Short Story by Mark Heyward (The Jakarta Post, March 06, 2017)
This story takes place somewhere on Java, in south Yogyakarta.
On a quiet road, on the wide fertile plain that lies between the mountain and the sea, is a village. The people of the village live their lives like people in any other village. Babies are born, children are raised, young folk flirt and marry, old folk grow old and die.
And so the wheel of life turns. Each day the sun rises and falls. The rains come and go. The rice is planted, bright and green. Four months later it is harvested, fat and golden. The village folk go about their business, sweeping their yards, feeding their ducks, scolding their children and arguing with their husbands. Each day is punctuated with simple meals and the call to prayer. And in this way the business of life is negotiated. There is comfort in the sameness of this life, in its slowness, its routines and familiarity.
But something has changed. Something strange and unfamiliar has arrived in the village.
The old man’s home is busy. His children have gathered. Now middle-aged and living different lives in different places, one-byone they have returned to the village; the teacher, the soldier, the businesswoman, the cook and the office worker. The old man is dying. The grandchildren scamper about. The old man’s wife busies herself in the lean-to kitchen out the back. The siblings sit together on the veranda, breathing the village air, chatting in subdued tones, catching up on family news. Each has a story to tell, a life to share. The talk goes on late into the night.
The old man lies on a pallet. A low-wattage lamp hangs bare from the rafters. Sacks of rice are stacked on the polished concrete floor, the family’s meager wealth. A rusting bicycle leans against the rice. The old man no longer eats. He probably weighs no more than fifteen or twenty kilograms. He’s had enough of life, he says. It’s time to move on, time to go home.
The old man lives in another time now, another world. He chats about his brother who was lost in the violence of 1965. He talks about escapades with his youthful friends; he tells stories as if it were today. From time to time he remembers who he is, where he is; from time to time he can recognize his children. But mostly he just lies there, sleeping, dozing or muttering to ghosts.
The teacher wears a dark robe. She peers at her father from beneath a black veil, her big eyes bright and watery. Her sister, the businesswoman, wears light city clothes, her hair is free. The two sit with the old man. He looks up from his pallet, his eyes childlike, a faint flicker of recognition in his smile. The teacher holds his hand. Sometimes it feels cold and she wonders if he has already gone. And then the life returns, feeble but warm and real. She begins to recite verses from the Quran, her voice strained but pure as she invokes the Almighty.
The businesswoman takes her turn, holding her father’s hand, looking into his eyes. She, too, begins to recite. The old man joins in. Together the three of them recite the more familiar verses that she remembers from childhood. Their voices blend; there is comfort and companionship in the well-worn liturgical Arabic, in the rhythm of prayer. And then the old man reverts to high Javanese; perhaps the old language better expresses his humility as he seeks forgiveness and an easy passage.
“Arep mulih,” he says quietly. “I want to go home.” Eventually the prayer falters, the old man’s muttering becomes incoherent, and he is once again asleep.
The sisters look at one another and, with the hint of a nod and a smile, take their leave. It is late. No more words are needed. The teacher makes her way down the village lane to her home, where her husband and children are already long asleep. The businesswoman unrolls a thin tikar mat and prepares to sleep.
Two or three hours later, the village is woken by adzan. A crackling speaker declares that it is time for the pre-dawn prayer of subuh. “Come! It is better to pray than sleep!”
The old man sleeps on as his wife and daughter ready themselves for prayer. Deep splashes of cold well water wash away the night as they perform the ritual cleansing. Like white shrouded ghosts in their prayer robes, the women walk the few steps to the village mosque, the old man’s wife shuffling as she makes her way, bent from a lifetime of toil. The two nod greetings to friends and neighbors in the darkness.
The morning mosque fills with a scattering of worshippers, the old folk of the village. Together they perform the ritual prayers, standing, bowing and prostrating in unison, the women at the back, the men at the front. Looking around, the businesswoman notes that she is by far the youngest member of the congregation. Except for the imam. The younger man who leads the prayer advertises his piety with the uniform of the fundamentalist; his baggy pants are cut to calf-length — just above the ankles, his white shirt has no collar. He wears a white kopiah cap and a wispy beard; his forehead is marked with two dull grey smudges, as if he spends his life in prayer — his forehead forever bruised against a prayer mat.
As the congregation settles down, cross-legged on their prayer mats, the young man preaches his sermon. Following some formulaic Arabic by way of introduction, he begins to speak in Javanese of foreign ideas, of far-away places, of distant conflicts. The businesswoman looks perturbed. “What is this?” she asks herself. Looking about she sees that none of the old people appears worried. Most stare absently at the floor as the young man’s voice rises in a hectoring tone. Their eyes glaze over, as they nod off to sleep or begin to think about the day ahead.
“We must stand together with our brothers in Aleppo!” the young man exhorts, switching to Indonesian. “Do you know who bombed the city? Who killed our brothers? We must unite. We must establish a caliphate. We must fight the infidel!”
The old people doze. The businesswoman becomes increasingly agitated.
“I wanted to stand and walk out,” she later says to her sister. “I wanted to make a stand against this nonsense!” But she doesn’t walk out. Instead she sits quietly, her face creasing in anger as she listens to the foreign rhetoric. It seems only yesterday that the preacher was a little boy running about the village. She thinks of the old people, of her mother. She thinks about how they want to live their quiet lives undisturbed.
“What did you think of the sermon?” she asks her mother as they make their way home to begin the day; to sweep the yard, to cook the breakfast.
“The sermon?” the old woman chuckles, “I don’t know. I don’t understand all that.”
Later the family gathers for breakfast. A big pot of fresh rice porridge is on the table, the aroma of stewed coconut cream fills the air. A jar of homemade emping crackers is opened. One by one the children emerge from the different corners of the house, of the village. The old man sleeps.
“What’s going on in the village?” asks the businesswoman as they begin to eat. The teacher looks up, sensing something in her sister’s tone. “What are you doing?” the businesswoman accuses her sister. “What are you doing to these old people? They don’t want your nonsense. I don’t want it either!”
“It’s the right thing,” explains the teacher patiently. “How can you resist God’s law, Sister? We should all struggle for what is right. For a caliphate. It is the only choice. It is stated in the Quran. It is God’s law.”
“Listen to you!” says the businesswoman, her voice becoming sharp. “You sound like a propaganda machine. You should stop going to those prayer meetings. You’re trying to change everything. It’s not right!”
The young imam is a local leader of Hizbut Tahir Indonesia, the Indonesian Liberation Party. A well-educated man, he has studied science in Japan. The teacher has been attending his meetings and prayer sessions. There, she sharpens her faith, she studies the dogma, politics and propaganda of an imported brand of puritanical Islam. In this new world, Javanese ritual has become an evil. She has joined the struggle to create a caliphate, ruled by sharia law.
The teacher’s new beliefs have already brought her into conflict with her parents and her siblings. When, some time ago, her husband’s grandmother died, she refused to follow the customs, the traditional Javanese Islamic funeral rites. The home of the deceased is normally a busy place on the day of a death. The village women arrive with food and offers of support. With flowers and leaves from the graveyard. Prayers are recited, stories are told, the body is bathed, wrapped and interred, and the traditional prayers commence. Much of this, she reasoned, was un-Islamic. No announcements were made. The house remained dark and silent. Her parents were distraught.
“Don’t you dare to treat me like that when my time comes,” the old man said at the time, on the edge of tears, an unusual intensity in his voice.
“Well, even if I don’t believe, I will take part this time,” says the teacher, when her sister presses her on the issue. “I don’t want to upset my parents. I don’t want to upset you all.” Her younger brother, the cook, remains quiet. The office worker shifts in her seat. She is not comfortable with this friction in her family home. She is not sure what to believe.
“It’s not my Islam,” says the soldier, eventually breaking the silence, his voice quiet but firm. “I am a good Muslim, like you, but I am also Javanese; Indonesian. And I don’t believe in an Islamic state. I believe in Pancasila. Our country will fall apart if you carry on like that. Is that what you want?”
“Answer this,” says the businesswoman, looking hard at her sisters. “Do you really want to live in a world where you can no longer go about as you please? A world in which you must have your husband or your brother with you — just to leave the house? Is that what you want?” “All I want is to do God’s will,” responds the teacher. “Well, you do what you like,” says the businesswoman, “but don’t disturb these old people with your foreign ideas. You’ll break their hearts with your nonsense!”
“And don’t mess with my nieces,” she adds. The teacher has been taking her younger brother’s daughter to a kindergarten that is affiliated with an Islamist political party. The cook looks up. He doesn’t want this conflict. He doesn’t want his children indoctrinated either. But he is not sure how to deal with it. What to do. His older sister remains quiet. “I spoke with the mosque committee,” says the businesswoman. “I talked with Uncle. He told me they didn’t realize that your radical preachers have taken over. He promised they’d stop it. Everyone is supposed to have a turn at preaching. It’s wrong to spread hatred and division. The mosque is for compassion, for fellowship. If our nation’s founders had wanted to establish a caliphate they would have done so, he said.”
The businesswoman begins to weep. Tears of anger, tears of frustration. It is not right for conflict to be allowed to surface like this in a Javanese family. But she cannot ignore the problem.
“I am a Muslim, too,” she says quietly, between sobs. “There is nothing wrong with my faith. But my Islam is not political. I don’t want your Islamism. None of us do!”
“I’m not sure,” says her younger sister, the office worker. “I don’t know what to believe.” The teacher raises her eyebrows. Breakfast is over. The old man wakes eventually. And eventually it is time for the family to return to their various lives, their various homes. It is not the old man’s time yet.
One by one they take their leave. One by one they sit with the old man, one by one they hold his still cold hand, look into his eyes, ask for his forgiveness, for his blessing. One by one they pray for an end to his suffering. One by one they clasp their mother’s hands. One by one they seek her blessing, reassuring the old woman of their love and loyalty.
And one by one, they part from their siblings, from their nieces and nephews, from their village.
The businesswoman and the teacher hug. It is a fierce hug. Pulling back, they look into one another’s eyes. Their eyes are moist but clear.
And so the wheel of life turns. Each day the sun rises and falls. The rains come and go. The rice is planted, bright and green. And four months later it is harvested, fat and golden.
The writer has lived and worked in Indonesia for 20 years. His 2013 book, Crazy Little Heaven, became a best-seller that same year. He writes articles, essays and short stories — some of which have been published in The Jakarta Post.