Excerpt from “Pulang, a Novel”


9999--ekalaya (1)There was something about my father and Indonesia I had always wanted to understand. Not just a matter of the country’s blood-filled history and the problems that affected the lives of Indonesian political exiles who had to roam the world in search of a country willing to receive them. There was something that made my father extra sensitive to rejection. I became aware of this, bit by bit, because of his obsession with the story of Ekalaya, which he often told to me.

Up until when I was ten years old, there had always been a ritual my parents and I went through in early summer. Each year, we would fall in love again with the Parisian sky which, at that time. seemed close enough for us to touch. The sun in late May is a friendly creature, not the angry monster it becomes at the height of summer in June.

Ayah and Maman would take me to Domaine National de Saint-Cloud, the large park on the outskirts of Paris. For our personal comfort as we waited to watch the films being shown there—cinéma en plein air—we’d bring with us knapsacks filled with blankets and books and a hamper of food and canned beverages. As Ayah and Maman had begun this tradition when I was just a baby, these outings became something I expectantly awaited each year. It was some years before I realized that this custom had evolved not simply because of the pleasure we found in watching film retrospectives in the open air, but because the it cost my parents nothing at all.

On the blanket Maman would spread out on the park lawn, we’d lie on our backs, staring at the sky above. We had another hour to go before the film began. Tonight it might be a film by Federico Fellini or Akira Kurosawa, or maybe even one by Woody Allen. Even when I was in primary school, my parents had me watching classic films—which until today still remain clearly in my head. But the most pleasurable time of those evenings was when we, the three of us, would let our imaginations fly. I remember our hands raised upward, trying to clutch the sky. With grasping fingers and while imagining a throne up there, Ayah would tell stories that he plucked from the Mahabharata or Ramayana, the two sources of almost all stories in the shadow puppet theater. Maybe it was this way that Ayah tried to familiarize me with all things Indonesian—though he did explain that most of the stories had originally come to Indonesia from India. A number of wayang characters came to hold a special place in my heart. Two of them were Srikandi from the Mahabharata and Candra Kirana from the story of Panji Semirang. My choice of favorite characters seemed to surprise my father.

“Why Srikandi?” he asked.

“I feel like she’s searching for the right body for her.”

“And what about Panji Semirang?”

“He is looking for his identity.”

Maman and Ayah looked at each other.

“You’ve chosen characters who change their gender,” Ayah said not judgmentally. He seemed to be interested in why I had chosen those two names.

I was only ten years old at that time. And maybe my answers did sound much too old for my age, but it was especially because Srikandi and Panji Semirang were able to change their gender that they attracted me.

For me, the rules of the game in the world of wayang were as complex as they were baffling: imagine being able to switch genders back and forth! Ayah said my choices might be an indication of the kind of person I would become.

That night, after we were home,  and as I was beginning to fall asleep, I overheard my parents talking about our conversation in the park. My father said that he felt guilty, that I had probably chosen characters who were in search of identity because he himself was undergoing an identity crisis. She must be asking, who am I, an Indonesian who has never been to Indonesia? Or a French person who happens to be half Indonesian?

Maman assuaged Ayah by telling him that I liked those two female characters because they were strong and their stories had in them action scenes, something that children always liked.

I found Ayah’s assumption to be the more interesting. He himself had always said that he was attracted to the characters of Bima and Ekalaya in the Mahabharata. At first I guessed that he admired Bima because the character was the epitome of masculinity: big and tall, strong and protective. But the fact was, he was attracted to Bima because of his faithfulness to Drupadi, the woman who became the wife of all five Pandawa brothers. Bima’s devotion to Drupadi was even greater than Yudhistira’s love for their wives.  It was Bima who defended Drupadi’s dignity when insulted by the Kurawa cousins at the time the Pandawa brother lost a gamble with the Kurawas when playing a game of dice.

“It was Bima alone who protected Drupadi the many times other men tried to force themselves on her during the twelve years that the Pandawa brothers were forced to live in the forest,” said Ayah, with his lively interpretation.
“So why Ekalaya?” I asked.

“Because only he could match Arjuna’s bowmanship even without having studied with Resi Dorna,” Ayah said to me.

According to my father, we can see in the story of Ekalaya how a person is able to attain perfection of knowledge on his own accord, without having to study under someone; that he achieved his goal because of the strength of his own commitment and will. Of course, the story actually begins with the character of Ekalaya wanting to master the use of the bow and arrow beneath the tutorship of Resi Dorna. The arrow is indeed a unique and extraordinary weapon. Straight and thin, with a sharpened end, able to pierce its target’s heart. I only found these arrows  in stories from the Mahabharata and the films of Akira Kurosawa. But Ayah was very frugal in sharing the story of Ekalaya to me. He waited for the right time. I remember when I was a kid, Ayah received a package from his brother, my Uncle Adji. In it were the two shadow puppet characters, Bima and Ekalaya. Ayah’s eyes glistened with joy. Straightway, he hung the two puppets on the wall in the living room, all the while telling me how difficult it was to find an Ekalaya puppet because he was not one of the main characters in the Mahabharata. Uncle Adji only could have found it in some out of the way, forgotten corner of Solo, Ayah surmised.

(Translated by John McGlynn)