Pavle Radonic — The Malay Archipelago in Short

Sour Taste

The gay guy from ear­li­er in the year still cruis­ing at the mall, more cir­cum­spect today with his mum attend­ing. Neat, well-dressed, tidy woman retain­ing her looks, uncer­tain whether she knows.

Two small amuse­ments from ear­li­er in the afternoon.

Joshing with the drinks-wait­er at Beringharjo about his stone fix­a­tion and the stalls out on Mangkubumi, the fel­low vol­un­teers what had been half-guessed: the gleam­ing, pol­ished rocks pro­vid­ed ben­e­fit way beyond van­i­ty and adornment.

Drawing the plas­tic bag from his pock­et, the man indi­cat­ed the pow­er of the jewel.

Any kind of cal­i­bre pis­tol, machine-gun, rock­et-launch­er, what­ev­er, could nev­er pen­e­trate his cir­cle when he was wear­ing his prize band set with that par­tic­u­lar stone.

Dull green, with a range of fires from the depths of the vol­cano and washed in the rivers prob­a­bly. Worked a treat. Giant size was unnec­es­sary; not the fac­tor here.

The guy was not kid­ding of course—the old ani­mism sat just below the surface.

One mil. and no budg­ing, Dude.

What the man said. Reports of half that price for pre­cise­ly the same on Mangkubumi cur­rent­ly left the chap scoffing.

The sparklers the old­er chaps flashed were cer­tain­ly some­thing; the kam­pung lads with dis­cre­tionary dosh could car­ry more than ten, dou­bling on some of the digits.

Immediately after lunch foot­ing over to the post office, a glance in the gut­ter brought that day’s counter punch; ugly sock between the eyes.

Little grey­beard sit­ting there had his old fel­la out the side of his shorts, hung over a plas­tic cup.

Oh! YUKKO! Puke.

Thanks to one’s lucky stars, the old dev­il was still straining—not yet a drop, let alone hiss­ing stream going.

Occasionally the becak dri­vers on the street turned aside into a cor­ner to wee. Give this bloke that much, he was tak­ing care not to make a pud­dle for peds to tramp unawares.

Look-away too late. The old ding­bat had imprint­ed that flop­py old hose of his in a sin­gle glimpse, dif­fi­cult to shake even after the news­pa­per and café.

Evening it was still sticking.

Head of a tor­toise; short, but unex­pect­ed­ly thick. (The Javanese might have it a shade over the Chinese.)

Magnified top of the slit some­how leapt out like a tiger from the jun­gle onto the retina.

You could be unlucky like that, zapped by thun­der out of a clear sky.

One old grand­ma short­ly before had been caught sur­round­ed by her bas­kets of tapi­o­ca & greens, in clas­sic angel­ic pose—out-stretched on her side fac­ing the road­way, peace­ful­ly doz­ing. Another close-by seat­ed with her hung flow­ers was a picture.

Only to be oblit­er­at­ed by the old buz­zard smash­ing the frieze of the street to smithereen.

Yogyakarta, Indonesia


Busker & Beggar

Both could have been avoid­ed eas­i­ly enough of course, even though the first had stood imme­di­ate­ly against the seat, albeit back turned to the main body of passengers.

And of course, you real­ly don’t seek to con­tin­ue doc­u­ment­ing the beg­gars of the region; only they com­pelled so strongly.

A shaved head was all that was vis­i­ble. Soiled parch­ment attire. Even from behind his years were easy enough to guess.

Unaccompanied, but man oh man! What was that?

Possibly some­thing of his own com­po­si­tion. Prayers and pas­sages from the Holy Book would have gone down well in the last days of Ramadan. This though did not sound like it.

Despite the low tone, the man was mak­ing him­self audi­ble over the clack­et­ing and the traf­fic. Bent your ear well and tru­ly. This was draw­ing up from deep down. Tantalizing snatch­es of rhythm.

If there were resis­tant faces show­ing among the pas­sen­gers, no mat­ter how stern, they were all ears for this man. The peo­ple on the back bench would have strained to capture.

Imbecilically, you leant out of your seat an hour lat­er at the Warnet PC, strain­ing as if to recapture.

The man was fast­ing of course. The Busker stra­ta alter­nat­ed fast­ing and starv­ing; it was what gave them their depth of feeling.

Daily mir­a­cles of this sort pur­sued one in Tanah Abang. It was lit­tle won­der they believed in all kinds of things in these parts—transmigration of souls, astral trav­el, lev­i­ta­tion. Communion with the dead, naturally.

            The sec­ond encounter involved a lady at Sabang. Not real­ly beg­ging; not real­ly on the job. Seeing the Bule stride by, though, it was worth a shout.

A hand stretched out, smil­ing and expectant.

Woman was sit­ting on the dirty pave­ment beneath the shelf of a stall that had closed. Most of Sabang had closed days ago. Street lady; dirt poor. Living in the dirt.

Likely spe­cial; or at least dis­turbed, under­stand­ably. Indeterminate age.

In the quick she need­ed to be granted.

As usu­al, the notes were divid­ed in the pock­et either side of the wallet.

Did locals real­ly walk these paths day by day with­out feel­ing the need to give? Having mon­ey themselves.

There were coins too in the pock­et. Four came out on this occa­sion. Three Rp500s was judged suf­fi­cient; the Rp1000 could be kept back for the angkot, per­haps.

Even before the coin was pre­sent­ed, the woman began shak­ing her head and call­ing in English.


In a child-like whine calling.

The lady was not going to be treat­ed so casually.

No. No.

Impossible to argue the case when she was adamant, seat­ed on the dirty pavement.

No meant no.

A Rp2000 brought a smile. That was better.

Only pass­ing over were the hand and the mis­shapen fin­gers noticed. It was dif­fi­cult for her to clutch and the note need­ed to be insert­ed between stubbed digits.

Tanah Abang, Jakarta

Straight Road – Jalan Trus

Another arm of the bar­ber shop beside Masjid India, which also ran the naan out­let there. Even five years lat­er the bar­ber who dou­bled as a wait­er at the oth­er place was imme­di­ate­ly recog­nised. At entry a chap sat in the end chair with the short man beside him at some kind of loss, it seemed. Within a few min­utes the lat­ter, a man from Andhra Pradesh it turned out, was cry­ing, plead­ing with the abang, the broth­er. Oiled and sleek,abang looked just cut, per­haps seek­ing some kind of final adjust­ment. Unclear the to-and-fro and what had pre­ced­ed; in the end sound­ed like the guy would accept some no.2 trim­ming on the sides and that would do.  Met with reluc­tance by the bar­ber, who seemed to know bet­ter than to enter the chal­lenge once more. An impasse. Unmoving. Only tears and tis­sues from the lit­tle bar­ber, who briefly retreat­ed at one point to a cor­ner in the back room. Tissues were need­ed to wipe around the eyes too, sep­a­rate sheets for each. Here was the big, tow­er­ing own­er arrived from up the road, short con­ver­sa­tion ensu­ing that exclud­ed the bar­ber. Customer argu­ing his case; own­er coun­ter­ing and polite­ly encour­ag­ing cus­tom else­where out the door. In brief, the chap had been in twice before, dis­sat­is­fied both times and refus­ing to pay. A sim­ple no.1 fol­low­ing brought some relief to the short, Andhra bar­ber; straight­for­ward and no fear con­fu­sion. Three sin­gle blue ones—a lit­tle short of a Sing dollar—presented after the red ten, seemed not to sur­prise the bar­ber. One met the good with the bad alter­nate­ly. En route along by the shut­tered old stores that await­ed demo­li­tion for the avant-garde Coronation Square, an elder­ly man, neat and clean Malay by the looks, had stretched him­self out on his scav­enged card­board, pos­si­bly fetch­ing some sleep. What was that pil­low­ing, though, rolled news­pa­per bun­dled that size? The man’s head was lift­ed some way. No. A few thin sheets cov­ered a sin­gle, sandy-coloured brick. Truth to tell, near­er the water in the old quar­ter that was slow­ly get­ting the make-over with the new invest­ment, you winced more at the displays.


Around in front the re-brand­ed place at the head of the wide, emp­ty thor­ough­fare was closed, per­haps for slow Mondays. All the oth­er stores along both sides of the row there were like­wise shut­tered; the post-Covid lag drag­ging on in JB. The Chinese place on the next cor­ner didn’t open evenings. Opposite the tem­ple, Nilla’s offer­ing of naan and a fair gath­er­ing final­ly decid­ed the mat­ter. A dozen odd patrons ini­tial­ly, as always in this part of the world, seem­ing famil­iar. In the case of Nilla, even when the place was more crowd­ed, cus­tomers could be exceed­ed by the num­ber of lads on the floor prepar­ing and serv­ing. It was dif­fi­cult to con­ceive the grop­ing of the Japanese girl last week on the street by the gang of young Indian lads like these here. Even rag­ing high­ly sexed, it was dif­fi­cult to imag­ine these young men descend­ing to that kind of bar­bar­i­ty. Quite the Hindu estab­lish­ment of course, Nilla, sit­ed there with the gur­d­wara adja­cent the tem­ple, the framed gods & god­dess­es gar­land­ed with  chrysan­the­mums pre­sid­ing over the reg­is­ter. For all that, almost cer­tain­ly some of the lads on the floor would keep the five dai­ly prayers. The one with the English who had been called over for the cus­tomer, sport­ing the fine­ly etched lines over cheeks and chin, had been picked as a prime can­di­date. In fact turned out neg­a­tive. The point how­ev­er held true: a good num­ber of the lads were indeed of the oth­er faith. Same in the kitchen; same for the local cus­tomers. All worked smooth and fine as could be, the chap Prasad con­firmed. All through the delec­table, deeply scorched gar­lic naan, sam­bal & dahl, there was noth­ing like a sin­gle hint in the oth­er direc­tion, you would bet sheep sta­tions on it. Wild street boys in Delhi it must have been last week dur­ing Holi. The young vic­tim had report­ed­ly slapped one of her attack­ers and got her­self over to Bangladesh in quick time, with charges seem­ing­ly not to pro­ceed. Could the sto­ry have been a Western beat-up, maybe? Truly, a joy watch­ing  the cama­raderie on the floor; back in the day the foot­ball club could not get any­where near. A small group of tran­nies entered, one very pret­ty one among them, with­out elic­it­ing any­thing you would call leer­ing. How many clasp­ings of each oth­er, arms over shoul­ders, touch­ing of all forms? The smiles passed between the boys could nev­er be count­ed. The local Tamils were per­fect­ly in their ele­ment, lap­ping it all up, tak­ing part in the the­atre when they came to make their orders and exchange pleas­antries. FEED REGULARLY was a tall, tough, don’t‑mess-with-me guy, tat­too pro­trud­ing from the sleeve of his tee, going along the aisle giv­ing a mean­ing thumbs-up to one of the lads. Still twen­ties a large pro­por­tion, clear­ly bear­ing the loves of their moth­ers and fathers in their per­son. Only a cou­ple of them could be recalled from years past, exclud­ing the old­er, unslept man­ag­er. Prasad had seemed famil­iar, though again it was not the case, as he had only recent­ly start­ed in that employ. The ghost of the naan-mak­er from Medina, oppo­site the hotel, returned here—run over on Jalan Wong Ah Fook one night on his way back home after his shift. On the last trip three months before, the young Bangla lad who had had a short term at Medina—who had fal­si­fied his age for the employment—revealed the news. We had both recalled two chil­dren orphaned as a result. One of the shy ones gave Hello when he had almost passed the table going to the kitchen. Good duti­ful gal come in with her Pa knew she could not com­pete with the pret­ty tran­nie fac­ing in the next row. Being firm­ly plant­ed her­self, she might not need to fret about that. Once again, a long delay that evening before the rec­ol­lec­tion you were a white guy here, the sole in atten­dance. (‘Twas ever thus.) Couple of the lads out front were final­ly caught exchang­ing rude smiles for the broad behind of the lass leav­ing with dad. Another chap from the oth­er room return­ing to his table even­tu­al­ly man­aged a ten­ta­tive nod and smile, when the thought on the oth­er side had been quite abstract­ed. Through the hour how many adult daugh­ters had entered hand-in-hand with their moth­ers? Such pret­ty ones, too! The lads from the ances­tral land would charm them with their ways with­out any kind of try­ing. Modi was BS here among these peo­ple, safe to say. The BJP had always polled poor­ly in the South.

Johor Bahru, Malaysia

  1. Immediately off Jalan Trus, Restoran Nilla sits on Jalan Ungku Pijan – I’m Drunk. By some strange coin­ci­dence, the Malay shar­ing the same word for ine­bri­a­tion with Serbo-Croat.


Pavle Radonić is an Australian writer of Montenegrin ori­gin who has spent nine years liv­ing in SE Asia. Previous work has appeared in a range of lit­er­ary mag­a­zines, includ­ing Ambit, Big Bridge, Citron Review, New World Writing Quarterly & The Wrath-Bearing Tree.