Curiosity #90: Mother of G

Indonesia, Religion, Travel, Uncategorized

He would wait for the right moment to tell his mother he was gay. It wouldn’t be easy, not in a country where homosexuality was considered a contagion and anti-LGBTQ violence went unpunished.

“I plan to get settled with someone first, then tell her,” said G, spooning soy-sauce-battered egg and rice into his mouth. “I think she’ll accept it, but it might take awhile.”

G and I sat at a street-side tent restaurant, where we looked out at the night scene of Bandung, West Java. G had been living here for two years after graduating from college and stabilizing himself as a fashion designer. After over two months East Flores, my first glimpse of tall buildings and metropolitan streets had the effect of swallowing me like a casino.

G arranged for my transportation from the city of Bandung to his mother’s house in the neighboring city of Purwakarta, where we would meet again on the day of our mutual friend’s wedding.

When I arrived at G’s childhood home, G’s mother greeted me by leaning on the door-frame. I could tell she wasn’t your typical Indonesian “ibu”. She wore a sexy black tank top that hugged her tiny frame, with lace at the bust showing off a boney chest pumped up by a semi-visible bra. Her shorts rode well up her thigh and a trail of smoke followed her sweeping hand like a ribbon. An arm looped around me, then another, and all at once I was overwhelmed by the press of bone and menthol.

“Welcome home, Mommy wants you to stay for weeks, months! Come inside. G said you like vegetables, so Mommy made some tofu and chili sauce!”

We entered her living room, which also functioned as a guest and TV room. Glass glimmered in cabinets, dormant as a painting, while dull furniture sat like domestic animals. These looked lived-in, but had that musk of hand-me-down wood. She told me that this house was part of an inherited family complex, and that her siblings and in-laws occupied the neighboring apartments. “But we’re different, so I rarely socialize with them.”

She seemed afraid of “catching” a case of conservatism, and in a sense I understood what it meant to distance oneself from unwanted influences. Wasn’t I in Indonesia to temporarily distance myself from individualism (a leap that seems comical, now). In the days I stayed in Purwakarta, traveling between G’s mom’s house and the site of my friend’s wedding, I caught glimpses of the female in-laws. They never traveled beyond the meatball stand at the main road, and often sat together in their door frames looking out from periwinkle veils that masked their figures down to their waist.

“The saddest is my cousin’s wife, who is forbidden from doing many things by her husband,” said G’s mom, shaking her head. “She comes here sometimes to help make cakes. When you’re cooped up, you know nothing about the outside world. Look at her sad face, her pillowing body. Such a pity. She doesn’t even know that foreigners eat rice!”

G’s mom held a vision for transcending social pressures, and also for staying young. A consultant for alternative medicine who worked for $2 an hour, she had questionable theories about health, especially as they were usually delivered through clouds of smoke, but they were entertaining to listen to and worked for her just fine.

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Mama Tells Me

A) Wear what you like

“Daddy wouldn’t like it if I wore a long veil like my siblings,” G’s mom said. She ran the back of her hand down her body, which, at 50, had born two children but was as petite as a barren yogi’s. “When I started dating Daddy, I asked him, does it bother you that I don’t dress like other women? He said he likes the way I dress, because it looks ‘right’ on me.”

I knew G’s biological father had left the family when his sister was still an infant, and I wondered the steps G’s mother took to recover her self-esteem. Her fashion outside the house consisted of jeans and vests, snatched out of a teen pop magazine. It suited her—her stride was light and airy, so when we moved around the kitchen or traditional market I often forgot who was the younger.

B) Stay Active

“Every day, after we go to the market to sell soft cakes, Mommy and Daddy go to the park to exercise.” We entered a park surrounded by a quarter-mile promenade on which some people paced and jogged. At the center of the promenade was a pond featuring at its center the statue of Prabu Kian Santang, praised sultan of Purwakarta’s ancient kingdom.

Daddy took one lap around the promenade before plopping down, panting. Mommy and I walked side by side, passing up teenage girls whose veils mis-matched their exercise pants, and whose clothes bunched up around consistently heavy frames. “Don’t be like that,” Mommy said. “Once you start being ashamed of your body, you let it go.”

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C) Everything revolves around happiness

“If you’re not happy, you’ll never find it,” she said, when she saw me scrambling around for my credit card. I wiped a collection of sweat from my forehead, hand deep in my backpack. On the brink of resign, I was not in the mood for a pep talk, but G’s mom peered over me to advise in earnest:

“Mommy tells her patients, if we are not happy, our head is not at peace, and we will never find what we’re looking for.” I tried to smile. Needless to say, even after a short rest and a coconut-sugar crepe, I did not find my credit card.

There were parts of her “happy talk” that I was willing to buy. Didn’t studies confirm that our immune system responded to stress? How far did that theory go? Mommy says, among things that happiness cured were high cholesterol, cancer, malaria. Addiction, of course, was easier to cure than missing credit cards. “When we are happy, all the bad things stay away,” she said.

Take it Home

During G’s mom’s impromptu lessons on happiness, she would pop in questions about G. She asked me what his dreams were, where he wanted to travel, and I could only relay his updates from the first evening I spent with him. He rarely opened up to her, she said, for reasons she didn’t understand. But he showed he cared by sending an allowance to his younger sister so she could continue her college education without concern for money.

“He’s a good boy. Comes home just for the food, and getting fatter, but a good boy. And he gets looks for those clothes he wears. I just want him to be happy,” she said.

I knew there was much she wanted to say to him in person; that she knew her son’s gender-transcending was a bit “different”, and she was ready to hear whatever secret kept him at a distance. I knew G was happy living as an out gay man, but would he be happier if his mom accepted it, along with his taste for Hillary-esque pantsuits?

Before I left, G’s mom threw her house gowns at me, saying “You like them? Wear them. Mommy likes sex dresses, I have no use for mumus.” Indeed she seemed to have an endless selection of sexy lingerie. It wouldn’t deprive her of anything to drape myself in vibrant cotton like the traditional housewives, not when she pranced around the living room like a Victoria’s Secret mini-model. “You wear the mumus, ya,” she said, hugging me in her see-through mesh top, “when you want to remember me.”

Mommy still sends pictures of her posing with her hubby, and I wonder if I’ll ever be conserved in beauty and energy like a rare insect in a capsule. I do know that when I wear the mumus I am happier, a bit frumpier, and full of memories. In the cheap cotton I can feel a mother’s love for her child, reserved most of all for G—a blessing that both her “children” might remember when we go to sleep at night, and in the morning when we wake up to find ourselves.

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Curiosity #73: Tree Magic

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Javanese myths are full of ordinary folks who acquire magical powers under trees. Men and women practice asceticisms in the forest, acquiring heirlooms, encountering long-dead princesses, discovering immortality. Accumulating sperm. Sitting under a tree might seem a dull path to sorcery, but the complexity of seated meditation – or perhaps the very process of purging the self of complex materialism – is beyond Western comprehension, especially now that the ubiquitous, perhaps mis-led correlation between sophistication and chairs have ruled out cross-legged sitting. Not to mention trees (see Curiosity #71).

In a village called Bandungan, Central Java, there lived an Islamic spiritual teacher (called a Kyai) who, instead of sleeping, meditated under trees to acquire spiritual blessings. As a hermit he cooped up inside a simple dwelling at the center of the village’s neighboring forest, beside a river and field of rice plants he cultivated himself.

One night on a full moon, a scream was heard from the depths of the forest. No Javanese civilian in her or his right mind would venture into a forest at night, and so the villagers waited until morning to investigate. First they inspected the Kyai’s home. They were devastated by the scene. Surrounding the dwelling, they found a spattering of blood like a bed of strawberries splashed beneath an ogre’s foot. The village leader told the people to gather the bloody dirt and bury it, resigning to the fact that, despite the absence of a body, there was no way their Kyai could have survived such a spill.

Forty nights later, second cry was heard from the forest. In the morning, a village widow was found dead in her bedroom. It was clear that whoever conducted these killings sought more than power, and the villagers panicked. Some of them fled the village, fearing they would be pulped like guava. The braver ones resolved to stay, seeking a shaman to get down to business.

Shamans in Java are of various specialties: some of dark magic, others of love, many employed for the trolling of businesses (we hope forever outside the hands of American capitalists), others for the control of rain, the provision of prophecy, restoring relations with the patronizing dead. The shaman of Bandungan could see beyond material reality and into the soul of the present, peering into truth like a jeweler unzipping a purse of diamonds. The shaman pronounced to the villagers that the killer did not come from outside but rather lived among them, and that only a confession from the offender would save future generations from an irrevocable curse.

One hundred days after the first disappearance, on the day the villagers planned to commemorate the Kyai’s death, the chief elder of the village was found dead. He had stabbed himself with a bamboo rod uprooted from the Kyai’s grave. Like a film noir, this shadowy mystery came to a twisted but conclusive end. The villagers perceived the suicide as evidence that the village leader was in fact the murderer. It seemed the village leader’s act of skewering himself served as sufficient “confession”, since after the village leader was kicked to the dirt, Bandungan suffered no more mysterious killings. The villagers lived in peace.

The grave of the Kyai, known as “Oncak Ancik” (“the act of standing on one’s leg”, referring to the late Kyai’s state of unbalance), is a haunted space. Locals say there was once a visitor to the village who, upon nearing the grave out of curiosity, was possessed by a spirit that forced him to roar like a tiger. It is believed that this beastly spirit belongs to the Kyai, who is still ravenous for a human form.

Those who take the tiniest twig of bamboo from the site suffer disastrous consequences: degrading illness, combusted homes. Infertility. The grave occasionally attracts power seekers who aim to one-up the Kyai’s wisdom by spending a night in the forest, but before their meditation is complete they—without fail—are chased out by forest demons, attacked by animals, or consumed by a mysterious force that causes them to disappear before the morning dew rises off the canopies.

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Curiosity #57: Satan as the Third Wheel

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In the United States, I rarely think of Satan. When I do, I think of Him as a representation of everything human: of hunger, lust. Jealousy, passion, greed. These animal energies might not WOW the heavens with their beauty, but even the most pious ascetics might admit that these filthy instincts feed us homo-sapiens with our fair share of excitement and color, without which some of us might not care to wake up in the morning.

Satan holds my hand in Indonesia. For this I admit I’m grateful, since — when I step away from co-workers who seem to enjoy my company well-enough, but who, being several decades my senior, spend their spare moments with their families; and also of my students who share my age but, even if their desire for friendship did extend beyond curiosity, have no idea how to befriend a professor whose attempts at language acquisition and cultural assimilation tend to be desperate and clumsy — Satan is my most steadfast companion. That demonic presence, whatever or whoever it may be, helps me smile through cigarette smoke, watch male cross-dressers rolling their hips in the streets next to veiled old women and thank the universe that there are some people in this country who still choose joy over shame.

Now shift gears to an Islamic boarding school outside Yogyakarta. I was escorted here by one of my graduate students who offered to help in my religious explorations throughout Java. Today’s religious conservatism is largely centralized in Islamic boarding schools, or Pondok Pesantrens. As the Muslim population grows, so the Pondok Pesantrens also increase in prominence throughout the cities and villages. These schools promote independence and solidarity, and, under the guidance of revered spiritual teachers, the education of Islam as a perspective and lifestyle rather than a tentative implementation of beliefs.

The Pesantren I visited was particularly friendly to those dedicated equally to Islam and Javanese culture. Not only was it a sanctuary where Muslims could learn the “stiffness” of religion, but also a school where people of all ages could further their education in Islamic law and the practical sciences. Like at all Islamic boarding schools, this living space enforced a separation between males and females, endeavoring to uphold purity by protecting both genders against the undulations of Satan and LUST. This effort seemed almost endearing, only perhaps because it seemed as possible as curing hunger with starvation. But, as I often ask myself in this country, what do I know?

Upon entering the grounds of the boarding house, I was invited to remove my veil. As a non-Muslim, I was not asked to conform to a set of standards to which I didn’t belong. Two residents of the boarding house led me through a door into the courtyard. When I reached the interior, I was surprised to find that the boarding house looked like an ordinary Javanese residential compound, apart from the air of studiousness that weighed on the expressions of wandering residents and filled the area with reverential quiet. I could see into open-aired classrooms, which contained books and simple desks, and — across from an an administrative building — an estate-sized concrete building with doors propped open into the communal worship space. Around the corner were narrow corridors where the women slept, and from where a few of them emerged half-veiled. Upon seeing the male graduate student who accompanied me, these women clasped their scarves beneath their chins as if they had been caught in their underwear.

I found myself in a large discussion room. Shelves of books towered from floor to ceiling, many of them with Arabic titles. The chairs around the discussion table were faded antiques, clearly passed down over generations. Circulating the air was the familiar scent of old bookshops and of things well used and rotting.

A woman entered the room to greet me. She was long-skirted and slim, and had a face of smooth and dignified features. I was surprised to find her so young, perhaps in her mid-forties, since I had learned that she had been recently widowed. My host was known as a “Rumah Putri”, or “daughter’s house”, and was in charge of directing all the managerial affairs in the women’s Pondok Pesantren. In her heavy-palmed rejection of all things uncensored, this woman embodied everything I couldn’t understand.

The Rumah Putri’s family had served as representatives of the high Islamic clergy for generations. Her uncle, husband, father, and grandfather were all Kyais of Islamic boarding schools and religious communities. Kyais are Islamic gurus here in Java and are regarded on a higher spiritual plane than typical Imams. Their status equates to that of Ayatollahs from the Arab world: powerful in their influence, gifted in their wisdom. Women of Kyai families, while perhaps not visibly at the forefront of gender-integrated efforts, play powerful roles in guiding affairs in religious communities.

Attempting to place my own feminist ideas to the side, I asked the Rumah Putri about her perceptions of gender. The Rumah Putri placed her hands in her lap and responded with composure. She informed me that men and women are no different under God. In fact, Islam wants men and women to be the same, but the fact remains that there are material differences between genders. It is because of these gender discrepancies that Islamic boarding schools and Indonesian society firmly reject integrated living spaces outside of marriage. Even in casual social situations outside the workplace, men and women run the risk of falling prey to sexual impulses and so must avoid these “immodest” interactions entirely. Sexiness is not allowed. Desire is not indulged. And so it is for the residents of the Pondok Pesantren: pre-marital religious life is a gender-isolated one.

I thought momentarily of confiding to the Rumah Putri memories from my recent college experience, in which gender-neutral students stripped off their shirts on hot days, and where every semester between fifty and one hundred students ran naked through the public library to liberate their fellow-students from the stress of final exams. Would my hostess still speak gently with me, as she did now? Should I tell her that my alma mater was one of the first United States colleges to integrate genders in shower rooms?

Perhaps not. Besides, this woman was a feminist in her own right: a firm advocate of women’s equity in the workplace and in the public sphere: a leader in the push for higher education for men and women on both a spiritual and practical level. She believed in respect and demanded it for all people, and felt it should have nothing to do with sexuality due to its tendency to distract people from the more substantial qualities that made genders equal.

In the United States the “separate but equal” thing doesn’t really fly, but here there seems to be cultural richness and balance dependent on the differences between men and women. It extends well beyond religion into historical tradition and communal belonging: two things of which I am wholly ignorant. So despite my full support of liberation pertaining to gender identity, I am beginning to learn (with the help of traditionalists like the Rumah Putri) that standards of fulfillment change with shifting social constraints and freedoms. In all cases we win some, we lose some.

What was harder for me to understand was the interpretation of all exciting energies as “Satan.” The Rumah Putri explained Satan as an energy that hovered over every human weakness, waiting to possess the body whenever discipline wilted under animal instinct. Satan was present in traditional markets among the dirt, among peddlers and their usury, and most especially in situations when when men and women found themselves alone.

Satan took the form of desire, stated the Rumah Putri matter-of-factly. To describe the word desire, she used the word “nafusu,” which literally translates to “appetite” and could apply to anything related to craving. So if we were to think of Satan as any emotion that takes us beyond our realm of self-control and into that ugly space of want and gratification, think of what a loyal audience Satan has been in our daily lives. And then think, if you were in fact able to go about life without Him, you would actually do anything interesting.

William Blake states, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,

“Dip him in the river who loves water.”

What’s wrong with a swim as long as we’re the only ones at risk of drowning? If Satan is in fact watching every time I show weakness to human appetite, then to me He is a polite spectator rather than a poisoned influence; or perhaps at His very worst, The Ache for beauty to which I’m lucky enough to have access, even if it’s a little bit dirty. “Evil”, as far as I’m concerned, comes with stress and lack of sleep.

Where would we be if Robert Johnson never sold his soul? If the romantic poets never gave way to ecstasy? Yes, from Satan comes appetite. But from appetite also comes energy, from energy comes art, and from art comes intimacy that — especially when I’m coping here on my own — I’d rather not do without.

Women preparing for their ritual/dance performance. This dance genre is known as "angguk" and is most often performed by women.    This dance ritual is rejected by most of the conservative religious powers in Java.

Women preparing for their ritual/dance performance. This dance genre is known as “angguk” and is most often performed by women. Due to its provocative nature and connection to trance, this dance form is rejected by most of the conservative religious powers in Java.