New from the Asian and African studies blog at the British Library
Most of my blog posts are about manuscripts from maritime Southeast Asia, but the majority of items in the British Library are printed, including perhaps the most important collection in the world of early Malay printing. The Library also holds printed books in languages such as Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, Batak and Bugis, dating from the earliest printed examples through to contemporary publications, as well as rare imprints in all languages from Southeast Asia. (Read more: Some new old books on and from the Malay world – Asian and African studies blog)
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…
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.
In the 1970s, I was learning how to carry a burden. In the 1980s, I carried the burden bravely and proudly. In the 1990s, I began to be overwhelmed by carrying the burden. In the 2000s I almost gave up because of the burden. By the 2010s I was questioning why I should be carrying the burden and who was actually the official responsible for carrying the burden.
What you are reading is my expression and impression about, in, from and towards Indonesia, from the 1980s to the 1990s. Anyone reading it is free to decide what the emphasis is: the poetry, the Indonesia, the me, or the shred.
If the reader focuses their reading on the poems in the book, I will be very embarrassed. Because if this book were entered into a competition for poetry books, and I were one of the judges, there is no way I would select it as a possibility for the winner.
I really want to write poetry. And in my old age, I have been very diligent writing poetry, but almost not even one would I acknowledge as poetry. My work doesn’t get beyond “intending to write poetry”, “there are elements which are intended to be poetry” or “officially this is poetry, but whether it deserves the name of and passes as poetry, would need a long discussion and complicated considerations.”
In fact, poetry has come to a halt in the present era, is no longer a part of the mainstream values that operate in the civilization of contemporary Indonesian people. It is not even remembered by the leaders of the age and the values they espouse. Poetry has been driven into a cave, and those who deal with poetry have become cave-dwelling creatures with shadowy outlines, invisible to the community.
Indonesia, the national ideology Pancasila, the Youth Pledge, the 1945 Constitution, development, progress, government, parliamentarians, government regulations, the president and ministry, all the way down to village regulations, not one of them know poetry. They do not look for poetry. They do not find poetry. They do not remember poetry. There might be a trace of the word “poem” in the far recesses of their brain, but what they understand is not really poetry. Possibly poetry is tucked away somewhere under a pile of garbage, buried under a muddy patch of earth soaked by torrential rain, or hidden behind the gloom, weakly crying out the sound of silence in midst of darkness.
Is poetry really this hopeless in the midst of today’s civilization of hyper-materialism? Is it really so pessimistic for poetry in the middle of the stream of robots and bodies that regard themselves as humans? Has hope completely vanished for poetry in the midst of the life of the human family and Indonesian people who desperately pursue the world and things, but who complain incessantly of the world and things? In the midst of the arrogance of breath-taking advancement and while killing themselves to make it into the emergency response unit of the times in the pursuit of wealth, position, opportunity, access, and assets and arguing day in and day out of not achieving worldly desires?
No. Absolutely not. Poetry is not marginal, not marginalized. It’s not sidelined or disappeared. Poetry is indeed not food on the plate, a vehicle that is gassed and braked, a house with decor or shopping malls designed by architects to be like paradise. Poetry is not something achieved, but something journeyed towards. Poetry is not something which is held, but a trip to be traveled. Poetry is not something to be grasped or stored in a wallet, but something to be cherished and ached for.
Poetry – like the horizon in nature, the sky in the universe, justice in the sight of the soul, trueness in the recesses of the heart, eternity at the edge of time’s mystery, and God himself who seems to hide behind a secret without ever meeting – is the tenderest point far beyond the spirit, traveled with yearning, which inside a speck of the dust of that tenderness is encompassed all of nature and thousands and thousands of universes.
I myself, earlier, when that current of energy and magnetism passed right through me whose outpouring is a flow of writings or poems, was captured by the instinct to foster and allow poetry to be a mystery, one which must not lose its essence today. So every day I concentrate on the Indonesia side of it. I am concerned about it, am anxious for it, take care of it. Maybe ever since God inscribed in the Preserved Tablet for me to love, probably for that reason too I called the book A Shred from the Diary of Indonesia.
Even right until now as it is re-published, I turned the pages, my heart is still, and my mind fixed on Indonesia. But if you go into the “shred” deeply, it feels too broken. Indonesia today is no longer a shred: it’s like an old book lying forgotten in the cupboard, gnawed at by rats every night, its pages torn to pieces, ripped up, shredded, almost not a single page left intact. Half-soaked, reeking of a mixture of mouse piss.
A Shred From the Diary of Indonesia holds out a mirror before my own face. I stare back into my own eyes. I behold growth in decay, a baby in poverty, a young man in old age, a future for all those who are benighted. The wrinkles of an old face in the mirror, unimaginable weakness and helplessness, but there is a refreshing breeze that springs from the depths of the soul: I will take Indonesia into the future.
If you find letters and words in this book, flow with them into tomorrow. At the same time, invite the letters and words to flow over you, without any limit as to time. One day you will be snatched by death, but that is only a crossing bridge…
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?”
“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.”
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.
Henceforth the fisherman fished without using any bait. The strange thing was that ever since he had decided not to use bait the fish had just leaped from the water by themselves into his basket. Even then he couldn’t bring himself to eat the fish so he allowed the local villagers to take them. As there were more fish than a fish factory the local villagers took them gratefully.
The fisherman would sit by the river day and night fishing, refusing to use any bait. He did not want to eat any of the fish and he lived solely from the dew that formed on his lips in the morning, chanting the mantras of the poet Sutardji Calzoum Bachri:
How many centuries must pass, How many watches must stop, How many signs must appear, How many steps must I take, Before I am able to reach You?
Over time, the fisherman had been given the name Saint Jagakali after the great Muslim mystic of Central Java, even though the fisherman himself had acknowledged no creed.
When the Sufi teacher and the prayer room attendant arrived at the other side of the river, the Sufi teacher thanked the raft keeper and together he and the prayer room attendant continued on their journey to East Java.
The Sufi teacher wanted to meet the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Kiai Ahmad Shiddiq, to ask the venerable teacher what he would think if Michael Jackson and Jean-Michel Jarre were to record Arabic devotional songs.
After that, the Sufi teacher wanted to summon his flying carpet and return to Isfahan. He was planning to drop into Qom and let Khomeini know that wisdom had spread to every corner of the earth. But then he remembered, the Great Teacher was already dead, so he changed his mind.
The Sufi teacher next planned to fly from East Java to Japan, but first, he wanted to take the prayer room attendant to the modern Islamic boarding school at Gontor in East Java so he could learn English. After all, a prayer room attendant in an office block in Jakarta’s ‘golden triangle’ central business district crowded with the offices of foreign investors needs to know English.
When he arrived in Japan the Sufi teacher planned to go straight to Kyoto, find a Buddhist priest, and find out how he practiced Zen.