How Enrolling at a Jakarta University Changed My Life

Feb 14, 2024 | | By Doni Ahmadi

Photo: Doni Ahmadi

Rawamangun | 3,024 words

Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Dan Benjamin

“Bastards!” said the assistant bus driver, as he gripped a wooden plank sixty centimeters long. In front of him were dozens of the high-school students who routinely made trouble on the streets of Jakarta: he was ready to take them on. But his invitation was not accepted, for the group of students, with their unkempt dress — school shirts untucked, chains dangling from the sides of pants, bandannas used as masks to disguise their identities, and caps full of doodles scrawled in marker pen — instead dispersed in various directions: towards a truck that happened to be without cargo, to Jalan Pemuda, to disparate places besides.

What I’ve just described occurred in October 2009 in front of the campus of Universitas Negeri Jakarta (UNJ), in Rawamangun, in the city’s east. That large bus, with the number “P.905” on it, finally came to a halt after initially refusing to stop for the students. Its front windscreen had been smashed-in, by a stone thrown by one of those schoolboys without decency. The assistant bus driver’s rage couldn’t escalate further only because he was unable to run fast enough to catch any of the students: his plank of wood, when he swung it, merely struck air.

This sort of scene was normal throughout the 2000s and until about 2013 in various parts of Jakarta. A large group of high-school students would try to stop and commandeer large buses or trucks without cargo, vehicles big enough to take all of them to places that would bring them into contact with other high-school groups, for a single purpose — they wanted to do that most senselessly irrational activity in the world, stage a student brawl. When such scenes unfolded it was the buses, and their drivers and assistant drivers, who most often lost out, from students refusing to pay fares, to the other passengers who opted not to ride out of fear, to the risk of vandalization, because any bus that a gang was riding would invariably become the target of another gang’s rampage.

I was one of that group of high-school students who ran away from that assistant bus driver, towards that truck without cargo — a truck which had been brought to a stop by a group of our seniors at about the same time as our stopping of that bus P.905, 100 meters further up the road. As I recall this incident now, I realize that it was my first-ever encounter with the Jakarta district of Rawamangun. An encounter that’s ugly to recall, from an era full of machismo, of toxic masculinity. But — and this is something I never would have expected at the time — my subsequent encounters with Rawamangun were transformative for me.

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© Doni Ahmadi

English translation © Dan Benjamin

About The Author

Doni Ahmadi

Doni Ahmadi was born in Jakarta in 1994. He is the author of the short story collection Pengarang Dodit (2019) and has translated The Sea Close By by Albert Camus into Bahasa Indonesia (Pelangi Sastra, 2019). With three colleagues he runs an independent publisher, Penerbit Anagram, and works by day as a digital strategist at a public relations firm.

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