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Star Indonesia

by posie 

Posted: 08 September 2014
Word Count: 2929
Summary: Twelve-year-old Tommy dreams of becoming a martial arts dancer in '65 Indonesia. When events take a catastrophic turn in his country, his dancing acquires a shadowiness he can't seem to lose.

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Star Indonesia

1965, Nolo, East Java.

‘..Bung Karno, our President, grew up barefoot, like you and me’, Tommy’s father points at his peasant feet, rough and calloused in the dark on the dust floor. ‘And today Brother Karno..’, Tommy’s father takes the suitcase from the top of the wall, where it sits perched under the palm leaf roof, ‘..Knows Marilyn Monroe.
    The gas lamp sputters. He blows on the case. More dust.
    Twelve year-old Tommy can only see before him the famous actress. The blonde candy-floss smile, more mysterious, more bewitching, more alluring than all the Gitas in the Mahabharata, than all the Virgins tending to the Prophet Mohammed in Heaven. His father is still talking about Bung Karno, the President, and the President’s lady friends. More accurately, the President and his thoughts about ladies, some rant about the brown man conquering the white by conquering his woman, but Tommy isn’t really listening. Bung Karno knows a star!
    Bung Karno is a star. 
    All Tommy sees in his mind’s eye now, as his father continues talking, dusting off the old suitcase, is Bung Karno and Marilyn on the silver screen together, singing and dancing, Marilyn’s lovely bones click-clacking in patent pumps; lovely bones covered in plump flesh and diamonds and lace, shimmering, sashaying, click-clack, across the stage. Dancing and singing: Bung Karno smiling in his white suit, his dark glasses, his black pitji, that trademark little hat.. More smiles, back and forth, between the First Lady of Film and the President of the Union of Non-Aligned States..
    Or whatever, Tommy really isn’t listening too closely, as his father continues to talk about non-alignment: Nasser, Nehru, Tito, Belgrade.. About Bung Karno, Indonesia, heading the countries who will choose to sit in the Cold War’s cool little heart, neither binding themselves to Moscow nor to the United States..
    The world is like a house, like a family, his father with his hollow cheeks, his missing teeth, is explaining. “The Man at the head talks to his quibbling children. Listens to one side, listens to the other. Lets each side give a little, take a little. Bung Karno is that father.”
    Tommy nods. Now he is listening.
    ‘Musyawarah, deliberation. Consensus. That’s the Javanese way’, his father says, setting down the little case with his thin brown arms. He wears an old white vest, a faded sarung, then bony ankles, bare feet. ‘Same in Indonesia’, his father explains, sticking out his left arm. ‘Here we have the communists, the PKI, pulling on one side.’ He leans left. ‘There we have the Army..’, he leans right now, as if the Army is tugging at his other arm, ‘..The Generals who want us to go with Amerika..’
    His father straightens. ‘Bung Karno in the middle. Consensus.’
    Tommy nods.
    His father plants his bare feet even more flatly in the dust. ‘See? Stabil. Stable.’
    Tommy nods again. Bung Karno is the Father. Keeping the country, the whole world, he sees now, in place.
    ‘When Karno was in Amerika, they had the Cuba Crisis. Nuclear war’, Tommy’s father is saying. ‘..Bung went to the White House. He said, no talking in the room, or in the garden. Not safe. They went to Pak Kennedy’s bedroom! There, Bung said he’d make Pak Kennedy talk to Pak Khrushchev. About Cuba.’
    Tommy nods.
    His father is shaking. ‘Bung Karno saved the planet!’
    It’s very late. Tommy has no bedtime, just nods off at some point like Tuti, his mother, but it’s unusual for his father to speak to Tommy in the evenings. It’s as if his father is trying to tell him something, keeping him up, keeping him close, and Tommy too doesn’t want to let go, though he is nodding and nodding at his father with a head increasingly heavy on his small shoulders.
    ‘In the kampung, the village..’, his father is saying, ‘We have the landowners..’, he sticks out his right arm, leans right in his faded peasant sarung, as if being pulled at. ‘..And the small farmers..’, he leans left, ‘..Arguing over the land..’
    Tommy nods again.
    His father stands up straight again. ‘..Bung Karno in the middle. Bung listens to both sides. Then makes the new Land-Reform Law.’
    ‘Ah’, Tommy says. ‘Gitu. Like that.’
    ‘Gitu’, his father nods. ‘Like that.’
    ‘And then?’
    His father leans right. ‘Landowners ignore the new law..’ He leans right further. ‘Kampung lapar. Hungry.’
    ‘..And then..?’
    ‘Communist help. One-Sided Actions’, his father leans left. ‘Kampung take the land.’
    Tommy nods. ‘Bapak take?’
    His father, still tilting left in his ragged sarung, his bare feet, nods. ‘Papa take.’
    Tommy can hear his father’s thin knees crackling. 
    His father straightens up.

In bed with his mother, as Tommy falls asleep against her tummy, he can still hear his father—who’ll leave the bed to Tuti and the children and sleep on a mat on the floor in the next room—walking around, his footsteps soft over the buzz of the gas lamp, the crickets, the frogs out in the paddies.
    Tommy that night dreams of his father wearing Bung Karno’s white suit, Karno’s black pitji, dancing on the stage. His father is like Karno, he sees in the dream, not just the father of their own little kampung-hut, their own little family, but the father of the Nation.
    He wakes early, the dream still vivid, his father in Bung Karno’s suit: the Father of the World. Tommy, half-waking, half dreaming still, worries the suit won’t fit, hears the crick-crack of his father’s bones, his creaking knee-joints. He needs to find his father an egg. Tommy doesn’t know much about food, but he knows about knee-joints and egg-white. Everyone does. The knees are where a man’s sperma, his life-juice, is made. From egg-white. Flush young men will order an egg, setenga-matang, half-boiled, by the roadside, and eat it standing up, to show off their manhood. If they really want to prove the point, they’ll chuck the yolk. Then order another.

Tommy has no money. He can’t go to the roadside stand near the market, nor to the Chinese Toko, where they sell eggs, suits, everything. But he knows he might get an egg from one of the neighbours with chickens. Most Nolo poultry has gone in the months of hunger surrounding the ‘65 One-Sided Actions, but Tommy knows the local District Policeman’s old father still has chickens. He can go and ask for an egg. That too is the Javanese way, gotong royong. Neighbourliness. Mutual aid.
    Tommy’s own joints are soundless, supple as a cik-cak, a lizard’s, as he slips out the window at crack of dawn, careful not to wake his father. Tommy smiles as he slides down the windowsill, remembering the dream. He could be a dancer himself. Up on a stage, on a screen. A star, like Bung Karno. He knows all the dances from the Mahabharata, he’s seen them acted out on the wayang-screen, the village puppet-theatre. Here he shimmies out the yard, cik-cak, a shadow-puppet himself.
The old neighbour is still saying his prayers. Tough little chickens peck at the cracked earth.
    Tommy taps his toe in the doorway, doesn’t speak. In daylight, in his patched shorts and t-shirt, he’s thin as a snake, as thin in fact as his father. He’s been growing his hair, over his ears, down his neck, in the style of the Hollywood pictures. In his frayed shirt and bare feet, the black locks, like fine, glistening threads, are the one thing connecting him still to the power and the glory of his dream that morning. 
    The neighbour gets up, dusts off after his prayers, invites little Tommy out into the yard.
    ‘Pak!’, Tommy rushes, ‘Mau telur satu, ya. An egg please.’
    The old neighbour looks him up and down, looks at his little chickens, indicates a palm-leaf mat on the concrete. ‘Duduk dulu’, he says at last. ‘Sit down first, son.’
    Tommy squats down beside the neighbour on the floor. Together they watch the chickens. The neighbour doesn’t speak.
    ‘How is your father?’, the man says at last.
    ‘Bagus, good’, Tommy nods.
    ‘And how’s Tuti, your mother?’
    ‘Good too.’
    ‘She’s a good woman, your mother. Quiet. Doesn’t deserve all the trouble.’
    Tommy shakes his head.
    ‘Pretty, too’, the man says. ‘Sweet.’ He looks up. ‘You know my son, Military District Police Officer Kuat..’
    Tommy nods respectfully. Everyone knows about young Officer Kuat.
    ‘When Tuti was little, even Kuat had an eye on her’, the neighbour sighs. ‘Sweet girl. Not like those politik women..,’ he nods somewhere in the distance, ‘..Who go out in the street to shout about things.. Polygamy.. Illiteracy.. They want..’, the old man gestures with his hand, ‘..To read and write..’
    Tommy bites his lip. The idea of his mother with a book makes him giggle.
    ‘..Shout One man, One wife..’ the neighbour chuckles now, too. ‘..Complain about the President’s wives. Want to improve the Law of the Prophet.’
    Tommy chuckles politely. The old man is losing him a bit. They watch the chickens.
    ‘Manis’, the man repeats, ‘Sweet, your mother. No man wants to come home to someone who talks back. Your father better watch out. Plenty of men willing to look after her.’ He gazes at a little hen, and mutters, ‘Even the President has good taste in wives. Married a Japanese now, we hear.’ He yawns. ‘..A fine collection.’
    Tommy nods. 
    Nothing happens for a long while.
    ‘..And the baby?’, the neighbour asks at last.
    The baby? Oh right, the baby. Tommy keeps forgetting about her. ‘She’s fine, too.’
    ‘Good’, the neighbour nods. ‘And Tuti has enough food?’
    Tommy nods. ‘Just the egg, please’, he adds, seizing the opportunity to strengthen his case and hopefully speed up the process.
    ‘Ya, ya..’, the neighbour nods.
    Tommy waits.
    The neighbour smiles pleasantly, as he continues to watch the chickens.
    After five minutes, Tommy stretches his legs, yawns.
    ‘Patience’, the neighbour smiles.
    Tommy nods. He worries his father will start missing him soon and come looking. The egg needs to be a surprise. Ten more minutes pass. Fifteen. The neighbour seems to have gone to sleep. Tommy scrapes his throat. ‘Pak’, he says, ‘..About the egg..’
    The neighbour startles, and yawns. ‘Ya, ya’, he repeats. ‘Patience, ya. Kita tunggu ayam. Waiting chicken.’

Years later, 1972, twenty-year-old Tommy still has an aversion to eggs. He sits in front of his own little kampung shack, more precarious even than his father’s. He’s built it with his own hands, gotong royong, Javanese style, the neighbours all weighing in. They got the whole thing up in three days.
    New neighbours.
    Tommy no longer lives in Nolo. Neither does his father, not since that dawn all those years ago, but that’s a different story. Tommy spits at the cracked earth in his yard. He should be planting something. Food, for his own, still-new wife, the sixteen-year-old sleeping inside, who seems to have no other interest these days than food. Eating and sleeping. Is getting fat, too. Already. He wonders what’s wrong with her. Then remembers. Oh god. He keeps forgetting about that baby. Has no clue even when she is due.
    He stares at the beam in the middle of his house, holding up the roof. It leans to the left, and has an odd joint in the middle. He can just hear it creaking. 
    In a flash, he’s back in ’65: sees his father, wide-armed, both ends pulling, the Army, the Military District Police, on the right; the Communists, the ‘reds’, on the other side. 
    His father in Karno’s white suit, his pitji in the middle. But tilting to the left. Tilting. Tilting. The Father of the World. Crick-crack. Toppling over.
    Tommy stares at the beam holding up his house. He can’t remember which part of the vision he’s having was the dream, which is memory, which is real.
    He gets up, goes out into the yard: slowly, starts to dance. Srikhandi, a dance from the wayang-theatre, from the Mahabharata, the ancient Hindu legend of Good over Evil.
    But as always, there’s something lacking in his dancing. He will convince no one as a shadow-theatre hero, not even himself. He still moves like a cik-cak, a lizard, smooth as oil. Soundless. But there’s no goodness, no warmth. His moves, those click-clack wayang-limbs, are cool somehow, his body faster than even the puppets themselves, but colder than his shadow.
    He dislikes warmth, like eggs. Anything that reminds him of that night with his father. Reminds him of that following dawn. Of when he’d finally brought home—after waiting for hours with the neighbour for the little hens to lay—his surprise. Still warm.
    Finding his father, the suitcase, gone.

The old neighbour’s son, Military District Police Officer Kuat, had soon after taken Tommy’s mother under his wing. By then, Tommy had hated the One-Sided Actions, the reds, Bung Karno, as much as Officer Kuat had. Most of all, he’d hated his own cowardly ‘red’ father, slipping away like that in the night. 
    As far as Tommy knows, Officer Kuat never actually married Tuti. But after the Army, the Generals, had toppled Bung Karno—and the ‘reds’, the Communists, the Chinese of Nolo had all been killed; hacked up and thrown in the river—Officer Kuat did give Nolo’s one proper shop, the Chinese Toko, to Tommy’s mother, to run.
    By then, Tommy had had more than his neighbourly hand in events. He’d finally slid away from Nolo to find new, less dead, neighbours; make new friends. He’d acquired that quicksilver shadowiness which even now propels his dance. Hantu, ghostly.
    Here they are, the new friends. Three. Practically neighbours. Dancers, martial artists, just like Tommy. Married, like Tommy, to teenaged wives who’ve grown dull and unresponsive the moment they each tied the knot. The boys hang out and dance and practise pencak together, the local, East Java fighting style.
    The friends squat down together this afternoon on Tommy’s rough concrete porch. One throws a packet of Dji Sam Soe kretek cigarettes on the floor before them, gotong royong-style, and they each take one and light up.
    Tommy shouts for his wife to bring them some tea.
    No answer.
    ‘Pregnant’, they all shrug. ‘Nangtuk. Sleepy.’
    They sit and stare at the cracked earth of the yard.
    ‘..There’s a state dance competition in Surabaya..’, one of the boys offers. ‘Ikut ya? Join?’
    ‘Can’t’, Tommy shakes his head. 
    ‘Kenapa, why not?’
    ‘Sudah. Already. Last month.’
    ‘Ah’, the boys all nod. ‘Gitu.’
    ‘Gitu’, Tommy exhales a trail of clove-scented smoke. ‘..There’s one coming up in Bali.’
    ‘Ah. Gitu’, one of the boys says. They sit in silence. Bali’s a different island. The next one east. Far.
    ‘How to get there?’
    Tommy draws on his kretek. ‘Take a boat.’
    ‘Ah. A boat.’
    ‘They have pencak in Bali?’
    Tommy nods. ‘They have.’
    ‘Don’t they dance Barong in Bali?’
    They all let this sink in a moment, and nod.
    ‘Those Barong dudes are killers..’
    It’s true. Barong dancers are hantu, haunted. People tell all kinds of stories. Those dudes, with their kerises, their blades, have more blood on their hands than even they do. Tommy’d be surprised if there was a Communist left alive on the island. (He recalls, out of the blue, the face of the first woman he himself stabbed in the gut. One of those One man, One wife-types. Interestingly though, a dancer, too, just like Tommy. On a stage! She was in a dance competition! Gaslights in the dark.. A crowd.. Tommy, barely thirteen, had leapt up onto the platform like a ghost: Cik-cak! (Though the actual stabbing was later that night, at the Military District Police, with Officer Kuat.) But there had indeed been a dancer, a stage, even then. A state competition. No doubt about about that.) 
    No Barong, though, Tommy reflects. Those guys are killers..
    The boys sit and gaze out into the yard. From among the cassava hedge, a neighbour’s scrawny chicken pecks its way into Tommy’s garden.
    ‘We don’t really need a competition..’, someone offers.
    They all nod, staring out at the yard. 
    Tommy calls again for tea. Someone lights another kretek, getting them all started again. At this rate, they’ll be out of fags before the wife even wakes. Not that the other wives are better. How did those girls all get knocked up together? It’s like some hantu gang-bang has taken place, right under their eyes.. God knows what they’ll all give birth to..
    The lone chicken pecks its way around the yard in the burning sun. A single stunted papaya tree offers no shade at all.
    ’A boat, ya..’, someone says.
    ‘..From Surabaya?’, a boy with long silky hair guesses.
    Tommy nods. ‘..From Surabaya.’ The East Java port-town.
    They don’t speak. Surabaya is a big city. Takes hours to get to by bus. Then God only knows how long to cross the ocean. None of them have ever set foot on a boat
    ‘Bali ya?’, someone checks, after awhile.
    ‘Bali’, nods Tommy. He may live forever, or get killed today, by some neighbourly hand, in one of those same neighbourly ways he has practiced himself. Who can tell? He’ll never be a hero on the big screen, a star. That much seems clear. He did not conquer the white man, did not marry Marilyn Monroe, not even a Japanese, like Bung Karno. But he can go in for a competition in Bali, he can board a bus, go up a gangway, enter a boat, with a small gang of hands. Fight those Barong bastards.
    They sigh.
    ‘Surabaya, ya?’, someone checks again.
    They change the subject.

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Comments by other Members

TassieDevil at 09:34 on 13 September 2014  Report this post
Hello Nada,

This is an extremely refreshing yet intense story to read. Although I've been to Indonesia (albeit Bali which is not really Indonesia) my Australian upbringing gave me a very prejudiced view with Sukano being portrayed as a villain almost. To learn so much from your short story about this country, it's ideals and it's people has given me an insight that I thank you for.

The present tense, the intense use of the senses and the portrayal of this one man within the structure of these tremendous changes have been extremely well written by you. It's the sort of story that I would aspire to write myself but it's well outside my comfort zone. 

The only disconcerting touch was the intrusion of the Indonesian words that broke the narrative. I know that you explained each as you included them but it was distracting. Obviously you know them and wished to convey the authenticity of the setting and people but I personally feel that less would be better.

The characters were wonderful in their reality, the dreams deftly shown and the degradation of those same ideals as he grew up were a joy to share with you. My own bland childhood pales to banality next to this and this is why I could become so engrossed in the story.

Thank you for the experience and giving me a style to aim for in my own writing. I look forward to seeing more of your work but in the meantime I shall revisit this one again when I'm more awake and possibly comment more.


posie at 10:34 on 13 September 2014  Report this post
Wow Alan thanks, that's great praise. I'll look at the Indonesian. Glad you enjoyed reading. It's a story which accompanies a novel I'm working on set in the same timeframe, though this is not an extract.

Really happy it worked for you. Thanks again for commenting in such detail.


Jennifer1976 at 15:07 on 13 September 2014  Report this post
Hi posie,
I enjoyed this story a lot and I think it has a great deal going for it. Even your summary at the top made me wanting to know more. I think you write very well. Your characters felt real and your descriptions very visual.
I could really sense Tommy’s admiration of his father to start with and felt his disappointment in him in the latter part of the story.
I like the ‘voice’ you’ve written in – with short sentences and the use of the Indonesian language. I always enjoy stories that give me a flavour of another time and place, and of course these sorts of books, if well written, are always popular with readers (e.g. Khaled Hosseini writing about Afghanistan).
I also liked the use of present tense – it made me feel like I was part of the story and feels very much right for the tone of the piece.
My only criticism, which is probably just me being picky, is that I would put 3 dots in my ellipses, e.g. ‘…’ rather than ‘..’ Though I appreciate that this may just be me being a bit pernickety, so feel free to ignore me on that one.
I hope you post more of your work, especially if it is in a similar vein.
All the best,

posie at 10:29 on 14 September 2014  Report this post
Thank you Jenny for your comments. Lovely to hear. Thanks also for suggesting a strong flavour of time and place might find a readership, I hadn't quite thought of it in that way.

The 2 not 3 dots is just a personal habit. I use them a lot, and just somehow feel they work better for me that way. (A small personal preference.)

I'm afraid my work is all in a similar vein, ha! So I will feel free so post more of it then, I suppose.

Thanks again.

Annecdotist at 14:53 on 20 September 2014  Report this post
Dear Posie,
Thanks for sharing this story which I enjoyed reading. Your writing is strong and the subject matter is extremely interesting and engaging and, although it is fairly long for a short story, you cover a lot in those 3000 words.
To my shame, I don’t know a great deal about Indonesian history, so I might not be your intended reader, but there were times when I felt the need for more background information. I enjoyed the Indonesian words and my absorption in another culture up until the point where Tommy was married and grown-up and reflecting on what had happened to his father. I was left feeling I’d got the gist of it but had missed some of the references. From your description at the beginning, I was expecting a simpler story, with more emphasis on the dance, but it almost feels as if you have enough material here for a novel: on one level about a boy’s coming-of-age, on another the history of a specific country.
You write well and the only thing that really jarred for me was near the beginning:
Marilyn’s lovely bones click-clacking in patent pumps
although this does resonate with for example the father’s knees etc, it suggested to me an image of a dancing skeleton – I’m not sure if that’s what you were aiming for?
My best wishes for your writing – you clearly have the talent as well as something to write about.

Wendy Mason at 11:10 on 21 September 2014  Report this post
This is an interesting story and well written.

I did find that the Indonesian words (even though translated) were a little over done and I don't think you need to reiterate the interpretations in a short story. ie. 'icik-cak, a lizard.'

 'Finding his father, the suitcase, gone.' got me a bit confused. I thought if he found his father it must be the mother that had left home. Perhaps 'looking for his father' or something of that ilk would stop the confusion, or rather my confusion?

I was also a bit lost over the stabbing, was it anact as part of his dancing on stage, or was it a real stabbing. It came so much out of the blue (no foreshadow) and did not get followed up, so I am left confused, but perhaps that says more about me than your story.

There is so much information, and interest, in the story that I wonder if it is really a short story or if it is actually a novel waiting to happen. Perhaps in part explained by your comment: 'It's a story which accompanies a novel I'm working on set in the same timeframe, though this is not an extract.' Could this story be expanded to sit within the novel, or expanded into a companion second novel? Just a thought?

I like your writing style and look forward to reading extracts from the novel.
Best wishes.

posie at 10:23 on 23 September 2014  Report this post
Thank you Annie and Wendy. Great to read your comments. And you are both spot-on, of course. I wrote this story as a kind of 'trailer' for my novel Malindo. Tommy is an important character there, but he is never seen from his own perspective. We only see him through the eyes of the protagonists, a family of three generations of women--one of whom is the woman Tommy talks about stabbing.

So it was good to write the story seperately, and explore him a bit further. I hadn't really figured out a way to do it in the novel.

But your comments made me think again. (Yes, I checked those lightbulbs smiley )

I'm working the story into the novel now: Tommy from his own POV.

So thanks so much for alerting me to the fact that the world of this story is novelistic. It will make the novel stronger. 


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