June 01, 2008

Umar ayam

Home for the Holidays
Umar Kayam

THE BUS FOR WONOGIRI began to move out of the station; any hope of getting on it was gone. And with such a crowd of people, everyone struggling to get on, what hope did she have? None, not even the slimmest chance of squeezing through the dozens of other people who were trying to get on board. With her bags perched on her shoulders and clutched under one arm, she had only one free arm to carry her two young children.

The day before, the first day of the two-day Lebaran holiday, she had almost made it. With her one hand holding her children fast beside her, her other hand had almost touched the edge of the door. But then, suddenly, the children had screamed — their toy had fallen — and at almost the same instant, she noticed out of the comer of her eye an unknown hand starting to pull on her bag. She quickly brushed the thieving hand aside even as she lowered the children for them to pick up their fallen toy. But when she did that, the people behind her found their chance to move ahead of her. She and her children were roughly shoved aside. Supposing the bus conductor hadn't been there to steady her, she and her children might very well have been thrown to the ground.

With her children now in tears she hastily searched for a less crowded spot where they could rest. And only after the purchase of cartons of sweet tea and a bag of Chiki chips did they finally stop crying. Then she paused to take a deep breath. And from where she stood, beside a foodstall, she stared at the big bus rocking and swaying with the jostling of the people attempting to go home for the holidays.

"Aren't we going to Njati, Mama?" her older child asked.

"It might be difficult, Ti," she advised her six-year-old daughter, "just look at how full the bus is."

"We can try again tomorrow, can't we?"

So that is what she had decided to do yesterday. And yesterday, just yesterday it had been that she had had to deal with the children's whines and wails.

"Where to now. Mama?"


"HOME" — A RENTED ROOM tucked away in the middle of a squalid swarm of a neighborhood in the Kali Malang area. So tired her children had been they had let her carry them away from the terminal without protest, and let themselves be stuffed into a bajaj whose driver was charging, on that holiday evening, a fare many times greater than normal. The younger child was asleep the instant the bajaj began to move. What the older child in her silence had been thinking, she could only imagine.

Very early in the morning, prior to preparations for their evening departure to the bus terminal, she had taken the children to her husband's grave, located in a cemetery not far from where she lived. Her husband had been a construction worker, a day laborer, but had died three years ago, crushed beneath a falling wall. Fortunately for her the construction company that employed him had sufficient sympathy to make the necessary arrangements and to pay for her husband's funeral in addition to giving her a little compensation.

But after that, life had become a more difficult and bitter passage. Her earnings as a servant were barely enough to meet the family's expenses. And now Ti, her older child, would soon be going to school.

Day after day had come and gone, passing with unrelentless monotony, and, not even quite knowing herself how she had done it, she had somehow managed to get by. And almost as if by –a miracle, the few coins she saved from her salary and tips had grown over the course of three years into a not insubstantial sum. That's why the idea had come to her to go home to Njati that year. Her children had never been there. They didn't know their grandparents, had never met their relatives. It was time they did, she thought. And besides, she reasoned, the village might provide a pleasant change of environment. At the very least, it would be different from their meager lodgings in Jakarta. So, she had resolved that, come what may, she would make it home for Lebaran holidays this year.

"Why bother to go home for Lebaran," her employer had warned her. "You know that my kids are coming home this year. There's going to be a lot of work to do..."

"I'm very sorry, ma'am, but I've already promised the children."

"If you don't go home and you work the holidays, our guests are sure to give you extra money. Really now, what's the use of going home?"

"I'm sorry, ma'am, but I've promised the children..." No, having decided to go home, she would not be swayed from her choice. And after having made that choice, she began to tell her two children about Njati, about rice fields, buffalo and cattle, and the way homes in the village are made. And also about their white-haired grandparents, the cities that they would pass through, and what they would see when looking out the windows of the bus that would carry them home.

"How many cities altogether. Mama?"

"Oh, very many! Let's see... Probably Cirebon and Purwokerto, and maybe Semarang. And Magelang and Yogya and Solo for sure if you're going on to Njati or Wonogiri."

"Geez... And which city's the prettiest?" Ti had asked her mother.

"Hmmm, I'd have to think... Solo, I suppose."

"Solo, we're going to Solo!" Ti announced to her brother.

"Solo, Solo, Solo...!"

"Solo, Solo, Solo..."

She awoke from her musings. The younger child was fast asleep on the bed and his sister was making a place for herself beside him. She stared at their faces as she, too, stretched out her body and slid alongside her children.

"Don't be too disappointed," she whispered to her daughter.

"We'll try again tomorrow. We'll get to Njati for sure. Don't you worry; you'll get to see Solo."

She watched as her daughter nodded her head and, in a half yawn, mumbled, "Solo, Solo, Solo..."

THAT HAD BEEN YESTERDAY, the first day of Lebaran. And now, on the second day, they had failed again. And there had been even less of a chance of making it on the bus than there had been the day before. Like the day before, she had held tickets from a scalper in her hand. But there had been even more people hoping to get out of Jakarta, and a lot more rowdy ones besides. And also like the day before, she and her children, with their luggage bobbing and waving, had been pushed and shoved, had their feet stepped on, and had finally been flung far to the side.

She had tried to board first one bus and then the next, but each time she had failed. There were too many people bigger and stronger than she was for her to squeeze through. And finally, standing in a stupor beside the foodstall, sheltered from the rain by the stall's tarpaulin roof, she and her two children had watched the final bus for Wonogiri leave.

"Then we really aren't going to make it to Njati, are we, Mama?"

She forced herself to smile as she answered her daughter's question: "I guess not, but that's all right, isn't it? We can go next year."



"Of course we can! I'll just have to save more money is all."

"Is all your money gone, Mama?"

"No, there's still a little, about just enough to go to the zoo tomorrow. We'll go to Njati next year, okay?"

Her children said nothing, and as the rain began to abate the children's demeanour brightened.

"Come on, let's go. Let's find a bajaj and go home."

The children nodded, then followed their mother, who had to half-prod, half-carry them as they scampered towards a waiting bajaj. Once inside the bajaj the children began to sing their newest creation.

"Solo, Solo, Solo, Solo, Solo, Solo..." They laughed.

"Njati, Njati, Njati, Njati, Njati, Njati..." They laughed again, pleased with their musical creativity. And she, their mother, felt happy and relieved to see they were not crying or whining. She then remembered her promise to take them to the zoo. But with what? Most of her savings was gone, spent on scalpers' tickets, bajaj fares, food, and all the battered little gifts she had purchased to take home to Njati. Money — she had enough left for just a few days. Well, no matter, she thought, it was enough to go to the zoo.

I'll go to my boss' house tonight, she thought. Her employer would have plenty of work for her to do. And, if she were lucky, some of the guests might grant her a holiday bonus.

Inside her rented room while putting the children to bed she repeated to them her promise. "Go to sleep. Tomorrow we're going to the zoo."

"Wow, wow, wow..."

"I have to go to the big house. You'll be good here, by yourselves, won't you? And get some sleep?"

"Elephants, elephants, elephants... Giraffes, giraffes, giraffes..."

"Shhh, try to sleep."

She smiled as she closed the door, but once outside, she heard the children begin to sing a more familiar refrain: "Solo, Solo, Solo... Njati, Njati, Njati..."

Momentarily she pressed her teeth against her lower lip before striding away.

At the big house, her employer scolded her when she came in the side door. "You see, I told you so. What did I tell you? Serves you right, not getting a bus. Now get in here and help me. Come on, get moving. Just look at that stack of dirty dishes piled up in
the kitchen."
Translated by John H. McGlynn