“Ayo, makan!” “Lets eat!” called my father-in-law from inside. “Silakan!” “Please!”
It was time for an early lunch. More rice and mixed meats. More fresh fruit and juices. More light chat. A chance to catch up on family news. My private experience on the veranda left me feeling light and easy, content to float through the day’s activities, to play whatever role was assigned me.
“Let’s go,” said my wife, “we should go and see Simbah, my grandfather”.
Gathering up the boys, I kick-started a motorcycle and we headed off for the old man’s home, just a few streets away.
“Assalamualaikum!” – “Peace be with you!” we called together as we opened a fading wooden door and entered his compound. I took a seat on the raised pendopo, an open sided pavilion in the yard. The children made a beeline for the gamelan instruments, a complete orchestra, set up ready for the players, who gather from time to time to play the classical Javanese tunes. My gift to the village from the time of the monetary crisis in 1998. The various sets of gongs, xylophones and drums had been collecting dust and could do with a good clean but they still sounded sweet. Rory took turns striking the large hanging gongs and smaller gongs seated in sets of five.
Simbah appeared from somewhere inside the gloom and joined us sitting on the pendopo. He was an impressive character. Nobody quite knew his age, but he was certainly an old man. A thin frame supported a proud and open face. A friendly smile played around his crumpled features and the still bright eyes seemed to say “Let’s not take all of this too seriously, eh…” This was a man who had long ago made his peace with the world.
In amongst the clatter of noise the boys create, my wife made her homage to grandfather. Eyes lowered, hands held, the muttered ritual apology was of course in Javanese and so the content was lost on me – but not the emotional charge.
“Silakan” – “Please” he smiled, lighting a filterless clove cigarette, blowing clouds of sweet smelling smoke into the warm air, and offering either a cigarette or a snack from the small table in front of us.
“Assalamualaikum!” We were joined by other family members, my wife’s sisters and younger brother, and as they made their annual peace with Simbah she joined the boys, showing them how to gently strike the gongs, producing the repetitive patterns that underscore gamelan music. One by one, with no signal that I can see, the family members joined in, each taking up position at one of the instruments, and before long I was sitting quietly with Simbah enjoying an impromptu concert. The boys continued to play, finding the rhythm, and whilst their contribution may not always have been well in tune or in time – it was tolerated.
“Why don’t you join in?” I asked the old man, knowing that he is an accomplished drummer, effectively the conductor of the orchestra.
“Ayo Simbah, ikut! Come on Grandfather, join in” someone called.
After a little more encouragement, he clambered across the gongs and, with a wink and a wry smile, found a space beside one of the large drums. Rubbing his hands a little to prepare he began to tap the taught skins, arms stretched, one hand at either end. The music gathered pace, everyone finding the pattern, not perfect, but gentle, tuneful, and unmistakeably Javanese. I was content. Content to let the music and the closeness of the family wash around me, waves of understated love in the warm, moist air.
Eventually the game was over, the music slowed to a halt and one by one we took our leave, the old man alone again. There were more family visits to follow. More driving around village roads, the four of us perched on a motorcycle. More ritual apologies. More light conversation. And more snacks: little banana leaf packets of bright green fermented rice, balls of pink, green and white coconut cooked with palm sugar, roasted peanuts, brightly coloured jellies, sweet biscuits, wrapped candy, thin slices of layer cake, plates of sliced papaya and fresh pink watermelon, cups of sweet tea.
Finally, the family, uncles, aunts and cousins had all been visited. The shadows lengthened, the day began to cool, its heat spent and a weariness creeping in. One last visit before returning home was to a local carnival. Every year travelling vendors gather in a dusty village square in the shade of a huge creeping waringin tree at a nearby crossroads. Stalls selling cheap plastic toys, bright balloons, pink fairy floss, bowls of noodle soup and colourful crushed ice drinks line the narrow lanes. A creaky Ferris wheel had been erected and a toy train offered rides to eager children. A stage was being set up for the evening’s entertainment, a dangdut band would play the Arab-influenced but uniquely Indonesian brand of popular music.
But by the time night fell, the sound of the mosque once again calling the faithful to prayer, we were home again. The village had fallen quiet. The children, worn out from their day, were quick to bed. And just as we settled down ourselves for the evening, there was a call from the front yard, “Assalamualaikum!”, and around twenty young men and women arrive, a group of village youth come to pay their respects to Father and Mother.
And so the cycle of life turns, families and village communities are reconnected, reformed, revitalised and group identity is reaffirmed.
My own place in all this is quite ambiguous. I will, of course, always be a foreigner, a stranger. I look different, I speak different and I don’t share the same cultural history. But year after year I am welcomed into the village, made to feel somewhere between a special guest and a kind of honorary member of the community. And I am welcomed into the family. An oddity for sure, but a husband, a father and, in some sense, a son and a brother.
Copyright © Mark Heyward, 2011
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