Untold Stories

ngabdi

It was already quite late on the last night of the fasting month of Ramadhan, 1993. I was sitting on the bottom bunk bed along side Sari and her youngest brother Atong. She had asked me to come and sit here because she had something to tell me. We were staring at the old ceramic block roof of her home, laughing at the rain pouring through its many holes. She repeated our old joke about my needing an umbrella to sleep there.

I had been here since early afternoon enjoying the warmth and gaiety of my adopted family in Java and helping the preparation and celebration of Idhul Fitri. Since 6:00 p.m. that afternoon, however, we had been anxiously awaiting the arrival of Pak Budi’s younger brother. He was driving with his family to Yogyakarta from Surabaya to mbukå påså (break the fast) with us and celebrate the end of the fasting month. It was past 10:00 p.m. on a wet, chilly night when they finally did arrive. This was the cue for us to prepare trays of hot tea and snacks for these special guests.

Before and after assisting in the preparations, I remained in the shabby structure of cracked cement, plywood and woven bamboo that is the Budi home to receive and chat with the stream of visitors. This is the time when neighbors, friends, relations, and even new acquaintances can beg forgiveness for all sins past and present, intentional or not. This was a time I had especially looked forward to since I was certain to have committed numerous errors in my own ignorance as a new-comer to the rigorous formalities of Central Javaneseness. For over a year and a half now I had been a frequent member of the Budi household, a well-received member of the kampung, and an expected participant in local activities ranging from formal meetings to the most intimate gossip sessions. With not much more to go on beyond following the lead of the four Budi daughters, I shopped in the market for Ibu Budi, served tea at the local meetings, and lent a helping hand whenever and wherever one was needed. My status as a foreigner was naturally one of privileged outsider. But as a speaker of Javanese, albeit far from perfect, and as a woman with no pretensions of Western superiority or fear of getting my hands dirty or saying the wrong thing, I managed to alter my position in this compact community to that of an odd child.

Early on in our relationship, the Budis were eager to answer my linguistic questions and to explain and correct my speaking and behavioral errors. When I first began ‘getting my hands dirty’ by helping the Budi women, Pak Budi asked me to stop. This was not the behavior of a guest. I persisted as the women all giggled in embarrassment mixed with glee as I strained the tea, added far more sugar to one glass than I personally use in a year, and carried it out to other guests in my clumsy attempts at Javanese humility. In time, instead of just listening at village meetings, I started speaking, and at home, I started doing the washing up, sweeping or grating coconut. My education as a female child needing to know what cårå Jåwå (the Javanese way) meant from the inside was an accepted, although often humorous, fact of life, especially as I began to show signs of improving. But my eagerness to be positioned as ‘child’ needing to be socialized (because this is specifically what I felt like) contrasted and occasionally conflicted with my differences. My foreign-ness, age, and status as university lecturer also permitted me certain freedoms to ask difficult questions, speak about unmentionable topics, and be trusted with intimate secrets. Thus, precariously balanced between odd insider and privileged outsider, I went about my business of learning cårå Jåwå fully trusting in the theater of life that was the Budi family’s daily routines.

Pak Budi emerged from his younger brother’s elegant home in front of the Budi’s cramped, windowless shack, sat down into the torn, plastic and iron chair, let out a sigh, and tossed a small plastic bag of raw shrimp crackers (krupuk) onto the table. He must be feeling exhausted from the month-long fast and the wait for his brother to arrive, I thought. I looked at him and the bag he tossed and asked in formal Javanese, “Menikå menåpå Pak?” (what’s that, Pak?). He answered briefly, “oleh-oleh”. It was the gift brought by his brother. I looked again at the expressionless smoothness of Pak Budi’s face, then at the bag, and I immediately burst out laughing. Pak Budi, always one to love jokes, sat up with a grin and looked to me to explain what the humor was. The joke was the rudeness. I said, “kok, uthil tenan, Pak! Oleh-olehe mung sakbungkuse krupuk mentah!!   Åpå meneh, sesuk di balikke wis mateng nggo sarapane!” (how extraordinarily cheap and selfish, Pak! [All you get for] oleh-oleh [is] a measly bag of raw krupuk – which [they know darn well Ibu Budi] will cook and serve right back [to them] for tomorrow’s breakfast!”)

Somewhere between shock and reality, my comments struck deep. The whole family burst into laughter until tears actually were visible on tired faces. After the laughter subsided, Pak Budi smiled at me, shook his head and said, “Mbak Lina, Mbak Lina. Matur nuwun, anakku[i].” (Thank you my daughter). He then stood up in the tiny cramped sitting room, stretched and sighed, and headed out the door into the night rain, back to the spacious house his brother owns but rarely occupies.

It was then that Sari motioned me to follow her into the sleeping area, partitioned off from the sitting room by a thin, sagging plywood board. After commenting on the ugliness of her home, made all the more obvious to her by my presence in it, Sari introduced her story by reiterating what I already knew: the Budi family were descendants of priyayi, members of the wealthy noble classes. But she added that in generations past, priyayi families had a tradition of sacrificing one of their children in order to ensure the success of the others (a practice called tumbal). Usually decided at birth because of a duplication in the date (weton[ii]), gender or position in the order of the birth, that child would be symbolically ‘thrown away’ to separate it from the other children. The baby would then be accepted back as a foundling, not as a full-fledged member of the family, but rather as a servant. Pak Budi, she said, suffered this fate, and that is why he received no inheritance from his family. His three brothers, each with university degrees and important positions, received one third of the huge parcel of ancestral land within the fortress wall that surrounds the sultan’s domain. Yet, her father was only allowed a minimal education and was found a low-level civil servant’s position as a family favor. Despite carrying much of the work-weight in the office, he was not awarded the promotions he deserved either since he was not of real priyayi lineage. To this day, and as I saw very clearly for myself, Pak Budi and his family are still treated as unpaid servants by the better-off siblings.

Ibu Budi, Sari went on to explain, not only bore most of the burdens of the family’s poverty but she suffered the same tumbal rejection her husband did. Women earn their status from men, Sari explained. She told me about the times her family went hungry because her mother would cook snacks (jajan) to sell on the streets for money but her uncle’s children would steal them. She also told me that for years her mother had only one jarik (sarong) and one kebaya (traditional style blouse) and that every night she would very diligently wash them, hang them to dry and wear them again, dry or not, the next day. Sari also told me about the times her mother would miss her own family and walk the five kilometers south to Bantul to visit them. Never was she treated as family or as a guest; never was she invited into the house but rather always told to wait outside, given a cup of tea, and treated as nothing more than a common beggar. Sari stressed that her mother never asked her family for anything. Sari explained that she had accompanied her mother on some of these journeys and saw for herself how her mother was treated. Her mother, Sari explained, never said a word or expressed any disappointment to anyone. This is the fate of women, she added abruptly.

When she had said enough, Sari’s only comment was, “kudu ngerti, Mbak Lin” ([you] need to know, Mbak Laine), and she got up to help her mother. Meanwhile, Atong, who had been sitting silently on my left listening to these stories, visibly trembled as he murmured, “kok, aku durung tau weruh. Kok, piye, Mbak? Aku åpå ki? ra dong aku ki.” (why did I never know. What do I do, Mbak? I don’t understand any of this.) He had tears in his eyes. I did not know what to tell him.

[i]This direct quote from Pak Budi shows my ‘double’ role in the family. Pak Budi refers to me in two ways: first as Mbak which is Javanese for elder sister, despite the fact that he is much older than me, and then as anakku or my daughter. Mbak shows the respect he feels for me or my position, while anakku reveals the intimacy.

[ii]Weton involves two dates within the two cyclical measurements for weeks in the Javanese calendar. One is the usual Monday, Tuesday, seven day system, while the other is the five day Javanese market system, Kliwon, Legi, Pahing, Pon, Wage. My weton, for example, is Rabu Kliwon, meaning I was born on a Wednesday – Kliwon. If any of my subsequent siblings were born on the same weton, according to older Javanese beliefs, I could be at great risk. Thus, ceremonies or even the tumbal noted above would be arranged. Nowadays, tumbal ceremonies are still practiced in Yogyakarta. The child is still symbolically placed in the trash but immediately picked up again and brought back into the home. No change of status is involved.

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