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 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

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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

Sexy Killers WatchDoc Documentary Nobar Malang

“Sexy Killers: a Documentary”; WatchDoc Documentary

Recently a lot of people have been talking about this one documentary film. The Blue Indonesia Expedition team and production house WatchDoc Documentary say they’ve been keen to make the final installment in the series based on their recent year-long expedition traveling throughout Indonesia. After producing many films in the series as a result of their expedition, including films such as Samin vs Cement (2015), Kala Benoa (2015), The Mahuzes (2015), Asymmetric (2018) and many others, comes the latest most talked about addition, Sexy Killers: a Documentary (2019). (Read more at “Review ‘Sexy Killers’, Film dan Isu Terseksi Tahun Ini” Kompasiana 15 April 2019)


The full movie is now available here.


Featured image comes from https://www.instagram.com/watchdoc_insta/.

Lihat juga Hari Sexy Killers Sedunia,  Sexy Killers coal documentary goes viralIndramayu halts ‘Sexy Killers’ screening for alleged hate speech, Documentary film Sexy Killers probes Indonesian candidates’ ties to Big CoalIn ‘Sexy Killers,’ journos probe Indonesian candidates’ ties to Big Coal,  Quick counts suggest Jokowi has won. What happens next?Energy Minister Responds to WatchDoc’s Sexy Killers Documentary.

Graffiti

Short Story: Bitter Beans

By Seno Gumira Ajidarma

A discrete young couple is engrossed in an animated argument about bitter beans. In fact, they have just finished a dinner that consisted largely, among other things, of bitter beans.

“Just imagine if there were no bitter beans in the world,” muses the young man.

“Well, what about it?”

“If there were no bitter beans in the world, the poor wouldn’t have anything to make them happy. Imagine! Wouldn’t it be dreadful if the only thing that made the poor happy was owning a Mercedes Benz and working in an office? We’re lucky to have bitter beans! Every individual bitter bean makes a huge contribution to the total sum of human happiness. It’s about time we realized that the bitter bean is one of Indonesia’s most important national resources.”

“But the image of the bitter bean doesn’t fit the image of the newly rich city-living office worker, the collar-and-tie look. It’s obvious that the bitter bean just isn’t, or at least isn’t very, well, cool. You can hardly be proud of the smell! After all, these days people are only happy if they have something to be proud of.”

“To be proud of, or, to be arrogant about? Look at us. We’re happy eating bitter beans. Try smelling my breath.” The young man exhales, “Phew!”

The young woman waves a hand in front of her nose. “Yuck! What a revolting smell!”

“Well, of course it smells! But the embarrassing smell of bitter beans is only an image problem. Something has to be done to change its image. You can’t deny it. It does bring joy to millions of people, people who can only afford to find happiness in eating bitter beans. That’s the first thing. And another thing, aren’t they also good for you? According to a friend of mine, they’re good for your kidneys. They help you piss. And the problem of the smell? Ah! The smell can even be turned into… a unique national symbol! I might even write a letter to the newspaper suggesting, yes, that the Director General of Tourism start an advertising campaign promoting the smell of bitter beans as… `The Smell of Indonesia’. What do you think? Do you like that?”

The attractive young girlfriend is silent, blinks and listens to her excited boyfriend’s ideas. Out of affection she usually tries to agree, even though she does think this suggestion sounds a little odd. There is no way in the world the bitter bean is ever going to amount to anything of world importance. Not like crude oil, or nuclear energy. It’s just a fact that bitter beans will probably only ever be important for the little person, to the ordinary man and woman in the street.

“I don’t think you’re actually wrong,” she says, “but do you really think many people will be able to get what you mean?”

“Well, of course. What’s so hard about it? It isn’t complicated. It’s getting harder and harder to make a living. The measure of success is becoming more and more difficult to achieve. And that means too many people will feel like they’ve failed in life, that their lives are worthless if they can’t live up to this measure of success. These are the defeated people, the unfortunate, those who despite having worked and worked are never going to strike it big. These people have to be entertained…”

“And how is that going to happen?”

“Oh! I can’t believe you haven’t got it yet!”

“You mean they have to be made to realize that happiness can be achieved, not by having a white-collar job, but by.. eating bitter beans?”

“Exactly!”

“You mean grilled bitter beans, don’t you?”

“They could also be fried.”

“What about raw bitter beans?”

“Not interesting enough.”

“Steamed then?”

“Now, that’s a little better. But what would be exciting is beans mixed with milk.”

“You mean…?”

Udang Sambal Petai

“A bitter bean nog! Not milk, egg, honey and ginger, but milk, egg, honey and bitter beans! Ha ha ha!!” they laughed together.

“Then, you could also have bitter bean juice.”

“Wow! That’s a great idea!”

“Now you’re getting silly!”

“Why?”

“If the meaning of life can only be found in eating bitter beans, what would be the point of going to school and getting a good education? Surely the achievements of human civilization can’t be measured by the happiness that someone finds by eating bitter beans. It wouldn’t be right for bitter beans to be so important that nothing else made people happy.”

“Hang on! Do you actually believe that? Look, the central business district of Jakarta, Jakarta’s ‘Golden Triangle’, is just the tip of an enormous pyramid and just a mere handful of people ever get to enjoy the bright lights. If everybody tried to climb to the top of the pyramid, it would be a disaster! Most people are going to roll back down again, or fall off, or get pushed off and become poor again and then they are going to end up believing that there isn’t any point to life.”

“You’re so cynical.”

“What do you mean cynical? I have great hope.”

“You mean hope in bitter beans, that the only thing that will make Indonesians happy is eating bitter beans?”

“You can make an Indonesian happy with a tie, and you can get millions of ties from Sogo department store.”

The pair chatter on excitedly, as the distinctive aroma of bitter beans sprays from their mouths with every enthusiastic breath.

Having explored every aspect of the bitter bean for more than an hour, they finally realize that they are very tired.

Eventually, all that is left is for them to kiss passionately.

“You reek of bitter beans,” says the young man.

“You smell of bitter beans yourself,” replies the woman, as they each depart for their homes.

Arriving at his home, the young man kisses his wife.

“You smell of bitter beans,” she greets him.

“Yes, I did have some at a food stall.”

“You’re always eating those things!”

“No, I’m not. Only now and again.”

“I’m amazed. I’ve told you before, but you just don’t learn, do you?” says the man’s wife. “If you eat bitter beans, everyone in the house has to put up with it. You know no one else in the house likes them besides you. I don’t like them and neither do the children. Whenever you eat bitter beans, the smell goes everywhere, from the toilet out back to the gutter in front of the house. The smell gets into everything. It’s embarrassing! The neighbors will say, “Err. The people next door are eating bitter beans again!” Try to cut down a little, will you? Try to show a little consideration for someone other than yourself, all right! So you honestly enjoy them, but you have to realize, only poor people eat bitter beans, darling.”

After that, she doesn’t say anything else. But before going to bed, she suddenly remembers that her bitter bean-munching husband in fact gave them up before they were married fifteen years ago. But lately, over the last few months, she’s noticed that he’s started eating them again. She can’t understand why.

“Maybe he needs a little variation,” she thinks.

(Jakarta, October 1990.)


Bitter Beans (Petai) was published in Kompas Daily in December 1990.

Box of Petai

The 12 Apostles

Short Story: The Slave of Love

By Seno Gumira Ajidarma

Only her eyes are visible. What can one see from a pair of eyes that radiate the enchantment of the world with every blink?

That is how enchantment projects from the eyes being watched to swallow the eyes watching, which are instantly dazzled and instantly stunned, as if struck by a blaze of heavenly light that completely obliterates the self and every desire, leaving the body devoid of all thought, except that of surrender and willingness in the yearning to be enslaved in the sacrifice of the soul.

“That’s enough! Stop standing there like that,” says his wife. “Let’s go home.”

But he no longer knows the words go home. Gone is home, gone is wife, gone is family. Vanished is all the cheerful chatter of children filling his life like the crashing of surf filling the silence of the universe.

He leaves his shocked wife, who grabs his arm only to have him to jerk it away, who can only look at the man who is her husband, who is the father of her children, vanish into the crowd and disappear…

Who would ever have thought that happiness was so fragile, the miracle of love so transitory?

***

From a distance, he continues to follow her. She steps without ever looking behind again, even though in all the reflections of all the glass at the intersection, in the shop windows, or in the side mirrors of motorbike taxi drivers waiting for passengers, she can see how he has been following her since the market.

She realizes he’s been walking along the sidewalk constantly following her at a distance. If she turns into a lane, he follows her into the lane. If she climbs onto a bus, he follows in a minibus that travels the same route. If she gets into a taxi, he follows her on a motorbike taxi or in another taxi. If she catches an electric train, she knows too how he is in the same carriage, and immediately follows her when she gets off at whatever station she’s going to.

Later when she arrives at her house, she kisses her husband’s hand, takes the little one back from the hands of the babysitter. Then from behind the window with the curtains that are always closed, she needs to look through and she can see the outline of her stalker dart into the small cafe down the road. She’s certain that from inside the cafe he’s constantly staring, waiting, hoping. Dreaming.

She and her husband look at each other. The little one is asleep. The babysitter has left.

From the small café that is closing up, a pair of eyes stare out at her dark house and sip coffee.

***

From day to day he moves around the daily life of the woman whose eyes alone are visible. It isn’t enough to follow from behind, sometimes he pretends to pass her accidentally.

It’s when they pass that he stares at her eyes and at whatever else apart from her eyes he can see. And it’s when they pass each other that his chest heaves, his heart comes alive and something will pound more quickly than usual.

What can be expressed by a pair of eyes whose brightness excites, with a gaze that pierces and grips, that conquers? What can a pair of eyes say? It seems so much, but how can one be sure?

He hopes those eyes will recognize him, and if they recognize him then pay a little attention to him, and if possible, not only pay a little attention, but still more also hope for something in return from him. But not just hope for something in return, also crave for something in return.

Is it possible that what he has hoped for, that what has never existed in the relationship between the two of them, can happen? But those eyes seem to be saying everything! They seem to be paying attention, appear to be hoping for something. They even seem to be craving for him…

Over the days his suspicion seems to be becoming a reality.

***

One day when he follows her, she turns around and looks straight at his eyes.

He thinks, she’s looking for me! She wants to know if today I am following her! She wants me to follow where she’s going!

He quickens his pace, drawing nearer. But she doesn’t turn around again. After a time just walking behind her, he ventures to speed up and draw alongside her.

They walk together, against the current of the surging urban humanity sweeping along the streets. Who among so many people in this world would think that something so important has happened between the two of them?

With all these feelings flowering in his heart, he still is not able to be sure of anything.

How can he be sure of anything just from the look of someone’s eyes, even though it has certainly been proved that the blaze of a radiant pair of eyes has captured and uprooted him from his old, comfortable, serene, problem-free life to enter a world that, despite being uncertain, still promises the happiness of a heaven like the one created by the glow of her eyes?

The waves of humanity continue to sweep around them. He observes their eyes, and it seems that not one of them pass with the glow of the eyes of the woman beside him. How is it possible?

How is it possible that all these people flowing past from the front can miss so blithely the shining radiance of the most beautiful eyes? Are the eyes of city people any blinder than when they are looking for something fake which in fact has never existed? But they are there in front of him!

Walking alongside her he cannot see anything, up until it is dark, and the woman is gone. He searches everywhere and does not find her…

***

The house lights have to be switched off before she looks through the curtains and sees that he is in the small café, his glare penetrating the night directly in her direction. She closes the curtains quickly as if that stare were a flying arrow, able to pierce the glass of the window, penetrate the window and pierce her heart. But then she parts the curtains again. He won’t be able to see her. She can see him. There are many people in the cafe, but his back is turned towards them and he’s staring in her direction. A slight feeling of sadness passes over her, but just for a moment. She’s used to disregarding her own feelings, for the sake of the larger interest that she believes in.

She turns in the direction of her husband, who’s reading verses from the holy book to their son before going to bed.

Her husband raises his head, looks at her, and nods.

***

The dark cloudy sky surged as, for the umpteenth time in as many months, he follows her some distance behind. She glances back just before disappearing into a lane. With a gaze that shines brightly, fleetingly, but which takes complete possession of the soul which cried and worshiped for so long craving a reply. He feels how his feet are so light as he weaves between the thousands of people in the street to follow her. He wants to never lose her again, even though he can always return to the cafe in front of her house.

Rain thunders down the moment she reaches the back of the lane. She is waiting there, leaning against a wall, soaked to the skin, and staring straight into his eyes. He is frozen. What he is used to experiencing as a hope and a yearning makes him giddy as it becomes a reality.

Not only stare. She takes his hands, pulling them in the torrential rain that makes every other person disappear from the streets, vanish from the lane, and leaves only the two of them breaking through the rain holding hands. Although the rain is so heavy the water from the sky feels like the rubber bullets that hit him randomly as he watched the demonstration, he cannot remember them.

***

A door opens and they enter a dark room. He inhales the odor of old metal, but what is he going to worry about when in the darkness his wet clothes are no longer covering his body, and hands as soft as cotton carry his hands to the other unclothed body?

In the darkness and the thunder of the rain, he cannot hear the sounds and sighs, but he can feel everything.

***

He carries a backpack on his back. As ultimate service what is there he won’t? He doesn’t even feel the need to ask what is in the pack. He doesn’t want to worry about that from fear of losing the one who’s mastered him.

His feelings are still those feelings as the world suddenly disappears from his consciousness when the bomb in his backpack explodes destroying everything. Everything. Buildings, ants, and humanity…


The Slave of Love (Budak Cinta) was published in Kompas Daily, 20 January 2019. (Retrieved from lakonhidup.wordpress.com)

Seno Gumira Ajidarma, born in Boston, United States, June 19, 1958. Now serves as Chancellor of the Jakarta Institute of the Arts (IKJ). Seno became better known after writing his trilogy of works on East Timor, namely Saksi Mata (collection of short stories), Jazz, Purfum, dan Insiden? (novel), and Ketika Jurnalisme Dibungkam, Sastra Harus Bicara (collection of essays). In 2014, he launched a blog called Pana-Journal (www.panajournal.com) about human interest stories with a number of journalists and professionals in the field of communication.

Oetje Lamno, born in Yogyakarta on May 31, 1978, completed his art education at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) Yogyakarta. He has participated in various art exhibitions in several places, including overseas. In 2010, he attended Beijing Biennale # 4 at the National Art Museum of China. In 2017, he returned to exhibit in China on “Silk Road, International Festival Art, Xi-an”. Oetje was a finalist of the 2015 Indonesia Art Award art competition, whose works are on display at the National Gallery of Indonesia, Jakarta.

The Slave of Love Budak Cinta ilustrasi Oetje Lamno/Kompas

The Slave of Love (Budak Cinta) illustration by Oetje Lamno/Kompas Daily

Giant Turtle, Kartini Beach Jepara

Short Story: The Sufi Teacher Passed By…

By Seno Gumira Ajidarma

One ordinary sleepy day a Sufi teacher landed in Jakarta on his magic carpet at the gates of the toll road leading from Jakarta to Cengkareng International Airport. He hopped down and strolled into Jakarta as his magic carpet flew off again back up into the heavens.

It happened to be a Friday and at midday, the Sufi teacher went looking for the nearest place to perform his Friday prayers. He went into the office block he was passing and on the ground floor found a small prayer room. The usual plastic prayer mats were laid out ready for Friday prayers but the room was still empty. A man who seemed to be the prayer room attendant was getting ready to perform his prayers, so the Sufi teacher asked, “Prayer room attendant, isn’t it Friday today and shouldn’t everyone be here performing their prayers?”

kebenaran

“True. Usually, there are lots of people here on Fridays to pray. The office workers in this building prefer to pray here on the ground floor rather than go out and look for a mosque.”

“But prayer room attendant, why isn’t anyone at all here today even though it’s time for prayer?”

“Ah, they’re all praying on the ninth floor.”

“And why is that?”

“Because.., it’s air-conditioned. They say the atmosphere there is more conducive to prayer, and it’s nice and cool on the ninth floor, while down here it’s hot and sticky.”

“Ah, I see,” replied the Sufi teacher in English, nodding.

And so he and the attendant performed their prayers together by themselves with the attendant leading the devotions.

When they had finished, the Sufi teacher continued on his way looking for Gus Dur, the director of the Islamic community organization called Nahdlatul Ulama. He wanted to ask whether Americans could use the English phrase ‘good morning’ instead of the Arabic greeting ‘Assalamu alaikum’.

A month later the Sufi teacher was again going past the same building and as it happened to be right on time for midday prayer he once again entered the building.

It turned out that this time there were dozens of people preparing to pray in the small prayer room. There were so many in fact that they were spilling out of the prayer room into the lobby as the fiery sermon lambasted the spread of worldly greed.

The Sufi teacher again asked the attendant, “Prayer room attendant, why are there now so many people praying here, so many that they are overflowing into the lobby? What has become of the air-conditioned prayer room on the ninth floor?”

“Sojourner, the office workers have come back here to pray because the air conditioning is out of order, and the room which used to be so nice and cool is now unbearably hot. Because of the humidity on the ninth floor, they now want to pray here; if they are lucky they might catch a passing breeze.”

The Sufi teacher again nodded, saying in English, “I see. I see.” Then he continued, “Well then, take note prayer room attendant. Reflect on this question: Is there any difference between those who pray in an air-conditioned room and those who do not?”

The prayer room attendant was silent, and, after midday prayers were over, forever more followed the Sufi teacher wherever he went.

One day on their travels they arrived at the edge of a river somewhere in Central Java where there was no bridge. To cross to the other side it was necessary to use a small bamboo raft. The raft landing on the other side was not directly opposite and had to be reached by using a punt some way along the bank before crossing over.

Punting along the edge of the river the Sufi teacher noticed a man fishing at the edge of the river who didn’t seem to be using any bait. But even though the fisherman wasn’t using any bait, the fish were just jumping from the water by themselves and landing in the man’s basket, filling it to overflowing. As the basket filled, the local people emptied fish into their own baskets and carried them away to their homes. The villagers flocked to the fisherman’s basket.

Amazed at this sight, the Sufi teacher asked the raft keeper, “Raft keeper, who is that man by the river fishing without any bait?”

“That’s Saint Jagakali.”

“Who’s he?”

And so the raft keeper told the Sufi teacher the story of the fisherman. It was said that long ago in that village there had lived a fisherman who lived solely from the fish he caught. Every day he would take his catch, return home and cook and eat it. One day one of the fish he caught was flapping gasping on the ground near him when it had begun speaking to him.

Mesjid Cikini Raden Saleh Jakarta 1947

Mesjid Cikini Raden Saleh Jakarta 1947

“Fisherman, please let me go. Grant me a great blessing and throw me back into the river. What good can I be to you? The small amount of flesh on my tiny bones will hardly fill you.”

The fisherman was astonished, but replied, “Talking fish, why do you speak to me this way? Does a fisherman not have the right to eat a fish he catches? This is the way it has always been, and the way it always shall be.”

“But life is like a wheel,” replied the fish. “What would happen if you should die and be reborn as a fish?”

The fisherman laughed aloud and threw the speaking fish into his basket.

Finally, after the fisherman had died he was indeed reborn as a fish. On the other hand, after passing away the talking fish was also reborn, but as a fisherman.

One day the fisherman who had once been a fish caught the fish who had at one time been a fisherman. The fish who had been a fisherman was also able to speak.

“Good fisherman, I beg you to let me go because I am just a small fish and life means so much to me. My small body will hardly provide you with enough. Please throw me back into the river and set me free.”

The fisherman who had once been a fish happened to recognize that the fish he had caught was the fisherman who had once caught him.

The fisherman said, “Talking fish, do you not remember that once you were a fisherman and that once you refused to grant the request of a small fish. I am that very fish, and now you must experience what I felt that day.”

“No! Please! Haven’t you thought that one day you might be reborn yet again as a fish and I as a fisherman who might catch you? Remember that life is like a wheel, spinning around and around and around.”

“I don’t care; I desire vengeance. Aha ha ha ha ha!” responded the fisherman as he threw the fish into his basket. The fish flip-flopped backwards and forwards with slowly weakening flicks until it was finished.

In its next life, the fish did return as a man and the fisherman too returned, this time as a fish. The man who had once been a fish who had once been a fisherman did indeed become a fisherman who loved fishing more than anything in the world. But he did not forget that once he had killed a fish and had finally as a fish himself been killed by a fisherman despite his pleas for mercy. Full of reverence, he resolved to return the fish he had caught to the river.

Henceforth the fisherman fished without using any bait. The strange thing was that ever since he had decided not to use bait the fish had just leaped from the water by themselves into his basket. Even then he couldn’t bring himself to eat the fish so he allowed the local villagers to take them. As there were more fish than a fish factory the local villagers took them gratefully.

The fisherman would sit by the river day and night fishing, refusing to use any bait. He did not want to eat any of the fish and he lived solely from the dew that formed on his lips in the morning, chanting the mantras of the poet Sutardji Calzoum Bachri:

How many centuries must pass,
How many watches must stop,
How many signs must appear,
How many steps must I take,
Before I am able to reach You?

Over time, the fisherman had been given the name Saint Jagakali after the great Muslim mystic of Central Java, even though the fisherman himself had acknowledged no creed.

When the Sufi teacher and the prayer room attendant arrived at the other side of the river, the Sufi teacher thanked the raft keeper and together he and the prayer room attendant continued on their journey to East Java.

The Sufi teacher wanted to meet the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Kiai Ahmad Shiddiq, to ask the venerable teacher what he would think if Michael Jackson and Jean-Michel Jarre were to record Arabic devotional songs.

After that, the Sufi teacher wanted to summon his flying carpet and return to Isfahan. He was planning to drop into Qom and let Khomeini know that wisdom had spread to every corner of the earth. But then he remembered, the Great Teacher was already dead, so he changed his mind.

The Sufi teacher next planned to fly from East Java to Japan, but first, he wanted to take the prayer room attendant to the modern Islamic boarding school at Gontor in East Java so he could learn English. After all, a prayer room attendant in an office block in Jakarta’s ‘golden triangle’ central business district crowded with the offices of foreign investors needs to know English.

When he arrived in Japan the Sufi teacher planned to go straight to Kyoto, find a Buddhist priest, and find out how he practiced Zen.

(Jakarta, February 1990)


The Sufi Teacher Passed By… (Guru Sufi Lewat…) was published in Kompas Daily in May 1990. It also appears in Ajidarma, Seno G. Dilarang Menyanyi Di Kamar Mandi: Kumpulan Cerita Pendek. Jakarta: Subentra Citra Pustaka, 1995. Print.  Kesadaran Mitis Seno by Aprinus Salam, Humaniora No. 10 Jan-Apr 1999, p. 91.

Dilarang Menyanyi Di Kamar Mandi

Dilarang Menyanyi Di Kamar Mandi