighters were pounding on the town’s door.

Day after day went by, until Gito got himself into a junior high school not far from the town square.

In December 1949, all the Dutch forces were withdrawn, and Indonesian soldiers moved into the town from their many makeshift quarters, mostly around Mount Muria. Gito heard, the withdrawal of Dutch soldiers resulted from the Round Table Conference in the Netherlands, between Indonesian representatives and those of the Dutch. Dutch troops were required to leave Indonesia, except West Irian (now Papua).

Both the barber and Ruslan disappeared without a trace.

When Gito was in the second grade, Kudus was on edge once again. Many unknown soldiers, all dressed in green neckerchiefs and carrying guns, roamed through the town. Just like before, many of them flocked in the sandulok.

The events took an increasingly grim turn with every passing day until finally, around 01:00 am one morning, Gito suddenly awakened hearing the sound of relentless gunfire not far from his home. But around six in the morning it all went dead silent.

And so the news made the rounds, the heavy shootout in what had been the Nitisemito cigarette factory, not far from Gito’s house, had come to an end. Most of the unknown soldiers were trapped in that former factory while some of them managed to run away, most likely heading toward Mount Merapi and Merbabu. Gito had just known then and there, those soldiers were known as the army of the Islamic State of Indonesia (NII), and they were set to bring down the Government of Indonesia, making Indonesia an Islamic State.

When Gito arrived at the former cigarette factory, many people had swarmed the building. All the bodies of those trapped in the facility had been brought to the open air, laid on the roadsides. One of them was none other than the barber.(*)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s