The Witching Hour
The knock on the door came shortly after 3. Wooden particle board making the light rap resound, of course at that hour especially. In the days prior there had been some concern an illicit arrangement on that side of Jakarta might not be met with a blind eye, during Ramadan in particular. The losing Presidential candidate in the recent election, retired General Prabowo from one of the establishment families, had been fomenting trouble the week before with paid thugs from the outer kampungs, some of the usual Islamic veneer adapted for cover. Eighteen months ago we had stayed at Kalismawithout any questions being asked, but that could not be taken as a guarantee of anything. “To-well,” it sounded like the man had called with the common two syllables employed by the Malays and Indos. Earlier visits to Kalisma the house boys were relieved of cleaning duties or changing of bed linen, only once or twice weekly fresh towels had been requested. In fact it was Sahur—long second vowel—Ni corrected. Notice for the pre-dawn meal prior to the fast. One did not need to respond to the summons, Ni explained, neither with thanks or anything else. (The second night a man would bring the tray of food to the door, explaining there were only three rooms occupied in the hotel and delivery was an easier than opening the restaurant.) This time we had been given the room immediately beside the restaurant. On the earlier visits trousers had always been donned for breakfast, but, no, there was not any problem with the sarong, Ni assured. Not however worn in the female fashion. They think you don’t know how…. In the circs it might have been better if they thought the fellow did know something of that sort. Ni waited behind saying she would follow later. Meal taken in separate shifts, the thought had been; to keep the staff guessing. In Singapore Muttalib had cautioned to take care in Jakarta with girlfriends; it would only need one guy who didn’t like the look of you to have questions raised. The notices prohibiting illicit sharing of rooms were prominently posted along the walkways at Kalisma. Here though was Ni turned up half-through the meal. The nice cook would remember her; the man had asked about her on the solo visit earlier in February. The sahur was required as part of the arrangement during Ramadan; one did not omit it, Ni informed during the meal, casting out over the open, dark garden. Cheap fifteen dollar two star places in Indo were not about to illuminate greenery for diners, Ramadan or no Ramadan. After the food more love-making had always been likely. Once we had settled on arrival the afternoon before, showered and Ni taken her first food for the day, the first hungry love making after so many months had been long and high energy. Now in the dead of night after the sahur meal six or seven hours later we took slow steps to a repeat, Ni reaching over and beginning with her gentle strokes. It was clear Ni had not had a man since our last meeting; in the kampung it was unlikely and her kind of pleasure and excitement suggested well enough. First there were exploratory caresses over the shoulders, the biceps and the flanks. When Ni came to the burung, the bird, once she had begun to raise it slowly for flight, little shudders and starts ran through her body. Short shudders like a circuit break brought brief pauses in her action; discontinuities like the hour glass on the PC halting downloads. Gasps and convulsions that made her body shake. Two or three times and possibly a fourth it happened like that. Something similar had taken place on earlier occasions, but this was more pronounced and striking. It left you flabbergasted really, unable to respond other than look on with a kind of admiration, the bystander effect; like a sports fan observing a feat of some kind on the field never witnessed previously.
The alert had sounded 10 or 15 minutes before. There was no reason to leap for messages now. Ten years ago caring for Bab the message had always needed to be read promptly; now there was no need.
A little shock to have Zee messaging, but she had not known about the trip to Jakarta.
Relations had cooled somewhat in the last number of months with Zee, since the Christchurch attack in fact, when there had been some differences. The young woman had sensed the matter and been a little sheepish at a couple of shy approaches at the Wadi table.
8:39PM, when in SG it would be an hour later.
Have you heard about Muttalib?
Zee had been introduced to Mu at the Wadi table on one of the sheepish calling rounds. Her mother was a student at the Foundation Mu had established for the study of the Qur’an down on Changi Road.
What about him? He mailed me this morning
8:48. It had been under ten minutes getting to the phone.
The terrible news came through like in B grade TV drama. There was no way to deliver gently. Zee’s mother had just gotten word.
I immediately thought of you
TV drama reaction. Nothing else was possible in the moment, only raw shock.
The terrible news hurt the brain and caused a wincing like a muscle in spasm.
Coming mid-afternoon, the death had left insufficient time for the funeral same day, as was the usual Muslim practise. It took place next morning, the prayers over before 9, Zee reported. For some reason best known to herself, Zee had attended, accompanying her mother perhaps.
Zee’s mother had been attending the Qur’anic classes at Mu’s Foundation for a number of years and thought the teacher was outstanding. Relaying that news at the time was of course welcome for the Director, Muttalib. The teacher concerned, a woman now in her early eighties, had been with Mu from the outset, seventeen or eighteen years. The Foundation barely broke even, but Mu had kept it up all the while. Two full-time teachers, rent on the facilities and special events. The local Muslims needed all the help they could get with the Holy Book, Mu thought.
Carried you in my heart throughout the funeral
Zee had meant the service. She sent an accompanying photograph of the hearse loaded for the trip to the cemetery. They mostly used little utility vans in Singapore.
The shock lingered in the days afterward, all through the day and into the night. On the first night Mu had come in a dream. We had returned from an outing to the Jakarta hotel door, where excuses were made at parting, Mu being obliged to go his own way.
Ni was understandably surprised at the reaction. I not hear his name before.
It had been an intense friendship, albeit one of only nine or ten months. Over the term Mu had come with Yola most mornings to the Wadi table. Sometimes he could not be joined for one reason or another. Altogether there had been well over a hundred sits at the tables on the edge of the outer passage opposite the hotplate, often of long duration.
Mu was a people watcher too, a man with an eye for the ladies; an acute, indulgent judge. A compassionate man of understanding, with depth of feeling in his case that was mixed with a good deal of resilient tough guy. Short of stature, Mu could easily be credited in his stories of confrontation and fisticuffs in younger days in the kampung down the road just past his Foundation, where he had grown up. After fisticuffs there had been blades too—a scar remained over one eye and another was on the back. The latter had been received while the perpetrator was getting his own in some dangerous place on the body that was now forgotten. There was still plenty of fire in the belly as Mu approached his mid-seventies. A wonderful man.
Over the seven year stay Mu had not patronised that corner of Geylang Serai. Mu had his own corners around the place, most of them over at the top end of town. For a couple of years he had run a café on the other side of Sims Avenue near the Post Office. Mu had been the silent partner there; an associate ran the place day to day. With his other much larger concerns, mostly involving trading oil, wood and sand, the café was a sideline.
Mu had done pretty nicely. Up until a recent accident he had driven a stylish late model Jag and lived in aa apartment opposite his Foundation.
Like speed dating, ours had been speed friendship. Frank, venturesome exchange had made the progress rapid, nothing being out of bounds. There was a great deal in common. In spirit we were both kampung boys, Mu of course having lived it and the hard edge of it too for a good while after earlier family fortunes had declined.
Mu’s English was among the very best encountered in Singapore. It came from extensive reading begun in the early merchant marine days and later augmented in business. The politics was shared. Relish—respectful and courteous relish—for the ladies was shared.
Mu came from a notable local family of Indian-Malay traders. A grandfather had been a bookseller and then the father it may have been moving to high-end porcelain, lamps and suchlike. A prominent older brother had been a writer and filmmaker connected to all the upper crust of the early days of the Republic.
Being one of a dozen children and toward the end of the line, Mu had suffered numerous losses. On top of widowhood some years before, Mu had had the terrible misfortune to have lost a daughter in early adulthood.
Man had a heart like a baby, Zainuddin commented, who was close to the youngest brother.
Mu was a great fund of information on the local scene. Like Zainuddin, his Islam was beautifully allowing and non-dogmatic. For the Friday prayers he avoided the rabbiting of the sermon, always turning up late.
Mu regularly visited the graves of his wife and daughter. There was some guilt at the treatment of the devoted former—that of the usual kind for the alpha male.
That Mu had been a wild, pistol-carrying guy during the wheeling and dealing period was a trifle difficult to imagine. The plentiful booze and carousing likewise. Younger days there had been abundant weed too. In the Vietnam generation the Malay lads had gravitated in that direction, when the Chinese and Indian recourse was the beer.
In younger, more innocent days, the kite flying competitions better fitted the man Mu had become in mature, reflective years. The former political Titan LKY had reported enthusiasm for the kites in boyhood. It was Mu who finally explained how the aerial combat was undertaken with the glueing of glass fragments onto the strings that enabled opponents to be cut down.
Mu in the pack of boys scrambling madly over the mud to claim the fallen kite was more like the Wadi morning presence.
Ni was surprised at the lingering shock. There was no photograph to show her of Mu. All the engagement had been far too intense to think of photos.
The grieving could not be shared with Ni. How to begin? On the return Zainuddin would be good for that. Unlike some of the firm and stout Muslims, Zainuddin would allow grief its proper term. The speed of the funeral and burial was one of the circumstances that deepened the anguish, especially when none of it could be witnessed personally.
Ni had attempted a premature return to our pleasures. It was not possible. Ni had immediately understood, though surprised again.
Among all the rest, it had been Mu who had described the odd particulars of Muslim burial. No doubt it had not been easy for him to do so.
Not all the details however had been seized; at least in that matter it had not been possible to drill down to the last details with Mu. Ni it was who was enlisted for that now when it was needed.
The dead being wrapped in a shroud had of course long been known. They were laid in the ground and the head turned partially to one side. That much had been clear in Mu’s account. Oddly, Mu had not mentioned the direction of Mecca. (Wikipedia was subsequently consulted.)
The other particular Mu mentioned had been striking. Particularly striking.
For the Malay funerals some earth was placed on the face, it seemed. Indeed, it had specifically been on the mouth. Mu had mentioned the mouth, stoppered up with earth it had sounded like.
At the Wadi table Mu had been watched many times at his breakfast. A careful, delicate eater who relished his prata and keema. Fried and oily Indian bread with mince was not exactly ideal for a diabetic.
“Once in a while,” the Malays rebuffed challenges to their diet. In Mu’s case all the pleasures were not to be shunned. (Smoking and alcohol had been successfully eliminated.)
It was important to clarify the matter of the rites now; there was no getting away from it.
We had open caskets for Orthodox Christian funerals. Nothing whatever like this use of earth had been mentioned among our Muslim hill cousins.
Some land, Ni termed it when she detailed their own funeral arrangements in Central Java.
Ni had attended only a single funeral in her life, in her late teens when a girl of her own age had fallen from a jambu tree. From below Ni had watched her friend picking the fruit.
“Yes, in the mouth.”
On the mouth it was perhaps.
Then the chin, Ni indicated.
The earth was placed particularly. Just a small handful, Ni explained. (Wiki had three fist-sized earthen balls formed by the gravediggers for the tilting of the spine, shoulder and head in the direction of Mecca.)
It was difficult to understand. Mu of course had noticed the reaction. Soil, he may have called it; just a small handful.
A wooden board was finally placed over the corpse before the covering of the earth proper. Again, Mu could not be grilled on the particular.
It took a short while to get clearly from Ni.
Strips of split bamboo were laid across the graves in Central Java at least, then the earth, the land loaded up on top of that.
Strictly speaking, the corpse was not buried in the ground at the funeral. Not at least in Central Java.
Over time the weight of the earth would collapse the bamboo, Ni explained. Thereby proper burying of the deceased.
Strange. Making the brain wince again.
Ni had nothing to say about the heat of the Tropics acting upon a body left unburied. (Wiki reported prompt earth cover for Islamic rites, supervised by a male relative.)
However you looked at it, the procedure was exceedingly rapid. Breakneck speed in fact. Too rapid a disposal of the dead involved, it was felt in the kampungs of Central Java certainly.
After arriving this chap stood off from the entrance and delivered the old classic his way, in a kind of resonant undertone. Man did have a voice, the basis of something. It was a little hard to judge properly. Also in possession was a well-strung guitar that might even have been tuned. Some of the lyrics the young man may have fumbled and blurred; hard again to tell. Bit off more than I could shoe…? It didn’t matter—the rising lyric channelled around the corner from where he stood to the four tables within and strengthened progressively. But through it all.… There had been numerous performers one after the other with little pause between them that Friday afternoon, after the long fast that had shut the larger part of Sabang. The office workers’ lunch hour was short; no time could be lost. Some of the eateries had signs posted prohibiting entry to buskers; even the Padang place that had been patronised a number of times, only noticed that day. The large double table in the back corner that had been relinquished to the Chinese chaps had resisted all the earlier performers. The Frankie homage though deserved something, one of the men there thought, calling the Busker over for the Rp2k. Unless it had perhaps been two twos bundled together. Rain had fallen earlier, twenty minutes of downpour that left people stranded beneath make-shift cover wherever it could be found. Many had been thoroughly doused and were slowly drying off. A panama offered little protection in such weather, in short order creating a saturated ring that clamped the cranium. Prior to the Frankie tribute the plastic collector, who had been encountered a few days before resting in the shade of a tree by the Bunderan a couple of kilometres away, had stood bareheaded in the rain out front of the café. What the man thought he was doing there for long minutes remained a mystery. The man stood as if in a daze, unaware of the rain. You would have expected a stream of water running down his front like on a rock face beneath a waterfall. A tall and broad surface the man presented, standing firm and motionless. Shelter might be taken by beggars, vagrants, plastic scavengers anywhere along Sabang; no-one would begrudge them. Yet this man held his place under the relentless rain, his thick black hair taking some sheen, together with his beard; on his drab clothing somehow all the moisture was absorbed. Eventually his girl—mistaken for a child a couple of days before opposite him beneath the tree—appeared from this side of the street. Crossing to him she came with a red umbrella she had procured from somewhere. With the aid of her man the girl mounted their cart, sat herself high on one of the bundles and unfurled the umbrella. Between the arms of the cart in front where the man moved the umbrella did not stretch. The wheels of the lady’s carriage began to turn and off the pair slowly went up against the traffic, in the gutter toward Sarina. It did not appear to be a new umbrella; not bought just then. Buying anywhere on Sabang—a Chinese enclave that included an early Robinsons store—would be expensive…. times I’m sure you knew…. The Busker may possibly have preceded the Plastics man on that dramatic Friday stage. With the latter however the triumph of love outstripped by far the corny fakery of the earlier mythology, that story of the Hoboken boy storming the great bastion on the other side of the globe. The Busker’s spirited lyric was properly justified by the spectacle of the Plastics man and his wife. The Plastics man was given due honour and appropriate fanfare on that street by the honest Javanese crooner. The latter had found an appreciative audience among the patrons at Saudagar Café. Many of the buskers put in lazy, perfunctory performances; this man had given the complete song, as far as he could remember. In that office quarter it had played well for him before, perhaps. The interlude returned to mind the acknowledgement the hill people of Montenegro gave the singer. Ko pjeva zlo né misli, they commonly said on the high peaks. Those who sing bear no evil. Singing and evil were mutually exclusive. What the hill people of earlier generations up in the wilds could have known of song had long been a question.
Jakarta, Indonesia 1440 Hijrah/2019
Australian by birth and Montenegrin origin, Pavle Radonic’s eight years living in SE Asia has provided unexpected stimulus. Previous work has appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, including Big Bridge, Panoply, Citron Review, The Blue Nib & New World Writing. For a mountainous blog holding mainly the Asian writing click here.