June 06, 2008

Jujur Prananto

A Special Gift

Jujur Prananto

MRS KUSTIYAH WAS ABSOLUTELY determined to go to Mr Hargi's son's wedding. She had to, no matter what. Whatever the cost. This she had decided long ago — when the time came for Mr Hargi to marry off his children, this would be when she, Mrs Kustiyah, would come and offer her congratulations. She would be there to tell him how happy she was for him. She would show Mr Gi that she, Mrs Kus, still respected him, even though times had changed.

"Mr Hargi was my boss and I still respect him," Mrs Kus often said to her neighbors. "Now he was a true revolutionary, one of the heroes who fought to build this country. Even though I just worked in the camp kitchen, I felt happy and proud to work alongside Mr Gi."

But when the capital of the new republic moved from Central Java to Jakarta, many things had changed, or so said Mrs Kus. Mr Hargi had to work in the capital and Mrs Kus heard word of him only once in a while. Time went by with no communication at all. The confused state of affairs before and after the abortive communist coup in 1965 seemed to make the the distance between her town of Kalasan in Central Java and Jakarta even greater. After Soekamo's "Old Order" fell and Soeharto's "New Order" gave Mr Gi an even more important position in the central government, communication between Mrs Kus and Mr Gi was cut off even more. But this didn't mean that Mrs Kus felt distant from Mr Gi, because as she herself said "sharing the same ideals forms a link that can never be broken."

"In those days we would often talk with the other revolutionaries about our ideals," Mrs Kus would say "and at times like that, when the others would dream of how wonderful it would be when we won victory, Mr Gi would often point out that the fight against poverty and ignorance was no less important that the fight against the Dutch."

However, despite the fact that Mrs Kus always felt close to Mr Gi, it was more than thirty years since they had last met. And now she felt a longing just to meet him and talk together of old times again. This was why, when she heard that Mr Gi was going to marry off his son, Mrs Kus knew that, at last, the time was right for them to meet again.

IT WAS MID-AFTERNOON, past lunch time, and Mrs Kus couldn't bear to stay home any longer. She picked up her leather bag, ready-packed with clothes since yesterday, and got the plastic bag filled with all kinds of snacks and treats for her grandchildren in Jakarta. Feeling well-organized with these bits and pieces, Mrs Kus told her servant to order her a horsecart to take her to the train station.

It wasn't even three o'clock yet when Mrs Kus settled herself at the station, although the economy-class train to Jakarta wouldn't leave until six. Her hurry to leave the house had only made her feel more frustrated. She just wanted to be in Jakarta as soon as possible to see Mr Gi. She began to remember the old days — those sweet memories of the mess-kitchen. She thought of the half-cooked rice she had to serve, of Ngatimin's messenger who was so good at hiding and sneaking his way around, and of Nyai Kemuning, who was staying at the barracks and was the object of so many young men's dreams. Oh, there were so many good stories that time would never let her forget, no matter how fast its wheels turned.

The train whistle startled Mrs Kus. She got up at once and hurried to get into the carriage.

"Wait a moment, lady! The train is only shunting."

But Mrs Kus was already on the step. "Just as long as it's going to Jakarta!"

"We haven't even assigned seat numbers, ma'am."

"That's all right. I've got my ticket!"

And sure enough, after all the long anticipation, Mrs Kus finally arrived in Jakarta. Mrs Kus' daughter, Wawuk, was startled to see her mother turn up at her house, alone, getting out of a taxi.

"Mother! Are you mad? Why didn't you let us know you were coming?"

"Didn't I send you a telegram?"

"Yes, but you didn't give any exact date."

"Well, the important thing is that I'm here!"

"Oh, Mother, if you'd told us when you were arriving, we'd have met you at the station!"

"I don't want to be a bother. And I was afraid that I might not get to the wedding reception of Mr Gi's son. You silly thing, you didn't even tell me the date in your letter!"

"Good lord, you want to go to the reception?"

"It was you who told me that Mr Gi's son was getting married!"

"But why didn't you write and tell us?"

"Does your own mother have to report to you on everything?"

Wawuk was a little unsure of what she should say next.

"No, that's not it. Mother. It's just that, well, you haven't been invited."

"So? Do you mean to say that if you don't have an invitation you'll be turned away?"

"No, of course not. But, who knows, maybe there will be fixed seating, with VIP and non-VIP seats."

"Oh, come now. What is this, a wayang orang performance, with VIP seating!"

"But, Mother, I really don't know where the reception will be held, or what day or time. I only heard about it from Mas Totok, and he heard it from someone else."

"Mas Totok works at the same office as Mr Gi, doesn't he? As if he wouldn't be invited!"

"Not exactly the same office. Mother — the same department. And Mas Totok is just a clerk, way beneath Mr Gi, and not even under Mr Gi's supervision. So how could he know about these things, let alone be showered with invitations."

"He can ask, can't he?"

Wawuk let out her breath, slowly.

Mrs Kus spoke in a serious tone: "Now just you take note, Wuk. I've come all this way to Jakarta to attend the wedding reception for Mr Hargi's son. And that's what I'm going to do."

IT WASN'T AT ALL DIFFICULT for Wawuk's husband to find out the time and place of the wedding reception. Mr Hargi was a top-level official in an important position. So important, in fact, that if he were suffering symptoms of the flu — only the symptoms, mind you — the whole department would know. So it was easy for Wawuk's husband to get all the information, including a copy of the wedding invitation.

"The reception is at 7 P.M. tomorrow, in the Grand Ballroom of the Sahid Jaya Hotel."

"Astaghfirullah\ My God! A hotel?"

"Yes, Mother, a hotel."

"Not a reception hall?"

"Hotels have reception rooms. Mother."


"Well, at least I think so. I've never actually gone inside."

"Totok, do you know where the hotel is?"

"Yes, Mother."

THAT NIGHT IT WAS WAWUK'S TURN not to be able to sleep. All kinds of uncomfortable feelings were churning inside her. She wanted to stop her mother from going to the reception, but had no good reason to do so. How could she possibly say to her mother, "Why are you going to a reception when the host may have forgotten you?" or "They don't want us to come," or any other such reason which would only make her mother want to go all the more, just to prove she was wrong.

On the other hand Wawuk felt ashamed of herself that she should feel embarrassed of her mother. Where had this wicked feeling sprung from? For in truth she respected her mother —respected her simplicity, idealism, and morality. Why had her respect for these values been so easily shaken by her mother's wish to go to a reception at a five-star hotel?

Wawuk got out of bed and slowly entered her mother's room. It was empty. Her mother's leather bag was on the bed. She opened the bag, and recognized the Javanese blouse and sarong as those her mother had five or six years ago. Wawuk remembered that she had wanted to buy her mother some better clothes, but her mother refused, with no real reason. And there were her black slip-on shoes with the soles that had been repaired goodness-knows-how-many times.

Suddenly Wawuk heard a pot fall. She rushed to the kitchen and was startled to see her mother busy cooking. Spread out on the table were woven-bamboo containers, each of them lined with embroidered white cloth. These were all neatly topped with small woven covers. A big rice-pot steamed on the stove.

"What are you cooking. Mother?"


"Coconut-cassava balls? Whatever for?"

"For days I searched for the right present for Mr Gi's son.

Something special and, most important, a present with a message. And just yesterday I thought of the right thing. 'Why not the kind of food we used to eat during the revolution?! I thought. When Mr Gi's son sees this present which will be so different from the others he is sure to ask his father about it. Mr Gi will be touched and is sure to explain the meaning of this food. At least in this way Mr Gi's son can get a glimpse of the times his father experienced. Ahh... This present will be the most important of all. Special, and with a message."

"But won't the food go bad. Mother?"

"Not the way I make it. It can last up to three days."

Wawuk stood stock still. Words had stuck in her throat.

THERE WAS STRICT SECURITY at the reception room of the Sahid Jaya Hotel. Security guards swarmed the parking lot, complete with black jackets and walkie-talkies. Only one section of the main doors was open, making an entrance about a meter wide, fitted with a metal detector.

Mrs Kus saw all this and was impressed. She held tightly on to the present wrapped in brown paper that she had prepared well in advance.

The guests arrived and couples filed into the reception room. Each couple carried an invitation in an envelope measuring twenty by twenty-five centimeters, with the surface embossed in gold.

Steeling themselves, Totok and Wawuk stepped forward, following the flow of the guests, escorting Mrs Kus, who went first through the security gate.

"Good evening, madam."

"Good evening, good evening." Mrs Kus handed her present to the pretty girls at the receiving table.

"Now, be very careful with my present here, child. Take care not to turn it upside down or everything will fall out. There is a very special delicacy inside!"

"Thank you, ma'am. Please go on in, but would you mind waiting to go forward and give your greetings to the bride and groom until after the presidential party has arrived."

"Oh my! You mean the president is going to be here, too?"

Mrs Kus quickened her step into the reception hall, clicking her tongue in astonishment to see a hall so large and sumptuous. All around the room were long tables filled with food and drink and decorated with brightly colored candles and huge ice carv ings. And over at the far end of the hall, on a raised dais, on gilt-covered wedding thrones, sat the bridal couple and their parents. Stretching right across the room towards them was a red carpet strewn with jasmine flowers, and lined up on each side of the carpet were young men and women, all dressed in yellow silk outfits with scarlet fringe.

But Mrs Kus would not feel satisfied until she met Mr Gi. Yet for this she would have to be patient a while longer. All the guests had to wait half an hour before the presidential party arrived. As soon as the party arrived, it moved directly to greet the bridal party and be photographed together, and then left. Now there were about two thousand other guests eagerly awaiting their turn to advance to the bridal platform. At around number one-thousand-or-something in the line was Mrs Kus, having to restrain herself to stand still while her heart pounded madly.

After about an hour of jostling forward, there, at last, was Mrs Kus on the dais. Her heart pounded and she had to whisper a little prayer to herself, thanking God for this moment. Her hands trembled as she raised them towards Mr Gi to offer her congratu-

"You're looking so well, Mr Gi. You still look w young. Congratulations, Mr Gi."

"Thank you, thank you..."

But Mrs Kus couldn't help herself. She clasped Mr Gi's hand, kissed it and sobbed.

"It's me, Kustiyah, Mr Gi — Kustiyah from the camp kitchen."

Mr Gi frowned, but immediately regained his composure, giving the impression that he was used to coping with situations like this.

"Oh, yes, of course.... Thank you."

"The base at Kalasan, Mr Gi! Mas Aris, Mas Dal and Ngatimin, they're all in Semarang now."

"Oh, yes, yes...."

"We're all still good friends. But you'd better not ask me about Nyai Kemuning...." Mrs Kus said half crying, half laughing.

"That's right, that's right. Thank you so much. Thank you."

"Now when will we have the chance for a good chat, Mr Gi?"

Now Mr Gi was now at a loss for words. Mrs Gi was tense. The other guests were beginning to mutter about the hold-up in the queue.

"Hmmm, well, whenever you like! Thank you for coming."

"Thank you, Mr Gi. Congratulations once again."

"Yes, thank you."

"And is this your son, Mr Gi? Why he looks the spitting image of you when you were young..."

And having greeted the whole bridal party, Mrs Kus stepped down from the platform, and the queue started moving again.

Everyone was relieved, but no one as much as Mrs Kus herself. To her it seemed that the entire huge reception hall, in all its luxury, was there to welcome her. She asked Totok and Wawuk to walk with her the width and breadth of the whole hall, and to taste
every kind of food on the buffet.

"Mr Gi is truly a hero, a revolutionary who never forgot his ideals."

"What ideals are those. Mother?"

"That the struggle against poverty and ignorance is as important as the struggle against colonialism. Just look at this! Doesn't it prove his success in the struggle against poverty?"

"And why don't you follow in Mr Gi's footsteps. Mother?"

"As a former worker in the camp kitchen I do continue the struggle. My fight is against hunger...."

AT THE HOME OF THE NEWLYWEDS a week later, the bridegroom sat sprawled on the sofa while his brand-new wife busied herself making an inventory of the wedding presents that had been stored in big plastic bags and hadn't been opened since the reception.

"Hi, newlyweds!" A group of family and friends arrived. The bridegroom got up from his seat. The bride looked relieved.

"Finally! Why didn't you come before? I've got a headache from dealing with all this stuff. Look at all these presents, will you? Help yourself! Take something! We've got stacks of clocks, sixteen irons, twenty-five sets of sheets, five fridges — sorry, but we're keeping two of those for ourselves, and the others are taken — and some fabulous tea sets, table lamps, wall lamps, thermoses, towels, condoms. Here, take something. Go on!"

"Got any car keys?"

"Sure! A Bee-em-double-you!"

"Oh, come on! And keys to a house?"

"Got them, too!"

"And cash donations?"

"Straight into the bank account!"

"Well, what's still in these bags?"

"Open them yourself. Go ahead."

"Shit! What's that stink?"

All eyes turned to focus on a present wrapped in brown paper. The comers were damp. When they opened the woven bamboo containers they had no idea what to call the kind of food inside. It looked like nothing on earth and was already going moldy. A small piece of paper with handwriting on it was attached, but it was too hard to read; the ink was smudged with melted red palm sugar.

"Mrs Kus.... Kustijak? Kustijah? Who the hell is she?"

The bridegroom looked at the present. "How should I know?
Imah! Here!" Imah, the servant, came in.

"Take this away."

"Where would you like me to put it, sir?

"Put it?' Chuck it out!"***
Translated by Jennifer Lindsay