Short Story: Letter For Wai Tsz

By Leila L. Chudori

The weather in Jakarta seems to be reflecting the state of the nation, hot and sticky, not a tree anywhere to shade under. As for myself, I don’t know why I suddenly thought of writing you a letter. I know all too well that in our graduates’ newsletter Keep In Touch they’re always mentioning that you’re one of the graduates who hasn’t been seen since Tiananmen. But I live in hope because I will always believe that God will stretch out his hand and protect you. Your last letter, the one smelling of rotten vegetables and dried fish, the one you seemed to have sent from somewhere in the outskirts of Beijing, just before your escape – so heroic, so inspiring – more and more makes me feel so small, so insignificant.

Dear Wai Tsz,

It’s been exactly fourteen years since the four of us were gazing up at the stars – since you, Finn, Maria and I made that promise. We promised we wouldn’t marry until we had reached those stars.

Our roommate Finn, with her long Snow White blonde hair and blue eyes, told us her life’s mission was located in the constellation of Andromeda.

“What I want is for men and women to have the same rights. And I think that’s an ideal we all share,” she said in her romantic way.

Our Danish roommate’s idealism was really extremely annoying and because of that, I couldn’t be bothered talking about the problem of the completely rampant poverty and corruption in my own country. It would have been very hard to make her understand. Could you just see it, with her own country so rich and peaceful, how could she have begun to imagine?

Then I remember that Maria from the Philippines said with her firm, self-confident voice, “I long for change in my country and I hope that I can be a part of that change.” And straight away you and I yelled out trying to be first, “I wanted to say that too!”

“Come on! How could Indonesia have any problems? Your economy is wonderful compared to ours,” Maria replied. “And you, Wai Tsz, China is a sleeping giant that’s just beginning to wake up. When she’s standing on her own feet Western countries will be lapped up in one gulp. The Philippines is the only one with such an uncertain future under a president like Marcos…”

But as it transpired, the first country to see the smoldering embers of democracy burst into flame was her own country, the Philippines. And just as she had wanted, Maria was a part of the process of bringing democracy to her country. I remember when she sent a newspaper clipping showing her and a group of friends from the University of the Philippines in the middle of that historic demonstration in Edsa Road. Like a movie, I imagined our roommate Maria, the one who couldn’t even get up in the mornings, now part of such momentous change in her country. Image. She became part of the Philippines’ peaceful revolution in February 1986 when Marcos was finally forced to flee to Hawaii, and a widow finally moved into the presidential office. As all this was going on, for me, her neighbor, nothing had changed. I was working for the largest news magazine in my country naively thinking that here everything was nice and peaceful and prosperous. I thought, well, at least it wasn’t as bad as some of the countries that some of our campus friends had come from where there were several coups every year.

Wai Tsz, after we graduated I came home again to breathe our pollution-filled air and I became a journalist. You went home to breathe your own pollution-filled air in Beijing and you transformed into a human rights activist.

The interesting thing about your country was that as soon as your country opened up and allowed in a handful of American companies everyone began saying that this was Deng’s great breakthrough. When Chinese students were allowed to read translations of Milan Kundera and watch James Bond movies it was as if democracy had started to arrive in China. One of your spirited letters related how interesting Fang Lizhi’s lectures were, how he had no hesitation at all using words like “democracy” and “freedom”. But it was only after Tiananmen happened that we realized the so-called breakthrough talked about by Western experts was just an immensely simplified view of the problem.

Meanwhile, Wai Tsz, in my own country new economic policies were being implemented which produced hundreds of new banks, new buildings, new companies, new television stations, new rich people, new cars, still more new policies, even more new buildings, more highways, ever more even richer people, and other, oh, absolutely astonishing, truly astounding…

All of this, Wai Tsz, in fact, turned us into journalists. Supposedly professional, agile, flexible, competitive, head in the clouds. It made us forget a lot about humanity. For example, yeah, for example, in planning meetings talking about a war in some country somewhere we would sit around like a bunch of know-all football commentators abusing one of the “stupid” players while we ate fried chicken and laughed. And really what we were talking about was the fate of thousands of women and children being slaughtered in the country. This profession made me, just as Professor Humphrey had predicted (he didn’t agree with my choice of becoming a journalist), turned us into “know-alls who don’t know much about anything”.

Professor Humphrey wasn’t completely right but I have to agree that in a couple of cases he wasn’t too far wrong either. This profession set me up in an ivory tower, made me look at the people as a news item, part of a “deadline”, a conversation on a mobile phone, as no more than a series of meaningless statistics. Tiananmen, an event that was so important for you, was a moral movement. But for us, it was nothing more than a bit of excitement, a fresh infusion of adrenaline, a new pump keeping our journalistic blood circulating. I almost forgot that for years I had a roommate who was probably still on the run, still hiding in garbage bins on the edge of the city. Wai Tsz, where are you?

In your last letter, after the events of June 1989, that smelly smudged letter, I read your handwriting through the ink which had run, “Nadira, help us through your writing.”

Oh, Wai Tsz, I am so ashamed. For sure we wrote, we covered, we photographed, the events in your country proudly. But I’m not convinced that the hundreds of journalists who swarmed to cover those events were moved by concern. Maybe there were some who were, but the others were driven by competition, the desire to get an exclusive, and maybe even out of a desire to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wai Tsz, why was I born in a community which created such a meaningful word for community duty as our own word gotong royong but which is in reality just a collection of completely selfish individuals? My heart is broken. If I had been as selfish maybe I would already have flown off to join our friends chasing ever higher qualifications in the United States. But when all’s said and done, my heart is here, Wai Tsz, planted firmly here, rooted firmly in this soil. No matter how strong, there isn’t a crowbar or a hoe that could dislodge my heart from this land.

For months, Wai Tsz, I’ve been afflicted by horrible nightmares, more like Salvador Dali visions than dreams. One night I dreamed that I had fallen from a skyscraper and even though all my limbs came off I was still alive. Another night I dreamed my hands were chained together and the ends of my legs were being eaten by a pack of black dogs. And another night I was suddenly transported to an empty field where hundreds of crows were attempting to suck my baby from my stomach. Trying to stop these dreams I bought a pile of comics. I thought it would make me laugh. In fact, all that happened was I laughed so hard I cried.

Wai Tsz, I remember the time you said, “Something started with a good intention and a good conscience is always harder to believe in than something started with a bad intention.”

Maybe that’s the reason people find it hard to believe that a protest movement could be driven by conscience. Maybe the word conscience isn’t used very much today, or maybe it’s time to archive it forever in some dusty old museum.

Wai Tsz, where are you? Pretending to be a shop assistant? Or teaching in a tiny primary school in some far away village? Or maybe you’re really still hiding somewhere in Beijing? I have no idea whether you will ever read this letter. I’ll send it to your old address in Beijing. Wai Tsz, wherever you are, if you do not get to read this letter I am sure, you have read what is in my heart.

Your friend, Nadira. (Jakarta, November 1997)


Letter for Wai Tsz (Surat Untuk Wai Tsz) was published in Kompas Daily in March 1999.

(Note: The story was written six months before, and published some ten months after, the resignation of President Soeharto in May 1998.)

Background on Tiananmen Square: A massacre, erased

Recent use of the term “people power” is backgrounded widely, including, People power is dead, long live people power

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Graffiti

Short Story: Bitter Beans

By Seno Gumira Ajidarma

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

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

“Well, what about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And how is that going to happen?”

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

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

“Exactly!”

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

“They could also be fried.”

“What about raw bitter beans?”

“Not interesting enough.”

“Steamed then?”

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

“You mean…?”

Udang Sambal Petai

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

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

“Wow! That’s a great idea!”

“Now you’re getting silly!”

“Why?”

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

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

“You’re so cynical.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re always eating those things!”

“No, I’m not. Only now and again.”

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

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

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

(Jakarta, October 1990.)


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

Box of Petai

The 12 Apostles

Short Story: The Slave of Love

By Seno Gumira Ajidarma

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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


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

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

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

The Slave of Love Budak Cinta ilustrasi Oetje Lamno/Kompas

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

Event: Women’s Resistance Through Arts and the Media in Indonesia – Intan Paramaditha

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Praktisch: Free entrance
Doors open: 19:30
Met
Intan Paramaditha
Women’s Resistance Through Arts and the Media in Indonesia

The discourse of sexuality is inseparable from the tension and polarization that characterize politics and culture in Indonesia. Last year, after a series of anti-LGBT statements were publicly expressed by government officials and public figures, “pro-family” groups proposed to outlaw non-marital sex and homosexuality. This is not a sudden turn as debates around sex, bodies, and morality have been a national obsession for the past two decades. Sexuality is a contested sphere that reflects the fractured nature of the post-authoritarian nation.

Growing conservatism in Indonesia, as elsewhere, entails the attempts to regulate and censor women’s bodies. …

Source – http://intanparamaditha.org/event-womens-resistance-through-arts-and-the-media-in-indonesia/