Malin Kundang Although the villagers of Tapanuli were uniformly and utterly destitute, Malin Kundang did not realize he was poor. His town was situated in the midst of a lush farming area of Northern Sumatra. As long as there was rain, there was food. And because all the villagers were kinsmen of the same tribe, as long as one mother had rice or as long as one father had tapioca, no one starved. Even in the worst times, during the civil war, Malin’s main meal consisted of four spoonsful of rice, six beans and a slice of fried tofu. And if the spare but healthful menu didn’t quite satiate a boy of fourteen, Malin and his friend Awal knew where to sneak into the graveyard to shake loose a few mangosteens or rambutan from the great fruit trees they found there. Unlike their elders, the boys didn’t see the sense in sharing their harvest; they kept these unjust desserts a secret between themselves. Among their schoolmates, Malin and Awal spread only tales of their terrifying encounters with the cemetery ghosts — ghouls frightening enough to keep every other child away from the two boys’ bounty. The local school hadn’t charged fees in years; if it had, no students could have attended. How their teacher Pak Isman survived was of course not Malin Kundang or Awal’s concern. Their concern was reading, writing, and calculating just when Pak Isman was likely to judge that the durian fruit growing in the schoolyard was ripe and ready to be picked. Malin and Awal wanted to anticipate Pak’s decision by no more than hours to insure that when they snatched it, it would be perfectly sweet. In Indonesia still it is typical for the owner of a durian tree to cover its ripening fruit with a bag or old newspaper to warn away those who might think the tree is wild or otherwise in the public domain. Pak Isman had thus copyrighted a beautifully burgeoning durian with the penciled-in pages of a student exercise book. Each morning since, on his way to teach, Pak Isman passed under the tree and breathed in deeply to smell the maturation of his durian. He was one Friday shocked to see, when he entered the classroom, Malin Kundang and Awal already seated and ready for their lessons. ‘Boys, you have beat me to school every day this week. Have I somehow finally persuaded you that school is the key to your future?’ ‘Ya, Pak,’ replied Awal, ‘we remember your words: ‘One who sits by the well will never go thirsty’.’ ‘Ah, so,’ smiled Pak Isman. ‘Ya, Pak,’ added Malin, ‘didn’t you also say: ‘The early bird catches the worm?’ Look, I even copied that proverb in red here in my notebook.’ Malin proudly held up his printing for Pak to admire. ‘Many times I have said those words, boys. But only now do I believe you have been paying attention.’ ‘Pak, we watch you like the hawk,’ said Malin. ‘Indeed? Like the hawk?’ Pak Isman furrowed his brow. ‘Ya, Pak,’ Awal added, ‘we are the early bird!’ Very early on each of the last five days, Malin and Awal had perched in Pak Isman’s durian tree to sniff beneath the pages of the exercise book minutes before Pak Isman’s nose performed the same daily chore. On Saturday, the aroma was profoundly different. Pak Isman sniffed. And he sniffed again. He smelled only the morning and the dampness of an old exercise book. He reached his hands gently against the pages, and he squeezed. The fruit was gone. Redfaced and clutching the papers in his trembling hands, Pak Isman proceeded to his classroom. No one was there to see his tears or hear his moan. But Malin Kundang, stuffed and sprawled with his pal in the jungle, imagined the look on Pak Isman’s face as the teacher saw the red scrawl on the papers in his hand: ‘The early bird catches the worm.’ Ibu Ana stretched her hands gently against her son’s cheeks. ‘Malin, once again I beg you to listen to me: If you apologize to Pak Isman, he will let you return to school.’ Malin Kundang shook his head. ‘ Apologize for what? How can he know I stole his durian?’ ‘Malin, please, I ask you again to apologize. Your father and I cannot afford to send you to another school– one that charges fees, that asks you to wear a new uniform.’ ‘I don’t need school. Shall I really learn anything from someone like Pak Isman? Isn’t it obvious that I am already smarter than he is?’ ‘Oh, yes, you are smart. And you are spoiled. You don’t know how painful this world can be.’ ‘But I do, Ibu, I do.’ Malin Kundang rubbed the scar on his forehead where, having once lost her temper to the hardheadedness of her son, Ibu Ana had struck out recklessly with the carving knife in her hand. Guilty and grieving, Ibu Ana swore that she would never hurt her beloved child again. Malin concluded his speech, ‘And I know that I can overcome it. Awal and I shall make our marks in the city. We have decided.’ ‘Pak,’ said Ibu Ana later that night, ‘ Malin intends to travel to Sibolga.’ ‘To do what? To beg? To sell himself? To die in the streets? Probably all three. I will forbid it.’ ‘And he will run away.’ ‘And I will catch him and–‘ ‘And what? Beat him? Cage him? Kill him?’ ‘All three tempt me. He is a hardheaded boy.’ Pak Basirun thought a moment. ‘You are the one who could make a difference.’ ‘Me? You know how Malin ignores me. Ever since I lashed out at him with that knife, my son finds me worse than useless. He hates — ‘ ‘No boy hates his mother.’ ‘He has no love for me.’ ‘But you do for him. And you can use that love to pray to God to, oh, break his leg — not in any permanent way . . . but just enough to keep him home for a while.’ ‘You want me to curse him.’ ‘A nasty word.’ ‘A nasty activity — especially for faithful people. Pak, you know what I have sworn to God — never to curse even the floods that ruin our rice. This is my penance for the mark I left on Malin Kundang.’ ‘But that’s exactly the point.’ Pak Basirun was excited now. ‘All this power to damn is just sitting there in you waiting to be used. Most of us waste our potential magic cursing this rash or that stupid horse all day every day. Why don’t you spend at bit of that witchcraft for a good purpose: preventing Malin from making a stupid horse of himself!’ ‘I have sworn to God.’ ‘God is too busy to go around making deals with foolish women.’ ‘I sign no contracts with God — or the devil — or men even,’ said Ibu Ana. The deal I have made is with myself.’ Pak Basirun sighed. ‘If you will not curse your son, I guess I shall have to help him. I will accompany Malin and Awal to Sibolga tomorrow.’ At dawn, Pak Basirun asked the village chief for the loan of a mule. ‘Is it important that you have the mule today, Pak? My children promised to help their aunt in Batang Toru with her chores. She has just given birth to their new cousin, you know? But she lives three hours from here. I was going to let them have the mule. Why do you need it?’ ‘I am taking Malin and Awal to Sibolga. The boys want to quit school and run away to the city to find their future. I’ve told them I can help: Pak Dirin, my old schoolmate, captains the most successful ship on the coast. But I shall arrange with him to tell the boys that not even he can afford in these times to hire two boys without skills or experience. That, I hope, will persuade Malin to return to finish his education.’ The chief loaned Pak Basirun his mule, but not because he had faith in his neighbor’s strategy. The Chief would have a far more temperate village if single-minded Malin foiled his father’s plan and refused to return to Tapanuli. The chief port of Northern Sumatra, Sibolga, seemed merely another sleepy fishing village to Malin. ‘This is a city?’ he said to Awal. ‘
My father is right about one thing. This place is the past; Sibolga is not our future.’ ‘So you are ready now to return home where your future has always been?’ said Pak Basirun. ‘Good, my son, I admire your willingness to change your mind. It is a sign of wisdom. But let us at least rest the Chief’s mule before we go back.’ ‘Let the mule rest at the wharf, father, while Awal and I find our future on Pak Dirin’s ship. I have not changed my mind at all. There is no reason to. Sibolga is but a gangway, and Padangsidiumpuan . . . ha! that is no way at all! Come on, Awal.’ Pak Dirin, on the deck of the four- masted Singha, greeted Basirun warmly. ‘Sit in my cabin and let my cook bring us some lunch. We old men shall catch up on the years while the boys smell on this ship lands of which they have never dreamed!’ ‘Nor will ever see, Dirin, if you are still my friend,’ Basirun whispered. Malin strode across the deck, as if he were the captain. ‘I love it, Awal, don’t you? This wooden floor moves with tides and time. Feel it?’ He approached the bow, stretched his arms to the rail. Gazing at the horizon, he said, ‘Awal, do you feel the future rumbling beneath your feet? in your hands?’ ‘I wouldn’t mind some food in my hands,’ said Awal. ‘Well, then, let’s get our hands on some!’ And Malin strode to the ship’s kitchen where a skinny young fellow sat on the floor picking sand out of a plate of uncooked rice. ‘Yes, yes? Who are you? What are you doing in my kitchen? What are you doing on this ship? Trespassers? Shall I have you thrown overboard?’ ‘Relax, brother, before we have you thrown overboard,’ replied Malin. ‘You?! Why?! I shall call the captain at once!!!’ ‘Please do,’ Malin calmly replied, and the cook raced out, calling, ‘Help! Captain! Stowaways!’ Malin gestured to Awal, and they quickly set about gathering all the papaya and mangoes and rambutan and salak and jackfruit they could find in the kitchen. They peeled and slurped to their hearts’ and stomachs’ content even when the cook sheepishly re- entered his kitchen. ‘I apologize, young sirs, but how should I know you were guests of the Captain.