Creative Nonfiction by Pavle Radonic
By Pavle Radonic
Five elements maketh the
traditional Javanese man: a job, house, respect, wife and a bird. In the last
category a substitute seemed possible, cat or dog coming in a couple of
mentions. One of the commentators somehow included a kris, sword, and another a horse in their list. Along the gangs and narrow alleys in Jogja the
birds hung high in the cages were usually missed until the song unexpectedly
alerted. Tall, roomy cages for mostly minute birds that often needed searching
through the bars. Like in most cities, birds of the air were almost
non-existent in Jogja, even pigeons uncommon, and this despite a couple of
strong neighbourhood associations in the urbanized kampungs off Malioboro.
In these narrow passageways, too,
domesticated owls could be regularly sighted—hantu, which also served as the word for ghost. Otherwise, night
starlings flitted along the river and through stands of trees where they
remained in the city. After three or four weeks of the ever-growing impression
the weekly Burung—The Bird needed to
be purchased from one of the pushcarts up beyond the station. As commonly in
Indonesian cities, the newspaper had been chanced upon hanging as if to dry on
the front of the cart. On the cover an odd orange-breasted native with a crow
crown had drawn attention. At Rp12,000 the newspaper was clearly for
well-heeled enthusiasts. (The pigeons were the lower end of the fraternity, two
single sides devoted to them in the pages of Burung.)
Superior Bird Feed
paid for page one prominence, as did a medicinal spray treatment of some kind.
The accompanying digest of features within promised tips for strong-voiced
chirping and breeding that could make one rich. Together with other such
material came thirty-five pages of announcements of triumphs and prizes in the
various singing competitions in Central and Eastern Java, and also notices of those
upcoming. (Jakarta and the West was too distant and must have had a separate
magazine devoted to that quarter.) Four million rupiah was the lure in one
particular competition; mostly the range was four to eight hundred thousand.
Clearly well-regulated and keenly contested affairs.
Many of the names of champions
derived from Western popular culture—Superhero,
Satelit, Komandan, Master, Baron. Thirty-five pages of fifty, sixty and
more winners per page amounted to a cast of a great many thousand in the
singing contests alone, where lovebirds dominated. The famous lovebirds—English
usage—from the pages of cheap poetical inspiration; they were native to other
colonial quarters, not in fact equatorial South-East Asia.
There had been word of a prominent
bird market in Jogja at the first visit to the city the year before. Some time
ago the market had down-scaled and moved further out of town. There was little
to hope for of course; but then the birds along the path kept announcing
themselves. One final prod arrived a few days previously when a visit to the
French Cultural Centre found a becak
driver under a tree out front with his bird hanging high in the branches above
his seat. The chap certainly did not live in one of the houses of that
Two short commuter bus rides
amounting to little over a half hour altogether found the place, with a young
guide easing the venture. Eagerly inquisitive smiling fellow passengers lugging
bundles, sharing the fragrance of their vegetable purchases and chatting with
their fellows needed to be left to continue on their way. Only a couple of
months herself in Jogja, the guide Mahshushah knew the market from passes in
the buses; enquiries along the way sufficed otherwise. Without designated stops
for the local vehicles, one needed to keep an eye-out for the numbering and
nicknames on the windscreen.
The Arabic Mahshushah—Special
Person—broke down among friends to Cusy, and for Westerners Susi. Born in
Madura off the coast of Surabaya, Susi was an orphan brought up by her
grandmother without having known either parent. Since settling in Jogja she had
found a place in a pesantren where
she was studying and teaching in the afternoons. Through the student groups she
had found the American convert Faris, a mutual acquaintance.
Lovebirds predominated at the
market, over-coloured in their particular tone of fluroscent yellow and green.
At first hearing their casual twitter was equally unimpressive. No doubt a tin
ear did not help; possibly one needed to listen more carefully. Much other
similar twittering was audible in the aisles of the market. The musicality that
was particularly noteworthy and striking during the morning was in fact that of
Susi’s limited English. Repeatedly in answering questions and other exchange
the young woman fell into a pronounced sing-song lilt that must have been a
carry-over from her concentration on the Holy Book. — La-di-da-da-di, sir.
There were a dozen girls dorming
together and encouraging each other at the pesantren,
where thus far Susi had mastered the two first chapters and the more difficult
last three of the Qur’an. Susi was perfectly right of course to above all pity
the birds and other animals in their cages. A traditional Muslim girl in baby
pink dress and scarf, while we were still in the first aisles Susi announced
she could not like a man who kept a bird in a cage.
The lovebird coloring was almost as
suspicious as that of the young chicks which had been spray-painted in novelty
garish tones in order to entice young TV children. (The colors would fade over
time, the vendor reassured after guessing the unfavorable reaction.) Tails,
beaks, speckling and subtle eye-shadow such as one saw in more venturesome
young girls of Susi's kind on the streets and buses produced more allure than
this love bird high color. For Australian eyes it was surprising to find caged
Under close observation through the
bamboo rails a large black rooster’s lustrous feathers appeared
supernatural—thin streaks of silver on some angles as the bird turned in the
cage, then corrections as it turned again restlessly in its tight circle. A
canny Javanese witch or dukun would
have made capital from such an iridescent show-piece in her routine.
Though birds predominated, numerous
other animals were also sold here—crickets, frogs, lizards, rabbits, cats and
dogs; some of the quick-darting rodents seeming themselves capable of flight. Susi
guessed correctly that the piles of bananas were in fact feed, hung up and
part-peeled for smaller birds. Rocking cages overhead where birds dashed
themselves against the bars underlined Susi’s point about the confinement. With
some effort and the recall of native documentary one could imaginatively
assemble something of the forest and jungle that had once held this extensive
bird-life. Remnants of habitat remained of course even on Java; Kalimantan was
becoming a draw in the adventure tourist market.
One was reminded of Babi’s old
mountain kampung joke concerning the
trapping of the all too elusive creatures of the air. A dash of salt on the
tail of a birdie and you were a chance, the sly old devil always delivered
po-faced. Surprisingly, when the joke was shared with Susi and then relayed to
a couple of old hands seated among the cages in the shade, one of the men understood
the matter differently.
Oya! they did something similar, he
replied. Sticky jack-fruit sap dabbed on the wing by way of a long bamboo
prong. The man went inside a hut to fetch the kind of thing they employed. Once
one had applied it to the feathers you had the prey keeling over and falling
into your hand from the perch. Without jack-fruit, in the city, for example, Elephant Glue worked equally well. A
helpful friend from the adjacent stall displayed a half-used tube.
— Fighting, fighting. Still to be
There were numerous roosters
through the grounds in many different corners, many with their own
scintillating colors that recalled precious stones and metals. Long entrapment
seemed to have muted the majority. Man shook his head, chin wobbling.
— Tidak huh. No more…. Maybe shush-shush perhaps, on the quiet? Signing crossing of the lips. Laughing the fellow came clean.
— Ya, ya. The old fighting contests with the
associated gambling had not been stamped out entirely.
But polisi, polisi, huh? Gotta be careful….Keep a step ahead of the
blue-boys. Even in the big cities the cock-fighting persisted. Ducks, turkeys
and some other fly-ins got a large, high enclosure with a tree and pond. A
second such held a giant coiled snake whose skin was recognizable from
expensive fashion leather advertisements—pregnant it turned out. Someone said
this enemy of man there was from Kalimantan. The male partner lay just below
water-level in an adjacent pond almost invisible. Three or four chickens these
snakes consumed a number of times a week, when rats or mice had been the guess.
The pair of snakes had been fifteen years at the market, the adjacent
At one point earlier in the morning a woman startled when she was seen feeding a child from a packet of KFC.
- Australian by birth and
Montenegrin origin, Pavle Radonic has spent eight years living in SE Asia.
Previous work has appeared in a range of literary journals, including Ambit,
Big Bridge, Another Chicago Magazine, New World Writing
Quarterly, Citron & Antigonish Reviews. This piece was
originally published in Entropy five years ago.
Copyright©2023 by Pavle Radonic.
All Rights Reserved.