Ain’t No Night Fair
By Pramoedya Ananta Toer
The letter wouldn’t have upset me so badly if only I just hadn’t sent my own letter before it arrived. My letter contained what I can only describe as something that was going to be very unpleasant to read. The letter I received read like this:
Blora, 17 December 1949
My beloved child!
There is no more profound joy in this world than the rich happiness felt by a father who has his child returned to him, his first born child, the child who carries all of his swelling pride and honor, the child who for so long has been denied contact with normal society and been separated from the ordinary life of decent human beings.
I can imagine the suffering in your soul. I can picture how you suffered in that cramped space, because I experienced that myself during the rebellion of the Socialist Youth militia, when I was moved between three prisons in two weeks. From that time until now, every single night, I have begged the Lord Almighty for safety and happiness for our family and for our future generations. I pray He will forgive the sins of our family.
Yes, that was the start of the letter I received after I’d been out of jail for two weeks. With me sending such an angry letter, and with me receiving this reply, well, tears just welled up in my eyes. And I promised myself, I wouldn’t be so disrespectful.
I never had any idea my father had been held prisoner by the communists too. Then six months later there arrived another letter from Blora. This time it wasn’t from my father but from my uncle.
If you can, please come home to Blora for a couple of days. Your father isn’t well. At first it was malaria and a cough. Then he also developed hemorrhoids and finally they figured out, he’s got tuberculosis. Your father’s in the hospital now and he’s already vomited blood four times.
To start with I was in shock reading the letter. My chest felt tight. Then I couldn’t say anything. In my mind, I could see, first, my father, and then, the money. Where would I find the money to go home? And this is what sent me wandering the streets of Jakarta, hunting for my friends, and for debt.
It was hot, and the tens of thousands of cars sprayed dust all over your perspiring body. And it was dust that contained a mixture of all sorts of things – dried snot, horse shit, bits of car tire, pieces of bike and pedicab tire, and probably also some of my own bike tires which the day before had sped along the same streets I was riding along now. And the dust mixture stuck with your own perspiration like glue to your body. I couldn’t help swearing just a little, to myself.
Yes, if only I owned a car. If only, I said, then none of this would have happened. At that moment I also thought, people who do own cars certainly cause a lot of trouble for those who don’t. And they don’t even know it.
Approximately half an hour after the sunset prayer time I had succeeded in acquiring the debt. If that decent friend hadn’t been able to hold out the money while saying “You can use this money for the time being.” I have no doubt I would have become a bigger wreck than before. The angry letter I had sent first made me rigid with the feeling that I had done something terribly wrong. And to make that go away, I had a duty to visit my sick father. That’s what my heart told me.
In the violet darkness and the sun setting in the reddening west, my bike sped along the small streets close to the president’s palace. The palace. It was bathed in the rays of electric lights. Who would have known how many hundreds of watts it used. I didn’t know. In my estimation, I just guessed the palace’s electricity couldn’t be anything below five kilowatts. And if anyone had believed that it didn’t have enough electricity, someone only needed to pick up the phone and the palace would receive more.
After all the President was a practical person, not like those people struggling to eke out a living every day along the side of the road. If you weren’t the president, and nor a minister, and you wanted to get forty or fifty more watts of electricity, you had to have the courage to pay off someone with two- or three-hundred rupiah. This was really very impractical. And if those in the palace wanted to go out and visit A, or B, everything was ready – airplane, car, cigarettes, and the dough. And to get to Blora I had to first rush all over Jakarta, and acquire some debt. Living like that was really very impractical.
And if you became president and your mother became sick, or, take your father, or take, any other member of your close family, then tomorrow, or the day after that, you would already be able to visit them. Then suppose you were a low-level civil servant on a wage only just sufficient to breathe on, even asking for leave to visit someone sick would be difficult. After all, it makes those two-bit office bosses feel big if they can hand down some dictate that stops their officials from doing something.
All of this was just getting me worked up. Democracy is one truly beautiful system. You’re allowed to become president. You’re allowed to choose whatever job you like. You have the same rights as anyone else. And democracy means you don’t have to bow or scrape to the president or a minister or any other lord or noble. Truly. This is one of democracy’s victories. And you’re allowed to do whatever else takes your fancy, just as long as it stays within the limits of the law. But if you ain’t got no money, you’re screwed. You can’t move an inch. In a democratic country, you are allowed to buy whatever goods you like. But if you haven’t got any money you’re only allowed to look at the things you want. This is also a sort of win for democracy.
All of this filled my heaving chest as I pedaled along with the borrowed money in my pocket. And, yes, debt too was a good thing, a kind deed even, when a person was caught in a difficult place.
Debt! President! Minister! Lords! And sickness! Cars! Sweat and horse-shit dust! My heart cried out.
Source: Ain’t No Night Fair (Bukan Pasarmalam) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Dinas Penerbitan Balai Pustaka, Jakarta, 1959.
For more background on DA Peransi see Indonesian Visual Art Archive.