A crystal in the mud
By Hawa Arofah
The devastating economic crisis not only destroyed business tycoons but also beggars. Karjo and his wife Sumi have barely been able to make ends meet since 1997, because now they earn drastically less money from begging. And Sumi foresees the coming days as even more worrisome because she is expecting a baby. There will be no way they will be able to feed the newborn.
"I have been thinking about abortion. What's your opinion,mas? *)," she asked her husband before going to bed last night. The two occupy a small hut in a slum area along a muddy river. This poor section of town looks poorer because it is crowded with beggars, tramps and prostitutes.
Outside the couple's hut the air is cool and a light rain has started to fall.
Without waiting for her husband's reply, Sumi continues to voice her concerns.
"I'm sure that our baby will die in poverty," she said.
Karjo did not react. He took a long breath and sighed. For him the problem was a dilemma. He understood the baby would be cause for even more burden. Not only could they not afford to feed it, but he would also have to allow Sumi to stay at home to take care of it. It would be a great financial loss because she is an active breadwinner.
On the other hand, to abort the pregnancy would be a great blow to him. Although he is poor, Karjo dreams of having children, as other people do.
"I don't think I'm ready to be a mother. Besides our hut is too small for three people." Sumi said.
Karjo did not say anything, although he understood what his wife was saying. The hut was not only too small for them, but they also lived under the threat of being evicted by city security officers.
"Sumi, getting an abortion is not easy. Who will help you get one," Karjo asked.
"I'm sure there is a doctor or a midwife willing to help solve our problem," she said.
"It is not easy to find such a doctor or midwife."
"There are many as long as one can afford to pay."
"How do you know this?"
"It is a reality now."
Sumi was already five months pregnant but still she wanted an abortion. Besides the dreary future faced by the baby, Sumi was also worried that after the child was born Karjo would start fooling around with the prostitutes who lived nearby. She had heard that infidelity was common in slum areas.
When Sumi again brought up the idea of getting an abortion, Karjo became angry. He screamed that he would never betray her in any situation. He said that if he had such poor morals, he would never have taken her as his wife.
"How can you have such a dirty mind? Don't compare me with a crook. I have never slept with another woman. Never. And I would never do it while you were busy with our child," he said in a raised voice.
"I don't trust you," Sumi said pinching his thigh "I know you've thought about it before."
"Now, listen to me, Sumi, these are my last words: Forget about the abortion."
Sumi did not react. After several minutes of silence, Karjo added: "Believe me, our future baby will change our fate. It will bring us luck."
"You only say that because you still believe in the outdated adage that the more children you have the more fortune will come your way. That is dangerous nonsense."
Although Sumi teased her husband, in her heart she was happy because of his reaffirmed fidelity. Sumi was convinced now that Karjo's regular praying really was a sign of his devoutness and sincerity.
After a moment of silence, Karjo hugged Sumi warmly, promising that they would always be together.
Silence again. Outside the rain fell harder. Sumi's mind roamed to when she and Karjo first met. After a courtship lasting several months, the two decided to get married even though Karjo did not have a job.
They soon moved to town to try their luck. But Karjo had no skills and he could not find a job. With no options, he began begging.
After several months it became clear Karjo's income was far from enough to support the couple, so Sumi voiced an idea. She asked her husband's permission to work in a red-light district. But to her surprise, Karjo's reaction was thunderous.
"Remember, sleeping with a man outside of wedlock is a great sin," he shouted. "Tomorrow you can join me begging."
"But our lives will never get better by begging," Sumi protested.
"It is better to live a humble life than to get rich from the damned flesh trade, which will drag us into the deepest hell."
Since then Karjo seems to have enjoyed begging. Unlike other villagers who came to the city, he did not want to be a pickpocket, much less a robber. Work as a construction worker? No, because a small economic hiccup could leave him unemployed. Selling goods on the side of the road? The thought frightened him because he has seen many such vendors being harassed and blackmailed by security men.
Today, after begging for hours beneath the scorching sun, Karjo and Sumi are exhausted.
"Let's take a rest," said Sumi, touching her enlarged belly. "I feel sick inside."
Looking at his wife Karjo became nervous. He knew Sumi was due. "We have to get you to a maternity clinic right now," he said.
Karjo stopped a mikrolet (minibus) and helped Sumi in. After getting off in front of the clinic, Karjo grabbed the first nurse he saw. "My wife looks like she is about to go into delivery, Sister, please help her."
Karjo noted the look of suspicion on the nurse's face. He told her repeatedly that he had some money and would arrange to pay for the cost of delivery later.
"Please Sister, I have a gold ring and my wife's earrings at home."
With a bitter smile, the nurse led Sumi inside the clinic. Karjo was left in the waiting room, tense and sweating. Even in this state, he did not forget to pray to God that Sumi and the baby would be safe.
After half an hour, a midwife appeared at the door. Karjo stood still and the woman asked him if he was Karjo.
"You have a baby boy and you wife is fine."
Karjo raised his hands into the air and praised the Lord.
After two days at the clinic, Karjo took his wife and the baby home to their hut. No sooner had they arrived home than their neighbors began arriving to congratulate them. During a more than modest ceremony, Karjo gave the baby a name: Bejo, which is Javanese for "lucky".
When Bejo was one-month-old, Karjo and Sumi began to take the baby with them when they went to beg, carrying the boy in turn. Although the sun was no less cruel, they were happy because passersby loved to take a close look at Bejo and often gave him money.
From before the baby was born, the couple's income had increased by 500 percent.
Feeding Bejo under a shady tree one hot afternoon, Sumi caressed her child's hair, saying: "You really bring luck, Bejo. Now we have money deposited in the village bank."
-- Translated by TIS
*) Mas: a Javanese word literally meaning brother, in this case used as a respectful title of address by a wife for her husband.