Ain’t No Night Fair
By Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The letter really wouldn’t have cut me up so bad if only, before it arrived, I just hadn’t send that letter of my own. My letter contained what can only be described as something that was going to be pretty unpleasant to read. The letter that I received went like this:
Blora, 17 December 1949
My beloved child!
There is no more profound a joy in this world than the rich joy felt by a father who gets his child back, his first born child, the child who carries all his swelling pride and his honor, the child who’s been kept away from contact with normal society for so long and been separated from the ordinary life of decent human beings.
I am able to picture the suffering in your soul. I can picture your suffering in that cramped place because I experienced that myself during the rebellion of the Socialist Youth militia, when I was moved to three jails in two weeks. From that time until now, every single night, I beg the Lord Almighty for safety and happiness for our family and for our future generations. I pray that He will forgive the sins of our family.
Yes, that was the start of the letter I received after being out of jail for two weeks. With me sending such an angry letter, and with me getting this reply, well, tears just welled up in my eyes. And I just promised to myself: I’ve got to not be so disrespectful.
I never had any idea my father had been held prisoner by the communists too. And six months later there arrived another letter from Blora. This time it wasn’t from my father. It was from an uncle.
If you can, please come home to Blora for a couple of days. Your father isn’t well. First it was malaria and a cough. Then he also got hemorrhoids and finally they figured out he’s got tuberculosis. Your father’s now in the hospital and he’s already thrown up blood four times.
To start with I was in shock reading the letter. My chest felt tight. Then I couldn’t say anything. In my mind I could see, first, my father, and then, the money. Where was I going to get the money to go home? And this is what made me hit the streets of Jakarta, hunting for my friends, and debt.
It was hot! And the tens of thousands of cars threw up dust all over your sweaty body. And it was dust that contained a mixture of all sorts of things: dried snot, horse shit, pieces of car tire, bits of bike and becak tire and probably also some of my own bike tires that the day before had flown down the same streets I was riding down now. And the dust mixture stuck with your sweat like glue to your body. I couldn’t help swearing, just a little, to myself.
Yes, if only I owned a car, if only I said, none of this would’ve happened. At that moment I also thought, people who do own cars sure cause a lot of trouble for those who don’t. And they don’t even know it.
About half an hour after the sunset prayer time, I succeeded in acquiring the debt. If that decent friend hadn’t been able to hold out the money as he said “you can use this money for the time being”, I’m sure I would have been a bigger wreck than before. The angry letter I had sent first made me rigid with the feeling I had done something terribly wrong. And to make that go away I had a duty to go see my sick father. That’s what my heart told me.
Among the darkness and violet and the sun setting in the reddening west, my bike sped down the small streets near the president’s palace. The palace. It was bathed in the rays of electric lights. Who knew how many hundreds of watts it used. I didn’t know. I just figured that in my estimation the palace’s electricity couldn’t be anything less than five kilowatts. And if anyone had thought there wasn’t enough electricity, someone just had to pick up the phone and the palace would get more.
The President was, after all, a practical person, not like those people struggling to eke out a living every day along the side of the road. If you weren’t the president, and also weren’t a minister, and you wanted to get forty or fifty more watts of electricity, you had to have the guts to pay somebody off with two- or three-hundred rupiah. This was really very impractical. And if those in the palace wanted to go out and head for A, or for B, everything was ready – airplane, car, cigarettes, and the dough. And to get to Blora I had to go all over Jakarta first and acquire some debt. Living like that was really very impractical.
And if you became president, and your mother got sick, or, take your father, or take any other member of your close family, the tomorrow or the day after that you’d already be able to go visit them. And say you were a low-level civil servant with a wage that was only just enough to breathe on, even asking for leave to visit someone sick would be difficult. After all, it makes those two-bit office bosses feel big if they can hand down some dictate that stops their officials from doing something.
All of this was just getting me worked up. Democracy is one truly beautiful system. You’re allowed to become president. You’re allowed to choose whatever job you like. You’ve got the same rights as anyone else. And democracy means you don’t have to bow or scrape for the president or a minister or any other lord or noble. Truly. This is one of democracy’s victories. And you’re allowed to do whatever else takes your fancy just so long as it’s stays within the limits of the law. But if you ain’t got no money, you’re screwed, you can’t move an inch. In a democratic country, you’re allowed to buy whatever things you like. But if you haven’t got any money, you’re only allowed to look at the things you want. This is also a sort of win for democracy.
All of this filled my heaving chest as I pedaled along with the borrowed money in my pocket. And, yes, debt too was a good thing, a kind deed even, when some person was caught in a difficult spot.
Debt! President! Minister! Lords! And sickness! Cars! Sweat and horse shit dust! My heart cried out.
Source: Ain’t No Night Fair (Bukan Pasarmalam) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Dinas Penerbitan Balai Pustaka, Jakarta, 1959.
For more background on DA Peransi see Indonesian Visual Art Archive.