Pavle Radonic ~ Jakarta 1440H

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.

​            Hey P

8:39PM, when in SG it would be an hour later.

​            Have you heard about Muttalib?

8:39 still

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.


His Way

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.