THE PAPAYA BOY

It was a hot Sunday afternoon, and a quiet one too. It seemed that everyone was choosing to stay at home instead of going outside under the ferocious dry season sun.

I was sitting on the verandah, all my attention sunk into a novel that I had bought two days ago, when a shrill cry broke through that still, hot afternoon.

Pepaya! Buah pepaya!” The voice called over and over in a rhythmic chant as it drew closer. My concentration broke.

As I raised my head, my eyes found the boy already standing right in front of the iron bars of my gate.

He was a teenage boy — maybe 14 or 15 years old — and he had a pushcart loaded with papayas. His rather short and lean figure made the cart look too large and too heavy for him to handle.

“Papaya, Bu? It’s very sweet,” he said, offering his merchandise. He took one of them and showed me.

For a moment, I hesitated. But as my gaze fell on the reddish-yellow skin of the fruit, my appetite rose.

It would be refreshing to eat papaya on a hot afternoon like this, I thought. My appetite grew even bigger when the idea of making papaya juice popped up inside my head. A slice of papaya, mixed with lime — I quickly recalled that I had limes left in the refrigerator — ice cubes, and some grenadine syrup. Mmm, it would be an absolutely refreshing drink.

So I bought a big fruit that cost seven thousand rupiah.

I knew that if I had insisted, I could have bought it for only five thousand. But the boy’s sweaty face and the pile of papayas in his cart made me drop the idea. It was clear he hadn’t sold much yet.

“I’ve sold only four papayas today,” he said in a light tone. He didn’t seem disappointed at all that his sales was not too good that day.

I looked down at the number of papayas that were very ripe. I knew they would last only until tomorrow before they began to rot.

“What will you do with these ripe papayas if they aren’t sold?” I asked.

“I will resell them on the next day,” he said calmly.

“And if they still aren’t sold that day?” I continued, curious as to his answer.

For a second his eyes stared at those ripe fruits, then he smiled.

“Usually I give them for free to any one of my neighbors who wants it. Also I cut up some of them and leave the slices on a branch for birds. Especially the kutilang. They like papaya. And if there are still leftover fruit, I eat them until my stomach is so full that I don’t need to eat nasi. Although I often get fed up and get a stomachache from eating too much papaya, it helps me save rice. Rice is very expensive now,” he answered innocently.

His naivete touched me. Even though he was talking about the misfortunes and hardships of his life, it was clear that he wasn’t trying to manipulate my sympathy for some ulterior purpose. The cheerful and honest tone of his voice had somehow assured me.

***

And so it was. Since that day, I bought papaya from him every Sunday.

The boy’s name was Rojali. I had never seen him around here before, so I was surprised when he told me that he had been selling papaya in this neighborhood for the past six months ago. He said he lived in the kampong about 800 meters from this real estate complex.

Sometimes he also had bananas and guavas. I found that the papaya he sold always tasted sweet and good.

“These papayas come from the best papaya trees. My father has been planting papaya for years in our garden,” he said.

He was a cheerful boy in my eyes. The unlucky fact that he had to drop out of school and spend his precious youth working hard to peddle papaya, while most teenagers like him were enjoying their lives as students and playing with their friends, seemed not to have affected his cheerful nature much.

He said that his older brothers and sisters had pursued a formal education only through elementary school. He was the luckiest in his family, he said, since he attended up to the second year of junior high school.

“I want to be a wholesaler and own a shop one day. My father said that the garden will someday be mine. One day, I will sell that land and use the money to start my own business,” he continued enthusiastically.

Rojali often came around with interesting stories about the people in the neighborhood or about himself. The way he told the story — his naivete — often made me smile.

Ibu Maya always buys three papayas from me every two days. She asks me to bring her the best ones,” he told me one day.

“Who is Ibu Maya?” I asked. I had never heard the name before. Having lived here less than a year, I knew only a few of my neighbors.

“She lives over there,” he answered, pointing to a big two-story white house far at the head of the street.

“It seems that Ibu Maya and her family really like papaya, doesn’t it?” I said. He grinned, exposing his well-spaced teeth.

“Oh, it’s not like that. The maid who works there told me that the papayas are for the birds. They have many parrots. The maid said that Ibu Maya’s family doesn’t like papaya. They prefer apple and grapes,” he explained honestly. “But sometimes I feel uneasy because of it,” he added.

He grinned again, then continued, “Ibu Santi, who lives next door to Ibu Maya, always warns me not to sell the best papayas to Ibu Maya. She said that birds don’t need to eat the best ones. The best ones are for humans. Ibu Santi once told me that Ibu Maya is an arrogant person. But I think Ibu Maya is very kind, she always buys my papayas every two days.”

I said nothing, only smiled at his story.

***

Two months passed. Every Sunday afternoon, I always had a refreshing, homemade papaya juice. Sometimes I mixed the papaya with lime, sometimes I mixed it with pineapples, or strawberries, or even kiwis. Owing to Rojali, Sunday became my experimental day for creating new papaya juice concoctions.

But on entering the third month, Rojali didn’t show up. And he didn’t come on the following Sunday either.

I wondered about this break in his routine for a while, but then soon forgot it as I was caught up in the hustle and bustle of my daily activities.

Another month passed by.

One Sunday morning, a familiar face grinned at me from the other side of the iron gate. It was Rojali. He offered me newspapers and magazines.

“I don’t peddle papayas anymore, Bu. My father had to sell the garden. He needed the money for his wedding next week. He said he couldn’t stand living without a wife after my mother passed away a year ago. So he wants to marry a widow with two children who he has known for quite a long time,” he said in a flat tone.

His tone was too flat for me to determine whether it held disappointment or not.

I said nothing, but this time I simply could not smile at his story.

— Jakarta, September 2006

 

Penulis  : Octaviana Dina

Dimuat dalam The Jakarta Post Sunday Edition, 17 September 2006

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