The Lowy Institute 2019 Asia Power Index Map

The Lowy Institute’s 2019 Asia Power Index

Indonesia Country Profile

Ranked 11 of 25, with an overall power score of 20.6 out of 100.

Indonesia is a middle power in Asia.

Indonesia’s highest ranking is in the future resources measure, coming in 5th place. The country also breaks into the top ten for economic resources, resilience and diplomatic influence. Non-aligned Indonesia’s lowest rankings are for its hard power, where it places 13th for both military capability and its defence networks. Read more here.

For more about the Index try these links:

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Hikayat Raja Handik and Hikayat Raja Pasai

Some new old books on and from the Malay world – Asian and African studies blog

New from the Asian and African studies blog at the British Library

Most of my blog posts are about manuscripts from maritime Southeast Asia, but the majority of items in the British Library are printed, including perhaps the most important collection in the world of early Malay printing. The Library also holds printed books in languages such as Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, Batak and Bugis, dating from the earliest printed examples through to contemporary publications, as well as rare imprints in all languages from Southeast Asia. (Read more: Some new old books on and from the Malay world – Asian and African studies blog)

Vote Buying in Indonesia: The Mechanics of Electoral Bribery by Burhanuddin Muhtadi

New Book: Vote Buying in Indonesia

This book is open access under a CC BY 4.0 license.

This book investigates the impact of vote buying on the accountability of democratic institutions and policy representation in newly democratic countries, with a focus on Indonesia. In doing so, the book presents a wide-ranging study of the dynamics of vote buying in Indonesia’s young democracy, exploring the nature, extent, determinants, targeting and effectiveness of this practice. It addresses these central issues in the context of comparative studies of vote buying, arguing that although party loyalists are disproportionately targeted in vote buying efforts, in total numbers —given the relatively small number of party loyalists in Indonesia— vote buying hits more uncommitted voters. It also demonstrates that the effectiveness of vote buying on vote choice is in the 10 percent range, which is sufficient for many candidates to secure a seat and thus explains why they still engage in vote buying despite high levels of leakage.

Vote Buying in Indonesia

The Mechanics of Electoral Bribery

Authors: Muhtadi, Burhanuddin

  • Open Access
  • Investigates the impact of vote buying in Indonesia
  • Explores the nature, extent, determinants, targeting and effectiveness of vote buying
  • Argues that in total numbers —given the relatively small number of party loyalists in Indonesia— vote buying hits more uncommitted voters (Read more here.)
Back Cover, "Vote Buying in Indonesia The Mechanics of Electoral Bribery" By Muhtadi, Burhanuddin

Back Cover, “Vote Buying in Indonesia: The Mechanics of Electoral Bribery” By Burhanuddin Muhtadi

https://www.instagram.com/burhanuddinmuhtadi

http://www.indikator.co.id

Ludruk Karya Budaya Mojokerto karya Ulet Ifansasti

Short Story: Respected Ulema

By Seno Gumira Ajidarma

Respected Ulema was not a shaman, not a fortune-teller and neither was he a magician. Respected Ulema was simply a theater actor. To be precise, a former theater actor, one who had transferred his acting skills from the stage to everyday life.

From the way he behaved, the way he arranged his facial expressions and from his body language, he managed to convey the impression that he was a truly wise person. This was clear from the large number of people who believed in him without realizing that what they believed in was a character that was being played.

That’s how it was, day in and day out. And after many years, Respected Ulema had finally managed to trick even himself. That he actually was really wise, clever, intelligent and knowledgeable. He really did think that with just the powers he wielded, he really was able to show the way to the truth that every person was searching for. What’s more, the responses of all the people around him confirmed this completely.

The only thing was Respected Ulema had started to become sick and forgetful. But not even one person believed it. Respected Ulema himself had never been to the doctor about his illness. Because he thought that if he went to the doctor and had a blood test from a medical laboratory, people wouldn’t trust him anymore.

“How can a person with special power go to the doctor?” That was the response he wanted to avoid.

That was how it was. There were just more and more people who arrived to ask for guidance. So many that it wasn’t possible any longer to serve all of them one by one. The crowd at his house was so large that if it was made to line up, it would be too long. It wouldn’t have gone down even in 24 hours because the people just kept on arriving.

So Respected Ulema made a decision. The solutions for problems wouldn’t be handled for each person one by one, but rather in bulk. There would be one piece of guidance for all the people, and each would have their own interpretation of it.

***

That day, Respected Ulema sat cross-legged in his usual place, a rectangular box which in the theater world was called a “level”. It was enough to have a level that was covered with a cheap woven pandanus mat. That way he would be raised up higher than the people who were gathered in the room. The higher position for him was necessary because it would give the impression he was higher than everything, everything both inside the room, and in the world outside.

In the world of the theater, the stage is the center of the world, and that room was his stage. The theater group he had founded had long since dispersed and the people had now forgotten him. The public now knew him as a person with special powers who was able to answer questions about anything appropriately and correctly, precisely and accurately, so long as he or she was capable of interpreting his guidance.

Everything that came to pass demonstrated the powers of Respected Ulema. Everything that did not eventuate indicated the ignorance of the interpreter. That was the law that applied in the world of Respected Ulema.

From his past life, there remained only that level. He only needed the one. It was more than enough to make him higher than anyone who entered his house, his stage in the real world — and that day there he was, cross-legged, eyes closed, with his head bowed, and his body hunched over. It was not too clear whether he was meditating or dozing.

He himself did not understand why it was that the older he became and the greyer his beard grew that it became easier and easier to doze off. But it was more important for him that the older he became, the more respected he became, even though it wasn’t too clear to him whether he was respected because he was considered wise, or just because he was old.

The morning breeze blew in through one window, and out again through another, making the air cooler, even though the wooden walls were beginning to radiate the golden rays of the sun. They had been waiting since early morning, since before Respected Ulema had woken. After taking a shower, and having breakfast, Respected Ulema appeared, stretched out his hand to place it on the foreheads of the guests, then sat cross-legged on the pandanus mat.

People waited for a very long time. Outside, more and more people were arriving. They couldn’t get in before people inside came out. Word went round that Respected Ulema had not said a word for a long time.

“Ulema doesn’t always say something,” said someone.

“Maybe Ulema won’t say anything,” said another.

“Of course Ulema doesn’t need to say anything,” said someone else.

“Ulema will provide signs.”

As if receiving a way out, everyone waited. If he did not make an utterance, Respected Ulema should provide a sign, as had been interpreted up till now by the seekers of guidance. Whereas if he spoke, Respected Ulema’s words would not provide guidance directly, becoming signs in themselves.

As a result, in addition to referring to Respected Ulema, those seeking guidance had to take advantage of the services of the sign readers around him. It was not at all clear how they could spring up and become part of the phenomena of Respected Ulema, who clearly sometimes the cost of remuneration for these sign readers was far greater than the voluntary remuneration for Respected Ulema. How much? While Respected Ulema had never said a word about remuneration, the sign readers always said, “The amount is up to you.”

In order not to make a mistake, the people who needed the guidance of Respected Ulema would give a payment larger than appropriate, which was on occasion accepted with a grumble.

“You all said you needed help, and Respected Ulema’s guidance will solve your problems, why are you so tardy about providing a payment. Don’t expect everything to be all your way now…”

***

Respected Ulema suddenly started to cough. Some thought he was ill, but the readers of signs begged to differ.

“Get ready! Get ready!”

“Record it! Record it!”

Hundreds of people took out their cellphones. And Respected Ulema’s coughing was recorded while no one assisted him. Only when Respected Ulema himself was forced to mime a person drinking, did someone fetch him some mineral water.

After having a drink, Respected Ulema looked calmer, although his chest was still heaving up and down. Nevertheless, people had begun approaching the sign readers who immediately started to discuss this sign which took the form of coughing.

“Please, how many times did Respected Ulema cough?” asked one sign interpreter.

A recording was played so the coughs could be counted.

“Forty times.”

“Thirty-nine.”

“I count forty-one?”

“Hey! Why are there different numbers? It has to be correct. Different numbers will have different meanings!” commanded an interpreter of signs.

To achieve the same number among hundreds of people was obviously not going to be easy. It took a long time to reach agreement. Respected Ulema had coughed 45 times.

“Wow, such a big difference. If you had tried to interpret the meaning before, it would have been wrong, hey?”

So, what does Respected Ulema’s 45 coughs mean?

One of the interpreters of signs said, “Because the meaning is for every person, and because each problem is different, every person is to receive a whispered interpretation which must be kept secret. Do not ever reveal this secret, because it’s good luck will immediately disappear.”

Each interpreter conveyed more or less the same thing to the people surrounding him. But as it happened Respected Ulema started coughing again, and despite the fact that his coughing was very severe, so severe that Ulema collapsed onto his stomach suffocating, people were more inclined to respond to it as if it were merely a series of signs.

“Record it! Record it! Record it!”

“Don’t miss even one movement!”

It is true that someone did hand him a bottle of mineral water as they massaged his back, but his coughing did not stop this time until Ulema’s eyes began to bulge and his tongue hung out when his coughs merged together without any more pauses and transformed into one extended suffocation.

A strange noise emanated from his throat, like a loud exhaling, to a casual onlooker it was like the snoring of someone asleep.

Then Respected Ulema did not move anymore.

“Did you get it all?” asked one of the interpreters of signs.

“Praise be to God… Got it!”

***

Years later, people would continue to visit the tomb of Respected Ulema seeking guidance and searching for signs. Every sign originating in the events of his death was said to have the power to overcome most problems, if not every problem, thanks to the successful interpretations of the sign interpreters. Life and death – was there a meaning of greater significance than that?

Until today, people still visit to climb the hill, heading for the tomb of Respected Ulema which is located under a tree and deliberately isolated from the other graves. People spend the night in the area, light frankincense or incense, then surrender themselves to nature.

According to the people who believe themselves the recipients of guidance, they have received the signs from Respected Ulema from the stars in the sky, the rustling of the wind or the falling of the leaves carried on the wind. Can there be anything richer in the universe as a source of interpretation of all meaning?

A caretaker is now present at the tomb. He can help resolve the meaning of any sign, and really has earned a great amount of money.

There are also those who have told of Respected Ulema appearing in their dreams and how he has become overjoyed.

Even though it was mentioned earlier, Respected Ulema was not a shaman, not a fortune teller, and neither was he a magician. Respected Ulema was merely a humble theater actor – something not many people know about. (*)

(Villa Cendana, Kampung Utan, Saturday, 15 December 2018, 5.00 p.m.)


Respected Ulema (Kiyai Sepuh) was published in Jawa Pos on 6 January 2019. Seno Gumira Ajidarma is an Indonesian writer, novelist, and film critic. Retrieved from LakonHidup.com

Featured image Ludruk Karya Budaya, Mojokerto, by Ulet Ifansasti https://www.instagram.com/p/BtLgEDTBlux/  and  https://www.uletifansasti.com/transgendersoperaludruk

Sesobek Buku Harian Indonesia by Emha Ainun Nadjib

A Shred From the Diary of Indonesia: A Collection of Poetry

Foreword

In the 1970s, I was learning how to carry a burden. In the 1980s, I carried the burden bravely and proudly. In the 1990s, I began to be overwhelmed by carrying the burden. In the 2000s I almost gave up because of the burden. By the 2010s I was questioning why I should be carrying the burden and who was actually the official responsible for carrying the burden.

What you are reading is my expression and impression about, in, from and towards Indonesia, from the 1980s to the 1990s. Anyone reading it is free to decide what the emphasis is: the poetry, the Indonesia, the me, or the shred.

If the reader focuses their reading on the poems in the book, I will be very embarrassed. Because if this book were entered into a competition for poetry books, and I were one of the judges, there is no way I would select it as a possibility for the winner.

I really want to write poetry. And in my old age, I have been very diligent writing poetry, but almost not even one would I acknowledge as poetry. My work doesn’t get beyond “intending to write poetry”, “there are elements which are intended to be poetry” or “officially this is poetry, but whether it deserves the name of and passes as poetry, would need a long discussion and complicated considerations.”

Katak

In fact, poetry has come to a halt in the present era, is no longer a part of the mainstream values that operate in the civilization of contemporary Indonesian people. It is not even remembered by the leaders of the age and the values they espouse. Poetry has been driven into a cave, and those who deal with poetry have become cave-dwelling creatures with shadowy outlines, invisible to the community.

Indonesia, the national ideology Pancasila, the Youth Pledge, the 1945 Constitution, development, progress, government, parliamentarians, government regulations, the president and ministry, all the way down to village regulations, not one of them know poetry. They do not look for poetry. They do not find poetry. They do not remember poetry. There might be a trace of the word “poem” in the far recesses of their brain, but what they understand is not really poetry. Possibly poetry is tucked away somewhere under a pile of garbage, buried under a muddy patch of earth soaked by torrential rain, or hidden behind the gloom, weakly crying out the sound of silence in midst of darkness.

Is poetry really this hopeless in the midst of today’s civilization of hyper-materialism? Is it really so pessimistic for poetry in the middle of the stream of robots and bodies that regard themselves as humans? Has hope completely vanished for poetry in the midst of the life of the human family and Indonesian people who desperately pursue the world and things, but who complain incessantly of the world and things? In the midst of the arrogance of breath-taking advancement and while killing themselves to make it into the emergency response unit of the times in the pursuit of wealth, position, opportunity, access, and assets and arguing day in and day out of not achieving worldly desires?

No. Absolutely not. Poetry is not marginal, not marginalized. It’s not sidelined or disappeared. Poetry is indeed not food on the plate, a vehicle that is gassed and braked, a house with decor or shopping malls designed by architects to be like paradise. Poetry is not something achieved, but something journeyed towards. Poetry is not something which is held, but a trip to be traveled. Poetry is not something to be grasped or stored in a wallet, but something to be cherished and ached for.

Poetry – like the horizon in nature, the sky in the universe, justice in the sight of the soul, trueness in the recesses of the heart, eternity at the edge of time’s mystery, and God himself who seems to hide behind a secret without ever meeting – is the tenderest point far beyond the spirit, traveled with yearning, which inside a speck of the dust of that tenderness is encompassed all of nature and thousands and thousands of universes.

I myself, earlier, when that current of energy and magnetism passed right through me whose outpouring is a flow of writings or poems, was captured by the instinct to foster and allow poetry to be a mystery, one which must not lose its essence today. So every day I concentrate on the Indonesia side of it. I am concerned about it, am anxious for it, take care of it. Maybe ever since God inscribed in the Preserved Tablet for me to love, probably for that reason too I called the book A Shred from the Diary of Indonesia.

Even right until now as it is re-published, I turned the pages, my heart is still, and my mind fixed on Indonesia. But if you go into the “shred” deeply, it feels too broken. Indonesia today is no longer a shred: it’s like an old book lying forgotten in the cupboard, gnawed at by rats every night, its pages torn to pieces, ripped up, shredded, almost not a single page left intact. Half-soaked, reeking of a mixture of mouse piss.

A Shred From the Diary of Indonesia holds out a mirror before my own face. I stare back into my own eyes. I behold growth in decay, a baby in poverty, a young man in old age, a future for all those who are benighted. The wrinkles of an old face in the mirror, unimaginable weakness and helplessness, but there is a refreshing breeze that springs from the depths of the soul: I will take Indonesia into the future.

If you find letters and words in this book, flow with them into tomorrow. At the same time, invite the letters and words to flow over you, without any limit as to time. One day you will be snatched by death, but that is only a crossing bridge…

Emha Ainun Nadjib
11 November 2016

Kooa Cigarette Label

Short Story: Fujinkai

By Idrus

The Women’s Association(*) of a nondescript village was holding a meeting. The day before the meeting, Mrs. Scholar had been in quite a flap. She looked as if she was organizing her own daughter’s wedding, borrowing chairs from here and there, dropping in and out of homes to invite members. For Mrs. Scholar, Women’s Association meetings were very important events in her day-to-day life.

“She really is enthusiastic,” said one member to a friend.

Mrs. Scholar rose to her feet and spoke to open the meeting. With the voice of a cold, shivering cat, Mrs. Scholar explained that she was in receipt of an instruction from her superiors to hold a meeting to discuss a number of matters.

A member sitting directly across from Mrs. Scholar muttered, “Well, you wouldn’t dare do this without being ordered to.”

As she spoke, Mrs. Scholar glanced at the member with a sour face. The other member’s face twisted into a mocking look.

Trembling slightly, Mrs. Scholar continued what she had been saying. She spoke for a long time, she had not finished everything that she’d been ordered to say by her superiors. All the members yawned, like soldiers on a silent battlefield.

Ten minutes… twenty minutes, Mrs. Scholar talked on and on. Her mouth moved like the snout of a squirrel, puffing up and down like a bellows. Her nostrils flared widely, like a fishing net ballooning in the water. The hairs were visible, dark like a squid. As she spoke, saliva oozed from her teeth and rolled down her chin like a small child’s snot.

Shyly a member rose to her feet and said, “Mrs. Scholar, please excuse me, but I have to leave to go home. I have a lot of things that need doing at home.”

Mrs. Scholar felt offended and in an angry tone asked, “What is the matter, Mrs. Waluyo? The meeting is not over. We’ve only just begun. At home, you work for yourself, but here, we are working for the common good.”

Mrs. Waluyo appeared thoughtful, and then said firmly, “That’s a shame Mrs. Scholar.” She looked at her watch, small like a beetle, and continued what she was saying, “At six sharp I’ve arranged to meet the chicken seller. To exchange for some tatty clothes.”

Mrs. Waluyo bowed her head respectfully to Mrs. Scholar, and to the other members, then departed. As soon as she was outside, she said between clenched teeth, “For the first and the last time.” Then contemptuously, “Huh… the common good.”

The other members appeared most uncomfortable, as if they had come face to face with someone just widowed.

Mrs. Scholar went back to what she was saying. She continued to talk about events that had been reported in the newspapers recently. She thanked the Japanese Navy which had won a great victory in the waters east of Taiwan. She expressed admiration for the dashing Japanese soldiers who had fallen in action on Peleliu Island. She thanked the Empire of Greater Japan for Indonesia’s forthcoming independence, and she was grateful that the military government had managed the smooth distribution of rice so that everyone was receiving a fifth of a liter of rice each day.

Then another member stood up. Obviously a real village person, her Indonesian was stilted and sounded like a very old woman’s. Her blouse was faded and tattered. Her chest was as flat as the waters of Lake Toba, waveless. Every now and again she coughed.

Very gently she said, “Mrs. Scholar, it isn’t even as much as a fifth of a liter. And you can’t find any extra anywhere. My husband can’t work anymore. The Japanese cut off his hands, because…”

Her heavy heart stopped her finishing the sentence. But she was desperate to make Mrs. Scholar feel sorry for her. Just maybe, Mrs. Scholar would be able to help her. She gathered her strength, and between her coughs, she continued, “…because he took a liter of rice from his employer’s house. Because he had no choice, you see. Salim is really an honest man, but he was desperate. Please help me, madam. I have two children, they have big appetites.”

All the members felt sorry for her.

But sternly Mrs. Scholar said, “Mrs. Salim, I can not help you. It has already been decided. We have to do what we are told. It is different now compared to before.”

“Before we could argue with decisions from higher up, but the present era is a time of obedience. This has great benefits because in previous times everything took such a long time. Imperial Japan is different. Everything is fast. In only two years, we have obtained our soon-to-arrive independence. We have to work, Mrs. Salim.”

Looking as if she was about to start to cry, Mrs. Salim said, “So we get a fifth of a liter? Down again from a quarter? Well, in that case, please excuse me, but I’m just going home. There’s a lot to do at home.”

As slowly as the announcement of a defeat by Imperial Headquarters, Mrs. Salim moved towards the door. When she arrived at her house, she cried.

Mrs. Scholar laughed. Mocking Mrs. Salim she said, “That’s what happens when a village person gets involved in a meeting. They talk about inappropriate things. They ask the wrong questions. Ha ha ha!”
Sitting some distance from Mrs. Scholar, Mrs. Djoko and Mrs. Surya were deep in conversation.

Mrs. Djoko said, “My husband Djoko now looks quite pale. I feel terrible when I look at him. Every day he works hard, but when he gets home, all there is to eat is rice porridge. I’m a little better off. Whichever food sellers passes the front of the house, whether it’s peanut salad or fried soybean cakes, I buy some to help keep the hunger away. Sometimes we spend as much as one rupiah per day. Poor Djoko.”

Mrs. Surya, on the other hand, wasn’t having so much trouble paying for things. Her husband was a member of the regional advisory council. Rather proudly she said, “For us, our life is just the same, not much has changed from before. My husband Surya has a permit to travel anywhere. When he comes home from Banten he brings coffee. When he comes home from Cirebon, he brings home rice and Kooa cigarettes. Usually, the rice he brings is more than the two of us need. Well, what else can we do, we sell the left over. Sometimes it sells for as much as two rupiahs seventy-five cents per liter. Yes, it even covers the cost of going sightseeing at Warnasari.”

Mrs. Djoko stood and said to Mrs. Scholar, “Mrs. Scholar, is that all that’s going to be discussed at this meeting? I just want to say that I am very grateful. Excuse me, I have to go home.”

Mrs. Scholar was surprised, from her leather bag she removed a piece of paper and in a chilly quiet voice said, “Just a moment, Mrs. Djoko. That was only the introduction. The real reason for this meeting is…”

Mrs. Scholar opened the folded sheet of paper. She continued her address.
“This. The 8th December will mark the third anniversary of Japan declaring war on America by attacking Hawaii. This has to be commemorated. It has been decided that the Women’s Association has a responsibility. Together with the Women’s Associations from other villages, we are to go and visit Japanese soldiers who are sick. For this, we are going to make them cakes. And to make the cakes will incur a cost. We are to show our thanks to those who have fought for our interests. Ladies, allow me to abbreviate my address, and to say that the reason for this meeting is to ask for your generosity to volunteer, if you could, a financial contribution for the making of these cakes.

“At least two and a half rupiah from each family. I feel that this is not too much for you all. Two and a half rupiah is not much. Just look at it like you are giving a liter of rice. I’m sure it won’t feel like too heavy a burden. About when we will begin to work, I shall provide further details in the near future.”

The members of the Women’s Association of a nondescript village whispered to each other. One of them said, “And about the two and a half rupiah. That’s not the main thing. Why did you deliver such a long-winded introduction just to tell us that we are going to have to dig deeper into our pockets yet again? Just cross my name off the membership list of the Women’s Association. I don’t even care if everyone talks about me not having the right spirit.”

Now frightened and trembling, Mrs. Scholar said, “Mrs. Samiun, please don’t become angry so quickly. We have to be patient in the present age. You really are jumping to the wrong conclusion. I feel obliged to advise you then, even if it is a secret, that everything I have been saying, I was ordered to say by my superiors, which all arrived along together with the order to hold this meeting. I went to a great deal of trouble yesterday, memorizing all of this by heart, word for word, Mrs. Samiun.”

Mrs. Scholar wiped the perspiration from her brow. The meeting dispersed successfully.

(*) Fujinkai


Published in Pantja Raja, No. 16 Vol. II, 1 July 1947, p. 551.

(Use was also made of a translation published in Indonesia, No. 2 (Oct., 1966), pp. 125-134, Southeast Asia Program Publications, Cornell University, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3350757)

Short Story: The Love of City People

By Hanna Rambe

A plate of small cakes dangled from little Masni’s excited grasp as she clambered into Aunty Ruli’s car. A career woman of impressive years and still single, Ruli was taking Masni with her to visit a friend.

      Masni had only recently arrived in Jakarta. Ruli had invited her to come and live with her in the city feeling she was now of sufficient means to help raise Masni. Before coming to live with Aunty Ruli, Masni had been cared for by her grandparents in a tiny village in provincial Sumatra where Masni was destined to become just one more among countless rural peasant women, just as all her forebears had been.

      They were about to set off to visit Musa, one of Ruli’s cousins. For some years after Musa’s father had passed away, Ruli paid for Musa’s schooling. Ruli and Masni arrived in, well, the second part of the name of the area was “Indah”(*), but Ruli couldn’t remember exactly what Musa’s house looked like. Fortunately, she had brought the address.

      Musa had added another story to his house and the whole place was now a dazzling clean white, right down to the fine wrought-iron laced fence and gate. Expensive plants stood scattered around the modestly-sized yard, casuarinas, areca nut palm trees and a variety of imported flowering shrubs.

      Despite the blaze of security lights, the house itself looked quiet. Ruli pushed the bell on the gate several times but no one appeared. Masni began to shift uneasily from foot to foot shrinking before the soaring gates.

      “People in Jakarta don’t like guests,” Masni thought to herself. “I’m glad I’m with Aunty Ruli or I’d be standing here by myself.” She thought about how different her own village had been. Nobody had a fence, apart from the village chief. And it certainly was not polite to let visitors stand for ages in the street.

      Ruli called out to someone, a builder it seemed, working next door who disappeared to the back and in a few minutes an elderly woman emerged who opened the gate for them. The old woman was wearing a sarong and a fine knee-length traditional lace blouse, indicating to Masni, happy at the sight, that she was from the same district in Sumatra as she was. The woman told Masni to call her “grandma” which also made Masni happy. Although the elderly woman was not her real grandmother she was a grandaunt.

      The three women talked away exchanging news. The man of the house was apparently away on annual holidays in Bali with his wife and children. Musa and the family, according to the elderly woman, always spent New Years outside Java. Ruli did not know this, recalling that Musa and the children had always called in to see her at Christmas or New Year to wish her the seasons greetings and leave a present.

      The elderly woman continued her news. Last year Musa bought the block of land behind their house and turned it into an orchid garden for his wife. His wife was buying and selling orchids. Just to make a little money.

      One of Musa’s four younger brothers and sisters, his name was Kahar, had been completely uncontrollable but had turned over a new leaf and was now working for Musa.

      “What is Kahar doing?” asked Ruli rather taken aback.

      The elderly woman continued. Musa had a cattle farm outside town. He had bought the land and was raising cattle. Kahar was managing it all, and the cows were producing plenty of milk. She went on and on with the family news, of how, well, to put it simply, Musa had done quite well for himself and had helped his brother to find work. Pleased to hear all the news Ruli was gratified that her help with Musa’s education had not been in vain. She was happy also that it was only because of Musa being so busy with his career that he hadn’t had time to keep up with news of other members of the family.

      Ruli gazed around the front parlor, cavernous by land-squeezed Jakarta’s standards. She gazed at the intricately decorated crystal lamp on the wall unit, the video recorder in the corner, the delicately carved teak lounge, electric organ, seawater aquarium in the other corner, lush Middle-Eastern carpet and indescribably modern paintings. It was all there.

      “Could open a shop if he wanted to,” she thought. “People become rich so quickly!”

      Masni stared in awe as drinks and cakes were served by a maid with short wavy hair wearing long slacks and lipstick. In Masni’s village, there weren’t any women made-up like that, not even the village chief’s wife.

      During their visit, Masni sat as quietly as a mouse. She didn’t utter a word. The elderly woman then told them about the family’s pet dogs, one or two of which had indeed been wandering about barking. They were strangely shaped dogs, not like the ones grandpa kept in the village. These dogs had curly hair and a soft bark, one very small and low and without a real snout. The elderly woman described how the family had recently had a terrible experience and Ruli, politely feigning offence at having not being informed, asked what had happened.

      “Musa’s youngest child was bitten by one of the large dogs and had to be taken to the doctor. The dog was punished by the trainer and finally it died,” explained the old woman.

      Ruli anxiously asked whether it was a serious bite.

      “The bite wasn’t the problem. What worried Musa was losing the dog.”

      Incredulous at hearing such a story on New Year’s Eve, Ruli listened as the old woman described what happened.

      “Two years ago Musa bought a special German Shepherd. I can’t remember how to say its name but I do know it cost more than a million rupiah. They had to give it special meat, take it to the vet from time to time for check-ups and after it was big enough they took it to school.”

      Masni’s ears stood up! “Take a dog to school!” she thought. “What sort of dog would it have to be? Is it possible for a dog to go to school? Not even all the children in the village go to school. They can’t afford the monthly fees,” she thought. “It wouldn’t be a bad life being a dog in Musa’s family,” Masni thought to herself still refusing to say a word to anyone.

      “The dog became very clever,” continued the elderly woman. “It could play ball with the children. It guarded the house and it could open a closed door, so long as it wasn’t locked, jump over chairs and pounce on dangerous looking strangers. And that wasn’t all.”

      “Well, Musa must certainly be rich, aunty,” commented Ruli.

      “Ah, I wouldn’t say that. He is also responsible for a lot of people. There’s me, his brothers and sisters, and all his brothers- and sisters-in-law. And then there are some of his friends’ children from nearby,” the old sarong bound woman answered modestly.

      “When the dog finished its course it got a certificate too,” added the woman returning to her story.

      “A certificate, aunty?” replied Ruli, wide-eyed. “What would be the use of giving a dog a certificate, aunty?”

      “The dog’s job was to guard Musa. If someone wanted to hurt Musa, the dog would jump up and bite the person. But if one day Musa wanted to sell the dog the birth certificate, the pedigree and the training certificates would all have to be handed over as well or he wouldn’t get a good price.”

      “Oh,” sighed Ruli.

      It was late and Ruli could see the elderly woman was getting tired so she decided it was just about time to finish their New Year’s Eve visit. She had really wanted to see Musa’s wife. For the past seven years Musa’s wife had regularly sent a Christmas present and this was the first time Ruli had taken the time to drop in to thank her. Up till now Ruli had felt that as she was the older of the two it was Musa’s responsibility to call on her. In fact she wanted to introduce Masni to Musa and his family.

      They were about to leave when the old woman asked them to look through two thick photo albums full of pictures, of the dog and all its certificates. The elderly woman explained that one day Musa had been playing with the dog, telling it how clever it was, when the children arrived home from school and joined in. Something must have happened. Musa must have made some sort of movement that upset his youngest son because the child picked up a walking stick from the corner of the parlor and began pretending to hit his father.

      Suddenly the dog snarled angrily and jumped on the child and bit him. At first, everyone thought it was all just wonderful fun, that the dog was showing how clever it was. As blood began to run down the child’s arm and she started screaming, the dog grew angrier and angrier. Then everyone suddenly realized what was happening and Musa sprang into action.

      Apparently, what happened, the old woman remembered, was that the child moved exactly like the bad men the dog had been trained to attack at the school. Musa forced the dog out of the way and the house was in an uproar. Someone called Musa’s wife who was next door at a neighborhood function. Someone called the family doctor. Children started howling. And the elderly woman herself began yelling at Musa and the dog.

      The whole house was in chaos for a week. The dog was taken straight out of town to the trainer’s but after that the old woman didn’t know what happened to it. Musa never brought it home again and someone said that within a month it died.

      The child was not injured seriously but went into shock, unable to accept the fact that the dog she had lavished so much affection on had not returned the affection.

      “How could a dog respond the same way? An animal. The word itself is something you use to insult people,” the old woman scorned.

      Ruli and Masni finally asked the elderly woman to pass on their regards to Musa and his family and they left for home.

***

The following day Ruli asked Masni to go with her to visit another friend. “So the rest of the family in Jakarta can get to know you,” Ruli said. “After all, you’re new in Jakarta.”

      They set off for Boti’s house in the opposite direction to Musa’s. Also one of Ruli’s cousins, Boti was a senior civil servant with three children, all girls, and Ruli hoped that the girls would invite Masni to meet some of their friends. Boti’s house was always full of young people and the girls did turn out to be friendly to Masni. It was Masni herself who didn’t feel comfortable, preferring not to say a word.

      The main topic of conversation between Boti his wife Ida and Ruli was the sad event that had recently happened to the family. And what had happened? There had been a death, the myna from Nias Island had died.

      “Ida, you really are too much! I thought that someone in the family had passed away. You shouldn’t be so sad over a bird?” tut-tutted Ruli making fun of her friends.

      “The problem isn’t just the death of an animal, Rul. You have to understand the role of the bird in the family.”

      “Ah. There are plenty of mynas at the bird market near our house. You really shouldn’t be this sad about a dead bird,” said Ruli again somewhat frustrated.

      Ida looked at her husband and then explained. “This myna was a gift from a very poor relative living on Nias Island when Boti was posted there. Boti was able to help the family in a small way and the myna was a present, a token of their thanks for protection from the possibility of some penalty. It had only just been caught in the forest,” said Ida. “After we returned to Jakarta, Boti looked after the bird himself and taught it to talk and whistle. The whole household was happy with the new creature chortling away in the house.

      “In the mornings he would whistle and whistle, say ‘good morning’ to Boti and me and the children and in the afternoons he would sing the first lines of the folk song ‘Lisoi’. The children are always singing that song. Whenever a passing vegetable hawker or a rag-and-bone man was about to open the gate, the little myna was taught to call out, ‘Who are you looking for? No one’s asked you to come in!’

      “For two years the myna was the sixth person in the family and the maid was the seventh. When I think about it, Boti looked after the little myna, checked its food and water every day when he arrived home from work before saying hello to me or the children. Only after he had seen that the myna was all right would he check on the others in the house.

      “I had plenty to do outside, golf, the office wives’ association, dropping the children at school and picking them up in the afternoons, bowling and visiting all the different supermarkets in Jakarta, just for starters.

      “Last Sunday I got sick and had to stay home. I felt moody and fussed about as though nothing was how it should have been. I got cranky with everyone in the house and the maid and she even threatened to walk out if I kept becoming angry with her.

      “Well, I didn’t want the maid to leave so I bottled things up inside and that was the day I heard Boti come home. I was so furious when the first thing he did was stop outside the kitchen to look in the bird’s cage. Boti played with the bird, joked with it, whistled to it and filled up its water bowl.

      “Then he went into the bedroom, put down his case and changed. Well, I exploded. I told him he cared more about the bird than about his sick wife. Boti was worn out and sweaty and, shall I say, responded to my outburst in a way that was more appropriate to an infantryman in the middle of battle. Unkind, not to say, indelicate, words were fired between us mortar-like. The maid was terrified, as was the little myna who had never heard an angry word uttered in its life.

      “After a while, Boti said to me, ‘Ida, you shouldn’t be jealous of a bird. The bird has only ever been something for the whole house to enjoy. If it could really talk you would have to apologize to it.’

      “I didn’t say anything but in my heart I was sorry. How could I have been jealous of a bird?

      “Three days after our fight the myna died in its cage and we weren’t able to find the cause. The whole house is upset, especially Boti, who put so much effort into training it.

      “Boti said to me flatly, ‘Now you don’t have to be jealous. Maybe the myna did understand what we were saying and didn’t want to be a bother to you or the rest of us anymore.’

      “I knew that Boti was distraught; he just wasn’t saying so for my sake. I was so sorry about my childish behavior that day. True, nothing will bring him back, but everyone still feels his passing away terribly, no more cheery good mornings outside the kitchen.”

      For all their money, the myna would not be easy to replace realized Ruli. A new bird would have to be trained patiently from scratch.

      Masni nodded politely in agreement when everyone in the house, equally politely, told her she should call in often and even stay over and that they wanted to take her out to Jaya Dream World at Ancol in North Jakarta or on a picnic into the mountains.

      Without saying anything, Masni was actually deeply disturbed by the fact Aunty Ida had been jealous of a bird. In the village, mynas lived in the forest.

      “The families Aunty Ruli has introduced me to are very odd,” Masni decided, “caring so much for dogs and jealous of birds.”

      In the car on the way home, she wondered what marvels awaited her tomorrow.

      The next evening Aunty Ruli invited her to visit someone else and off they went to drop in on Grandma Sarintan who lived in Kebayoran in South Jakarta.

      Sarintan was a distant relative of Masni’s late father, but Ruli knew her well through work. She now lived by herself in a rented house which, compared to her former twelve bedroom palace which one had to circle on a small bicycle, was cozy and small. It had the feeling of a lonely mountain temple.

      She had once been in charge of a small company but it had gone bankrupt and she and her husband had fallen on hard times. Then her husband eventually ran off with another woman. Their only child, pretty and brilliant in school, had won a scholarship to study in Australia where she had married a millionaire Vietnamese refugee immigrant and settled down.

      Sarintan lived with no more companionship than that of her driver and two maids. She survived now by teaching English and music. Her income was actually not insubstantial, but with the tastes she had acquired in her days of plenty, she never felt she had enough money. Her daughter understood how her mother felt, sending a little money from Australia from time to time and she had even sent her mother two Angora cats to provide a little companionship.

      When Ruli and Masni arrived a large crowd was gathered at the house and all the windows were wide open to the moist tropical air making a joke of the air conditioner still running. Ruli sensed something was wrong.

      And she was right. Without her usual corpse pale make-up, Sarintan was sobbing, and Ruli, startled by the scene, wondered what could possibly have happened.

      “Oh Ruli, Ruli, it’s so good to see you,” wailed Sarintan on seeing Ruli before bursting into tears.

      “There, there. Everything’s going to be all right. What’s happened?”

      Through her tears Sarintan sobbed, “Oh, oh. Onassis has been missing since yesterday afternoon. Ohh.”

      “Well, where is he? Have you looked for him?”

      “Yes,” she explained through her sobs, “all these neighbors have been helping me look for him.”

      It was as if someone in the family had died. Ruli thought to herself that if Sarintan became hysterical she would definitely have to take her off to the psychiatric hospital.

      Panic and pandemonium had gripped everyone in the house. They were looking everywhere, opening everything that opened, overturning everything that could be searched, but Onassis would not answer, not even to the loving calls of her owner.

      On seeing one neighbor climb down from the roof empty-handed, Sarintan again burst into tears and called out repeatedly the name of her beloved puss Onassis.

      Whispering into Ruli’s ear Masni asked, “Why is she crying about a lost cat?”

      “Ah, the cat came all the way from America and cost a thousand dollars,” answered Ruli.

      “Is a thousand dollars a lot of money, Aunty Ruli?”

      “It’s a very large amount of money; it’s about one million seven hundred thousand rupiahs, dear.”

      Masni didn’t say anything, unable to comprehend that amount of money. But when Ruli told her with that amount of money she could buy a large rice field and enough food and drink to last for one or two months, she began to understand what Sarintan was crying about.

      Quietly she began to think, “Maybe the old lady is crazy. Why would she want to pay more than a million rupiah for a cat?”

      Masni was shown a picture of the missing cat. Its partner lived in Sarintan’s bedroom and the cat was beautiful, thick fur, colors as soft as watercolors and large bright eyes. In all her life Masni had never seen a cat as beautiful as this, not even while collecting firewood in the forest around her village.

Masni listened open-mouthed as Ruli whispered that the cat’s food had to be bought in Singapore because none of the supermarkets in Jakarta stocked it and that Onassis, along with his partner Atina, had to take vitamins every day to make them strong.

      After Ruli and Masni had been there for about two hours, one of Sarintan’s neighbors from the street walked in – Onasis in arms. Wearing a sarong the neighbor refused to come into the house. He had been about to go to bed when he came across Onassis being chased by a group of cats. Even though he was fat and well looked after Onassis was not up to fighting his brother cats.

      Sarintan lept to the front door, wrapped her arms around Onassis warmly and carried him off forgetting the man at the door. Tears welled up in her eyes then flowed down her cheeks as she murmured ‘thank you’ over and over. Finally, she carried him into the bedroom for a joyful reunion, all three lost themselves in a joyful embrace. Sarintan was clearing overjoyed, elated, by Onassis’ return. There was no doubt about it, her joy was palpable.

      To express her gratitude to all those who had helped her Sarintan handed out five thousand rupiah notes: to those who had climbed onto the roof, to those who had rummaged through the back yard and to those who had roamed up and down the street calling, “Puss… Onassis… puss, puss, puss.”

      Sitting silently throughout all her visits Masni could not decide whether she felt amazed, sick in the stomach, sorry for the old lady, or slightly jealous of all the people she had met on her New Year’s visits.

      It was almost midnight before Ruli and Masni left for home, almost the end of the third day of the New Year’s holiday. Before leaving, Masni caught sight of Sarintan lovingly pushing Onassis’ pills into his mouth. The old lady hadn’t paid the slightest attention to Masni or Ruli. She was drowning in the grief of losing Onassis when they arrived. By the time they left, she was floating in an ocean of happiness over finding her imported cat again.

***

      During the past week, Ruli and Masni had done a lot together to celebrate the New Year and all sorts of people had dropped in on Ruli. Each had their own particular stories, some unintelligible to Masni, others completely unbelievable. Masni found the city people she had met strange and foreign, totally unlike the people she knew back in her village.

      In the village, she had seen images of Jakarta on television, sparkling glitter, dazzling lights, bustling crowds of cheerful chatter. Where was the real Jakarta, the one people did not see on television, full of people making friends of animals, full of endless overflowing rivers of cars flooding past the fronts of houses?

      Masni was deeply disturbed. Was this Jakarta, the place she had longed to see so much, the center of learning, the place where people could find a better life? There were other people from her village, other members of her family, here in Jakarta and she had visited some of them together with her late father’s cousin, Aunty Ruli. But not one had asked her to come and live with them. They all knew how her father had passed away, how her widowed mother had remarried and how, as a result, Masni and her sister Misna were being brought up on the edge of the forest by their poor grandparents.

      When Aunty Ruli invited her to come to Jakarta she had no idea she would see such things: emptiness, loneliness, coldness, indifference. Life in her village, so hard because of the poverty everyone lived in was nonetheless warm and affectionate.

      Masni didn’t have the courage to tell Ruli, busy with work and visitors, what was swimming in her head. Ruli had never tried to discuss with her how she was feeling or what she was thinking. Ruli had just accepted Masni would get used to life in the city quickly. After all didn’t every villager want to live in the big city?

      In Aunty Ruli’s house, Masni could use as much fresh water as she liked. She didn’t have to haul buckets or earthenware pitchers from the well. In the evenings she didn’t have to light the lamps. Electricity did make it easier to cook and to find something to do. True. Life was easier in Ruli’s house.

      “But, dear Lord!” sighed Masni to herself. “Why do they care so much about animals?” This was what her tiny heart could not accept. Her grandpa had never killed an animal, hadn’t ever eaten meat and had once become angry when a group of children killed an animal that wasn’t threatening anyone. Grandpa taught the village children that animals were made by God to help people and therefore they shouldn’t be killed. But grandpa did get very annoyed every time an animal came into the house, except for skinks or ants. Dogs were not loved and fawned over and people didn’t sleep together with cats!

***

      Finally one day Ruli told Masni to gather all her personal papers together. She was off to enroll in school.

      School enrollments had started and Masni, little Masni who hadn’t been able to summon the courage to say a word at any of the gatherings of city people, now mustered all her bravery and said, “Aunty Ruli, I don’t want to go to school in Jakarta. I know we decided. But it doesn’t matter. I…, I would like to go home to my village.”

      “Honey, what’s that? Go back to your village? You said you wanted to become a clever girl, that you wanted to send some money back to help grandma and grandpa in the village. How are you going to earn any money if you don’t go to school?”  

“Aunty Ruli, please don’t be angry. Jakarta is too busy and crowded. There’s so much noise and dust and so many people, so many people and none of them are friendly. I don’t have any friends here. On television, everything looks wonderful and new but every night I think of grandpa. I want to go home.”

      Ruli wasn’t pleased as she watched Masni sob quietly. Young as she was, Masni was immovable. She had made up her mind. She wanted to be taken back to her village. Ruli tried to encourage Masni to change her mind but it didn’t work. A successful career woman, Ruli had forgotten about the thoughts and feelings of a small village girl. She hadn’t taken the time to sit down and talk to Masni heart-to-heart before going to bed. She had felt she was doing something good by helping the poor orphan child. To her mind Masni was being inconsiderate, even rude.

      Reluctantly Ruli took Masni back to her village. They flew to Medan, and then went by bus deep into the countryside. Ruli was so sad to lose Masni. She liked her very much, her clear olive skin, her gentle nature. True, Masni didn’t say much, didn’t ask many questions, but she did love reading and she always paid careful attention to any advice given to her.

      Quite sometime after Ruli had left the village to return to Jakarta, Masni’s grandpa asked why she wanted to come back to the village. Had Aunty Ruli been angry, or had Masni done something wrong?

      Masni answered with the honesty of a nine-year-old village child. “Grandpa, in the city people care more about animals than people. The rich people we visited keep dogs and cats and myna. They pay lots of money for them. They don’t catch them in the forest. They send animals to school and the animals get certificates. They give medicine to cats as if they were babies and hug them and cry over them when they get lost. Even Aunty Ruli has pet fish in a tank and the water has to be pumped with an electric pump. I couldn’t bear to look at all the people, watch them ignore me. I’m poor and I come from a village. I don’t mean anything to them. To them the animals mean more than I do.”

      At first, Masni’s grandpa laughed at her story, thinking she was making it all up to impress him now that she had been to the big city. But after a while, her grandpa could see in Masni’s obvious sincerity that she wasn’t making it up.

      He put his arms around her, squeezed tightly and whispering, “Silly old Aunty Ruli. She cares more about her fish than about you.”

      Without thinking, Masni reached up and touched her grandpa’s cheek and realized it was wet.


The Love of City People (Kasih Sayang Manusia Kota) was published in Horison magazine in June 1990.

(*) Pondok Indah is regarded as an up-market district of Jakarta.

Featured Image: Moord op Chinezen te Batavia, 1740, Jacob van der Schley, after Adolf van der Laan, 1761 – 1763

Manuscript

Short Story: Sandalwood Fan

By Gerson Poyk

I live completely alone, but I can still live well enough since I don’t depend on anyone else. I can eat three meals a day. I can live in one rented room where there is a couch, a bathroom, and a kitchen. At the back outside it’s covered by a roof that extends a long way so the cooker, dish rack, bucket, and bike can be stored there. There’s a second-hand television in my room which keeps me entertained every day.

If only my daughter hadn’t married a man who worked in the Middle East. Maybe I wouldn’t be living alone as she’d have been able to look after me, and my two grandchildren could have entertained me. But thankfully my daughter can help me out a little financially. For a long time since my wife passed away our situation has been pretty tight. My wife used to cook food out the back to sell for a little income. She’d cook spiced fish, uduk rice, chili soybean, grilled fish, grilled eggplant and a chili sauce which I liked to call ‘chili Inul sauce’.

Every day I travel around on my bike selling food. I pedal from before dawn, sometimes till afternoon, and sometimes till late in the day. I target selling at the traditional markets and the multi-story projects where day laborers work.

But after my wife passed away everything was a mess. My daughter was forced to drop out of school in year ten because she had to help me. Every evening I had to cook, carrying on as my wife had shown me. However, after cooking I had to rest half a day which meant the food wasn’t all sold every day. Luckily my daughter knew a young woman from the island of Madura who sold drop cakes.

“Dad, I want to do what that woman from Madura is doing,” said my daughter.

”She dropped out of primary school but she could still get to run a business,” she said.

”Ah, you shouldn’t make fun of her,” I said.

”The only assets she has is a small cooker and one rice flour dough pot. She runs a business selling drop cakes. She’s very busy, dad,” said my daughter. ”I want to sell drop cakes like her,” she went on.

“But what about the food business your mother left behind? Do we have to forget about that? Would the income from that be enough for the two of us to survive?” I asked.

”That’s easy. All it needs is one table. Some of the food you cook could be displayed on that one table and you can sell some of it from your bike. What do you think?”

So three days later, there was a small food stall in the traditional market. At the side of the table was a hissing cooker wafting the aroma of fresh drop cakes. My daughter’s drop cake “lecturer”, the woman from Madura, was selling not far away beside my daughter’s stall. Every day very early in the morning my daughter sold by herself in the market without me for company. After sleeping till eleven o’clock in the middle of the day, I pedaled my bicycle to the market and collected some of the food my daughter was selling. I rode around to the busy building construction sites, busy factory fences and other places like that.

Early one morning a young journalist from the tabloid Voice of the Market, no stranger to staying up all night, squatted in front of my daughter’s drop cake cooker. The young journalist fell in love with my daughter. He published a photograph of her and the girl from Madura prominently in his tabloid newspaper. The story was long and detailed and described the “candak kulak” program which was a government program from the time of the New Order Government which had provided small-scale capital. The program was long gone, vanished without a trace.

Later my daughter married the journalist from the Voice of the Market.

Her friend the girl from Madura sold up and down the market until one day, several months later, a minibus driver proposed to her.  

Not long after that my son-in-law moved to the Middle East to work as a journalist with the magazine Oil which is part of an oil company.

Nevertheless, neither of them did help me much because they were studying while they worked there. My son-in-law was at university and my daughter finished her high school matriculation and then she went on to university.

But they did not forget to think about my financial situation. My daughter sent some money for me to use as capital to buy sandalwood and agarwood fans to sell in the Middle East along with necklaces made from sandalwood and agarwood beads. Later they also asked for offcuts of sandalwood and agar wood used for burning in the incense burners of wealthy middle eastern people.

So I was busy with my new business as a sandalwood fan trader. Each month I would freight the aromatic commodity. I rented a small post office box to support my business activity. Everything was small. The post office box was small, the bedroom was small, but with these small things, I was involved in a world which was wide and large! Although sales of sandalwood fans were brisk enough for me to be able to buy a block of land in Jakarta, my children told me not to buy land to build a house in the city. My daughter thought it would just be destroyed by floods of both water and people.  

Their thinking seemed pretty strange to me.

Every time I went to the post office to send products I visited a small open-air food stall in the grounds of the post office to have coffee or a bite to eat.  

The owner of the food stall Misses Agus was helped by her daughter who had a younger brother who hadn’t undergone the Islamic khitan or circumcision ceremony yet. At first, I only had breakfast there, then I visited every day to have lunch and dinner. Master Agus who wasn’t circumcised yet was very pleased when I did drop in. Usually, if I had any spare change I would give it to him as a present. Suddenly one day he showed me a piggy bank that was heavy. It was full of the coins I had given him. It was a real surprise to me to see a child who had apparently been left by a father who had passed away. Master Agus’ big sister Julie had been a wonderful help to her mother. Almost every day she worked in the small food stall unless she had to wash clothes at home, sweep or hang out the washing.   

“Where do you work, sir?” Julie asked one day.  

“I work at home,” I answered.

“Where’s your office?” asked Julie.

“My office is as small as a box, a post office box!”

Julie laughed. “When you go to work, you first have to turn into an ant!”

“Ah, don’t be silly,” I said.

“Ah, don’t underestimate ants. They have a lot to teach humans. They work together and cooperate without anger, without getting emotional, like…”

“You’re having a go at me, aren’t you!” said her mother.

“So you’re emotional?” I asked.

“No, my mother is born from noble Javanese descent but now works in this humble little food stall,” said Julie.

“It doesn’t matter that it’s small, so long as it turns a dollar and makes a profit, to turn this food stall into a building. This shop is larger than my post office box. That’s my shop. It only returns a little, but fortunately I’m an ant so I don’t eat much,” I said. “Small people like us have to start small.”

“A post box can’t be bulldozed and relocated but it seems that even if the rent is paid this food stall can be taken away in a truck and piled up in the municipal depot.”   

One day early in the morning when I arrived at the post office I saw Mrs. Agus having an argument. Two large men were carrying plates, pots, woks, cookers and other things, and piling them into a pickup truck. It seemed that Mrs. Agus owed money to a village money lender. She just sat silently staring blankly, bright red eyes.

Although it was none of my business, something inside me compelled me to ask, “How much money do you owe?”   

“Only three-hundred thousand. How could they do something like that! And after the agreement was to pay a thousand rupiah a day. Suddenly he asked me to repay the whole loan because he said his house had been flooded,” said Julie.

“Where’s the money…”

“I actually had the money but yesterday I paid the doctor and bought blood pressure medicine,” said Mrs. Agus.

I wasn’t being rational any more. At once I called out, “Mate, put those things back in the food stall. Here, I’ll pay what Mrs. Agus owes you.” Then I pulled out three-hundred thousand rupiahs from my wallet.   

“Wow, three hundred, only what about the interest? It’s now three years and my money’s been locked up in this food stall. Five hundred…”

“No way…”

“Why not?”

“There is no more money. Only three hundred.”

“Ah, all right. Here’s the money.

“Yeh, and here are your things back,” they said.

After the debt collectors had gone, a little while later Master Agus arrived home from school. The small, first-grade child was surprised mainly because there was no food. I told him to buy packets of cooked rice for four people and then help get the stall set up so it didn’t look like a wreck.

Since that incident, Julie would always visit my boarding room with food, cleaned all the dirty things, washed my clothes and helped me pack the sandalwood and agarwood fans and also help cut up agarwood pieces. Then, when that was in order, she would help put them into boxes, write the sender and receiver addresses, and help carry them to the post office. She would also always check the post box and get any mail from my daughter overseas.    

Julie had become my assistant. Although she had only finished junior high school, her writing was good and she was quick with numbers.

After six months there was a disaster. Julie the fatherless child suddenly found she had a father in me, and at the same time, fell in love with me. I was racked by conflict. I was fifty-five years old and Julie was just twenty. It wasn’t right. Poor Julie. But she stubbornly wanted to be my wife. For me, this was not love that was normal, it was all because of the sandalwood fans, the aromatic agarwood fans meant money. If I hadn’t had any money, the young woman wouldn’t have wanted this. Ah, sandalwood fans, the beautiful aroma of agar wood fans had preserved an old man who already smelt of the soil. It wasn’t right for Julie to marry this ancient from Jakarta.

Julie hugged me, hung around my neck and said, “I’ll look after you until you’re using a walking stick. You’ll live again, become young again, through our children.   

I became weak and fell onto the bed.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door and as it wasn’t locked Mrs. Agus walked right in. Her eyes were red. Maybe her high blood pressure had come back. Anyway, she appeared to have tidied herself up and was thinking herself pretty. In fact, because of the bright red of her lipstick, I felt like I was being approached by a tiger.

It isn’t right for Julie to become your wife,” she said, “I’m the right one for you.” As she spoke she moved towards Julie then she slapped Julie.

As Julie ran out I made a run for the back door and then into the bathroom. I hid there for an hour. When I emerged into my room Mrs. Agus was thankfully no longer in sight.

Since then I haven’t appeared at Mrs. Agus’ food stall. I closed down the post office box and moved to another post office.

About three months later, Julie arrived at my room. She sat down as she slid a baby bottle into the lips of the baby in her arms. I was dumbstruck. Surely she wasn’t going to try it on me. I hoped she wasn’t about to go to the police station and report that her baby was my child, the child of a humble sandalwood fan trader.

“I’ve been living with a minibus driver,” she said.

“And had a baby right away?” I asked.

“No. His wife has left him, and she handed the baby over to me. I just took her. After all, where else was I going to go? My mother has high blood pressure. The important thing is that I have a husband,” said Julie, cradling the baby.

I couldn’t say anything. My eyes missed over.

One day about a year later as I was pedaling my bicycle, I saw Mrs. Agus shuffling along dragging a half-filled sack. I stopped but she had forgotten who I was which shocked me deeply. When I looked at the sack I realized. It was just full of plastic water bottles and old newspapers. Mrs. Agus had become a garbage collector. To her, Jakarta had given only garbage.   

“Where’s Julie now?” I asked.

“Julie passed away,” she said.

“And where’s young Agus?” I asked again.

“At the intersection, selling bottled water,” she answered.

“Where are you living?”

“In doorways. There are plenty of doorways. You can just curl up anywhere.”

I was shocked.

“Who are you, sir?” she asked

“I’m a sandalwood fan trader.”

“Oh, my son-in-law, my son-in-law. Please, can you just give me a ride on the back of your bike!”

Right away I gave her a ride to my room, after getting rid of the sack of garbage. I told her to wash and fetched her something to eat.

The following day I went with her to the psychiatric hospital and put her into a nursing home.

Depok, 10 February 2008


Sandalwood Fan (Kipas Cendana) was published in Kompas Daily in March 2008. Retrieved from https://cerpenkompas.wordpress.com/2008/03/30/.

Featured Image: Back cover of EAP153/13/40: Syair Raksi Macam Baru [1915] https://eap.bl.uk/archive-file/EAP153-13-40

Short Story: Karyamin’s Smile

leftphotoBy Ahmad Tohari

Karyamin measured careful deliberate steps. The weight bearing down across his shoulders was a long supple bamboo pole with woven rattan baskets full of river rocks swinging pendulum-like from each end. The steep dirt track leading up the river bank was wet from the sweat that had dripped from Karyamin and the other workers as they trudged up and down the bank hauling rocks from the river to the storage bay at the top.

        Long experience had taught Karyamin that he could make the climb to the top all right if he kept the center of gravity for his body and the load either on the right, or on the left foot, and if he shifted it very carefully from one foot to the other. He had also learned that to maintain his balance he had to concentrate on each breath and every movement of his arms.

        Even so, Karyamin had slipped over twice that morning, collapsing in a heap and tumbling back down the trail followed by the rocks disgorging from his disheveled baskets. Every time Karyamin’s fellow rock collectors had doubled up in fits of laughter, pleased for the amusement that could be extracted from laughing at one another. This time Karyamin crept up the bank more cautiously. Despite his trembling knees, he gripped the earth with his toes as he went, every ounce of attention focused on maintaining his balance. The tension was visible on his face, sweat covered his body and poured through his shorts. Ridged veins bulged from his neck under the strain of the weight bearing down on his back and shoulders.

        And maybe Karyamin would have made it to the top if it hadn’t been for that damn bird! A kingfisher dived from a branch dangling above the river, splashed into the water and emerged with a small fish in its beak. The bird then darted whisker-close across the front of Karyamin’s face.

        “Damn!” cried Karyamin, feeling his balance begin to slip. He tottered momentarily, and then, collapsed, onto the ground surrounded by the clatter of his two baskets of disgorging rocks. Beginning to slide backward down the slope, Karyamin pulled himself to a halt by grasping handfuls of grass. Four or five of Karyamin’s friends laughed together; the rock collectors pleased they could find some happiness in laughing at themselves.

        “Haven’t you had enough, Min? Go home,” urged Sarji, quietly jealous of Karyamin’s fulsome young wife.  “Your heart isn’t in it, you’ve been daydreaming all morning.

        “And it’s dangerous leaving that wife of yours by herself at home, Min. Remember those young bank workers who call into the village every day? They’re not just after loan repayments from your wife! Don’t trust those loan sharks. Go on, go home. They’re probably trying to chat her up right now.

        “And it’s not just those young bank workers who have their eyes on your wife! Don’t forget the door-to-door lottery ticket hawker. I hear he’s always hanging around your place when you’re away. He isn’t just selling lottery tickets either; he’s got to be pushing some other kind of business too!!”

        The sound of laughter intermingled with the clatter of rocks landing on the edge of the river and the splash of water as the rock collectors moved around through the river. One large teak tree leaf lept from a branch and sailed down to land on the surface of the river. Impelled by the breeze, it began to move upstream in opposition to the current. Further up the river, three women were preparing to cross on their way back home from the market. The rock collectors fell silent, entertained by the sight of the women gathering up their sarongs.

        Karyamin sat on the ground, stunned, staring at his empty disheveled baskets, the gentle breeze bringing goosebumps to his arms even though the sun was already starting to become hot. Then the same kingfisher again flew past just above his head. Karyamin was about to curse it but stars suddenly began to fill his eyes and a roar like the roar of swarming bees filled his ears, and he could hear his empty stomach rumbling full of nothing but wind. Everything in front of Karyamin turned yellow, bathed in bright dazzling light.

        Karyamin’s friends meanwhile had started guffawing about the women crossing the river. They had seen something wonderful, or something with the power to induce them to forget, even if just for a moment, the pain in their fingers made sore by scratching over the rocky riverbed; forget the rock trader who they had not seen for a fortnight after vanishing with a truckload of their rock, unpaid for; forget the woman selling packets of peanut-flavored pecel salad and boiled rice wrapped in banana leaves who were going to arrive in the afternoon asking to be paid; forget the lottery tickets which, not for want of trying, they never won.

        “Min!” Sarji called out, “where’s your tongue? Take a look at those big white fish. They’re as big as thighs!”

        Everyone laughed again. The rock collectors really did find some joy in laughing at each other. But this time Karyamin didn’t join in the laughter; he settled on a smile. They could all laugh and smile together. That, all accepted, was their ultimate defense, a symbol of their victory over the traders, over the low price of rock, over the slipperiness of the steep climb up the river bank. That morning too, Karyamin’s smile was a sign of his victory; victory over his gnawing stomach and his blinding star-filled eyes.

        Karyamin had succeeded in creating an illusory paradise of victory by laughing and smiling in the face of his fate. The strange thing was, he felt so annoyed by the kingfisher flying back and forth over his head. For a moment he wanted to grab his bamboo pole and hit the bird, but suddenly he changed his mind. He realized that he would never be able to do that with all these stars swirling in front of his face.

        So Karyamin just smiled and got to his feet even though his head was still pounding, and the sky still seemed to be spinning. He picked up his baskets, then his pole, and then set to climb the bank again smiling wryly as he noticed he was stepping through the depression he had made in the earth where he had fallen a few moments earlier. At the top of the bank, he stood for a moment, startled by the sight of the pile of rocks that didn’t yet amount to even a quarter of a cubic meter. Even so, he had to head for home. Under a waru hibiscus, Saidah had laid out her food for sale, rice and packets of pecel salad. Karyamin swallowed and felt a knot form in his stomach.

        “Going home so early, Min?” asked Saidah. “Not feeling well?”

        Karyamin shook his head, then smiled. Saidah noticed his lips were quite blue, that the palms of his hands were pale, and, as he drew slightly closer that his stomach seemed to be making a noise.

        “Have something to eat, Min.”

        “No. A drink will be fine. Just look at how little you have to sell, and, anyway, I already owe you enough as it is.”

        “Yes, yes, Min. But you’re hungry, aren’t you?” asked Saidah.

Karyamin just smiled, then took the glass of boiled water Saidah was holding out. A warm comforting feeling swept over his throat and down through his stomach.

        “Won’t you have something to eat, Min? I can’t stand to see someone hungry. I don’t mind waiting for the money. I can wait till the rock trader shows up. He hasn’t paid for your rock yet, has he?”

        The kingfisher once again flashed past singing. Realizing that it was probably only searching for food for its babies, tucked away in a nest somewhere, Karyamin no longer felt hatred for the bird. He pictured the bird’s chicks huddled weakly in a nest that the bird had built in some sheltered ledge in the side of a cliff. The breeze began to blow again and teak tree leaves started to swirl through the air. Several glided down to land on the surface of the water. Compelled by the wind, the leaves always struggled upstream against the current.

        “So you really won’t have anything to eat, Min?” asked Saidah, as Karyamin stood up.

        “No. If you can’t stand to see me hungry, well I can’t stand to watch all your stock disappear with me and the others not being able to pay,” he replied.

        “Yes, yes, Min. But… “

        Saidah didn’t finish because Karyamin was already walking away. But she did catch sight of him turn and glance back at her. She noticed him smile. Saidah smiled back and swallowed anxiously. Something had stuck in her throat and she couldn’t make it go away. She watched Karyamin as he made his way along the narrow path winding through the undergrowth along the river basin. Karyamin’s friends called out friendly obscenities but he only stopped once, turning and beaming back to them a large smile.

        Before climbing up out of the river basin, Karyamin caught sight of something moving on a small branch overhanging the water. Oh, it was the kingfisher again. Bright blue back, clean white chest, and sago-red beak. Suddenly the bird dived down plunging into the water. Then with a victim in its beak, it shot past the rock collectors, rose to avoid a clump of tall reeds and vanished behind a clump of pandanus grass. Karyamin felt a sense of jealousy towards the bird, but as he looked at his two empty baskets he could only smile.

        Karyamin did not have any idea why he was going home. There wasn’t anything there that was going to stop the gurgling in his stomach. There was also no point his wife worrying. Oh yes, Karyamin remembered. His wife was a good reason to go home. Last night his wife hadn’t been able to sleep because of a boil right on the top of her backside.

        “So what’s wrong if I go home to look after my sick wife,” he thought.

        Karyamin tried to walk a little faster, although from time to time he suddenly felt a dizziness and a sea of stars would swim before his eyes. As soon as he reached the other side of the bamboo bridge, he noticed a crisp, ripe water guava. He was about to pick it from the tree but changed his mind when he noticed bat bite marks. He also saw snakeskin fruit scattered on the ground below a snakeskin fruit tree. He picked one from the tree, took a bite, then threw it as far as he could. The dry-bitter sourness of the unripe snakeskin fruit tasted like poison on his tongue. Karyamin continued. His ears rang as he ascended a small slope but he didn’t worry; this was the hill leading up to his house.

        Before he reached the crest of the slope he suddenly came to a stop. Two bicycles were parked at the front of his house. The ringing in his ears seemed to be growing louder; he seemed to be feeling dizzier. So he stopped, completely still, and stared. He thought of his sick wife having to deal with the two debt collectors from the bank. He knew she didn’t have the money to make today’s payments, or tomorrow’s, or the next day’s, or whenever’s; just as he had no idea when the rock trader who a month ago had taken their rock would show up again.

        Stars still swam in front of his face. Karyamin started to wonder whether coming home was such a good idea. He knew there was nothing he would be able to do, nothing he could do to help his wife deal with the two debt collectors. He turned around slowly, ready to head back down the hill, but Karyamin noticed a man coming up behind him wearing a long-sleeved batik shirt. The worn out reddish fez on the man’s head convinced Karyamin that this was the Village secretary.

        “Now I’ve finally caught you, Min. I’ve been calling in all morning looking for you but you’ve been out. Then I looked at the river but you weren’t there. You’re not trying to avoid me now, are you?”

        “Avoid you?”

        “Yes, you are being very difficult, Min. In this area, you’re the only person who hasn’t made a contribution yet. You’re the only one who hasn’t put anything into the African Relief Fund to help starving people in Africa. Now, today is the last day and I won’t put up with any more silly business.”

        Karyamin could hear the sound of his own breathing, quietly, and also the rhythmic throb of his own heartbeat, but he couldn’t see the smile that began to spread over his lips. He smiled widely, deeply aware of his own condition and the situation that was now staring him in the face. Sadly, however, the Village secretary took Karyamin’s smile the wrong way and started to grow angry.

        “Are you laughing at me, Min?”

        “No, sir. Definitely not.”

        “Then what’s that smirk all about? Come on, hurry up and hand over your contribution to the fund.”

        But this time Karyamin didn’t just smile; he began to laugh out loud. He laughed so hard in fact that it reignited the beehive hum roaring in his ears and the world slowly dissolved into a sea of swirling stars in front of him and his stomach began to heave throwing him off balance.

        Seeing Karyamin stumble and start to tumble down the embankment back towards the valley, the Village secretary tried to catch Karyamin. Unfortunately, he failed.


Karyamin’s Smile (Senyum Karyamin) was published in Kompas Daily in July 1987.

Norman Erikson Pasaribu – On literature and diversity – “Talking Indonesia” podcast on SoundCloud

New from the Talking Indonesia podcast

This year Indonesia was a featured country at the London Book Fair, which followed a similar showcasing of its literature at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015. Is this a reflection of an expanding and globalising literary scene in Indonesia? Are more diverse voices being heard inside and outside the country, and what are the challenges for making sure that the stories are not lost in translation? Listen at the Talking Indonesia podcast from the University of Melbourne.

The 12 Apostles

Poetry is

By Amien Kamil

Poetry is…

Ink that pools, like an ocean of love
Where we sail as we dive
Exploring the ocean of love

Poetry is…

Not just merely…  words!
That can be muzzled by those in power
With words, or weapons!

Because

Poetry is…

 

 

Light

 

2004


Short Story: Letter For Wai Tsz

By Leila L. Chudori

The weather in Jakarta seems to be reflecting the state of the nation, hot and sticky, not a tree anywhere to shade under. As for myself, I don’t know why I suddenly thought of writing you a letter. I know all too well that in our graduates’ newsletter Keep In Touch they’re always mentioning that you’re one of the graduates who hasn’t been seen since Tiananmen. But I live in hope because I will always believe that God will stretch out his hand and protect you. Your last letter, the one smelling of rotten vegetables and dried fish, the one you seemed to have sent from somewhere in the outskirts of Beijing, just before your escape – so heroic, so inspiring – more and more makes me feel so small, so insignificant.

Dear Wai Tsz,

It’s been exactly fourteen years since the four of us were gazing up at the stars – since you, Finn, Maria and I made that promise. We promised we wouldn’t marry until we had reached those stars.

Our roommate Finn, with her long Snow White blonde hair and blue eyes, told us her life’s mission was located in the constellation of Andromeda.

“What I want is for men and women to have the same rights. And I think that’s an ideal we all share,” she said in her romantic way.

Our Danish roommate’s idealism was really extremely annoying and because of that, I couldn’t be bothered talking about the problem of the completely rampant poverty and corruption in my own country. It would have been very hard to make her understand. Could you just see it, with her own country so rich and peaceful, how could she have begun to imagine?

Then I remember that Maria from the Philippines said with her firm, self-confident voice, “I long for change in my country and I hope that I can be a part of that change.” And straight away you and I yelled out trying to be first, “I wanted to say that too!”

“Come on! How could Indonesia have any problems? Your economy is wonderful compared to ours,” Maria replied. “And you, Wai Tsz, China is a sleeping giant that’s just beginning to wake up. When she’s standing on her own feet Western countries will be lapped up in one gulp. The Philippines is the only one with such an uncertain future under a president like Marcos…”

But as it transpired, the first country to see the smoldering embers of democracy burst into flame was her own country, the Philippines. And just as she had wanted, Maria was a part of the process of bringing democracy to her country. I remember when she sent a newspaper clipping showing her and a group of friends from the University of the Philippines in the middle of that historic demonstration in Edsa Road. Like a movie, I imagined our roommate Maria, the one who couldn’t even get up in the mornings, now part of such momentous change in her country. Image. She became part of the Philippines’ peaceful revolution in February 1986 when Marcos was finally forced to flee to Hawaii, and a widow finally moved into the presidential office. As all this was going on, for me, her neighbor, nothing had changed. I was working for the largest news magazine in my country naively thinking that here everything was nice and peaceful and prosperous. I thought, well, at least it wasn’t as bad as some of the countries that some of our campus friends had come from where there were several coups every year.

Wai Tsz, after we graduated I came home again to breathe our pollution-filled air and I became a journalist. You went home to breathe your own pollution-filled air in Beijing and you transformed into a human rights activist.

The interesting thing about your country was that as soon as your country opened up and allowed in a handful of American companies everyone began saying that this was Deng’s great breakthrough. When Chinese students were allowed to read translations of Milan Kundera and watch James Bond movies it was as if democracy had started to arrive in China. One of your spirited letters related how interesting Fang Lizhi’s lectures were, how he had no hesitation at all using words like “democracy” and “freedom”. But it was only after Tiananmen happened that we realized the so-called breakthrough talked about by Western experts was just an immensely simplified view of the problem.

Meanwhile, Wai Tsz, in my own country new economic policies were being implemented which produced hundreds of new banks, new buildings, new companies, new television stations, new rich people, new cars, still more new policies, even more new buildings, more highways, ever more even richer people, and other, oh, absolutely astonishing, truly astounding…

All of this, Wai Tsz, in fact turned us into journalists. Supposedly professional, agile, flexible, competitive, head in the clouds. It made us forget a lot about humanity. For example, yeah, for example, in planning meetings talking about a war in some country somewhere we would sit around like a bunch of know-all football commentators abusing one of the “stupid” players while we ate fried chicken and laughed. And really what we were talking about was the fate of thousands of women and children being slaughtered in the country. This profession made me, just as Professor Humphrey had predicted (he didn’t agree with my choice of becoming a journalist), turned us into “know-alls who don’t know much about anything”.

Professor Humphrey wasn’t completely right but I have to agree that in a couple of cases he wasn’t too far wrong either. This profession set me up in an ivory tower, made me look at the people as a news item, part of a “deadline”, a conversation on a mobile phone, as no more than a series of meaningless statistics. Tiananmen, an event that was so important for you, was a moral movement. But for us, it was nothing more than a bit of excitement, a fresh infusion of adrenaline, a new pump keeping our journalistic blood circulating. I almost forgot that for years I had a roommate who was probably still on the run, still hiding in garbage bins on the edge of the city. Wai Tsz, where are you?

In your last letter, after the events of June 1989, that smelly smudged letter, I read your handwriting through the ink which had run, “Nadira, help us through your writing.”

Oh, Wai Tsz, I am so ashamed. For sure we wrote, we covered, we photographed, the events in your country proudly. But I’m not convinced that the hundreds of journalists who swarmed to cover those events were moved by concern. Maybe there were some who were, but the others were driven by competition, the desire to get an exclusive, and maybe even out of a desire to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize.

Then this year, 1997, and suddenly I received a shock…

Only now in the midst of so many corporate collapses, bankruptcies, millions of people losing their jobs, bank liquidations, hoarding of food sending prices soaring, newspaper companies complaining about never ending increases in the price of paper, student demonstrations, mothers protesting the increases in the price of milk, only now have I again become “human”. Only now have I thought of you. Only now have I thought about our walks along the banks of the Otonabee River, recalled our arguments about equality and about the differences between East and West, and, oh, how I remember the Galaxy Theory you explained to me that time you tried to cheer me up after you found me crying. You made me to lie down on the grass and look up at the stars.

“At times of sadness and pain, Nadira, fly up to one of those galaxies and leave the Earth. Then from way up there look back and the Earth will seem so small you will wonder what on earth you’re crying about. After that fly back to Earth, take a deep breath, and the problem will be solved.”

Wai Tsz, your Galaxy Theory was so simple and so good for so many reasons. But it won’t be any use for the problems of my country, or for the problems of your country. I have never before been as hopeless as I am now. I have never felt as powerless as I do now. Every day I open the window and I hear the complaints of ordinary mothers about the rising price of food, of people who have just lost their jobs, hear news about the speculators dancing for joy with every fall in the value of the currency. Hundreds and hundreds of people have suddenly become actors, smiling sweetly in front of the television cameras saying how much they love the nation.

William Shakespeare was truly a genius when he wrote: All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players, They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.

Do you remember when Professor Johnson read this verse from As You Like It? Am I becoming a useless melancholic character like Jacques?

I can see Shakespeare doubled up in stitches laughing because the world, the stage for this drama, is full of nothing but a rabble of idiots. According to me the stage for this drama is full of people whose acting skills are terrifyingly good. Every morning the papers are full of stories about our economic problems but even the people complaining are still running around scratching for rupiah to exchange for foreign currency, still feeding on the corpse of other people’s suffering.

Wai Tsz, why was I born in a community which created such a meaningful word for community duty as our own word gotong royong but which is in reality just a collection of completely selfish individuals? My heart is broken. If I had been as selfish maybe I would already have flown off to join our friends chasing ever higher qualifications in the United States. But when all’s said and done, my heart is here, Wai Tsz, planted firmly here, rooted firmly in this soil. No matter how strong, there isn’t a crowbar or a hoe that could dislodge my heart from this land.

For months, Wai Tsz, I’ve been afflicted by horrible nightmares, more like Salvador Dali visions than dreams. One night I dreamed that I had fallen from a skyscraper and even though all my limbs came off I was still alive. Another night I dreamed my hands were chained together and the ends of my legs were being eaten by a pack of black dogs. And another night I was suddenly transported to an empty field where hundreds of crows were attempting to suck my baby from my stomach. Trying to stop these dreams I bought a pile of comics. I thought it would make me laugh. In fact, all that happened was I laughed so hard I cried.

Wai Tsz, I remember the time you said, “Something started with a good intention and a good conscience is always harder to believe in than something started with a bad intention.”

Maybe that’s the reason people find it hard to believe that a protest movement could be driven by conscience. Maybe the word conscience isn’t used very much today, or maybe it’s time to archive it forever in some dusty old museum.

Wai Tsz, where are you? Pretending to be a shop assistant? Or teaching in a tiny primary school in some far away village? Or maybe you’re really still hiding somewhere in Beijing? I have no idea whether you will ever read this letter. I’ll send it to your old address in Beijing. Wai Tsz, wherever you are, if you do not get to read this letter I am sure, you have read what is in my heart.

Your friend, Nadira. (Jakarta, November 1997)


Letter for Wai Tsz (Surat Untuk Wai Tsz) was published in Kompas daily in March 1999.

(Note: The story was written six months before, and published some ten months after, the resignation of President Soeharto in May 1998.)

Background on Tiananmen Square: A massacre, erased

Recent use of the term “people power” is backgrounded widely, including, People power is dead, long live people power