The Alun-alun, or town square, is the heart of Malang, a heaving, beating heart. People come in to this heart in thousands and leave it, all pumped up. As they come and enjoy this wonderful public space, they shed all the labels attached to human beings – rich, poor, Muslim, Christian, local, outsider. They come and they smile for they realize that none of them has yet lost their ability to enjoy small things – three quail eggs with chili sauce, a padded heart key chain, and some time spent watching a pigeon-box.
Built in 1882, the Alun-alun of Malang, like all town squares in Java, served as a space for activities related to religion and public administration in its early years. During the peak of Dutch rule, the action shifted to a different Alun-alun, round instead of square, at the Tugu area surrounding which the buildings of the colonial administration were erected. Post-independence, the original Alun-alun became a space for small-time hawkers. Today, it is a public space, a place for tid-bits, shopping for stuffed toys and some free entertainment. It is the Indonesian version of the famed Jemaa el-Fnaa of Marrakech, without the hustlers.
Built in accordance with traditional Javanese architectural principles, the square has banyan trees for shade at each corner. It faces the Grand Mosque (Masjid Agung), and is surrounded by shopping malls and departmental stores. Even before you enter Alun-alun, the outer edges of the surrounding road, which almost looks like a moat around the square, are lined up with pushcarts selling all the popular Indonesian snacks and drinks.
As you enter the outer fringes of Alun-alun, this battery of pushcarts continues. But now you realize that there are thousands of people in this square. You had come here earlier in the morning. Back then it was a completely different atmosphere and the square was filled with uniformed cleaners and unformed school children following instructions of their respective Physical Education teachers. But now, it’s a Sunday evening, the most popular time to come to the square. You pause for a moment to soak in the atmosphere. Children are running all around you. Old couples and young lovers are crammed on the benches under the banyan shade. Those without lovers are moving around leisurely in groups, showing off their cool, and checking what the square has to offer today. It is noisy, but it is a happy noise, a noise blended in with lots of laughter.
You start moving towards the centre; the next layer that greets you consists of vendors of stuffed toys who have placed on the floor an extensive collection of smiling Yogi Bears, Spongebob Squarepants, and Angry Birds. In between this layer, you spot a few odd women out; a lady who has come in with a family of inflated penguins, and another lady who is offering a game of putting rings on coke bottles, 10,000 rupiah for ten attempts.
You move on and climb up a few steps on to an elevated platform at the centre of the square. The layer that you see now is made of plastic ponds where children sitting on small stools are fishing with hooks for rubber balls. You are thrilled watching this; the tension in the air is palpable. A baby boy almost manages to pull out a ball only to drop it at the last moment. His parents gasp! Another baby girl starts wailing, she hasn’t had any luck while the kid sitting next to her have been pulling one after another effortlessly. Her parents sigh.
Since the pushcarts can’t move up to this place, the food vendors are selling whatever they could bring on their backs. You start with the fried tahu and eat it with the raw chilies. Ibu Ria, the old lady selling the tahu, tells you, “I have been coming here for forty years. I used to have a drinks stall there. Now my son manages that.” But now the chili starts to bite you and you grab a sweet steamed pancake from the guy squatting next. His hands are working gracefully with the pancakes with long metal sticks, almost like a praying mantis. The sugary delight helps you recover and you now go for the boiled sausages and quail eggs and have it with chili paste. Now you need to recover again, so why not go for a healthy option, fruit salad? Oh, but as soon as you finish the fruits, you notice a beautiful bar with inverted glasses decorating its arches. So you should now have some ice-cream with fruits and condensed milk too. You have spent less than two dollars and you have already filled yourself twice over.
You walk back towards the centre; the fountain in the middle has started spouting. You hear some soft drumming. What is it? Oh, a masked monkey (topeng monyet) show is on. The monkey is dressed like an action hero, in denim trousers and jacket, riding a toy motorcycle, looking for an adventure. His master is aware of the recent banning of topeng monyets in Jakarta and while singing his toothless hypnotic melody, keeps an eye on the audience if someone is taking photographs.
You keep walking along the podium and you hear children’s screams coming now and then from one corner. What’s happening? The children are squatting around a man who is selling live hermit crabs on whose shells a range of human expressions, from shock to dumb delight, have been painted. The children are picking up the hermit crabs with their tiny hands, and when they notice the crab’s legs scampering in the air, they scream and drop the crabs back into the tray. John, the young seller, smiles, “My crabs are used to it.”
You hear more intense drumming. A young man has just arrived. He has made an entire drum kit out of plastic buckets, stacking them up to create a range of sounds. He is trying all sorts of tricks with his drum-sticks. He throws them in the air but fails to catch them. But the audience, mostly mothers with their boys, don’t seem to mind. It’s free entertainment after all. One mother sends her boy to get the sticks back to your passionate drummer every time he drops them.
Suddenly, it begins to rain. There is a scramble. The man with the hermit crabs runs, covering his tray full of crabs like a baby. The man who sold you the ice-cream comes running to you with his trolley, “Go inside one of the shopping malls. Pretend to buy something and then come back after the rain stops. That’s what those shops are for,” he giggles. You join the crowd. Everyone is now pretending to buy something in the mall.
The rain stops soon. Everyone comes back to the square. The old couples have somehow beaten the young lovers for the benches. The monkey sits back on his motorcycle. The sun is setting. The muezzin is calling. The lovers are blending in with the shadows. A disabled child can’t wait to get down from her father’s lap and start fishing for plastic balls. She is the happiest person on earth at this moment. And you decide you will come back again the next day. Such is the charm of Alun-alun.