April 25, 2008

A.A. Navis

The Decline of the Local Prayer House
IF, SOME YEARS AGO, you had arrived by bus in the town where I was born, you would have stopped near the marketplace. Should you have carried on, walking westward, along the main road, after about a kilometer you would have come to the road to my village. At that small turnoff, the fifth turn to the right, you would have turned into a narrow lane. And at the end of that lane you would have found an old prayer house, in front of which was a fish pond, the water for which flowed in through four different bathing places.

And outside the prayer house, on the left side, you would have found an old man sitting there whose manner was very much in keeping with both his age and piety. That was Grandpa — at least that's what people called him — and he was the garin or caretaker of the prayer house, a position he had filled for many years.

Grandpa didn't receive any salary for his caretaker's duties and lived almost entirely from the donations that were collected each Friday. But every six months he was given a quarter of the proceeds from the fishpond, and once a year people gave him tithes. Actually, he was not that well known as a garin. He was better known as a knife sharpener, a trade at which he excelled. He was so good at honing knives that people always went to him for help, though he never, ever, asked for anything in return. Women who asked him to sharpen their knives or scissors often gave him some homemade chili sauce, or sambal, in exchange for his services. From the men he'd receive cigarettes or, sometimes, money. Usually all he got was a word of thanks and a smile.

But Grandpa is no longer there. He died. And with his death the prayer house was left without a caretaker. Nowadays children use it as a place to play whatever games they like. And women who have run out of firewood are always stealing the odd plank from the walls or floor during the night.

If you were to go there now, you would find only the impression of something that had once been sacred but is now in the process of decline. And the decline grows faster by the day — as fast as the children who run around inside it, as fast as the women who steal its timbers. But the most important factor in this decline is, quite simply, people's lack of concern: People today, it seems, are not willing to look after something that is not under watch.

The cause of this decline can be found in a story, the truth of which would be difficult to refute. This is the tale, just as it happened.

ONE DAY I WENT TO GRANDPA to repay him for his help. Usually he was glad to see me, as I was one person who usually gave him money. But that day he seemed extremely dejected. He was sitting at the corner of the building, staring straight ahead, as if not seeing anything, as if something had come to disturb his thoughts. At his feet were an old condensed milk can filled with coconut oil, a fine whetstone, a long leather strop and an old razor. Never had I seen him so gloomy and never before had he ignored my greeting. I sat down beside him and picked up the razor. "Whose razor is this. Grandpa?" I asked him.
"Adjo Sidi's."
"Adjo Sidi's?"
As Grandpa said no more, I thought then of Adjo Sidi, a yarn spinner if there ever was one. I hadn't seen him around for ages and thought of the enjoyment I would find in seeing him again. I liked to listen to him talk. He could entrance people for the best part of a day with his outlandish tales. But, as he was so busy with his work, such opportunities were rare.

The man's greatest success as a tale spinner came from the fact that his tales were accepted as proverbial and their characters were held up as paradigms of ridicule. And, indeed, there were people in the village whose personalities very much resembled the characters of Adjo Sidi's stories. Just as one example, Adjo Sidi once told a story about a certain frog whose characteristics were very similar to those of a man in the village who insisted on playing the determinant role in village affairs. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that from that time on this particular pillar of the community came to be known as "the Frog."

Then I suddenly remembered Grandpa and that Adjo Sidi had come to see him. I wondered if Adjo Sidi been talking about Grandpa. Was it one of Adjo Sidi's stories that had so depressed him? I was curious to know.
"What did he talk about?" I asked Grandpa.
"Adjo Sidi."
"That rotten sod," Grandpa answered with a sigh.
"What did he do?"
"I hope he uses this razor I've sharpened for him to cut his throat."
"What, are you angry with him?"
"Angry? If I were a young man I might be, but I'm old, and so I'm not. When you're old you have to control your whims. I haven't been angry in a long time, and I don't want to be, either. I try to be true to my beliefs and don't want my faith jeopardized. Then, too, I don't want the example I've tried to set around here damaged. I've tried for such a long time to do good, to set a good example and to place my trust in God. I've given myself to God, and God shows mercy to those who are patient and trust in Him."

Now I desperately wanted to learn what story had caused Grandpa such depths of depression. "What did Adjo Sidi tell you, Grandpa?" I asked again.

Grandpa was silent, apparently reluctant to relate whatever it was. But as I continued to pester him, he finally relented.

"You know me," he started, "I've been here since you were a boy, ever since I myself was young! And you know what I do and everything that I've done. You tell me, am I going to be cursed for what I've done? Would the Almighty curse me for the work I've done?"

There was no need for me to respond. I knew that once Grandpa had spoken, once he had so much as opened his mouth, he would not be silent again. I left him to answer his own questions.

"I've been here ever since I was young. But did I ever think of taking a wife, or having children, or raising a family like other folk? No, I never thought that, or even about my own life. I never wanted to be rich, or to build a house. I have given my life, my body and soul, to God the Most Wise. I've never caused trouble for other folk, never even harmed a fly. So how come I'm the one who's going to be damned? How come I'm supposed to become fuel for the fires of hell? Do you think that God is angry for what I've done? Is He going to curse me for having devoted my life to Him? I've never thought about tomorrow, because I know that God exists and takes mercy on those who trust in Him. I get up early every morning and perform my ablutions. I'm the one who beats the great drum at the mosque to wake the other folk so that they can worship Him. I pray regularly, at the appointed times; morning, noon, afternoon and night. His name is always on my lips. I praise Him, and I read His word. And, when he rewards me, I utter the blessing, 'Alhamdulillah! Praise be to Allah!' When I'm afraid I say, 'Astagfirullah! May God forgive me!' and 'Masyallah! Good heavens!' when I am surprised. Is there anything wrong with that? So you tell me why I'm the one who's damned, damned for all eternity."
Grandpa fell silent again.
"He said that you're damned?" I ventured.

Grandpa's eyes had begun to tear. "Not in so many words," he murmured, "but that's what he implied."

Poor Grandpa, I thought, and silently reproached Adjo Sidi. Nonetheless, I wanted to know more of the story that had broken Grandpa's heart, and I persisted with my questions until Grandpa finally gave in and repeated the tale.

ONCE UPON A TIME, in the world hereafter, Adjo Sidi had begun, the Lord God was examining all those who had passed on. And the angels were standing at His side, holding in their hands lists of human merits and wrongdoings. Oh, there were so many people there, all to be examined! Of course there had been wars and all that kind of thing to take into account. And among those who were to be examined was a man who had been known on earth by the name of Haji Saleh. Haji Saleh stood in line, smiling contentedly, convinced that he would be going to heaven. He stood there with his hands behind his back while he puffed out his chest and bowed his head. As he watched those who were consigned to hell, his lips twisted into a knowing sneer. And when he saw those who were sent to Heaven, he waved to them as if to say "See you later, mate." The queue was so long and there were so many lined up, it seemed as if it would never end. For as soon as the numbers at the front decreased there were more lined up at the back. But the Almighty continued to examine each and every one in His inimitable manner.
Finally, it was Haji Saleh's turn to be questioned. He smiled proudly as he greeted the Almighty.
The Lord launched the first question. "And you?"
"I'm Saleh. But because I've been on the hajj to Mecca, they call me Haji Saleh."
"I didn't ask your name. Your name is no importance to me. Your name was only of use to you on earth."
"Yes, my Lord."
"What did you do on earth?"
"I paid homage to You always. My Lord."
"Anything else?"
"I praised You unceasingly. Lord God."
"Anything else?"
"And every day, every evening, indeed at every available moment, I whispered Your holy name."
"Anything else?"
"And all that You forbade. My Lord God, I did not do. I have never, ever, done anything wicked, even though the world is full of sins and wickedness and has been turned upside down by accursed evil."
"Anything else?"
"And, My Lord, nothing else. I performed no acts other than those of devotion, other than those of worshipping You and calling upon Your name. Moreover, in Your mercy, when I was ill, Your name was ever upon my lips. I have always prayed that Your tolerance would make Your followers aware of Your goodness."
"Anything else?"

Haji Saleh could say no more. He had already told of all that he had done. But he had begun to realize, uneasily, that the Almighty's questions were not questions asked just for the sake of questioning, and that there was, surely, something else that had been left unsaid. But as far as he could see, he had told all there was to tell. He pondered and bowed his head, not knowing what more he could say. Suddenly Haji Saleh felt heat from the fires of hell blowing against his body, and he began to cry, but every tear that trickled down his cheek was dried instantly by the hot winds of hell.
"Anything else?" the Almighty repeated.
Haji Saleh, now lusterless, tried a new approach. "Your slave has told You all, 0 Great Lord, Most Merciful and Kind, Most Just and All Knowing." He debased himself and flattered the Almighty in the hope that the Lord would deal kindly with him and not ask any further awkward questions.
But the Almighty asked him yet again: "Is there anything else?"
"Oh, well, er. My Lord... Hmmm, I've always read Your holy scriptures, haven't I?"
"And what else?"
"I have told You absolutely everything, my Lord. But, if perhaps there is anything that I have forgotten, I am thankful because You are the One Who knows all."
"Are you absolutely sure that there is nothing else you did on earth other than what you've just told me?"
"Yes, that is all. My Lord."
"Then in you go, my lad."

And promptly an angel whisked Haji Saleh straight into hell.

Haji Saleh couldn't understand why he had been sent to hell, nor what it was the Almighty had wished of him, and yet he was quite sure that He could not have made a mistake.

But Haji Saleh was to be even more astonished, because there in hell he found hoards of his erstwhile friends from the world above, roasted to a crisp, moaning and groaning in absolute agony. He was even more puzzled because all the people he saw there in hell were no less devout than he himself! There was even one chap, a sheikh, and a doctor of divinity to boot, who had been to Mecca no less than fourteen times!

Haji Saleh approached the crowd and asked them why were they were there in hell. But like he himself, none of them could discern the answer.

"I don't get it, this God of ours," Haji Saleh said at last. "Hasn't He instructed us to be obedient, devout and unassailable in our faith? And haven't we done just that, each and every day of our lives? But now look, for this we find ourselves cast into hell!"
"Yes, I agree," came a response. "I agree completely. Just look around, we're all from the same country, and not a one of us was wanting in faith or devotion."
"Surely this must be unjust."
Other people had now joined in and were repeating Haji Saleh's sentiment: "It certainly is unjust."
"We must ask for evidence of our wrongdoing. Who knows,
He might have slipped up when consigning us here."
"That's right. You're right!" All the others were now applauding, justifying Haji Saleh's position.
"But what if He won't admit to a slip-up?" cried a voice from the crowd.
"Then we'll...we'll protest, won't we?! We'll submit a resolution!" Haji Saleh affirmed.
"What kind of resolution will we submit?" asked another person, one who apparently had been a leader in a revolutionary movement on earth.
"That all depends on the situation," Haji Saleh answered. "The important thing right now is that we demonstrate our displeasure."
Yet another voice was heard: "That's the way! Oh, the things we achieved on earth through demonstrations!"
"Yes, yes, yes!" they all cheered before leaving to meet with the Almighty.
And when the crowd stood before God, He asked: "What do
you lot want?"
Haji Saleh, the crowd's spokesman and leader, stepped forward, and with a soft but trembling voice, he began his speech: "Oh Great One, our God. We, who stand before You, are Your most devout and faithful followers who forever praise Your name, forever bow before Your greatness, who spread the news of Your justice and so forth. We know by heart Your holy scriptures and never err when reciting them. But, 0 Lord, My God, Almighty, when we were called here. You threw us into hell. And so, lest something untoward happen, on behalf of all those who truly love You, we request — nay, demand — that You reconsider the judgment that was passed on us and that, in accordance with what is written in the holy scriptures, we be allowed to enter into heaven."

"And where did you lot live on earth?" the Almighty asked.
"O Lord God, we are your faithful from Indonesia."
"Oh, that country whose land is exceedingly fertile?"
"Yes! Absolutely correct. Lord God."
"A land that is fruitful and rich with metals, oil and other minerals?"
"That's right. That's absolutely right. Lord God! That is indeed our country." The crowd had begun to answer in unison as their faces grew bright with hope. They were beginning to feel positively certain that the Almighty had actually committed a flub.
"A land so fertile that plants grow even without tending?"
"Yes, that's our country!"
"That country whose people live in misery?"
"Yes, that's our country!"
"The country which was for so long enslaved by a foreign race?"
"Yes, Lord God. Those colonizers are surely damned."
"The same people who seized the fruits of your land and took them away?"
"Yes, O Lord Our God, and left us nothing. May they forever be cursed!"
"And a land of such confusion that you are forever squabbling, even as a foreign people steal the riches of your land?"
"That is true. Lord God, but we don't care about wealth. We don't concern ourselves with that sort of thing. The only thing that is important to us is that we are able to worship You, and to praise Your greatness."
"Then, you are willing to be poor?"
"O yes. Lord God, we are indeed most willing."
"And because of your own willingness to suffer, your children and their children remain poor?"
"It's true that our children and their children may be poor, but all of them are skilled at reciting Your words, and know Your songs by heart."
"And just like you lot, they too, in their hearts, do not know the meaning of what they speak?"
"But that is not so, O Lord!"

"If you practiced what you preached, then why do you suffer and allow your children and their children to be oppressed? And this you do while permitting your riches to be taken by others for their own children and their grandchildren. Is it not true that you prefer to quarrel among yourselves and to cheat and threaten one other? I have given you a country of tremendous wealth but you are bone idle. You prefer to pray, because by being devout you don't have to sweat or exert yourselves. I have instructed you not just to pray, but to practice what you preach. How, if I may ask, can you be charitable if you are poor? Do you think I like praise? Do you think all I want is to be made drunk by your adoration, by your words? No! It's deeds I want! And so it's to hell with you lot. Over here. Angel, and get this lot back down there. Throw them in the pit!"

The crowd turned deathly pale, unable to utter a single word. But they then knew what the Lord would have wished them to do on earth. Even so, Haji Saleh still wanted to ascertain if what they had done on earth was right or wrong. As he wasn't brave enough to ask the Almighty Himself, he put his question to the angel who escorted them.

"In your opinion, good sir, was it wrong that on earth I worshipped the Almighty?"
"No, not at all. Your misdeed is that you thought only of yourself. Because you were afraid of hell, you prayed obediently. But you forgot your own people's lives, the lives of your wives and children, causing them to live unsettled. That is your greatest fault: you were far too egotistical! Remember that on earth you are all one people, all brothers, but you didn't give a damn about anyone else."

THAT WAS THE STORY that Adjo Sidi had told and which had made Grandpa so melancholy. The next morning, as I was preparing to leave the house, my wife asked if I was going to pay my respects.

"Pay my respects?" I asked her. "Who died?"
"Grandpa," she said.
"Yes! They found him at the prayer house this morning. It was terrible, most horrendous. He'd cut his own throat with a razor!"
"Astaga! My heavens! And all because of Adjo Sidi...." I muttered and left my dumbfounded wife as quickly as possible.
I looked for Adjo Sidi at his house but there found only his wife.
"He's gone," she said in answer to my enquiry of Adjo Sidi's whereabouts.
"Does he know that Grandpa is dead?"
"Oh yes, he knows. And before he left he asked me to buy Grandpa a seven-layered shroud."
"And now...?" I hesitated to ask the next question. Knowing how completely irresponsible Adjo Sidi had been, the question seemed pointless. "Where has he gone?"
"To work."
"To work?" I repeated listlessly.
"Yes, he's gone to work."
Translated by E. Edwards Mc Kinnon