Photo: Lufi Sekar Melati for This Is Southeast Asia
A photocopy shop | 2,500 words | Translated by Dan Benjamin
Lazy college students all panic alike; every diligent college student panics in their own way.
This is what popped into my head as I stood in wait at Keong Mas with diarrhoea, amid a hoard of college students pushing and shoving each other, sweat being transferred seamlessly from person to person via the pressing of clothes and skin, whilst reading Anna Karenina and feeling ill – ill because of the novel’s thickness, ill because of the unceasing whirr and beep of the photocopy machines and printers, ill from the overwhelming smell of BO.
Keong Mas is a photocopy shop whose machines continuously regurgitate the very best artistic work of college students – and at the same time and in much vaster quantities, work that’s rubbish. This is because it’s only five minutes walk from the gate of my college campus, the Arts Institute of Jakarta. As there aren’t many photocopy shops close to campus, Keong Mas is always busy. Every time I go there, the odour of the student community makes me wish I had not gone there.
The stink of sweat is even worse because the shop is in a narrow alley which is typically intolerably hot. The alley’s so narrow that motorbike drivers passing in opposite directions tend to get provoked into verbal brawls, while the shop itself has dimensions of only about seven by three and a half metres – in total.
A thin wall divides the kiosk into two parts of equal size, a front and a back section. In the front is a glass window, chest-high on an adult, containing writing materials, books and other office equipment. In the back are photocopy machines, plus five computers and five printers for the student community, who push and shove each other in panic there because they have to print assignments before class starts.
Yep: almost every college student who pushes and shoves in Keong Mas is a college student who’s panicking. The reason is that most live by the same motto – do the homework a day before it’s due, print the homework immediately before class starts, let us all crowd and brawl in front of the printers. In tandem with this maxim is another: one late, all late. Except the unforgiving lecturer.
Don’t get me wrong though: I’m not one of them. I indeed join the pushing and shoving at Keong Mas, join in those sweat transfers, occasionally receive the spittle of some college student who’s speaking in the middle of the mob, or sniff their foul breath. But I’m not panicking like they are. My assignment, saved on my flash disk, isn’t due on the same day, but at least three days into the future, usually more. So I can be calm in the crowd, and focus on Anna Karenina rather than my watch – except when, out-of-the-blue, the photocopy machine operator plays dangdut music at a volume best described as ‘asshole’ through the shop’s speakers.
If I lose focus on Anna Karenina or another book I’ve brought, I contemplate instead. I like watching the printer that’s spitting out paper like a person slowly poking out their tongue. I like even more watching the anxiety on the faces of the lazy college students in the crowd, as if a devil is sitting on their shoulders and sticking his pitchfork in their necks.
From these pushing and shoving events at Keong Mas, I have learned an important thing: there is one type of college student whose heads deserve to be smashed into a computer screen. They’re worse than just lazy. They’re barbarians who, instead of completing their assignments on their own computers at home, finish them using the computers at Keong Mas.
One sheet of A4 paper takes about 10 or 15 seconds to print at Keong Mas. Not so terrible. Nonetheless, when the weather’s hot and people are sweating torrentially, even one second’s wait feels like too cruel a sentence. And these barbarians make our sentence blow out totally: we can’t even guess when their work might finish. Many have barely done half their assignments before they arrive to continue them at Keong Mas; sometimes they haven’t even started. Not infrequently they complete their task just minutes before class begins. They print calmly, though, like they have no sins to their name at all, while other college students waiting behind them dissolve into anxiety, their sweat gathering in pools in their armpits and balls.
What happens afterwards is more or less as follows: the barbarians enter class chill as can be, their just-printed assignments in pristine condition, and the lecturer will smile appreciatively. Moments later the other students will come in, late – because the barbarians delayed their printing. The lecturer will, via a cold stare, stamp them as layabouts.
Because I don’t print assignments on D-Day but as soon as I can, I assumed I would forever get off scot-free from such people.
And I did. Until those two cursed days.
One normal-seeming morning in the middle of the week, some apparently gone-bad chicken intestine from the eatery opposite my kost gave me the runs. I didn’t have class that day, in fact I had only one agenda item outside my room: go to Keong Mas and print an assignment due for submission tomorrow.
As I’d suspected: a crowd of college students was pushing and shoving each other in Keong Mas as I arrived at 11am. It was busier than normal, actually, so much so that I couldn’t even enter the second partitioned space. I stood at the threshold of the door instead, between the printing area and the space for selling stationary, standing on tiptoe and peering over the backs of the standing, jostling students.
The five computer units were all being used to finish assignments. People were copy-pasting from Wikipedia into Microsoft Word. People were playing short films on YouTube while taking screenshots to be inserted into their papers. The most barbaric of all was someone who downloaded a pirated version of PhotoShop, then used it to edit a design. This guy then took a short break, lit up a cigarette – and I voiced amazement to myself that nobody in this crowd had yet died in the fetid airlessness.
Two hours – a rough estimate of likely waiting time popped into my head. I will wait here two hours, I thought, and print the task that’s due tomorrow. I will not go home before this matter is done; I have already walked 15 minutes from my kost to this place; I will not surrender. I lit up a Sampoerna Kretek cigarette. I only need to smoke eight cigarettes for these two hours to pass, I thought – maybe quicker-still if somebody finds they can’t breathe and drops dead – and my problems will be over.
But my problems were not over. Only half my first cigarette was gone when my stomach started to disco-dance – my innards were rattling and shaking. Shit! The devils in my bowels would not wait two hours to crash their way out. The devils in my bowels were not even interested in waiting until I’d finished my cigarette. I left immediately, returned to my kost, sat on the toilet, and in my mind I screamed one of our worst prophanities: I screamed out the name of the four-legged animal that barks.
In front of the gate of my kost, I lit another kretek cigarette, then started walking again to Keong Mas. The sun was exactly above me. The skin on my head felt like it was peeling off. Sweat from my crown was trickling down my face. As I went to enter the alleyway I saw the pirate PhotoShop guy leaving it, together with several other students. One of them was walking along while fanning himself with his just-printed manuscript, and because I knew him I asked, ‘Is it less busy now?’ This was greeted with mirthful smiles.
Keong Mas was still teeming even though a bunch of people had just left it. It was as if the pushing and shoving hoard was now splitting off and proliferating like an amoeba. I stamped out my cigarette, entered as far as the threshold of the door to the photocopy room again, then stood on tiptoe and looked in again.
The five computers were being used by different students to do their assignments. The attendant at the photocopy machine, in between the beeps and whirrs of the machines plus the dangdut music coming from the speaker, said loudly: ‘Please let’s first have those who only want to print. People who are doing work on the computers please step back!’ God only knows who he was speaking to: not a soul took any notice. The attendant momentarily looked over at the students, drew in a long breath, then returned his focus to the photocopy machines. Interacting with the machines was clearly a far happier experience than interacting with human beings.
Behind me a lady in a house-dress appeared. She was holding a flash disk high up in her right hand, well above my ear, and saying, “Excuse me, I just need to print one page!’ Yeah lady, only one page – as if we care. Nobody answered the woman, and she went silent behind me. From my satchel bag I took out Anna Karenina, hoping to use it to strike at the head of the person in front of me, where a swarm of mosquitoes was circling, but finally I merely read it instead.
At that point, the lady in the housedress jabbed me with her elbow to force me forward. I deliberately kept my legs bolted to the same place, on the very edge of the door – I didn’t want to move closer-still to all those students jostling. But she kept up the pressure so I had to go forward several steps, entering and becoming part of the pushing and shoving crowd. A bead of sweat dribbled down the neck of the person in front of me and made me nauseous. Cigarette smoke made my eyes water.
I hung in there. Anna, Vronsky, Kitty and the other characters in Anna Karenina helped me hang in there. I was no longer in Keong Mas, sandwiched between college students pushing and shoving each other. I was now in a ball-room in Russia, twirling around with Anna and Vronsky – until, suddenly, my bowels began to disco-dance again.
I returned to sit on the toilet of my kost, my legs shaking after the hurried walk, and in my mind I roared the name of the four-legged animal that barks – many times. After completing my business, I took off my clothes and laid down on my bed. I will return to Keong Mas, I thought, when the weather isn’t hot anymore, later in the afternoon or at night. No sooner had I decided this than I closed my eyes.
Now that I thought about it, I realised I’d never been to Keong Mas at night. Perhaps night was a quiet time there, a time I should use to print my assignments in peace instead of hanging about in my kost. Good, I thought, I’ll just close my eyes for a minute now, and go there later in the evening…
But my eyes only opened again the next morning at 7:30. My first class was at 8:00, and I was yet to print my assignment.
I joined my classmates at Keong Mas, pushing and shoving. Using the five computers now were a group of seniors. They had long hair, piercings, and tattoes: it was they who, during college orientation, had screamed at us about the meaning of becoming an artist. Not one of us was brave enough to ask them permission to just print an assignment: we had no intention of turning hanging-out in the campus canteen into a time filled with fear.
Finally, me and my classmates who had gathered at Keong Mas that morning were late to class by 30 minutes.
Actually, no: we weren’t late, per se. We couldn’t even enter class, as the door was locked from inside by our esteemed professor as we attempted to go in. Our assignments could not be accepted.
On this day, I wanted to set fire to Keong Mas.
Perhaps my head really is in my ass. Keong Mas isn’t the only photocopy shop close to my kost and to campus. Why didn’t I think to search for another one?
‘Why didn’t we go to another kiosk?’ I asked my classmates after we’d sat down in the canteen, all of us wanting to hit our heads on the table. And they were silent.
Regardless, the next day, when I had an hour’s break from classes, I still went to Keong Mas to print an assignment.
Several times during the walk, I wondered about going to another photocopy shop. Maybe other kiosks weren’t as busy as Keong Mas at this hour. But… who knows why, but I’d feel wrong if I went to another photocopy shop now. In the same way that Anna was consumed by guilt when she left her husband for Vronsky, Keong Mas has been with me since my first semester of college, and I’m afraid to leave her.
So I arrived at Keong Mas, and the college students pushing and shoving made me wish I had not arrived at Keong Mas, but I steadied my heart: I will not give up, I thought, I do not, anymore, have the runs, I can survive this. I joined the pushing and shoving.
Dangdut music, loud conversations, the beeping of the photocopy machines and whirring of the printers made me want to slice off my own eardrum, the potent BO and sightings of sweat trickling down necks made me hope for Jakarta to be hit by a tsunami – but I hung in there. I lit up a Sampoerna Kretek and opened Anna Karenina.
Amidst pushing and shoving, every clamorous college student is alike; but every silent college student is silent in their own way.
© Surya Gemilang
English translation © Dan Benjamin