Short Story: Letter For Wai Tsz

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 graduate 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 that we would not get married until we had reached those stars.

Our roommate Finn, with her long Snow White blonde hair and blue eyes, told us that 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 up 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. It was like a movie. I imagined our roommate, Maria, the one who couldn’t even get up in the morning, 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 to say 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 that 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 to talk 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 as 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 about, we covered, we photographed the events in your country proudly. But I am 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 arrived, 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 that sends 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 the East and the 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 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 that you will wonder what on earth you are 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 have been afflicted by horrible nightmares, more like Salvador Dali visions than dreams. One night I dreamed 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. To try 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 is the reason people find it hard to believe that a protest movement could be driven by conscience. Maybe the word conscience is not used very much these days, 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 actually still hiding somewhere in Beijing? I have no idea whether you will ever read this letter. I will 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)

 


The short story “Letter for Wai Tsz” (Surat Untuk Wai Tsz) was published in the Jakarta daily newspaper Kompas in March 1999. The story was written about six months prior to, and published some ten months after, the resignation of President Suharto in May 1998. For background on Tiananmen Square see the Washington Post’s 2019 commemorative anniversary piece A massacre, erased. For background on the controversy surrounding the use of the term “people power” in Indonesia after the April 2019 elections see People power is dead, long live people power.

Short Story: Shoot Seven People Dead

Shoot Seven People Dead

By Ahmad Tohari

Dar farewells me with a firm grip. Then he turns and walks away saying he wants to go home to Jakarta and return to editing a famous periodical. But a moment later, he looks back, before approaching me once more.

“One more time. Are you still sure that what I did was my fate?” Dar asks with a solemn face.

I smile and shake my head. He has asked me the question many times, every time we meet. I just answered the question two minutes ago.

“You mean what you did when you shot seven people dead at the same time? How many times do I have to answer? The event happened fifty-four years ago. Whatever happens is called fate,” I answer, also serious.

“So you’re still sure?”

“Very.”

Dar looks at me but his face is still worried. Then he turns his large tall frame. Unfortunately, he walks away with steps that are not nearly as bold as the figure he cuts. I think Dar is overweight. And like me, he too is greying. What’s certain is that fifty-four years ago Dar and I were both in the final year of secondary school.

Today we’re taking our leave in the yard of a small food shop. Dar ordered rawon beef and rice soup, the oil floating on coconut-cream sauce glistening with fat.

***

The volleyball is fed in and Dar smashes it with a movement at least two seconds faster than the team on the other side of the net are expecting. The ball fires unobstructed into the other team’s court. A roar explodes, especially from the female students watching. Virtually all the girls in our school always go for Dar on the volleyball court, and maybe off it too. Dar again becomes the center of attention as he prepares to serve. But this time, we have to wait as someone calls him off the court. A cry of disappointment goes up from a group of female students. The person calling Dar off is someone we all know well. Along with two of his friends, this person often takes us for marching practice. And he uses tough discipline. He also teaches us how to raise and lower the flag. In fact, this trainer also teaches a special group of students, including Dar who is tall, how to crawl. Not any ordinary crawling, but how to crawl while you’re carrying a rifle, and gripping a commando knife between your teeth. So brave. That’s the way to storm enemy territory. And also how to disassemble and assemble a weapon. This activity makes the smaller, shorter ones among us feel jealous and insignificant compared to Dar.

Still at the side of the volleyball court, the trainer hands Dar a rifle that doesn’t have a magazine. Then with a tough-looking face, the trainer salutes bravely. This helps create an air full of heroism. We grow even more jealous of Dar, and I know the female students are going to admire the tall guy even more. Finally Dar goes back onto the court, now wearing the rifle, even though it doesn’t have a magazine.

From what Dar tells us, we learn that the weapon is an automatic rifle. It is called a Kalashnikov, or AK-47, and it is made in Russia. Gunfire from the weapon sprayed horizontally, says Dar, can bring down a banana tree trunk by making a gash like a machete slash. And one magazine full of bullets fired vertically can split the trunk from top to the bottom, making a cut like a machete slice too. Yes, Dar’s story about the fantastic rifle always manages to make us seem even more insignificant. Although Dar is still a high school child like us, we really believe he has actually done everything he tells us about.

Once the volleyball court is vacated by the hero, it is as if all our enthusiasm has evaporated. All the more so as the female students also move away. I still remember him. And of course Dar receives more, and more exciting, training. Dar relates that the person training us has asked him to enroll in the military academy later. So he will have to do heaps of physical training. Dar just says yes to the trainer to make sure there are no bad feelings. But in fact Dar has told me he really wants to become a painter.

***

Dar is picked up. And as their journey takes them into the teak forest, he asks the person who met him, “Where are we going?” Dar receives the reply. “A great task lies ahead of you over there. Only a great youth could gain the opportunity to carry out such a great task. Not even me in fact.”

Although he isn’t satisfied with the answer, Dar is actually reluctant to push for an explanation.

The jeep travels slowly, crawling through the shadows cast by the trees. It stops where the narrow road runs along the edge of a steep embankment. There are several unarmed men standing together down there. Below the edge, only a few meters away, a river flows swiftly. As the sun is already low in the west, Dar and the others are frequently struck by the glare of the bright sunlight reflecting from the water’s surface.

The trainer hands Dar a full magazine loaded with bullets. Dar accepts it with a show of boldness. Without hesitation, he skillfully mounts the magazine. From the open end, the bullets are visible. They’re pointed, copper-headed, reddish in color. The size of fingers. Dar tells me that the bullets burst as soon as they hit their target. If they’re targeted at somebody’s back, the wound is a gaping hole as large as the hole in the back of a kuntilanak vampire. That’s what Dar tells all of his high school friends. Fifty-four years ago.

The trainer smiles as he gives Dar the thumbs up. Dar returns the smile. When the trainer snaps a dashing salute to Dar, he responds with the same enthusiasm. Then Dar and the trainer take a few steps descending the embankment. About five meters in front of them, a woven bamboo panel is visible being held upright by stakes at both ends. Along the center of the woven panel is a thick white horizontal line about two meters long.

Dar senses that he is confronting something and a situation which he does not comprehend. “What is all of this?” he asks.

And the man answers flatly, “I am going to test your accuracy. Please fire at the white line until you’re out of bullets. Let’s go, champ!”

Dar’s face warms because he feels that he has been presented with a challenge. He takes a deep breath, moves his left leg forward, and leans to the front slightly. He raises the AK-47. His palms are moist. He consciously assumes a brave firing pose. Right index finger tightens on the trigger. Rat-a, tat, tat, tat, tat. Instantly the thick white line on the woven bamboo panel is erased by the spray of bullets.

There follows a second of perfect quiet. In that moment, Dar almost screams for joy because he feels that he has become a great marksman. But a moment later, complete confusion descends. Words fail him as he notices a blotch of blood seeping through the tear in the woven bamboo there before him. He also hears something collapse. He throws down the AK-47 and runs to see what is behind the wall. Several bodies are slumped over, covered in blood. Two are rolling down toward the river. Then two splashes sound out and the river instantly becomes red. Dar suddenly feels dizzy. He sways, then faints.

***

Dar and I meet again a few months later at the small food stall, Dar once again about to return to Jakarta. His stomach is fat and I chide him, “You should eat less. If you don’t, you won’t have a long life.”

Dar defends himself. “Actually I’ve suffered from memory loss all my life because I once shot seven people dead. When I eat, I can forget I have memory problems. That’s all. I won’t ever stop liking food. And I’m also going to keep asking you if you’re still sure that what I did then was fate.”

“Yes. It was fate! It’s a deep scar! It’s our curse!” I answer rather loudly. But the words make my flesh crawl and I can’t hold back the tears.

***

Maybe Dar’s excuse is right, that by eating all the time he can forget the deep emotional injury. But why does he have to eat another rawon beef and rice soup, and then another? Finishing the large bowl of soup, he stands up as if he wants to assume a comfortable position to belch. I stand up too, but not to burp. Instead, I stroke his belly. “You have to take care of your stomach so it doesn’t get any bigger. That’s if you don’t want to die early.”

The fact is it’s just a joke. And Dar and I laugh together. But maybe it’s bad luck or something, because later it turns out that my words are definitely no joke at all. A few days later, I hear the news that Dar has suffered a stroke. Of course I want to go and visit him in Jakarta right away. But before I can leave, more news arrives. Dar has passed away.

Oh Lord, fifty-four years ago, Dar shot seven people dead. And today he passed away. Well, what can I say? There definitely isn’t any need for me to ask for forgiveness for Dar because You are All Knowing.

 


Ahmad Tohari, “Shoot Seven People Dead” (Menembak Mati Tujuh Orang) was published in the Central Java daily newspaper Suara Merdeka on 13 October 2019. [Retrieved from https://lakonhidup.com/2019/10/13/menembak-mati-tujuh-orang]

Ahmad Tohari was born in Banyumas on 13  June 1948. He now lives in the village of Tinggarjaya, Jatilawang, Purwokerto in Central Java province. His most popular work is the novel trilogy Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk [The Ronggeng Dancer of Paruk Hamlet]. His collections of short stories include Karyamin’s Smile (Senyum Karyamin), Nyanyian Malam, dan Mata yang Enak Dipandang. Other works include the novels Kubah (1982), Di Kaki Bakit Cibalak (1977), Bekisar Merah (1993), Lingkar Tanah Lingkar Air (1995), Belantik (2001), and Orang-orang Proyek (2002). The short story They Spelt The Begging Ban (Mereka Mengeja Larangan Mengemis) was published in Kompas daily on 15 September 2019.

Nasi Rawon

Nasi Rawon

Featured image credit: VOXSPORTS VOXER, 17th ASEAN University Games : Volleyball (M) – Singapore vs Indonesia, Photography by Lim Yong Teck (SUSC)

 

 

 

Journal Article: Qur’anic readings and Malay translation in 18th-century Banten Qur’ans A.51 and W.277

“This article examines two copies of the Qur’an from 18th-century Banten, A.51 and W.277, that contain interlinear Malay translation, focusing on two aspects, i.e. Qur’anic readings and Malay translation, to reveal Qur’anic pedagogical practices in the region…”

(2020). Qur’anic readings and Malay translation in 18th-century Banten Qur’ans A.51 and W.277. Indonesia and the Malay World. Ahead of Print.

Read more at: Qur’anic readings and Malay translation in 18th-century Banten Qur’ans A.51 and W.277

Short Story: Funny Story About Gun Shots

Funny Story About Gun Shots

By Surya Gemilang

Pajenong was putting on deodorant in front of the mirror, listening to the newsreader on television describe the continuing increase in rape cases across the city over the past year, when Sarimin’s gun suddenly pumped a bullet into the back of his head. Pajenong collapsed instantly.

After sneaking into the apartment and watching the owner quietly from under the bed, Sarimin crawled out and examined Pajenong’s cellphone. The cellphone screensaver was showing “Date with Vianna at nine o’clock at Cafe X” written in white Times New Roman font against a black background.

To get to the phone desktop, Sarimin would have to enter the correct PIN. If Sarimin succeeded in entering the correct PIN, he was definitely going to send a message to Vianna saying, “Sorry, honey, I can’t make our date today. All of a sudden I want to break up with you. By the way, I think Sarimin is the most suitable man for you.” Sarimin then tried entering several PINs at random. When Pajenong’s cellphone was blocked, Sarimin threw it through the open window, couldn’t have cared less about the head of anyone who might have been hit by the cellphone as it plunged freely from a height of ten stories.

In the end Sarimin didn’t know what else to do. Initially he had intended to come into Pajenong’s apartment armed with a gun, but with absolutely no plan to kill him. He planned only to emerge from under the bed suddenly, scare Pajenong, force him to cancel his date with Vianna, and force him to break up with her. But the sudden anger eating away inside his head had made Sarimin reach out uncontrollably from under the bed and shoot Pajenong in the back of the head, without time to think about how to secure his victim’s body, or how to save himself if he were pursued by the police.

What Sarimin did then, after staring at the clock on the wall showing seven o’clock in the evening, was to move quickly toward Pajenong’s body and kick him violently with the result that he hurt his own foot. Sarimin considered the kicks revenge for the rape that Pajenong had committed against Vianna. Then Sarimin fired the remaining six bullets in his gun until Pajenong’s head was completely destroyed. He thought of the shots as an outlet for his frustration, because he just could not understand why Vianna had wanted to date the man who had raped her.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door to Pajenong’s apartment. The sound of gunfire must have caught the attention of someone who happened to be near the door. A terrible jolt instantly struck Sarimin’s heart because he wasn’t ready to go to prison at all. A cold sweat broke out and began to run down his body as if his skin was leaking.

Then a moment later there was another knock at the door, louder this time. Straight away Sarimin moved quickly to close the bedroom door, turn off the television, and roll Pajenong’s body under the bed. He returned Pajenong’s deodorant to its original place after cleaning off the blood with some tissues. Then he cleaned away the traces of the death from the floor with a towel that he grabbed from the wardrobe and hurled it under the bed too.

Sarimin thought about stepping quietly to the door and peeking at the person who was knocking. But hearing the next much louder knock made him change his mind about approaching the door because he felt the knocking sounded threatening, like the knock of a debt collector on the door of the house of a debtor who hasn’t made any payments on a debt for a very long time. 

Sarimin regretted that he’d used up all his bullets. The regret was just as heavy as when he’d expressed his love to Vianna two weeks ago, resulting in the complete destruction of the friendship they’d been hiding for years out of shame. “Oh, if only that night I had decided to stay quiet, Vianna would not have become angry. She wouldn’t have run out of the house, wouldn’t have met Pajenong in the middle of the road, wouldn’t have been raped in the car. And it wouldn’t have led to the murder I committed here that day,” Sarimin thought.

This time the door didn’t sounded like someone knocking, rather it sounded like someone bashing hard. But it hadn’t come off its hinges yet. Sarimin’s heart almost flew out the open window, which if used to escape now, would definitely mean he was committing suicide. Sarimin also glanced around, looking for anything he could use to save himself, baseball bat, golf club, lamp stand.

Being hit with one of those objects should be quite painful. But it immediately crosses his mind that all that might not necessarily save him if it turned out there were more than one person waiting on the other side of the door. He wondered if maybe he should explain carefully to the person banging on the door that Pajenong deserved to be killed, exactly because he raped Vianna and had then arrogantly called him to boast about the rape?

But killing was just as bad, Sarimin continued thinking to himself. Finally Sarimin’s gaze fell on a large wardrobe. Just as there was the sound of the front door being smashed down, Sarimin without thinking climbed inside the wardrobe. The sweet fragrance of all Pajenong’s clothes fills the inside of the closet, reminding him of the scent of the fragrant flowers sprinkled on to a coffin.

Then he began to hear the sound of footsteps outside. Very light footsteps, as if the owner of the feet were trying to step through the air before ambushing an opponent from above. Even though Sarimin was very frightened, he was still able to focus on what he was hearing, and he could conclude that it was the sound of one person’s footsteps. There could not be more than that. And because there was only one person, Sarimin should be able to climb out of the cupboard right then and fight the person, or simply point a gun at him as he stepped away from the apartment. But neither of these possibilities would be easy. The person out there had to be a strong and brave person, as evidenced by how he was brave enough to break into the apartment.

A few moments later the sound of footsteps suddenly disappeared. There was no way the person had left the apartment. If he had gone, what Sarimin should have heard was the sound of footsteps growing softer and softer, then disappearing, rather than vanishing all at once. The person must be able to fly! Then the door to the wardrobe could be heard being locked from the outside.

***

Vianna had been going to shoot Pajenong when they met at Cafe X at nine o’clock later that night, without caring what the people around her would do. But Vianna had been in a hurry and wasn’t able wait to slay Pajenong because she was so angry. So she had decided to take a taxi and go straight to the apartment of her ex-boyfriend armed with a gun, where the radio was broadcasting the news of the continuing increase in the number of rape cases in the city over the past year. She arrived at her destination at seven o’clock in the evening.

As no one would open the door, Vianna pounded on the door to Pajenong’s apartment until it broke. She surprised herself that she could be that strong. Instead of finding a surprised Pajenong, Vianna discovered that there was no one there. Maybe Pajenong had sensed that she was going to come and kill him, so he was hiding now. The woman then stepped inside very slowly, as if she was stepping through the air before ambushing Pajenong from above.

Pajenong’s apartment was not very large, so it did not take Vianna long to finish searching every corner. She found no one. Not even under the bed. As she sat on the edge of the bed, Vianna wondered whether Pajenong was had been so eager for their date that he had already left for Cafe X?

Suddenly something somehow made her gaze lock onto the wardrobe. Her body suddenly shivered. With a silent step, Vianna approached the cupboard, then locked the door. Next she took several steps back, drew a deep breath, and pumped out the seven bullets in her gun.

Blood dripped from the crack under the cupboard door.

Vianna smiled coldly, dropped her gun on the floor, then left the apartment feeling peaceful.

***

Vianna still went to Cafe X at nine that evening. She celebrated her glorious victory by ordering expensive food. While waiting for the food she had ordered, she took out her cellphone, looked up a trusted news site, and read the news about the continuing increase in rape cases in the city over the past year.

She suddenly missed Sarimin and imagined the man sitting across from her. She thought, “Ah, I shouldn’t have been angry at the time. There’s nothing wrong with him falling in love…”

Just as the food arrived, Vianna noticed a well-dressed man enter the cafe. The man waved at her as he approached. Vianna’s breath suddenly froze. And she almost passed out as Pajenong sat down in front of her, face covered in freshly-dried scars.

 


Surya Gemilang, Funny Story About Gun Shots (Humor Tentang Tembakan-Tembakan) was published in Kompas daily newspaper on 8 March 2020. [Retrieved from https://lakonhidup.com/2019/10/13/menembak-mati-tujuh-orang]

Surya Gemilang was born in Denpasar, Bali, on March 21, 1998. His books include: Chasing Shooting Stars (Mengejar Bintang Jatuh) (a collection of short stories, 2015), How to Love Monsters (Cara Mencintai Monster) (a collection of poems, 2017), A Taste of Death (Mencicipi Kematian) (a collection of poems, 2018), and Looking for a Head for Mother (Mencari Kepala untuk Ibu) (a collection of short stories, 2019). His other writings can be found in more than 10 mixed anthologies and numerous media publications.

Featured image credit: Cafe Batavia by Prayitno

Short Story: Sandalwood Fan

By Gerson Poyk

I live completely alone, but I can still live well enough because 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 there’s a covering roof that extends a long way out where I can store the cooker, dish rack, bucket and bike. There’s a second-hand television in my main room that 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 because she would have been able to take care of 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 back to sell for a little income. She would cook spiced fish, uduk rice, chili soybean, grilled fish, grilled eggplant and a chili sauce that 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 my sales at the traditional markets and the multi-story project sites where day laborers work.

But after my wife passed away everything became a mess. My daughter was forced to drop out of school in the tenth grade 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 for half a day which meant that the food was not 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 the 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 continued.

“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 can 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 next to my daughter’s stall. Every day very early in the morning, my daughter would sell by herself in the market without me for company. After sleeping till eleven o’clock in the middle of the day, I pedaled my bike to the market and collected some of the food my daughter was selling. I rode around to the busy construction sites, the fences of busy factories 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, sat down 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 woman from Madura prominently in his tabloid. The story was long and detailed and described the New Order-era government program called “candak kulak” that had provided small-scale capital. The program was long gone, vanished without a trace.

My daughter would go on to marry the journalist from the Voice of the Market.

Her friend the woman from Madura would hawk up and down the market until one day several months later a minibus driver also proposed to her.  

Not long after that, my new son-in-law moved to the Middle East to work as a journalist for an oil industry magazine called Oil.

True neither of them did help me much as they studied while they worked there. My son-in-law was at university and my daughter finished her secondary school finals before going on to university. But they didn’t forget to think about my financial situation.

My daughter did sent me some money to use as start up 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 the sandalwood and agarwood offcuts that are 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 all these small things, I was involved in a world that was wide and big! Although sales of sandalwood fans were brisk enough for me to be able to buy a block of land in Jakarta, my children urged 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 for coffee or a bite to eat.  

The owner of the food stall Misses Agus was being helped by her daughter who had a younger brother. He hadn’t been through the Islamic circumcision ceremony yet, called khitan. At first, I would only have breakfast there. Then I would visit every day to have lunch, and then dinner. Young uncircumcised Agus was very pleased whenever 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 heavy little piggy bank. It was full of the coins I had given him. It was a real surprise for me to see a child who had apparently been left by a father who had passed away. Young Agus’ older sister Julie had been a wonderful help to her mother. Almost every day she would work in the small food stall unless she had to wash clothes at home, sweep or hang out the washing.   

“Where do you work, mister?” 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, “So when you go to work, you first have to turn into an ant!”

“Ah, don’t be silly,” I joked.

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

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

“So you’re emotional?” I asked.

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

“It doesn’t matter if it’s small, so long as it turns a dollar and makes a profit and hopefully turns 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 joked. “Small people like us have to start small.”

“A post office box can not 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 city depot.”

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

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

“Only three-hundred thousand rupiah. How could they do something like this! And after the agreement was to pay one thousand rupiah per day. Suddenly, he asks me to repay the whole loan because he says his house was flooded,” explained Julie.

“Where is the money…”

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

I was no longer being rational. I called out at once, “Man, 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, and what about the interest? It’s been three years now 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. All right. Here’s the money.

“Yeah, well, here are your things back,” they said.

A short time after the debt collectors had gone, young Agus arrived home from school. The small, first grade child was surprised most as there was no food. I told him to buy packets of cooked rice for four people and then to help set up the stall so it didn’t look like a wreck.

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

Julie became my assistant. Although she had only finished junior secondary school, she was a good writer and she was quick with numbers.

But after six months, there was a disaster. The fatherless child Julie now all of a sudden found that 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 was not right. Poor Julie. But she was steadfast in wanting to become my wife. For me this was not love that was normal. It was all because of the sandalwood fans, the aromatic agarwood fans that meant money. If I had not had any money, the young woman would not have wanted this. Ah, sandalwood fans, the beautiful aroma of agarwood fans had preserved an old man who already smelt of the earth. It wasn’t right for Julie to marry this ancient one from Jakarta.

Hanging about my neck hugging me, Julie said, “I will look after you until you have to use a walking stick. You will 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 just walked 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, the bright red of her lipstick made me feel as if I was being approached by a tiger.

It is not right for Julie to become your wife,” she said. “I am 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, thankfully Mrs. Agus was no longer anywhere to be seen.

Since that, 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. Sitting down, 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 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 I have a husband,” said Julie, cradling the baby.

I couldn’t say anything. My eyes filled with tears.

One day around a year later as I was pedaling my bike, I spotted Mrs. Agus shuffling along dragging a half-filled sack. I stopped. But she had forgotten who I was, and this shocked me deeply. Looking at the sack I realized. It was just full of plastic water bottles and old newspapers. Mrs. Agus had become a garbage collector. Jakarta had given her nothing but garbage.   

“Where’s Julie now?” I asked.

“Julie passed away,” she answered.

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

“At the intersection selling bottled water.”

“Where are you living?” I asked next.

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

I was shocked.

“Who are you, mister?” she asked

“I’m a sandalwood fan trader.”

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

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

The following day I went with her to the psychiatric hospital and admitted her to 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 credit: Back cover of EAP153/13/40:  Syair Raksi Macam Baru [1915] https://eap.bl.uk/archive-file/EAP153-13-40

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