Wheels of Light
The clock hand is exactly at 5 in the afternoon when the short message from Bonang, my little brother, vibrates my mobile phone. The message is indeed short. "Pak Tua1 died at 16.51. The family expects your presence."
Family matter concerning death certainly cannot be delayed. Especially when my presence is needed so much. After father died, it has been my responsibility as the oldest son to represent our family. It is even more so, if there is a need to make a final decision as the family collective stance.
With the passing away of Pak Tua, the responsibility as the head of two families, which used to be Pak Tua’s, shifts to me. And I have to start playing the role by myself this time.
Memories of Pak Tua start intrude me. He was father’s elder brother and only sibling. He had been sick for several years and gone in and out the hospital. His condition was poor; he practically lied down in his bed all the time.
His easy-going character, which was opposite to father’s silent one, made me feel closer to Pak Tua. I preferred talking about many things with Pak Tua to doing it with father. Including about my relationship with Maharani back then, because of the different religions we held.
"Your father’s effort to send you to advanced education will just go up in smoke if you cannot fix your problem," teased Pak Tua.
"What do you mean, Pak Tua? What does my certificate have to do with love matter?" I grumble. Pak Tua’s spontaneity in speaking made me feel free to talk frankly.
"Not the certificate. It’s the common sense."
I fell silent.
"You are worried that people’s respect for your father will incline if you marry a girl holding another religion?" Pak Tua asked.
I admitted gloomily. Father was a man of few words, but the church community was always awaiting his consideration. He was considered as a sage and idol. Even though our family was quite moderate concerning religion, my unwillingness to spoil father’s image really banged me to the wall.
On the other hand, Rani’s status as the daughter of an Islamic leader has led us to the cliff. Let alone accepting the change of religion in the family member, even welcoming the presence of a non-Moslem into the family had been a fantasy. It was Rani herself who stated it.
Rani and I had tried hard to get the two families to accept our situation. But our efforts were always in vain. Rani’s family does not welcome my presence enough. Haekal, Rani’s littlest brother, was the only one who did not mind; he was quite friendly.
"Your father is not indifferent, but he finds it difficult to talk this out with you. You know how reticent your father is. But I’m the one who knows him most. He is not an egoist who puts his reputation on top of his son’s happiness. He will back up your decision, as long as you are willing to face the risks," Pak Tua continued at that time.
"Father never does demand that we do what is beneficial to him, he only reminds us to guard a reputation," I added, supporting his statement.
"Is your relationship with Rani good for you as well as your reputation?" I know Pak Tua was asking for confirmation for he knows Rani quite well.
I confidently nodded. Rani was definitely neither the most beautiful nor cleverest girl I had dated. Neither ugly, nor stupid. But she was the only wise girl who knew when to be quiet and when to make me shut up when dealing with my inability to control myself.
With Rani I felt safe and sound. And I believed that Rani felt the same as I did. At least, our five years of intense relationship can be made as reference.
"I bet you would like it better if it is Rani who should change her religion," Pak Tua guessed, bothering me.
"You bet, Pak Tua."
"You do, huh? You are lazy even to go to church, how could you make her interested?" he mocked while cackling.
"It’s not the going to church which is important, Pak Tua; it’s the implementation of the teaching," I defended myself, half embarrassed.
"Goodness! What are you going to implement if you never learn it, Gus? Worshipping is just like going to school. We need to understand the theory and logic of something. Studying or worshipping must be very boring if your hope is just that skin-deep, Young Man!"
"Then, let me follow her faith," I exclaimed.
"Good thought. I see that she conducts her faith obediently. I will be very happy if you can afford to do that with all your heart," challenged Pak Tua.
I was helpless. Praying five times a day? Bah, even for praying twice a day with discipline is already a problem with me.
"How about you yourself, Pak Tua?" I asked, trying to find the secret of his relationship with Mak Tua2 who still held onto her belief.
"Come on … Don’t justify yourself."
"I’m not justifying; I’m learning. There must be something that we can add to our consideration as the enlightenment for the future," I said, returning his own words.
Pak Tua laughed. "It was not actually planned that way. You can even call it the youth’s greenness. We were too keen to get married, how could we have thought of those kinds of things?"
Pak Tua then told me that her marriage to Mak Tua was carried out with two religion processes, Catholic and Islam, under the pressure from both families. People may say that this was a common practice in the past. For the marriage to be legitimate in the Islam way, Pak Tua, who had been very young at that time, did not think of the consequence of citing the two-sentence confession, that he confessed to become a moslem.
"But your relation with Mak Tua seems to be okay. Even very sweet, encompassing many other marriages without different religion problems," I probed.
"That has nothing to do with identical or different religion matter, Gus, but it’s about your intention and consistence in carrying out the intention. If both parties have good intention, they can discuss and find a way out for just anything. Without it, even a good plan will die down and shatter."
"Is not troublesome living your life with two different faiths, Pak Tua?"
"Of course it is. But then, what is not troublesome in this life? This is where the art lies. You know, Gus, it’s much easier changing religion to match the other one compared to accepting the difference wholly without regarding one as higher or lower than the other. There are more than a few people who change religions just to be doing the same ritual, not the spiritual harmony. You know, in that harmony, nothing needs to be sought or challenged," Pak Tua philosophized.
As usual, I bent my mouth while nodding if Pak Tua started to launch a series of his philosophies. But I never got fed up. Since I had been at High School, he always treated me as an equal discussion partner that he was open for questions or even challenges. I may have been benefited by his condition of not having a son.
Lengthy discussion with Pak Tua on religion difference within a family fortified a consideration Rani and I had been thinking: leave a marriage life without leaving our own religions. We both had agreed not to make the other one change religion, we even wanted to encourage that the other faith should be kept alive within our unity.
Pak Tua was glad to hear our decision. He promised to convey it to father and mother, while convincing them that the decision was the best for all of us. A few days later, father and mother called us for a discussion. They wanted to hear everything directly from us. Without much resistance, they accepted our explanation.
"So, when are you going to get married?" asked father later.
"Not before six months from now," I answered, turning to Rani. Rani nodded. We indeed had talked this out quite for long and often so that we are aware of the many possibilities. Although I had only been working for one year, I guessed my opportunity to move ahead was quite open. Moreover, in another three months, Rani will graduate as a dentist. We were sure that the future will not be that scary, although we would have to start it with humbleness.
Father nodded as a sign of his understanding. Mother happily hugged Rani and called her "my daughter". But I was totally unsure that the same thing would turn out at Rani’s family. Rani supported my concern.
"It is my responsibility as well as honor for me as the head of the family to convey your intention and decision to Rani’s parents and family. Next Saturday afternoon we will go together to see Rani’s parents," said father, short.
I did not expect the process to be that quickly. In three days?
"When are you going to communicate this plan to your parents?" I asked Rani while taking her home.
"Tonight. I don’t know how they would react," Rani sighed.
"The most important is that they are willing to welcome my parents this Saturday. Let’s just see whatever the result will be. We have made our guesses, haven’t we?"
We even had calculated the worst scenario that Rani’s family would not approve of it. Parents’ blessing is important, said Pak Tua, but what is much more basic for the long-lasting happiness for a couple is their commitment to their unity in various matters. In this case, honesty is the main asset. Rani and I were sure that up to that time, we had been standing upon honesty.
The disaster did happen. Rani’s family did not want to welcome our proposal. Rani’s father politely presented various hindrances, be it concerning the religion’s rules or their reputation responsibility socially.
"We can neither give you permission, nor stand in her way to reach his chosen future," Rani’s father underlined their family’s standpoint. "The worst thing is the termination of family relation."
This possibility had been counted in our scenarios; still, Rani was struck. Her mother could only cry silently.
Six months later, we got married without the presence of and blessings from both her parents. Only Haekal came, conveying Rani’s mother’s regards.
Now Bonang’s SMS crashes the memory of Pak Tua. The next SMS is a little longer, "When do you arrive? Mak Tua’s family wants the burial to be held with an Islamic process tomorrow morning. While the church and we have scheduled it for 2 o’clock in the afternoon tomorrow."
It is almost 20.00 in the evening. Still 3 hours to get to the village. Although he had never been an icon in the church community as father is, Pak Tua had often gone to church before his condition dropped drastically devoured by liver cancer. As long as my memory serves, Pak Tua never prayed in Islamic way. Yet he never forgot to accompany Mak Tua to fast for a month each year.
I who was still a little children at that time never bothered it as long as I could go to his house each Eid to have some ketupat3 and opor ayam4 and some other food. Also I never needed to question the absence of Mak Tua at church as long as I still got a present laid under the Christmas tree in their house.
I also never knew what Pak Tua was doing when one day he went with Mak Tua who left for pilgrimage. Even if I asked, Pak Tua only laughed without answering. This remains a mystery to us. And many people got a wrong perception. That is why although for the rest of his life I had never seen Pak Tua worshipping in Islamic way, I can understand if the family from Mak Tua’s side still reckons him as a moslem that they want to burry the body in an Islamic way. On the other side, our family naturally wants the burial to be done in the Catholic way.
I entirely understand the two parties’ good intention to give the last ritual service for the dead. What I don’t understand is this: what victory does a party get from fighting over a corpse? Will the good memories of the person decline if he is buried with religion A process? Or will his glory fortify before God if he is buried under religion B procedure?
It is true that I am not a religious person who studies various religious processes in depth. But I am quite sure that the true spirituality of a person and God’s creature as well will not change simply because of the different prayer chants and process.
I may be considered permissive or even indifferent if I approve of the good intention from Mak Tua’s family side. On the contrary, I may possibly be thought of as a totalitarian or even radical if I choose the decision for our family’s favor. This really gives me headache. How difficult it is to satisfy all parties whose desires cannot be compromised.
The driver wakes me up. It seems that I have fallen asleep for the rest of the journey. It is almost midnight when we arrive at Pak Tua’s house.
How shocked I am to see the chaos there. People go to and from around the house while pointing the flashlight. Some of them even go around the backyard carrying torches. No one has the time to give attention or welcome me.
While stepping over the door to the family room, Bonang sees me. He quickly gets up and approaches me, leaving a group of people who seem to be discussing while standing in a circle. He greets me, "Welcome, Bro."
The people in the circle now are circling me. They shake my hand without uttering a word. Their faces reflect strangeness as well as tension.
"What’s up, Bonang?" I asked.
"Pak Tua dissapears," answers Bonang, short.
"Dissapears? What do you mean?" I asked, not understanding it.
Bonang takes me into the room. The people encircling me follow from behind. It turns out to be the room where they put Pak Tua’s body. Bonang pulls me nearing the coffin. Empty! At the bottom of the case is an embroidered gauze.
"An hour ago Pak Tua’s corpse was still there, Bro. I saw it myself when I changed the candle," said Bonang pointing to a candle shining on a small table at the head side of the coffin.
I look around the room carefully. The only door, the one I just passed, connects the room with the family room where everybody gathers. The window facing sideways is fenced with solid brass. Nothing is bent. All the screws are in good condition, piercing fast and deep into the window’s frame which is made of teakwood. All the glass frames on the windows are still neatly placed. Let alone a hole, even a crack is nowhere in sight at the room’s ceiling.
There is just not any possibility of smuggling the corpse from the room in any ways. Where has Pak Tua’s corpse gone then? Who took it? When? And how did it go out without being seen by anybody?
Confusion prevails. My body seems floating in the air. I hear the commotion of people shouting noisily. Vaguely Pak Tua’s voice echoes through the darkness which suddenly grabs me, "You know, in that harmony, nothing needs to be sought or challenged."
Bandung-Jakarta: Sunday, 10 August 2008 22:30
[translated by Untung P. Siahaan 16 March 2009]
[*] moksa = sirnanya fisik dari pandang kasat mata.
1) Pak Tua = short form of Bapak Tua, father’s elder brother.
2) Mak Tua = short form of Mamak Tua, father’s elder brother.
3) ketupat = rice put wrapped in woven coconut leaves, usually served during Eid.
4) opor ayam = chicken cooked with Indonesian curry ingredients.