Short Story by Aruna Harjani (The Jakarta Post, April 03, 2017)
Putu parks his white van on the curbside across from a hotel in Kuta. He has been a tourist guide-cum-driver for more than five years. He knows most of the roads to many tourist spots and hotels in Bali. Many of his clients refer him to their friends because of his good English.
He waits for an Australian couple to come out of the hotel. Their tour is due to commence at noon. The couple finally gets in the car. Introductions are made.
“So where would you like to go today, Mister? Shall we start with a visit to Tanah Lot?” Putu asks.
“You can call me Gary,” says the man. “This is my wife Anne. We wouldn’t mind going to Tanah Lot. I have read about it.”
“Thank you Gary and Mrs. Anne. As you know the drive will take around two hours. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. And if you’d like to stop for lunch, please let me know,” replies Putu.
It is a good day to drive. Early July is one of the best months in Bali. The island gets a share of cold breeze coming from Australia. One is able to bask in the sunshine and cool air, which is a perfect combination for a road trip on a resort island.
Putu opts for clients who are honeymooners from July to September, because most of them prefer to return to their hotels early, giving Putu time for himself in the evenings.
Putu spends his free time sitting on a bench in his small garden and enjoying the cool breeze. He needs to save money and so he quit smoking. He also hardly goes out for a meal in a restaurant and instead avails of his neighbor’s catering service. Putu eats to live, which has resulted in a slimmer body.
It is too quiet in the van; this particular couple seems happy enough merely holding hands. The silence is driving Putu crazy; he has his own share of silence every night and often longs for a conversation in the afternoons.
Putu ends the silence with a question, “So how long have you been married, Gary?”
“Oh we just got married last week,” says Gary. “We had a simple wedding at my ranch. We invited only family members and a few close friends. We thought we’d rather spend the bulk of our wedding budget on our honeymoon. So here we are.”
Putu continues his interrogation: “So this is your first time in Bali?”
“Oh yes, very much the first time for us,” replies Gary.
“There are many places to visit in Bali, but the tourist spots are located in different directions from each other and take hours to reach, but the trip is worth it. You must find time to visit as many places as you can,” Putu replies.
“Well, we’re here for five days; show us whatever you can,” says Gary.
“It will be my pleasure, Mr. Gary. It is my duty to take you around Bali,” answers Putu.
“Hey, you seem to be free all day, don’t you have a family to go back to in the evening?”
“No, Mr. Gary, I do not. Not anymore. I once had a wife and a child,” Putu says as a matter of fact.
Gary looks at the picture of a woman and a child behind the steering wheel.
“I am sorry to hear that. When did they pass away?” replies Gary.
Putu replies with a heavy heart, “They didn’t die. They were taken away from me by force.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that, but who does that in this day and age? Didn’t you call the police”? asks Gary.
“It is a family matter and no crime was committed,” Putu replies as he swerves to avoid a stray goat. “How so?” “I fell in love with a distant relative. I met her right after I graduated from high school,” says Putu. “My parents encouraged the relationship as long as it didn’t disrupt my studies. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to college so I took vocational courses. I studied languages as it was my passion and very useful for me in Bali.”
“So what was the problem?” an overly curious Gary asks.
“Her father didn’t see me as a suitable husband for his daughter. He is rich and powerful and wanted his daughter to marry someone with a huge mansion.”
Putu takes a deep breath and continues while focusing on the winding road. Balinese roads can be a pain sometimes, he thinks to himself.
“Ayu and I were so much in love. We tried to see each other every day. Her father could afford her school fees for college so she pursued a bachelor’s degree, whereas I had to make do with the little that my parents owned. I took side jobs in between and worked the night shift so I could be with Ayu in the late afternoons.”
Ayu wore a flower in her hair every time he met her. Whether it was his imagination or not, for Putu the fragrance of her flower always lingered in the air he breathed.
The same flower is tied to the steering wheel of the car. The same flower is on the bedside table in his room. Every time he smells the flower’s fragrance, Putu’s heart skips a beat. His passion for Ayu can be felt from the tip of his toes to the last strand of his hair. Putu is momentarily lost in thought.
Gary taps his shoulder as a sign to continue the story. Just as he steps on the gas pedal, Putu continues his story.
“Suddenly it was not enough for me to see Ayu sporadically. I wanted to feel her and breathe the same air as she did. One day I took her to Kuta Beach and waited for sundown. I couldn’t even afford to take her to an expensive restaurant,” says Putu. “I found a decent warung on Kuta Beach. We sat on the sand in front of it. Then I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me. She was the one who kissed me first!” Putu smiles. What a shameless girl, he thinks to himself, happily.
He continues his narrative: “I went home and informed my parents that I was engaged and they gave me their blessings. They offered to go to Ayu’s house to formally ask for her hand. My parents were so excited that they contacted Ayu’s parents..
Putu takes another deep breath and tries to dig deeper inside his memory. Ayu’s parents didn’t bother to offer them a drink. Putu’s father, who is a cousin of Ayu’s father, started the conversation. “Cousin, as you know, our children are in love and want to get married. Putu proposed to Ayu last week and she has accepted.”
Ayu’s father glared at her. She never told her father that she got engaged. Ayu’s father replied sternly, “Ayu will marry the man of my choice. She needs a man who can give her the same standard of living she has right now! You may leave now.”
Putu’s parents, knowing the nature and financial status of Ayu’s father, didn’t bother to argue and left.
Putu walked with his parents to their rented van. Putu’s father patted his son on the shoulder and said to him, “I went through the same thing, son. You have my blessings to fight for her. She will make a good wife for you.” Once again Putu becomes lost in the past. Gary taps him on the shoulder once more and startles the storyteller back into the present. “Anyway,” he goes on.
“Ayu’s parents don’t like me. Ayu and I got married on our own. We found a priest to conduct the ceremony for free. I rented a house away from the city so her father couldn’t find us. I worked as a tour guide while Ayu stayed home. She fell pregnant not long after the wedding. I found a neighbor who stayed with her until I got back from work whereby in exchange I gave her teenage son English lessons.”
In the meantime, Ayu’s parents went berserk looking for their daughter. Her father vowed to find her no matter what.
“Ayu delivered a healthy baby boy in the hospital. My father helped me foot the hospital bill. My mother stayed with us for a while to help out with the baby,” says Putu. “We had a very simple life, which was a far cry from the lifestyle Ayu was accustomed to, but she never complained. One day, while I was driving in the city, I parked my car in front of a hotel. I was waiting for some clients and didn’t know that Ayu’s uncle spotted me. He followed me to my house.”
Putu nearly stops mid-sentence as he struggles to fight back the tears: “An hour after I reached home, five men barged into my house, one of them was Ayu’s father. Three men held me tightly and one of them punched me in the stomach and face. I couldn’t defend myself because they were all twice my size. They took Ayu and my son away. I never saw them after that. I tried asking a few relatives regarding their whereabouts, but no one dared to stand up against Ayu’s father. My son turns three today.”
Gary presses his right shoulder as a show of support. “My parents have asked me to move back into their house, but I can’t,” says Putu. “I have this hope that Ayu will one day return to me.”
After a two-hour drive, they finally reach their destination. Putu always takes his clients to Tanah Lot for their first visit. Putu has a lot of good memories of the place. This was the place where they tied the knot. He remembers the sun was about to set as the priest began to pray, right before they became man and wife. It was a simple wedding with hardly any ceremony.
Putu sighs. He hadn’t even been able to give Ayu the dream wedding she deserved. On the day of their nuptials, she wore an old kebaya that her father had bought for her as a birthday gift the year before.
Putu accompanies Gary and Anne inside Tanah Lot to show them around. He walks to the area where he and Ayu were married. He urges both husband and wife to proceed further inside the temple, while he goes off to the corner where he was married. He touches the ground and tries to feel the heat coming off it. He looks at the sky. How dull, he thinks. How uninspiring it seems today. “My beautiful sunsets are over,” he mutters to himself.
Then, suddenly, he feels someone tap him lightly on the shoulder. Gary. “Come,” says the tourist, “show us around.”
Putu nods enthusiastically, “Of course, Mister. That’s what you pay me for.”
The writer is a freelance journalist. She has written and directed five theatrical plays.