After watching BBC’s documentary series “Who Do You Think You Are?”, I decided that it must be cool to know my family history. I saw the episodes of J. K. Rowling, Stephen Fry, Kim Catrall, Emilia Fox. And I felt like, “Wow, I really really wish I could trace my roots back like that.”
But I live in Indonesia. This is one of the places on earth where you cannot rely solely and happily on the recording and documentation systems. Not to mention about the accuracy. We have no idea that the National Archive (Arsip Nasional) still holds papers like birth certificates, marriage documents, census records or whatever that showed precious information on how, and how and when my great great great grandparents with their offsprings lived their lives.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like Indonesians hate their roots but we are more of an oral society by nature. Writing a journal, publish a book or posting on a blog like this means we one step ahead than our predecessors. You spread the words not only to people around you physically and emotionally but also people around the world.
Maybe documenting our important life events is not one of our strongest genes but one can find stories of familial journey in the minds of the people. I find Indonesians mostly are great storytellers (well, most people are) but not many eventually pour their words into printed stuff for the next generation to read.
Yet, knowing how our predecessors lived their lives is not a mere attempt at understanding our identity and origin (which in turn may humble us) but also understanding how the entire nation and the world of that era in general worked. So I can more easily relate myself to historical events, simply because I know some people living in that era were . Suddenly, the long history of my nation seems closer and more relevant to me because I have that strong connection. Knowing my family history proves to be helpful when I have to understand and make sense the history in a larger scale, both national and international. And boy, why should I care about the history in the text books every school student must read in the country? What I find there is a compilation of compromised pieces of so-called facts gathered and assembled by the winning parties, the corrupt rulers ready to distort anything at their advantage. Some cynically said the word “history” actually derives from two separate words: “his” and “story”, which is not necessarily an honest recount of facts or real events. Anyone (a story teller) can manipulate it, improvise as s/he wants to, emphasize this but conceal that, overstate that and understate this. There are abundant rooms for anyone’s creativity and imagination.
But in family history, there is no or much less political influence. Families here, as far as I know, don’t really care about their family history (not even document or record that carefully) because of course even if one can manipulate it, what can s/he benefit from the distorted chronicles? Not much.
In the process of writing, I need to really workd hard on understanding the explanation of my paternal grandmother. She hardly speaks Indonesian, and never ever learned English in her lifetime so the one and only language she employed is Javanese, which happens to be my mother tongue. Yet, as I have been growing older, Javanese has gotten less and less spoken around me because Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia) started taking place in academic and other formal contexts. Even English was first introduced to me when I was a sixth grader. I was happily embracing the foreign language just like a new toy. And it IS a toy to play with, linguistically speaking. I hoped to learn more by acquiring English, and I really did. I had always wanted to live outside my hometown, where almost my entire family reside. And English enabled me to do that. Reaching out something new. That is what I want: newness, novelty. I didn’t give stability a damn because it translates to boredom. I refused to embrace the teaching world in which the majority of my family members earn a living, partly because there is part of me saying:”You don’t have to follow them. Find your own path or you’ll be sorry for good!” So I did and thus far there has been no remorse in my life for listening to this voice in me. There are of course a price to pay but the excitement seems to be surmounting the ordeals.
Muntianah, my paternal grandmother, had been raised as an orphan since her being an 8-month old fetus. Her mother (my paternal great grandmother) had died many years ago. I still recall her face and remember her funeral back then. There was no hollow feeling or great terrible loss sensation because I was too young to even think of and experience such painful emotion. I knew people mourned, wept, prayed for her peace up there but I just couldn’t make sense of the whole situation, like “She died. Oh, so what?” All I cared about was that I knew I could still watch my afternoon cartoon series on TV and eat foods I liked and went to school with all of my homework that day properly answered and being free from the fear of being grounded by the teacher. So that makes me help understand why the younger brother of my deceased cousin looked lively and act normally still even after he found out his eldest sister lost her life following a series of legs amputation procedures. He has his own world and the sister was apparently like a nice-looking gadget to his eyes; something cool to have but not his (almost) entire world.
One day, young Muntianah was told by her mother to clean up the house in and out. In the meantime, the mother was doing her chore: preparing foods. Kudus, like other towns in Java during Japanese colonial era which only lasted a few yet very bloody years, experienced food scarcity. Muntianah knew first handedly people around her dying of extreme hunger. But that very day, the family was lucky enough to be able to find things to eat: waloh (pumpkin-like fruit) and kangkung (a type of green vegetable having thicker stalks than spinach). Young Muntianah was struck by a bundle of ‘treasure’ thrown away in the rubbish basket. She opened it and found that in it there was some garlic and onion. Definitely not something worth getting rid of! She shrieked at her mother who was still cooking.
“What’s wrong?” my grand grand mother said to her daughter.
She replied and showed the garlic and onion, “I found these, Nyai (yes, she seriously called her mom this way to show respect which in today’s context sounds more like a total derogatory joke)!”
She later found out Nyai had deliberately put all of them into the rubbish basket, only to test how much young Muntianah really cared about the entire household, even what was thrown into the rubbish basket.
Nyai was really really stern when it came to household management. Young Muntianah had better clean all the floor of the house, refill the bath tub (in which one couldn’t soak him/herself like in what we have seen in the West), and make sure the house chores done very well or else she had to miss the breakfast. The breakfast was ento-ento. It went without saying that it wasn’t the best or most delicious food ever but that was what they could afford that time. The texture of ento-ento was not particularly pleasant to the tongue. As coarse as pebbles, only you could swallow that safely.
As a good mother, Nyai also sometimes treated her daughter when she knew she still had enough money even that meant there was very little extra money she could spend. Off they went to “Menoro”, which was an area of Sunan Kudus’ cemetery (as it was told by the ancestors). Sunan Kudus is like a local saint here. Along with Sunan Muria (whose corpse was laid in Mount Muria, according to folklores). They were two of the 9 walis (Wali Songo) who helped spread the Islamic teachings around Java that used to be Hindu and Buddha-centric. Nyai was there to buy a serving of delicious home-made soup which was usually accompanied by rice. Young Muntianah jumped with joy. It was the word “rice” that made her act that way. Rice was a culinary luxury of the era. Japanese troops would choke any natives to death in case they caught one hiding or eating rice for themselves or their own family members. High quality rice was to be sent only to the Japanese. But Indonesians as we know didn’t accept that as it was. There were many methods devised to violate the rule. People could enjoy rice but only when there was no single Japanese soldier around. Nyai was happy to give what her daughter wanted but Young Muntiah was far than happy. She was disappointed upon knowing that gobet (I hardly know what this is but it is very likely that gobet is another pariah’s food) was the replacement of rice in her ‘extraordinarily nourishing’ menu.
Young Muntianah was never ever a fan of school. In almost every occasion, she reminded the audience (well, you know, it is her descendants) of how awful the system of education of the time to her eyes. She held begrudge towards a highly disciplined male teacher wearing blangkon (Javanese male attire).
“He (the teacher) was insanely inhumane. He made a student stand inside the school restroom all day long. The poor student couldn’t help telling his parents and everyone as soon as he was done from being grounded. Everyone dreaded such teacher,” she reminisced looking up to the house ceiling. It was still the same house she used to live with her mother decades past, only much bigger and taller. My father and uncles had helped her renovate the house.
(to be continued=> http://akhlispurnomo.net/2013/09/08/who-do-you-think-you-are-part-2/)
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