I started to tell stories: about the oppression of farmers in the backcountry, about the invasion of our own sovereignty, about this country’s bitter history. ‘Yes, we’ve grown used to it, since the Japanese seized even the clothes on our backs, as well as our corn and paddy,’ you said, with barely a frown.
Under the dim light of the kerosene lamp, other stories of persecution burst forth from you: from the oppressors formerly taught by the Dutch colonial administration, to the sub-district chief selling the state’s rice without authorization.
‘Really, we have grown used to it, ever since we were lulled by ignorance, and then grew indifferent,’ you said with a slight frown. On and on: we became more immersed in discussion.
‘Someone should try to change it, someone should dare to show resistance, there should be fairness,’ you said as your frown deepened in earnest.
But who should start it? Suddenly you became silent. The frown on your forehead slowly cleared, as if making peace with a reality so sheer. Occasionally the hum of motorcycles seemed to spy on us from the streets outside of here. Was there still something to fear?
‘Our minds, yes, our minds should first start it,’ you said with a smile, so simple and effortless. The wind blew through the window lattices. Ah yes, the scent of ylang-ylang flowers faintly reached our noses. Then you continued to tell stories: about your grandchild’s college tuition in the city getting higher and higher, about debts ensnaring the village farmers, about corn fields full of chemical fertilizer.
‘Then and now, the oppression remains identical, without a dent. Our minds, yes, our minds should first be made independent,’ you said softly, before putting our conversation to an end.
That night, it was reality I began to comprehend.
Fishing in Way Kanan
Fog fell on the forest that night, the half moon was shining bright. As we entered the National Park, no wayward elephants or rhinos came to stalk. The car climbed roads of unmarked earth, the wind embracing nervous sprinkles of dirt.
‘We’re here,’ I said, pointing to the dock’s end.
‘What are we waiting for,’ taunted my old friend. So we hurried down to the bow, eager to relieve our spirits so low. Along with the rumble of the motorboat, we flung away bad thoughts and let them float.
Here was the Way Kanan river: the sounds of fish splashing water could be faintly heard.
Here was the Way Kanan river: your current was black from the sadness you harbored.
From the boat I saw the remains of the forest on your banks: ashy stumps, wild bushes, dangling roots, and the charred smell of burnt fields of grass. No sounds of animals here. Only silence muzzling the atmosphere. Once or twice flashlights of patrolling officers shone clear: What were they doing here? Cutting down agarwood or trapping deer?
On the Blue Creek, we halted. Against dead twigs the boat rested. Quickly we prepared the baits, rolled out the fishing lines, hooked the worms — and with one shout, we threw in the hooks. Next there was only the wait. Practicing patience as time walked its slow gait.
‘Maybe only crocodiles would eat my bait,’ a new friend of mine murmured — perhaps tired, perhaps waiting got him bored, then he lit up the end of a cigarette as he grumbled.
‘Hey! A river catfish ate my bait!’ my old friend squealed, quickly rolling in his fishing reel.
And on it went. In alternating succession we were happy, disappointed, happy, disappointed — the point was: it wasn’t fish we were catching, but a mix of emotions between silence and wishing.
The moon slid to the left, the wind suddenly went dead.
‘But back then, officials and rich people from the city could go fishing to their heart’s content,’ the old friend grumbled. The moon disappeared in haste. The wind carried the stench of tapioca starch waste. The river current washed away the common people’s pains: only hypocrisy left to wrap around the forest’s remains.
Crossing the Way Umpu River
Crossing the Way Umpu river was like going through time’s endless tunnels. No outrigger boats cutting through your small ripples. No wooden logs obstructing your brown current, like hurdles. There were only the occasional village children spearing for fish in your bowels. There were only mimosa bushes embracing your shingle.
On your opposite side bamboo huts stood in a row, where native people scraped out a livelihood, catching shrimp from your flow. No more plantations of rubber, pepper or coffee: only in stories of long-gone prosperity. Yes, everything had been lost and now belonged to the state bureaucracy .
Crossing the Way Umpu river was like walking through the myths of suffering; there began the land of Blambangan, the land violently plundered, the land of people who were outcasted. ‘Our ancestors were white-skinned alligators, up to the present living an ascetic life at the mouth of the rivers,’ so said Azwari, an activist friend from the Anti-Corruption Committee.
– What does the myth mean to you, dear river of Way Umpu?
What does human rights mean, when the natives’ fields were seized by soldiers without proper compensation? What does civilization mean, when the customary rights of the indigenous peoples were forcibly taken? What does prosperity mean, when muli were forced to be factory workers in Java? What does justice mean, when mekhanai were caught committing robbery in an urban area? What does it mean to live as a person of Indonesia?
– What does independence mean to you, dear river of Way Umpu?
‘Our ancestors were indeed usurpers; we wiped out the indigenous dwellers, we poured their blood to the mouth of the rivers, so said the warahan of the old masters,’ Azwari continued.
‘But that was then,’ I said.
‘Yes. And now we accept the retribution. But…’
‘Some time ago, at the beginning of reformation, after July 27, we found six dead bodies floating under the bridge of Way Umpu river. Their faces, gnawed by fish, could be recognized no longer. Their bodies were full of marks of torture. People said they were bodies of activists from Jakarta, who were killed after being kidnapped by soldiers.’
So it was, after puffing cigarettes marked Djambu, once again we walked through the bitter history of despotism, crossing the black chronicle of humanism, swimming through time’s prisms, here, at the river of Way Umpu.
The Hypocritical Forests
Such hypocrites, those forests!
Thousands of hectares only remaining silent, becoming the dark witness of a history of lies. The fields we cultivated have been seized, made into a playground for beasts. Our leaders are not much different, each day becoming more like beasts: they felled down protective trees in a greedy fit, and then accused us of being the culprits.
Such hypocrites, those forests!
Thousands of hectares only remaining silent, when we were banished from our homes and fields. ‘You are forest encroachers!’ our leaders grumbled. Then the people in green uniforms — with horses, elephants and guns — came to stomp over our fields, over our homes. With savage faces, they forced us to cut down coffee plants, cut down the remains of our wives’ hopes: my God, how painful it felt, like slashing a child of your own heart.
Such hypocrites, those forests!
Thousands of hectares only remaining silent, when smart people from the city went to our former fields and picked coffee, slashed down pine and sandalwood trees, shot at animals who used to be so free, and then said arrogantly, ‘This is all for the sake of economic development, so no more discontent!’ Afterwards, they bogged us down with counselling: on ecological destruction and the necessity of forest preservation, without forgetting a message insertion, ‘No more forest encroachment!’
Such hypocrites, those forests!
Because we, farmers in our own country, have become more and more defeated by oppression, and have no right to take part in possession.
Cicih, a small girl from Pasundan, a daughter of transmigrants, hurried to take a bath at the break of dawn. Later there was no breakfast for her. Only a gulp straight from a jug of water.
Cicih must arrive at school by 7 and no later. If not Teacher will have a fit of temper – (probably) she said inwardly.
Two notebooks with tattered covers, a pair of pencils and a shabby wooden ruler, was put into a bag made of hay – a present from her father yesterday. She was now in third grade, SD Teladan was her school’s name.
‘I’m going to school, father,’ she said in farewell.
Her father turned to her and nodded slowly. Then his face fell and was covered with sadness, as though there was something he wanted to suppress, or was unable to express.
With bare feet Cicih departed to school. The rooster crowed loudly, the sun in the horizon rose slowly. As she walked along the road by the forest, Cicih recited the multiplication table with much excitement.
From home to school was two kilometers, but Cicih was persistent and eager. A pair of finches sang merrily from jackfruit branches, squirrels jumped up and down coconut trees, drops of dew covered stalks of Robusta coffee leaves. ‘All of you, good morning!’ Cicih’s cheerful voice could be heard piping. Next, she recited language lessons, as well as scriptures from religious sessions.
From home to school was two kilometers, but Cicih was persistent and eager. Sweat poured down her brow. Her white shirt was crumpled and matted, caressed by a drizzle so wet.
Finally, Cicih arrived at school. But…
There were none of her friends. There was no Teacher. And there was no school. She only saw rubble and burnt chairs and desks. Slowly she read the writing spelled out on the fence: The headmaster is only capable of corruption! Feel our retaliation! Long life reformation!
Young Muli’s Narration
Young Muli jogged on tiny feet, welcoming Buya, her father, home from the sea.
‘Buya, did you catch a lot?’ young Muli asked, the cool foamy water caressing her white toes.
‘Well, the same as I always got,’ Buya replied, the sand cold as though pricking his tired soul.
‘Tuan Sutan said our debt is due,’ said young Muli.
Buya clenched his teeth. At the dock, the wind breathed strongly. The sky made the weather seethe.
‘Mother’s fever is getting worse too,’ continued young Muli.
No reply. Buya stepped away quickly. Young Muli understood and walked more slowly, but at a glance she could see Buya slipping inside an old tavern.
Abrasion made fish difficult to find, with low-quality wine and a frustrated mind, here were the native fishermen: blowing up their poverty at the gambling den.
Young Muli whimpered, her small voice in a whisper: ‘No rice at home for food, no money to go to school.’ No tears. No prayers.
Only dawn wailing the azan call for prayers from the small village mosque.
Stories from the House’s Yard
In Memory of My Father
Here, in our house’s yard, there were pebbled footpaths, ylang-ylang trees growing lush, a thicket of shrubs, and mango fruits abound. Amaranth sprouts fell in the breeze, shooting up into buds, and then bright-colored stalks, ready to be made into soup: yes, it was here where I learned to observe the cycle of birth, life, and mortality – where I learned to observe purity.
Here, in our house’s yard, I witnessed the meaning of what was beautiful: so simple, so wonderful.
Here, in our house’s yard, I watched with amazement as the red sun at dusk trembled. All of the suffering and sadness began to feel simple. A pair of pigeons that I kept never flew far from their cage: from them I learned about love and loyalty.
At the southern end of the yard, a clump of taro grew thick, the tubers fresh, fat and tempting. My mother often boiled them for us to eat: from them I learned about humility and sincerity.
O, life, how beautiful was the dance of cassava leaves, cheerfully blown by the afternoon breeze: from them I learned how to pray, without anything to think or say.
Here, at the far corner of our house’s yard, I saw father: faithfully hoeing the soil, weeding out plants of castor oil, engaging in chicken coop cleaning, or smiling at how the amaranth leaves were growing.
‘We must relearn how to love nature,’ father said, smiling while wiping beads of sweat from his forehead.
In his eyes there was no burden. No political opponents to bring down. No high position to defend. He had learned from the soil, from the mud and the morning dew’s essence: he had learned how to control himself, how to live with conscience.
‘Nature never lies,’ he said, as he returned to hoeing the vanilla plant bed. Tomorrow morning, father would retire from being a civil servant, from where corrupt people tirelessly elbow each other. And he’d live happily as a farmer.
Here, yes, in our house’s not-so-wide yard, I began to love the falling leaves from shrubs, the mimosa bushes, and a pair of sparrows twittering on a mango tree.
Here, yes, in our house’s not-so-wide yard, I learn once more how to shed tears.
Mekhanai = young man
Warahan = oral poetry of the Lampung people