‘Make Humanism Great Again’
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— eko nugroho (@Nugroho11Eko) July 31, 2019
Respected Ulema was not a shaman, not a fortune-teller and neither was he a magician. Respected Ulema was simply a theater actor. To be precise, a former theater actor, one who had transferred his acting skills from the stage to everyday life.
From the way he behaved, the way he arranged his facial expressions and from his body language, he managed to convey the impression that he was a truly wise person. This was clear from the large number of people who believed in him without realizing that what they were believing in was a character being played.
That’s how it was, day in and day out. And after many years, Respected Ulema had finally managed to trick even himself. That he actually was really wise, clever, intelligent and knowledgeable. He really did think that with just the powers he wielded, he really was able to show the way to the truth that every person was searching for. What’s more, the responses of all the people around him confirmed this completely.
The only thing was Respected Ulema had started to become sick and forgetful. But not even one person believed it. Respected Ulema himself had never been to the doctor about his illness. Because he thought that if he went to the doctor and had a blood test from a medical laboratory, people wouldn’t trust him anymore.
“How can a person with special power go to the doctor?” That was the response he wanted to avoid.
That was how it was. There were just more and more people who arrived to ask for guidance. So many that it wasn’t possible any longer to serve all of them one by one. The crowd at his house was so large that if it was made to line up, it would be too long. It wouldn’t have gone down even in 24 hours because the people just kept on arriving.
So Respected Ulema made a decision. The solutions for problems wouldn’t be handled for each person one by one, but rather in bulk. There would be one piece of guidance for all the people, and each would have their own interpretation of it.
That day, Respected Ulema sat cross-legged in his usual place, a rectangular box which in the theater world was called a “level”. It was enough to have a level that was covered with a cheap woven pandanus mat. That way he would be raised up higher than the people who were gathered in the room. The higher position for him was necessary because it would give the impression he was higher than everything, everything both inside the room, and in the world outside.
In the world of the theater, the stage is the center of the world, and that room was his stage. The theater group he had founded had long since dispersed and the people had now forgotten him. The public now knew him as a person with special powers who was able to answer questions about anything appropriately and correctly, precisely and accurately, so long as he or she was capable of interpreting his guidance.
Everything that came to pass demonstrated the powers of Respected Ulema. Everything that did not eventuate indicated the ignorance of the interpreter. That was the law that applied in the world of Respected Ulema.
From his past life, there remained only that level. He only needed the one. It was more than enough to make him higher than anyone who entered his house, his stage in the real world — and that day there he was, cross-legged, eyes closed, with his head bowed, and his body hunched over. It was not too clear whether he was meditating or dozing.
He himself did not understand why it was that the older he became and the greyer his beard grew that it became easier and easier to doze off. But it was more important for him that the older he became, the more respected he became, even though it wasn’t too clear to him whether he was respected because he was considered wise, or just because he was old.
The morning breeze blew in through one window, and out again through another, making the air cooler, even though the wooden walls were beginning to radiate the golden rays of the sun. They had been waiting since early morning, since before Respected Ulema had woken. After taking a shower, and having breakfast, Respected Ulema appeared, stretched out his hand to place it on the foreheads of the guests, then sat cross-legged on the pandanus mat.
People waited for a very long time. Outside, more and more people were arriving. They couldn’t get in before people inside came out. Word went round that Respected Ulema had not said a word for a long time.
“Ulema doesn’t always say something,” said someone.
“Maybe Ulema won’t say anything,” said another.
“Of course Ulema doesn’t need to say anything,” said someone else.
“Ulema will provide signs.”
As if receiving a way out, everyone waited. If he did not make an utterance, Respected Ulema should provide a sign, as had been interpreted up till now by the seekers of guidance. Whereas if he spoke, Respected Ulema’s words would not provide guidance directly, becoming signs in themselves.
As a result, in addition to referring to Respected Ulema, those seeking guidance had to take advantage of the services of the sign readers around him. It was not at all clear how they could spring up and become part of the phenomena of Respected Ulema, who clearly sometimes the cost of remuneration for these sign readers was far greater than the voluntary remuneration for Respected Ulema. How much? While Respected Ulema had never said a word about remuneration, the sign readers always said, “The amount is up to you.”
In order not to make a mistake, the people who needed the guidance of Respected Ulema would give a payment larger than appropriate, which was on occasion accepted with a grumble.
“You all said you needed help, and Respected Ulema’s guidance will solve your problems, why are you so tardy about providing a payment. Don’t expect everything to be all your way now…”
Respected Ulema suddenly started to cough. Some thought he was ill, but the readers of signs begged to differ.
“Get ready! Get ready!”
“Record it! Record it!”
Hundreds of people took out their cellphones. And Respected Ulema’s coughing was recorded while no one assisted him. Only when Respected Ulema himself was forced to mime a person drinking, did someone fetch him some mineral water.
After having a drink, Respected Ulema looked calmer, although his chest was still heaving up and down. Nevertheless, people had begun approaching the sign readers who immediately started to discuss this sign which took the form of coughing.
“Please, how many times did Respected Ulema cough?” asked one sign interpreter.
A recording was played so the coughs could be counted.
“I count forty-one?”
“Hey! Why are there different numbers? It has to be correct. Different numbers will have different meanings!” commanded an interpreter of signs.
To achieve the same number among hundreds of people was obviously not going to be easy. It took a long time to reach agreement. Respected Ulema had coughed 45 times.
“Wow, such a big difference. If you had tried to interpret the meaning before, it would have been wrong, hey?”
So, what does Respected Ulema’s 45 coughs mean?
One of the interpreters of signs said, “Because the meaning is for every person, and because each problem is different, every person is to receive a whispered interpretation which must be kept secret. Do not ever reveal this secret, because it’s good luck will immediately disappear.”
Each interpreter conveyed more or less the same thing to the people surrounding him. But as it happened Respected Ulema started coughing again, and despite the fact that his coughing was very severe, so severe that Ulema collapsed onto his stomach suffocating, people were more inclined to respond to it as if it were merely a series of signs.
“Record it! Record it! Record it!”
“Don’t miss even one movement!”
It is true that someone did hand him a bottle of mineral water as they massaged his back, but his coughing did not stop this time until Ulema’s eyes began to bulge and his tongue hung out when his coughs merged together without any more pauses and transformed into one extended suffocation.
A strange noise emanated from his throat, like a loud exhaling, to a casual onlooker it was like the snoring of someone asleep.
Then Respected Ulema did not move anymore.
“Did you get it all?” asked one of the interpreters of signs.
“Praise be to God… Got it!”
Years later, people would continue to visit the tomb of Respected Ulema seeking guidance and searching for signs. Every sign originating in the events of his death was said to have the power to overcome most problems, if not every problem, thanks to the successful interpretations of the sign interpreters. Life and death – was there a meaning of greater significance than that?
Until today, people still visit to climb the hill, heading for the tomb of Respected Ulema which is located under a tree and deliberately isolated from the other graves. People spend the night in the area, light frankincense or incense, then surrender themselves to nature.
According to the people who believe themselves the recipients of guidance, they have received the signs from Respected Ulema from the stars in the sky, the rustling of the wind or the falling of the leaves carried on the wind. Can there be anything richer in the universe as a source of interpretation of all meaning?
A caretaker is now present at the tomb. He can help resolve the meaning of any sign, and really has earned a great amount of money.
There are also those who have told of Respected Ulema appearing in their dreams and how he has become overjoyed.
Even though it was mentioned earlier, Respected Ulema was not a shaman, not a fortune teller, and neither was he a magician. Respected Ulema was merely a humble theater actor – something not many people know about. (*)
(Villa Cendana, Kampung Utan, Saturday, 15 December 2018, 5.00 p.m.)
Respected Ulema (Kiyai Sepuh) was published in Jawa Pos on 6 January 2019. Seno Gumira Ajidarma is an Indonesian writer, novelist, and film critic. Retrieved from LakonHidup.com
A discrete young couple is engrossed in an animated argument about bitter beans. In fact, they have just finished a dinner that consisted largely, among other things, of bitter beans.
“Just imagine if there were no bitter beans in the world,” muses the young man.
“Well, what about it?”
“If there were no bitter beans in the world, the poor wouldn’t have anything to make them happy. Imagine! Wouldn’t it be dreadful if the only thing that made the poor happy was owning a Mercedes Benz and working in an office? We’re lucky to have bitter beans! Every individual bitter bean makes a huge contribution to the total sum of human happiness. It’s about time we realized that the bitter bean is one of Indonesia’s most important national resources.”
“But the image of the bitter bean doesn’t fit the image of the newly rich city-living office worker, the collar-and-tie look. It’s obvious that the bitter bean just isn’t, or at least isn’t very, well, cool. You can hardly be proud of the smell! After all, these days people are only happy if they have something to be proud of.”
“To be proud of, or, to be arrogant about? Look at us. We’re happy eating bitter beans. Try smelling my breath.” The young man exhales, “Phew!”
The young woman waves a hand in front of her nose. “Yuck! What a revolting smell!”
“Well, of course it smells! But the embarrassing smell of bitter beans is only an image problem. Something has to be done to change its image. You can’t deny it. It does bring joy to millions of people, people who can only afford to find happiness in eating bitter beans. That’s the first thing. And another thing, aren’t they also good for you? According to a friend of mine, they’re good for your kidneys. They help you piss. And the problem of the smell? Ah! The smell can even be turned into… a unique national symbol! I might even write a letter to the newspaper suggesting, yes, that the Director General of Tourism start an advertising campaign promoting the smell of bitter beans as… `The Smell of Indonesia’. What do you think? Do you like that?”
The attractive young girlfriend is silent, blinks and listens to her excited boyfriend’s ideas. Out of affection she usually tries to agree, even though she does think this suggestion sounds a little odd. There is no way in the world the bitter bean is ever going to amount to anything of world importance. Not like crude oil, or nuclear energy. It’s just a fact that bitter beans will probably only ever be important for the little person, to the ordinary man and woman in the street.
“I don’t think you’re actually wrong,” she says, “but do you really think many people will be able to get what you mean?”
“Well, of course. What’s so hard about it? It isn’t complicated. It’s getting harder and harder to make a living. The measure of success is becoming more and more difficult to achieve. And that means too many people will feel like they’ve failed in life, that their lives are worthless if they can’t live up to this measure of success. These are the defeated people, the unfortunate, those who despite having worked and worked are never going to strike it big. These people have to be entertained…”
“And how is that going to happen?”
“Oh! I can’t believe you haven’t got it yet!”
“You mean they have to be made to realize that happiness can be achieved, not by having a white-collar job, but by.. eating bitter beans?”
“You mean grilled bitter beans, don’t you?”
“They could also be fried.”
“What about raw bitter beans?”
“Not interesting enough.”
“Now, that’s a little better. But what would be exciting is beans mixed with milk.”
“A bitter bean nog! Not milk, egg, honey and ginger, but milk, egg, honey and bitter beans! Ha ha ha!!” they laughed together.
“Then, you could also have bitter bean juice.”
“Wow! That’s a great idea!”
“Now you’re getting silly!”
“If the meaning of life can only be found in eating bitter beans, what would be the point of going to school and getting a good education? Surely the achievements of human civilization can’t be measured by the happiness that someone finds by eating bitter beans. It wouldn’t be right for bitter beans to be so important that nothing else made people happy.”
“Hang on! Do you actually believe that? Look, the central business district of Jakarta, Jakarta’s ‘Golden Triangle’, is just the tip of an enormous pyramid and just a mere handful of people ever get to enjoy the bright lights. If everybody tried to climb to the top of the pyramid, it would be a disaster! Most people are going to roll back down again, or fall off, or get pushed off and become poor again and then they are going to end up believing that there isn’t any point to life.”
“You’re so cynical.”
“What do you mean cynical? I have great hope.”
“You mean hope in bitter beans, that the only thing that will make Indonesians happy is eating bitter beans?”
“You can make an Indonesian happy with a tie, and you can get millions of ties from Sogo department store.”
The pair chatter on excitedly, as the distinctive aroma of bitter beans sprays from their mouths with every enthusiastic breath.
Having explored every aspect of the bitter bean for more than an hour, they finally realize that they are very tired.
Eventually, all that is left is for them to kiss passionately.
“You reek of bitter beans,” says the young man.
“You smell of bitter beans yourself,” replies the woman, as they each depart for their homes.
Arriving at his home, the young man kisses his wife.
“You smell of bitter beans,” she greets him.
“Yes, I did have some at a food stall.”
“You’re always eating those things!”
“No, I’m not. Only now and again.”
“I’m amazed. I’ve told you before, but you just don’t learn, do you?” says the man’s wife. “If you eat bitter beans, everyone in the house has to put up with it. You know no one else in the house likes them besides you. I don’t like them and neither do the children. Whenever you eat bitter beans, the smell goes everywhere, from the toilet out back to the gutter in front of the house. The smell gets into everything. It’s embarrassing! The neighbors will say, “Err. The people next door are eating bitter beans again!” Try to cut down a little, will you? Try to show a little consideration for someone other than yourself, all right! So you honestly enjoy them, but you have to realize, only poor people eat bitter beans, darling.”
After that, she doesn’t say anything else. But before going to bed, she suddenly remembers that her bitter bean-munching husband in fact gave them up before they were married fifteen years ago. But lately, over the last few months, she’s noticed that he’s started eating them again. She can’t understand why.
“Maybe he needs a little variation,” she thinks.
(Jakarta, October 1990.)
Bitter Beans (Petai) was published in Kompas Daily in December 1990.
Only her eyes are visible. What can you see from a pair of eyes that radiate the enchantment of the world with every blink?
That is how enchantment radiates from the eyes being watched to swallow the eyes watching, which are instantly dazzled and instantly stunned, as if struck by a blaze of heavenly light that completely obliterates the self and every desire, leaving the body devoid of all thought, except that of surrender and willingness in the yearning to be enslaved in the sacrifice of the soul.
“That’s enough! Stop standing there like that,” says his wife. “Let’s go home.”
But he no longer knows the words go home. Gone is home, gone is wife, gone is family. Vanished is all the cheerful chatter of children filling his life like the crashing of surf filling the silence of the universe.
He leaves his shocked wife who grabs his arm only to have him jerk it away, who can only watch the man who is her husband, the father of her children, vanish into the crowd and disappear…
Who would ever have thought that happiness was so fragile, the miracle of love so transitory?
From a distance, he continues to follow her. She steps without ever looking behind again, even though in all the reflections of all the glass at the intersection, in the shop windows, and in the side mirrors of motorbike taxi drivers waiting for passengers, she can see how he has been following her since the market.
She realizes he has been walking along the sidewalk continuously following her at a distance. If she turns into a lane, he follows her into the lane. If she climbs onto a bus, he follows in a minibus traveling the same route. If she gets into a taxi, he follows her on a motorbike taxi or in another taxi. If she catches a train, she knows too how he is in the same carriage, and immediately follows her when she gets off at whatever station she’s going to.
Later, when she arrives at her house, she kisses her husband’s hand, takes the little one back from the hands of the babysitter. Then from behind the window with the curtains that are always drawn, she needs to peek through and she can see the outline of her stalker darting into the small cafe at the end of the street. She is certain that from inside the cafe he’s constantly staring, waiting, hoping. Dreaming.
She and her husband look at each other. The little one is asleep. The babysitter has left.
From the small café closing up a pair of eyes stare out at her dark house and sips coffee.
From day to day he moves around the daily life of the woman whose eyes alone are visible. It is not enough to follow from behind, sometimes he pretends to pass her by accident.
It’s when they pass that he stares at her eyes, and at whatever else other than her eyes he can see. And it’s when they pass each other that his chest heaves, his heart comes alive and something else pounds more quickly than usual.
What can be expressed by a pair of eyes whose brightness excites, with a gaze that pierces and grips, that conquers? What can a pair of eyes express? It seems so much, but how can you be sure?
He hopes those eyes will recognize him, and if they recognize him, then pay him a small amount of attention, and if possible, not only pay a little attention, but still more also desire something in return from him. But not just desire something in return, also crave for something in return.
Is it possible that what he has hoped for, that what has never existed in the relationship between them, can happen? But those eyes seem to be saying everything! They seem to be paying attention, appear to be hoping for something. They seem even to crave for him…
Over the days, his guess seems to be becoming a reality.
One day when he follows her, she turns around and looks straight at his eyes.
He thinks, she’s looking for me! She wants to know if I’m following her today! She wants me to follow where she’s going!
He quickens his pace, draws nearer. But she doesn’t turn around again. After a while just walking behind her he ventures to speed up and draws alongside her.
They walk together, against the current of the surge of urban humanity swirling along the streets. Who among so many people in this world would think that something so important has happened between the two of them?
With all these feelings flowering in his heart, he still can not be sure of anything.
How can he be sure of anything just from the look of somebody’s eyes, even though it has certainly been proved that the blaze of a radiant pair of eyes has captured and uprooted him from his old, comfortable, serene, problem-free life to enter a world that, despite its uncertainty, still promises the happiness of a heaven like the one created by the glow of her eyes?
The waves of humanity continue to swirl around them. He observes their eyes and it seems that not one of them passes with the glow of the eyes of the woman beside him. How is it possible?
How is it possible that all these people flowing past from the front can miss so blithely the shining radiance of the most beautiful eyes? Are the eyes of city people any blinder than when they are looking for something false which has in fact never existed? But they are there in front of him!
Walking alongside her, he cannot see anything, until it’s dark and the woman is gone. He searches everywhere, and doesn’t find her…
The house lights have to be switched off before she squints through the curtains and sees that he’s in the small café, his glare penetrating the night directly in her direction. She closes the curtains quickly as if that stare were a whirling arrow able to pierce the glass of the window, able to penetrate the window and pierce her heart. But then she parts the curtains again. He won’t be able to see her. She can see him. There’s a large crowd in the cafe, but his back is turned to them and he stares in her direction. A slight sense of sadness passes over her, but only for a moment. She’s used to disregarding her own feelings, for the sake of the larger interest she believes in.
She turns in the direction of her husband who’s reading verses from the holy book to their son before he goes to bed.
Her husband raises his head, looks at her, and nods.
The dark cloudy sky surges as he follows her from a distance for the umpteenth time in as many months. She glances back just before disappearing into a lane. With a gaze that shines brightly, fleetingly, but which takes complete possession of the soul which has cried and worshiped for so long craving a response. He feels how his feet are so light, as he weaves between the thousands of people in the street to follow her. He wants to never lose her again, even though he can always go back to the cafe in front of her house.
Rain thunders down the moment she reaches the back of the lane. She is waiting there, leaning against a wall, soaked to the bone, staring straight into his eyes. He’s frozen. What he has become accustomed to experiencing as a hope, a yearning makes him giddy as it transforms into a reality.
Not only stare, she takes his hands, draws them in the torrential rain that makes every other human disappear from the streets, vanish from the lane, and leaves only the two of them breaking through the rain hand in hand. Although the rain is so heavy and the torrent from the sky feels like the rubber bullets that hit him randomly as he watched the demonstration, he is not conscious of them.
A door opens. they enter a darkened room and inhales the odor of old metal. But what is he going to worry about when in the darkness his wet clothes no longer cover his body, when hands as soft as cotton draw his hands to the other unclothed body?
In the darkness and the thundering rain, he cannot hear the sounds and sighs but is able to feel everything.
He carries a backpack on his back. As ultimate service what is there that he would not do? He does not even feel the need to ask what is in the pack. He does not want to worry about that out of fear of losing the one who has mastered him.
Those are still his feelings as the world disappears suddenly from his consciousness as the explosive in his backpack goes off destroying everything, everything. Buildings, ants, and humanity…
The Slave of Love (Budak Cinta) was published in Kompas Daily, 20 January 2019. (Retrieved from lakonhidup.wordpress.com)
Seno Gumira Ajidarma, born in Boston, United States, June 19, 1958. Now serves as Chancellor of the Jakarta Institute of the Arts (IKJ). Seno became better known after writing his trilogy of works on East Timor, namely Saksi Mata (collection of short stories), Jazz, Purfum, dan Insiden? (novel), and Ketika Jurnalisme Dibungkam, Sastra Harus Bicara (collection of essays). In 2014, he launched a blog called Pana-Journal (www.panajournal.com) about human interest stories with a number of journalists and professionals in the field of communication.
Oetje Lamno, born in Yogyakarta on May 31, 1978, completed his art education at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) Yogyakarta. He has participated in various art exhibitions in several places, including overseas. In 2010, he attended Beijing Biennale # 4 at the National Art Museum of China. In 2017, he returned to exhibit in China on “Silk Road, International Festival Art, Xi-an”. Oetje was a finalist of the 2015 Indonesia Art Award art competition, whose works are on display at the National Gallery of Indonesia, Jakarta.