The Love of City People

By Hanna Rambe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      Ruli anxiously asked whether it was a serious bite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      “Oh,” sighed Ruli.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kasih Sayang Manusia Kota was published in Horison magazine in June 1990.

(*) Pondok Indah is a well known up-market district of Jakarta.

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

Sandalwood Fan

By Gerson Poyk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their thinking seemed pretty strange to me.

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

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

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

“I work at home,” I answered.

“Where’s your office?” asked Julie.

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

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

“Ah, don’t be silly,” I said.

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

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

“So you’re emotional?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s the money…”

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

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

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

“No way…”

“Why not?”

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

“Ah all right. Here’s the money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I became weak, and fell onto the bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And had a baby right away?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Where’s Julie now?” I asked.

“Julie passed away,” she said.

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

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

“Where are you living?”

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

I was shocked.

“Who are you, sir?” she asked

“I’m a sandalwood fan trader.”

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

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

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

Depok, 10 February 2008


Kipas Cendana was published in Kompas daily in March 2008. [Retrieved from https://cerpenkompas.wordpress.com/2008/03/30/. Accessed 12 October 2016.]


Image: Back cover of EAP153/13/40: Syair Raksi Macam Baru [1915] http://eap.bl.uk/database/results.a4d?projID=EAP153;r=18467

Two Creeping Geckos

By S. Prasetyo Utomo

Setyawati threw back the blankets and got up. She went over to the small table and drank down the last of the coffee from her cup. Every last bit. Head thrust right back, her mouth gaped wide open. The last wet, muddy granules of coffee were like cold lava flowing into her mouth. I like this least about her. She chewed the final granules of ground coffee, the dregs which to the tongues of most ordinary humans would have tasted bitter with an energy and pleasure that could only be generated by her own mouth.

She stretched out her tongue and licked every last granule from the edge of the cup.

“You’re used to swallowing the bitter,” I teased.

She continued licking the last granules as she watched the geckos crawling along the wall.

Then Setyawati declared, “I’m very used to swallowing the bitter things in life – at home. It isn’t easy having a husband who isn’t as capable, who has no taste for beauty, but who’s into being in control. I’m tired of doing what he wants. Sometimes he thinks he’s the best, always right, knows everything. Ah, I get so mad!”

The two geckos on the wall approached each other nudging together, then scampered after one another. In the corner of the ceiling, right in the corner of the ceiling, the larger of the two geckos pounced on his quarry. Setyawati laughed aloud, shoulders heaving up and down. She turned on the light, illuminating the whole room at once, then blew out the candle. The scent of molten wax and burnt wick lingered.

Outside tree branches and casuarina leaves damp from the drizzly wind scratched against the window.

“My husband wants to show his power through his job,” said Setyawati opening the window and allowing the cold fog and drizzle to blow into the room.

****

“Come on!? Let’s go for a walk.”

“In the middle of the night?”

“Sure. I want to look at the fireflies, feel the mountain breeze at night, listen to the distant sound of the river.”

Without giving me an opportunity to resist Setyawati closed the previously open window. She took up her jacket and sank her two beautiful arms into it.

The pair of geckos were still snuggled against each other in the corner when Setyawati closed the door of the hotel room. We went down to the lobby and stood before the meeting room that was being used for the seminar. Filled with the sound of endless debate from morning till night, the room was now silent, only the proud microphones stood on the moderator’s table.

Gently and with conviction, Setyawati bid farewell to the hotel security guard and set off on foot. Despite his initial blank unseeing look, the security guards still managed a nod and a smile.

It was as though the road set Setyawati free from the evil thoughts of the geckos, from their laughter at mankind’s fumblings. I breathed in the misty night air, the scent of mountain soil, and the heavy scent of casuarina trees. In the darkness I followed as Setyawati led through the quiet of village lanes, past irrigation dykes, rice paddies, meandering vegetable gardens, coming at last to a river, clear, cool, refreshing.

There were no fireflies. Only gatherings of people with guns in the village night watch huts. People greeted us as we passed, suspicious. But Setyawati’s gentleness protected us from the roughness of the armed villagers on night patrol. Passing a mosque we could see a number of the faithful still murmuring prayers, chanting the holy verse even at this late hour. Geckos crept along the walls of the mosque. To what other hidden mysteries did these geckos bear witness in their own tongue?

But it seemed that Setyawati didn’t notice the geckos on the mosque walls.

“Isn’t it strange,” whispered Setyawati. “People on guard suspiciously in the hut.”

Setyawati’s step was becoming uncertain, fearful. However propelled by a desire to understand the situation and squeezing my arm tightly she went on. There was no moon light. A dog barked in the far distance and the torch lights of the patrolling villagers criss crossed up and down the lanes in the paddy fields and over the vegetable gardens.

Suddenly one of the villagers called out from a rice field. People began to run towards him, far from the road in a vegetable field not far from the bund of a paddy field. Torch beams darted. Then the commotion grew to an the uproar. As the commotion grew Setyawati tugged at my arm and we moved towards the excited gathering.

Forcing her way into the tightly packed crowd of people shining torches at something, Setyawati screamed, “Ah! Two dead bodies lying in the mud – like two dead geckos!”

The bodies lay face down half covered in the mud. When they were turned over, wide slash wounds yawned across both their chests.

****

Placing her hands over her face, Setyawati couldn’t hide the horror. She held back tears. In the hotel room far from the bodies lying face down near the paddy field bund half covered by the mud, Setyawati restrained her terror with no more than a pair of hands. But even so her hands weren’t strong enough to bear within themselves the upheaval in her soul.

Unconsciously, and I will be convinced forever it was unconscious, she nudged against me, gently pressing her head to my chest. Her arms were strong around my waist. She had forgotten the two geckos were still crawling along the wall. Were geckos, to Setyawati’s mind, incapable of comprehending the language of human sadness?

“I am terribly frightened my husband or I will be slaughtered like the two people we saw in that field,” whispered Setyawati. “My husband has a great many enemies. A man once came to the house carrying a knife and threatened to kill us.”

I didn’t want to comfort her; I wanted to leave the trembling fear until her own courage returned. She was so tired and sleepy and her eyelids were closing when she dropped off, arms tight around my chest.

The two geckos had long since moved far apart, each scurrying after its own prey. But Setyawati was searching for a feeling of peace, seeking the sense of tranquility she had lost, by falling asleep, head nestled in my chest, like a newborn child slumbering soundly as it suckled it’s mother’s nipple.

“I think I had better head into town now,” she whispered, rousing, smiling and finding her inner quiet.

“It’s still dark, and what’s more there are interesting sessions all day.”

“I’m not interested any more. Say goodbye to the others for me,” Setyawati declared in front of the door to the hotel room as she straightened her hair. Her eyes were warm. “The pair of geckos on the wall are laughing at me, aren’t they. And you think I’m like a little girl, don’t you?”

I walked Setyawati down to the lobby. She returned the key and climbed into her car which was covered in dew. In the remaining darkness and enveloped in the damp misty air, she left, leaving behind a roaring silence.

I entered my own room again and on slamming the door two geckos dropped to the floor right at my feet, tails breaking off in the process. Leaving their tails flicking back and forth they scurried back up onto the wall. I was not Anglingdarma(*) at the side of Setyawati, able to understand the language of the geckos, having to keep their secrets unto death in the midst of raging flames for the sake of his beloved queen.

Pandana Merdeka, October 1998

 


Dua Cicak Merayap was published in Kompas daily in January 1999.

(*) A character from the Hindu epic the Mahabharata who rescues Setyawati and eventually wins her hand in marriage.

Ojek

By Gerson Poyk

Late one evening as I was studying for my semester exams, my nimble fingered father called out to me from the living room. Without looking up from the old radio he was repairing he said, “Come and sit here a moment, son.” I sat down expecting a request for help to hunt on the cool ceramic tile floor of our house for some nut or screw he had dropped.

      But I was wrong.

      “Since your mother passed away I haven’t been able to concentrate, son,” said dad. “I haven’t been doing a good job on these radios either, and well, the customers, they’re going other places. My small pension isn’t really enough; I’m not making as much as I used to from the radios and I have no idea how I’m going to pay for your little sister to go to university.”

      Politely I said nothing as my father continued.

      “What do you think if I withdraw the last of our savings from the bank and buy a small secondhand motorbike?”

      I was puzzled, “A motorbike?”

      “A motorbike. You could make a little extra money for us by taking pillion passengers. By becoming an ojek (1).”

      “You mean like all those other ojek who give people rides for a fee?” I asked.

      “If you don’t mind spending the time on Friday evenings or in the afternoons you could get a few fares. Even one or two would be a help with the household budget. Rather than getting a job as a bus driver like some of your friends, it would be better to just become an ojek,” said dad, screwdriver still inserted into the radio.

      “No problem,” I said straight away, getting up to go back to my desk beside the kerosene stove at the back room of our fourteen tile-wide three-room house. There weren’t any doors between the rooms so I could talk to dad in the living room if he raised his voice slightly. “Could I use the bike to go to university, dad?” I asked.

      “No, don’t do that,” was his reply. “What you need to do is stay away from the main roads. Just wait on the bike at the intersection of the main road and the road leading into our kampong. You have to offer to take people places they can’t get by public transport,” suggested dad from our all purpose living room cum electronics workshop.

      My younger sister was worn out from playing volleyball with friends from the neighbourhood and was in bed. When she went out to play volleyball in the afternoons she would usually take a couple of thermos flasks full of ice blocks which she would place by the edge of the court. Once her friends were thirsty she would shepherd them over to the thermos flasks and sell them ice blocks. She not only got a little physical exercise but she also made a little money, her own little contribution to the household. Our tiny house was in fact a highly productive place, serving as both radio repair workshop and factory producing the ice blocks my sister sold to weary neighbour children and school friends.

 

I busied myself, first arranging a motorbike license for myself and then with the last of dad’s savings, looking for a second hand motorbike.

      I would come home from lectures in the afternoons and wait at the top of the road leading down into the densely built kampong with its labyrinth of capillary small lanes and paths which were impenetrable to public transport.

      On the first day I made a fortune, five thousand rupiah! This encouraged me greatly and after a week I had made a tidy little sum. Dad urged me to put the money into the bank account he helped my sister open a long time ago when she started selling ice blocks.

      The money brought its own pleasure. But there were also the pleasures of the odd little things that happened from time to time not to mention the life-threatening risks. At first I couldn’t care less about the passengers, what they looked like, or what state they were in, as long as they handed over the fare. Old, young, clean, dirty, healthy, sick (so long as they were still healthy enough to sit on the back), I took anyone, anytime they wanted, anywhere they wanted to there.

      But it was the young women I enjoyed the most, and there were plenty of attractive young women wanting to be taken home to their houses deep in the kampong, far from the main road and public transport. But as an ojek, I knew my place and never tried starting a conversation.

      One day a beautiful white woman walked up to me wanting a ride. The problem was she was so amazingly tall and so large that as we travelled the bike swayed wildly and she almost caused me to lose my balance. And then it had to happen, right as we descended a small hill, my front tire blew out! I jumped on the brake – and over we went! Small dark me and the beautiful giant both went sprawling across the road. Fortunately she wasn’t hurt. As the bike went over, her vast figure landed on scrawny little me, right on my head! And as my helmet had no chin protector, my chin was driven into the gravel road, almost breaking my chin and sending dazzling sensations through my jawbone as it was pushed back into the base of my ears. Happily the feeling didn’t last too long.

      I apologised to the white woman, hailed a friend passing on his way home from taking someone else and asked him to drop off my huge white passenger.

      It was some time before I saw the white woman again. Then one day while I was waiting for passengers she went past this time driving her own car. An Indonesian woman was sitting next to her. I wondered where the beautiful giant and her attractive Indonesian friend with flowing black hair could be going. I was desperate to know so I turned the ignition key and set off after them. Dismay swept over me when eventually the car pulled into an immense two storey house which compared to my fourteen tile wide house was a castle. I just rode past satisfied that I had found where the attractive white woman lived.

      It was some time later before I saw the Indonesian woman again and in the meantime I continued with my business ferrying passengers on the back of my bike. I lost count of the number of fares I had, anyone at all wanting a ride, young or old, male or female, not to mention all the children. I took no notice of them, just the money they held out.

      At home three things filled my mind: my father, my little sister and my study, while at the university campus I would revert back into a hard working university student.

      Several months later I did notice the woman with the flowing straight black hair again as she crossed the road at the bus stop. This time she was wearing a high school uniform. I waved and as she headed in my direction I started the engine. She jumped on and we roared off.

      “Who was that good looking white woman you were with?” I asked without wasting time.

      “Have you ever given her a ride?” she asked in reply.

      “Once. But I got a flat and we both came off. She landed on me and almost crushed me!”

      The high school girl on the back laughed and said, “She’s my after-school tutor.”

      “Well, that explains why you were in the car together, doesn’t it. And what does she teach?”

      “She teaches English,” answered the girl.

      “Cool. By the time you’re in university you’re English will be good,” I said encouraging her. “Which stream are you in at school?”

      “I took sciences.”

      “And what do you want to do at university?” I asked.

      “Mathematics…”

      I began to say how wonderful I thought that was but suddenly she shouted ‘stop’, seriously startling me. Without realizing it we had reached her large house.

      She held out a ten thousand rupiah note and said, “This is all I have, sorry.” I didn’t flinch and she continued, “Ah, keep the change.” She strode off towards the imposing wrought iron gates leaving me clutching the note.

 

I stopped working as an ojek so I could concentrate on my final major paper at uni. In the meantime I lent my bike to a friend whose own motorbike had been repossessed by the owner. We agreed to split the profit fifty-fifty and even though he’d only finished primary school, he turned out to be completely honest. He dropped in every afternoon to deliver half the day’s takings. My friend’s honesty encouraged me to look on him as a younger brother and my father too became quite fond of him. Orphaned when young, he had no home and sometimes slept on benches at the bus interchange, sometimes in shop doorways. When dad found out about this he rented a small room in a boarding house for my friend.

      Late one night he picked up a passenger and that was the last time his friends saw him. His lifeless body was found dumped in a river, my motorbike stolen by his cruel thieving killer. My friend’s life had been extinguished for nothing more than a crappy second hand motorbike. Sorrow settled over our hearts and remained with us always, along with the memory of the friend who had been so good to us.

      My friend’s death also caused the more mundane problem that we had to deal with the police, but we were satisfied they had taken his murder seriously.

 

After so much hard work I eventually graduated and the day I received my results, a satisfactory level pass, I was overcome with anguish thinking about my murdered ojek friend. He had contributed so much to paying my way through my now successfully completed uni course and I was overcome with grief and emotion.

      In my poverty in that small house with a widowed pensioner scratching out a living by repairing radios and my little sister karting ice blocks to school to sell to friends the almighty had granted that I should complete my degree, me, a university graduate, born of poverty and the faithful friendship of a homeless ojek whose life was torn away by a savage robbing killer.

My sister started uni and dad continued repairing his radios. He even surprised us by quietly learning how to repair television sets. My sister and I were amazed one day to find a television in the living room.

      As soon as I graduated I was offered a job as a teacher at the uni and one day while teaching a class of first year students I noticed one of the female students with a surprised look on face. At once I recognized the woman who was gazing not at a teacher but at a young ojek and the question was obvious, how could he be one of my lecturers!

      Unfortunately it didn’t take her long to fail the semester examination and stop coming to lectures. Before she stopped attending, however, she sent me a letter politely asking whether she could visit me at home to arrange private tutoring, at whatever price I liked. She was even prepared to become my girlfriend, so long as I faked her results so she passed the examination.

      Saddened I reflected on the fact that my degree had cost the life of my ojek friend and that if I did tamper with her results the reputation of the university would be worthless. The answer was, no.

 


1. Ojek are informal motorbike taxi riders who earn an income by taking pillion passengers to their destination for a fare.

2. Ojek was published in Kompas daily in June 1988.

3. On Gerson see http://idwriters.com/writers/gerson-poyk/; http://gersonpoyk.blogspot.com.au/; https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/992956.Gerson_Poyk.  

4. Image is from https://adinparadise.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/wordless-wednesday-hitching-a-ride/

Stink Beans

By Seno Gumira Ajidarma

A discrete young couple were engrossed in an animated argument about petai beans. Indeed they had just finished a dinner that had, among other things, consisted largely of petai beans.

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

      “Well, what about it?”

      “If there were no petai 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 Benzes and working in an office. We’re lucky to have petai beans! Every individual petai bean makes a great contribution to the total sum of human happiness. It’s about time we realized that petai beans are one of Indonesia’s most important national resources.”

      “But the image of the petai bean doesn’t fit the image of the newly rich city living office worker, the collar-and-tie look. It’s obvious that the petai bean just isn’t, or at least isn’t very, well, cool. You can hardly be proud of the smell! After all, people these days 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 petai beans. Try smelling my breath.” The young man exhaled, “Phewww!”

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

      “Well, of course it smells! But the embarrassing smell of the petai bean 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 petai 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 could 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 petai beans as – `The Smell of Indonesia’. What do you think? Do you like that?”

The attractive young girlfriend was silent, blinked and listened to her animated boyfriend’s ideas. Out of affection she usually tried to agree, even though she did think this suggestion sounded a little odd. There was no way in the world the petai bean was ever going to amount to anything of world importance. Not like crude oil, or nuclear energy. It was just a fact that the petai bean would probably only ever be important to the little person, to the ordinary man and woman in the street.

      “I don’t think you’re actually wrong,” she said, “but do you really think many people are going to be able to follow what you’re getting at?”

      “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 this means too many people are going to feel they have 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 be done?”

      “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 through having a white-collar job but by, eating petai beans?”

      “Exactly!”

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

      “They could also be fried.”

      “What about raw petai beans?”

      “Not interesting enough.”

      “Then steamed?”

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

      “You mean…?”

      “A petai bean nogg! Not milk, egg, honey and ginger, but milk, egg, honey and petai beans! Ah ha ha!!” they laughed together.

      “Then, you could also have petai 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 petai 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 someone finds in eating petai beans. It wouldn’t be right for petai 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 only a mere handful of people ever get to enjoy the bright lights. If everyone 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’re going to finish up believing there isn’t any point to life.”

      “You’re so cynical.”

      “What do you mean cynical? I hold out a great hope.”

      “You mean placing hope in petai beans? That the only thing that will make Indonesians happy is eating petai beans?”

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

The pair nattered on excitedly, the distinctive aroma of petai beans spraying from their mouths with every enthusiastic breath.

      Having explored every aspect of the petai bean for more than an hour they finally realized they were very tired.

      Eventually all that was left was for them to kiss passionately.

      “You reek of petai beans,” said the young man.

      “You smell of petai beans yourself,” replied the woman as each departed for their homes.

      Arriving at his home the young man kissed his wife.

      “You smell of petai beans,” she greeted him.

      “Yes, I did have some at a small 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?” said the man’s wife. “If you eat petai 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 petai beans the smell gets goes everywhere, from the toilet at the back to the gutter in the street at the front. The smell gets into everything; it’s embarrassing! The neighbours are going to say, “Errrr. The people next door are eating petai 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 petai beans, darling.”

      After that she didn’t say anything more. But before going to bed she suddenly remembered that her petai bean munching husband had in fact given them up before they got married fifteen years ago. But lately over the last few months she had noticed he had started eating them again. She couldn’t understand why.

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

      (Jakarta, October 1990.)


Petai was published in Kompas daily in December 1990.

Image: Pierre, L., Flore forestiere de la Cochinchine, vol. 4: t. 393, fig. B (1880-1907) [E. Delpy]

Graffiti

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 Tienanmen. 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, convinced 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 ended up moving 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 of 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 Tienanmen 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, deft, flexible, competitive, heads 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. Tienanmen, 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 am not convinced the hundreds of journalists who swarmed to cover those events were moved by concern. Maybe there were some who were, but the others were driven by competition, the desire to get an exclusive, and maybe even out of a desire to win the coveted Pulitzer prize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Surat Untuk Wai Tsz was published in Kompas daily in March 1999.

Written six months prior to, and published some ten months after, the resignation of President Soeharto in May 1998. 

And 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.

“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.

Hence forth 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)


Guru Sufi Lewat… was published in Kompas Daily in May 1990.