In 2005, Umar Thamrin received a Fulbright grant and a Catherine and William L. Magistretti Graduate Fellowship for his graduate studies in the United States. He completed his Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies with the designated emphasis in Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2016. Before returning to Indonesia in 2017, he received a one-year appointment as a research and teaching fellow at the University of Oregon.
Back in his home country, Umar became disturbed by several social conditions he encountered there, and is saddened that the common people have remained marginalized while society ignores the lessons of its history. These conditions have prompted him to think, to remember, and to write. He is currently teaching linguistics at Alauddin State Islamic University.
Umar Thamrin: firstname.lastname@example.org
Love in a Coconut Shell
On the bank of a shady tributary of the Musi River, on the island of Sumatra, now known as Musi Rawas Raya, there once were two kingdoms — Pagarbesi and Batangpuan. Pagarbesi, which had a substantial army and was well populated, was located in the southern part ⸺ with Batangpuan, which was a much smaller kingdom, just north of it. The men enlisted in the Pagarbesi kingdom army were granted home leave only once every three months during their first year of service. Their wives sent their lunch in a sayak-betingkat — home-cooked food placed in containers of stacked coconut shells. The women believed their husbands expressed requited love when the shells returned empty.
Yun Labu, the princess of the Batangpuan kingdom, was no exception. She had forfeited her nobility by marrying Napalong, a handsome traveler from the Pagarbesi kingdom.
Yun Labu’s parents, the king and queen of the Batangpuan kingdom, did not approve of the marriage. Their daughter had married a commoner and they had been humiliated by the way the couple had married.
Napalong had kidnapped Yun Labu — although Yun Labu claimed it was she who had asked to be kidnapped — and taken her to the chief of his village to marry them. Soldiers of the Batangpuan kingdom would have killed Napalong if Yun Labu had not threatened to kill herself by jumping into a rocky ravine near the border of Batangpuan.
“I don’t want that wanderer to be a part of this kingdom,” hissed the Batangpuan king, Ginde Ulak.
“Neither do I,” Queen Putri Mayang replied, no less fiercely. “The last I heard, Napalong plans to teach martial arts to the soldier recruits in the Pagarbesi kingdom.”
Ginde Ulak nodded. His eyes glowed with anger. “Has Napalong really mastered martial arts so well that he is qualified to teach it?”
“If Napalong becomes a teacher in martial arts at the Pagarbesi court, Yun Labu will rarely see him.” Putri Mayang flicked the end of the shawl wrapped around her waist.
“Where does Yun Labu live now?” Ginde Ulak asked, frowning. “You ordered soldiers to build a house for her, didn’t you?”
“Napalong built her a hut,” Putri Mayang smirked.
Ginde Ulak’s eyes widened. “Just a hut?” he asked furiously.
“Oh, I’m sure she didn’t complain. You forget that when she was a teenager, Yun Labu would embarrass us by hosting commoners’ parties.”
“This happened because you gave our daughter too much freedom.”
“I honestly thought our daughter was learning how to write poetry from Napalong,” Putri Mayang said remorsefully. “Wouldn’t a noble who is good at writing poetry be held in higher esteem?”
Ginde Ulak snorted. “Bah. That young man can’t even write and read Ulu letters.”
Putri Mayang glared at her husband. How was it possible that someone was called a poet without being able to write the traditional script of the upstream region? She said, “Of course I know that, dear. However, according to the elders and fortune tellers, that’s exactly what sets Napalong apart from other poets — not to mention the way he deals with troublemakers!”
“And why did you allow Yun Labu to befriend Grandma Bengkuang, the former cook of the Pagarbesi kingdom?” grumbled Ginde Ulak.
“My dear, you know that no one can keep Yun Labu away from pots, pans, stoves, and spices. Still, I never dreamed that Yun Labu would secretly visit Grandma Bengkuang and compel the old woman to teach her how to cook! Yun Labu never cared about being a princess! And to answer your question, she lives in the south.”
“In the village we haven’t named yet?”
Putri Mayang nodded. “Well, remember, Batangpuan and Pagarbesi haven’t agreed on who owns the forest near the border.”
Ginde Ulak fell silent.
“I heard that Wak Juai is sick.” Putri Mayang smiled slyly.
“Why are you bringing up gossip about the Pagarbesi messenger?” Ginde Ulak snapped.
“You should instead be preparing to welcome our son. He’s arriving from China in just a few days. Aren’t you eager to see Tanjung Samin after ten long years?”
After Napalong and Yun Labu married, Grandma Bengkuang was not the only one who tasted Yun Labu’s cooking before it was served. Napalong was not a good cook, but it was still important to Yun Labu that the young husband she loved liked her cooking.
Grandma Bengkuang and Napalong never disagreed about how Yun Labu’s dishes tasted. If the chili sauce tasted too strong, Grandma Bengkuang blamed the pieces of pineapple she had just eaten. If the spinach soup tasted too bland, Napalong blamed the extra sugar he had added to the tea he just drank.
After spending a week of their honeymoon in their cottage, Napalong asked Grandma Bengkuang if she would be willing to stay with his wife when he left to teach martial arts to the soldier recruits at the Pagarbesi court. “You and my wife have become very close,” Napalong pointed out. “If you two live together, you can take care of each other.”
The couple’s cottage was not too far from the Pagarbesi kingdom, especially on horseback. But Yun Labu and Napalong knew the royal rules for first-year enlisted service members. Home leave was only granted once every three months. It was customary that wives sent their husbands homemade lunches through a kangantat. The royal messenger, who drove a two-horse carriage, arrived by mid-morning every day to pick up the sayak-betingkat lunches the women had packed into coconut shells for their husbands.
One late afternoon, shortly before reporting to the Pagarbesi court, Napalong stood with Yun Labu under a palm tree near their cottage. In the fading twilight, he could still catch the gleam of love in his wife’s eyes. “Promise me,” he said, “that as a token of your loyalty, you will only send me dishes that I know are yours — dishes you have already prepared for me.”
Yun Labu chuckled. “But dear, I haven’t yet cooked you a red-tailed catfish in fermented-durian curry; a chili sauce with shrimp paste; gill mushroom coconut milk soup; or oyster mushrooms in a light curry — dishes that surely will whet your appetite.”
Napalong grinned. “Honey, the dishes you’ve already prepared for me are more than enough.”
Yun Labu flushed with pleasure.
“But …” Napalong held Yun Labu’s eyes, “will you be loyal to me, honey?”
“What?” Yun Labu raised her eyebrows. “You doubt me? My behavior will depend on your feelings toward me.” Yun Labu tried to appear strong but could not hide her anxiety. She burst into tears. “I’ll be whatever you believe me to be!”
Napalong wiped away his wife’s tears and held her tightly. “To be fair,” he said, “you should ask for a token of my loyalty.”
Yun Labu paused then stepped back from Napalong’s embrace. She looked at him tenderly. “If my sayak-betingkat comes back empty, it means you love me and are loyal to me. But if my sayak-betingkat comes back with food left in it, it means that you are no longer loyal.”
Two months later, the Pagarbesi kingdom mourned. Wak Juai, the old kangantat who had served Pagarbesi as its messenger since he was a teenager, had passed away.
That afternoon, a young man came to the Pagarbesi court and introduced himself as Rimau. He said that he was willing to replace Wak Juai as the royal court’s messenger. To convince the king, the queen, and the courtiers, he demonstrated his ability to lighten his body so that he could go to distant places in a short time by riding a coconut frond.
Everyone was amazed by the self-confidence of the young man who stood before them.
The king leaned forward. “Very well,” the king said and continued, “cover your face with a full mask when carrying out your duties.” The king was concerned that the young wives who faithfully prepared a sayak-betingkat for their husbands might be seduced by Rimau’s handsome looks.
Even though it was now the second week of his third month of duty in the Pagarbesi kingdom, Napalong still had trouble focusing on teaching martial arts to the soldiers. Just like the previous days and weeks, he waited impatiently for the sun to reach that part in the sky when the kangantat came with Yun Labu’s sayak-betingkat.
On Rimau’s first day of delivering sayak-betingkat, Napalong eagerly asked Wak Juai’s successor how his wife was doing.
“Pardon me, sir,” Rimau bowed. “Aside from being a new kangantat, I have no intention of meddling in the private affairs between senders and receivers of the sayak-betingkats.”
That day, Napalong was surprised to find dishes he did not expect in the stack of coconut shells that contained his lunch. The bottom shell contained rice and a handful of fried anchovies; the middle shell held a fermented-durian curry and a tomato chili sauce. The top shell held a few sweet basil leaves and a purple eggplant. Yun Labu had never served him any of those dishes during their honeymoon. Still, he forced himself to eat all of it so he could return an empty sayak-betingkat. He did not want to lose Yun Labu.
On the eleventh day of the third month after Napalong had reported to the Pagarbesi court, Yun Labu pulsed with joy. Her sayak-betingkat always returned empty. Unable to contain her happiness, she started writing a love poem to express her longing.
O my dear, my only love …
Yun Labu smiled at the first line she’d written, then pondered. As if she could not stop her own hand from moving, she finished two scrolls of nipah palm leaves, before she knew it.
On the twelfth day, Yun Labu impatiently opened the returned sayak-betingkat. As she had hoped, what she had been waiting for the most was there.
My darling, you are far away …
Yun Labu closed her eyes as she pressed the nipah leaf to her chest. Oh, my dear husband, who was the soldier you asked to help write down the beautiful words you spoke? Yun Labu smiled before she continued to read.
Certainly, the honor is immeasurable for this servant
who has been asked to enjoy your token of sincerity.
Yun Labu’s eyes sparkled as she mused. Her husband called himself a servant and the lunches she sent were a token of sincerity. The flattery sent her floating in the clouds.
Yun Labu kept the poem a secret. She did not want to share her happiness with anyone ⸺ not even with Grandma Bengkuang. What moved her even more was that a man with a chivalrous spirit like her husband had humbled himself by asking someone to help write the poem for him.
For a while, Yun Labu held the letter tightly. Then she slowly rolled it up and kissed it passionately as if her husband’s scent lingered on the leaf. Never before had she been this happy.
Yun Labu mused, My husband will come back in less than three weeks. She took up her pen and wrote:
I know you are still faithful
Enjoy my dishes — fulfill your duty
Your wife will always await you with a yearning heart.
Fourteenth day. Yun Labu opened the empty coconut shell and read:
Where are you now, my love?
Don’t deceive me
Love has made me blind
Blind to my surroundings
Blind to my circumstances.
Yun Labu knew what she had to write.
No need to be in a hurry
Patience is always blessed with a miracle.
The fifteenth day.
Don’t tease me, sweetheart
I will take you
To nirvana as well as the valley of unconsciousness.
Yun Labu overcome with desire, wrote,
I’m not going anywhere, my love
I’m still faithfully longing
For your heart that has suddenly turned blue.
As usual, Yun Labu rolled up the palm leaf and tucked it between the turmeric flowers in the top coconut shell of that day’s sayak-betingkat.
On the evening of the sixteenth day, Rimau arrived with the empty sayak-betingkat.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” he said to Yun Labu. “Tomorrow I won’t pick up your sayak-betingkat, because your husband says he wants to have lunch at home.”
“What do you mean, Kangantat?” Yun Labu was alarmed. “Shouldn’t he stay in the Pagarbesi kingdom for another two weeks? Please remind him of this.”
Rimau did not respond. Actually, he thought, since the first time I replaced Wak Juai, I’ve been looking forward to witnessing the two of you reuniting with each other. Rimau returned to his horse-drawn carriage and disappeared between the trees.
“If it’s true what the kangantat said, you don’t need to worry, Yun,” said Grandma Bengkuang, who had been sweeping behind the hut. She joined Yun Labu and tried to calm her. “Perhaps the kangantat can’t bear to see Napalong pining for you.”
“But, Grandma,” Yun Labu argued, “didn’t my husband promise to settle down after we were married? It’s not easy to become a courtier. Why would he waste this opportunity? Two weeks will go by fast if he is patient and takes our future into serious consideration.”
Grandma Bengkuang stroked Yun Labu’s hair. “I heard that the kangantat is not just anyone. He can go anywhere by riding on a leaf, a branch, or a palm frond. Who knows, with his supernatural power, he might fly Napalong here to have lunch with you and then fly him back to the palace undetected. Or —”
“Oh, is that true, Grandma?” Yun Labu interrupted. And as if heaven could hear her anxiety, she exclaimed, “Hopefully, the kangantat also won’t forget to remind my husband to be patient.”
Since early morning the next day, Yun Labu had been cooking all the dishes she had ever prepared for Napalong.
Grandma Bengkuang had cleaned the cottage and cut down the weeds and bushes around it. Before midday, Yun Labu scooped the rice from the pot and moved it into a pandan leaf basket. She arranged the rice and side dishes ⸺ vegetables, chili sauce, and grilled home-raised chicken ⸺ on a short wooden table.
“Yun, we were right!” Grandma Bengkuang shouted from outside.
Yun Labu was still arranging dishes on the dining table. “What? Is the kangantat really bringing my husband?”
“The kangantat is flying on a palm frond!” Grandma Bengkuang shouted in a trembling voice. Gasping, she pointed at the sky.
“Napalong, my husband, is with him, right?” Yun Labu smoothed her hair, smiling.
“He is with a stranger!” Grandmother Bengkuang rushed inside, grabbed Yun Labu by her arm, and dragged her through the front door.
Outside, Yun Labu stood stunned for a moment, then shouted, “Kangantat! Who did you bring here?” She pointed at the smiling man the messenger had brought, figuring him to be about ten years older than Napalong.
Rimau hesitated. “This isn’t your husband?”
“Don’t you stoke a fire here, sir!” Grandma Bengkuang barged into the conversation.
“She’s my faithful granddaughter!”
“But isn’t this the man your granddaughter has been sending her sayak-betingkats to?”
Grandma Bengkuang huffed, “Didn’t the late Wak Juai pass down the list of sayak-betingkat recipients to you, his successor?”
“Of course he did!”
Yun Labu pointed again at the man the kangantat had brought. “Then why did you give my sayak-betingkats to him?” she asked, disgusted. Not only had all of her cooking been consumed by this stranger, but the poems that had been so beautiful to her ears were now equally disgusting.
“Ma’am!” Rimau’s voice was strained. “I deliver hundreds of sayak-betingkats without knowing the recipients’ details. I only know their names, not their ages, origins, or preferences.”
Grandma Bengkuang squinted. “Why don’t you want to know?”
“It’s a good way to test my ability to be accurate without that information.”
“And you have failed!” Yun Labu snapped.
“Even though I just recently took over Wak Juai’s job, I have never made a mistake. Each sayak-betingkat I delivered has reached the right recipient. Most of them are men — newlyweds, as well as those who are loved by relatives and generous people who do not want their identities known. Among the recipients are also widowers —”
“And I’m a widower.”
Rimau, Yun Labu, and Grandma Bengkuang all looked at the man who had so far been silent.
“And you!” Yun Labu pointed at the widower. “Why did you eat the lunches that were not yours? Why did you lure me with words, as if you were my husband! You … you … you ….” Yun Labu broke into tears.
The widower stood silent for a moment, then replied softly. “Would it be wrong if I hoped to have the same luck as some of the men who receive a sayak-betingkat from unknown senders? One man even ended up marrying the widow who sent him lunch. Is it wrong for me to dream? Is it wrong for me to believe that someone generous would send me a sayak-betingkat? Be it a girl or a widow, I really don’t care!”
“I’m neither of those!” Yun Labu exclaimed. “I am a married woman!”
Rimau turned to the widower. “You really aren’t her husband?” Rimau’s mask hid his surprise.
The widower gasped and shook his head nervously.
“Please answer!” Rimau pressed.
“Is there another scribe in the Pagarbesi kingdom who writes poetry as well as I can?” The widower’s voice trembled.
“Napalong!” snapped Yun Labu. “My husband is a martial arts master at Pagarbesi. You must know him.”
The royal messenger swallowed hard. Napalong was indeed well-known in the Pagarbesi kingdom.
Yun Labu fumed, but before she could vent her anger, the kangantat spoke. “Pardon me, ma’am and Grandma.” Rimau bowed. “What can I do to make up for this mistake?”
Grandma Bengkuang’s answer was curt. “Tomorrow, you will escort Yun Labu to the royal training camp to meet her husband and clear up this mistake!” She told Yun Labu to go back into the hut, then slammed the door behind them.
A stone’s throw from the cottage, Napalong stood, watching his wife and Grandma Bengkuang speaking with the kangantat and a man he did not recognize. After days of walking through many jungles and crossing many rivers, Napalong arrived at their cottage with a longing that almost made his chest burst. Now, watching the scene outside their cottage, Napalong concluded that he had been mistaken to trust the woman he had married. As a man devoted to his duties, promises, and obligations, Napalong realized that Yun Labu had broken her promise when she sent him the sayak-betingkats that contained dishes he had never tasted. He was devastated to discover how Yun Labu could be so insensitive to his feelings.
The next day, after arriving at the Pagarbesi training camp, Yun Labu found out that Napalong had left about a week before. Grief filled her eyes and chest, but rules prohibited crying near the palace, because it would show that the king had not led his servants and people to prosperity.
Rimau wanted very much to embrace Yun Labu. He wanted to tell her that if her husband really loved her, he would come back. However, Rimau dared not disrupt the plan his queen mother had devised. He thought back to how it had all come about.
Inside the castle of the Batangpuan kingdom, Tanjung Samin, proudly showed his parents, King Ginde Ulak and Queen Putri Mayang, the nipah scrolls on which Wak Juai’s instructions were written in beautifully engraved Ulu scripts. At the behest of his mother and father, Tanjung Samin had applied for and been accepted to replace Wak Juai in the Pagarbesi kingdom as a kangantat.
“It’s not for nothing that we sent you to China to learn politics and magic, my son,” said Putri Mayang, taking a roll of nipah leaves from a bamboo holder.
Behind the throne, as her husband and son talked, Putri Mayang examined the lontar scrolls of Wak Juai’s instructions. After she found Napalong and Yun Labu’s rolled together names, she hastily took another roll of names and switched the leaves before rolling the scrolls up and stuffing them back into the bamboo holder. “I have checked the names of the senders and recipients,” she said to her son, handing him the bamboo holder. “Do your job. We are sure you will do it well.”
“Unlike your sister, you’re an obedient son!” applauded Ginde Ulak with conceit. “You didn’t tell them that your name is Tanjung Samin, did you?”
“No, I introduced myself as Rimau,” answered Tanjung Samin. “Nor did I tell them I have Batangpuan royal blood.”
Ginde Ulak nodded with satisfaction. “In addition to your mother’s request that you hide the identities of the sayak-betingkat recipients, you must also make sure that Yun Labu is well, that all her needs are met. You may not bring her home, of course. Your sister has disobeyed us and brought shame to the family and the Batangpuan kingdom.”
“For how long will she be punished, Father?” Tanjung Samin’s voice weakened as he lowered his eyes.
Ginde Ulak looked away.
Fate evened the score of Putri Mayang’s victory in separating Yun Labu from Napalong. After seeing that he had broken his sister’s heart by trickery, Tanjung Samin felt like a starving person being served a simalakama. According to local belief, the fruit, if eaten would kill his mother; and if left uneaten would kill his father. He had chosen to hurt his little sister whom he loved very much. Filled with painful regret that he had made his sister suffer, Tanjung Samin returned to China without saying goodbye to Ginde Ulak and Putri Mayang.
Decades later, Tanjung Samin returned to succeed Ginde Ulak on the throne of the Batangpuan kingdom.
He coaxed Yun Labu to return to the kingdom, but he could not prevent her from daily cooking rice and curry in the palace kitchen. To people who asked about his sister’s odd behavior, Tanjung Samin replied lightly, “Cooking not only produces food that satisfies the body, it also fills one’s longing. One day, Napalong, like the people who hear this story, will be astounded and find sustenance in my sister’s loyalty.”