Despite his technical background, Oni Suryaman is driven by literature. In his spare time, he writes essays, book reviews, and fiction. He also worked as a part-time translator for Indonesian publisher Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia and Kanisius Publishing House. He has recently published a picture book titled I Belog, a retelling of a famous Balinese folklore, an adaptation of which was performed at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) Singapore 2017.
Read some of his essays and book reviews at: http://onisur.wordpress.com and http://semuareview.wordpress.com
He can be reached at email@example.com.
Caya, defiant with her clenched fist full of pebbles, stood her ground and blocked the tractor about to demolish her imaginary friend’s house. The bodhi tree’s branches, twice the width of a man’s arm, scraped the ground.
The tractor driver had yelled at her many times, but Caya answered with angry words and pelted pebbles. The gathered villagers shook their heads. The skinny young girl with hair down to her waist must be really desperate. Unmoved by anyone’s persuasion, she refused to budge and even accused the villagers of conspiring to evict her imaginary friend.
“Go away!” Caya yelled, throwing pebbles at the tractor.
Her father emerged from the crowd, and Caya pointed at the tractor driver. “Father, please tell that intruder to go!” she cried. “He wants to destroy my friend’s house. My friend hasn’t done anything wrong!”
Yusuf tried to calm his daughter, his only child. Because of her epilepsy, no one wanted to play with her. He knew that Caya was lonely, and her imaginary friend was the only person she had to talk to. Yusuf asked the tractor driver to give him a few minutes to reason with his daughter.
The driver shook his head. No, he could not wait. He had to finish clearing this area today. He could not afford to be fired. He had a family to feed.
Yusuf pleaded for more time.
The two bantered back and forth until finally, because it had become so late, the driver climbed out of the tractor cab and told Yusuf he would return the next morning to complete his job of clearing the land.
Yusuf walked back to Caya, whose smile shined through a face wet with tears. “Where is your friend now, Caya?”
“She is inside her house in the tree. She doesn’t want to come out. She is afraid of that steel monster.”
Yusuf’s and Caya’s village, upstream on the Sumpara River, near Kolaka City in Southwest Sulawesi, was once a forest, only inhabited by snakes, crocodiles, and forest spirits. Now, snakes and crocodiles were rarely seen, and the forest spirits, not comfortable living near humans, had moved to the mountains.
Yusuf sat down at the base of the bodhi tree and drew his daughter to him, “Why does your friend remain here when the others have gone, Caya?”
Caya sighed. “She feels sorry for me and stays to keep me company.” Caya stared at the tractor parked near the roadside, surrounded by uprooted trees. “How could I allow anyone to destroy her house?”
“This road is no longer safe,” Yusuf told his daughter. “These rice fields will soon be transformed into a housing complex. This road will become busy with giant trucks transporting nickel ore.” He paused. “Caya, you must tell your friend what is going on. This is what we humans call progress.”
Caya raised her head, and looked at the heart-shaped leaves of the bodhi tree rustling above her in the wind.
“Your friend would definitely not like the noise.” Yusuf straightened his back and stretched. “You must talk to her, Caya. You have to let her go. I’m sure she already knows what is happening to this village.”
Yusuf stroked Caya’s hair, then rose and left.
Yusuf sat lost in thought in his convenience store. Fewer customers were visiting his shop with each passing day. Yusuf had eventually persuaded his daughter not to interfere with the felling of the bodhi tree, but he worried about this lonely daughter of his, sitting quietly beside him. At times he could not accept God punishing his daughter so harshly. Not only had God taken Caya’s mother during childbirth, but He had also cursed his daughter with epilepsy. Maybe it was karma. Yusuf had been a loan shark. But when his wife died giving birth to the imperfect baby daughter he held in his arms, he had returned all the blood money to the community. He had sold the land inherited from his parents and used the money to build his convenience store. So there was no reason for God to punish his innocent daughter. She had played no part in the dirty money.
Secretly, Yusuf felt proud of his daughter for standing up to the tractor to protect her imaginary friend. She had been so brave and strong — unlike himself, who was too weak to defend his own daughter when she needed him. Yusuf felt useless. He would be ashamed to face his wife, who had sacrificed her life to give birth to Caya. Yusuf cursed himself.
The store’s front door opened.
Yusuf’s eyes widened. He saw a calabai wearing the attire of a religious man — a sarong and a white turban wrapped around his hajj skullcap. He had heard about calabai. According to the Bugis gender system, calabai were generally born male but took on the role of a heterosexual female. Their fashions and mannerisms were distinctly feminine but did not match that of “typical” heterosexual women. Yusuf had never seen a calabai dressed like a holy man.
“I am Saleh,” said the calabai, and before Yusuf could reply, the calabai continued, looking at Caya who sat quietly in a corner of the store, “Your child, sir, is a gifted child.”
Yusuf shook the hand Saleh offered while Caya placed a glass of water in front of him.
Saleh opened the conversation. “Many people think I am a calabai, but I am bissu— the so-called ‘fifth gender’ in the Bugis gender system.” Sensing Yusuf’s curiosity, he then explained the difference between a bissu and a calabai. “Originally,” he said, “a bissu was a sacred Bugis-Makassar transvestite who worked as the spiritual adviser at the court of the ancient Bugis-Makassar kingdom. Because they were transvestites, many people thought that bissus could not be Muslims. But when the Bugis-Makassar kingdom accepted Islam as the state religion, the bissus followed and embraced Islam, except that they could not pray in the mosque. Why? Because in a mosque the places for men and women to worship were clearly marked — there were no designated places marked for bissus. Yet many bissus had completed the pilgrimage to Mecca and were therefore hajis. “I could not wear this,” Saleh said, pointing at his skullcap, “if I had not gone on a pilgrimage.” During his pilgrimage, he had to choose to be a man. But when he returned to his village, he went back to being a calabai again.
Saleh, like Caya, had a mystical spirit-friend. This spirit-friend accompanied Saleh everywhere he went; it even helped him with his work.
Yusuf and Caya listened carefully.
Saleh had been invited to their village by a relative who wanted him to be the indo’botting, Bugis bridal makeup artist and counsel, at his daughter’s wedding. After arriving in the village, Saleh had overheard the woman who sold turmeric rice to the road construction workers talk about Caya blocking the tractor to save her imaginary friend’s house.
“Unless Caya can be a meaningful part of society, she will be lonely,” Saleh said.
“And?” Yusuf probed.
Saleh smiled and asked for Yusuf’s patience while listening to his story. “To be accepted by society, a person must have something to offer. Traders, for instance, offered their goods; educated people offered their knowledge; and farmers offered their crops. What does Caya have to offer?”
Yusuf shook his head. Caya couldn’t even go to school because of her schoolmates’ bullying.
“I, too, was ostracized before I met Puang Matoa, the bissu leader,” Saleh told Yusuf. The elder transvestite taught him to become a bissu, and Saleh turned from a streetcorner prostitute and public annoyance who liked to party into a holy transgender. “Yusuf,” Saleh said, “I ask your permission to make Caya my disciple.”
Yusuf glanced at Caya. “What will you teach her, Bissu Saleh?” he asked cautiously
“Cenning Rara,” Saleh answered.
“What is that?”
Saleh glanced at Yusuf, then tilted his head toward Caya. “Don’t you feel sorry for her?”
“I need to know what you are going to teach her.” Concern raised Yusef’s voice.
“Cenning Rara, the Bugis love spell.” Saleh folded his arms across his chest.
“That sounds like black magic,” Yusuf said, alarmed.
Saleh reached for the glass of water Caya had served him earlier. After taking a sip, he slowly placed the glass on the table.
“You know what lipstick is,” Saleh said while looking at the glass. “But did you know that a long time ago, European women who wore lipstick were labeled satan worshippers?”
“Oh, and you’ve been to Europe?” Yusef scoffed.
“Actually, yes, I have toured all across Europe.”
Astonished, Yusuf had nothing to say.
“Many people make the wrong assumption that bissus live in secluded villages and are oblivious to the outside world,” Saleh said. “Now, let me tell you about my adventures around Europe.”
During Saleh’s storytelling, Caya sat mesmerized, completely drawn into Saleh’s tales. She interrupted him occasionally, asking for more information whenever she found something he said particularly interesting.
Yusuf listened quietly, watching how engaged his daughter was. He had never seen Caya this happy and alive.
After Saleh finished his European tales, he looked at Yusuf. “So, do you give me your permission?”
Yusuf squirmed in his seat. “A child is not an object to possess,” he said. “When a person dies, they lose all their possessions. But a child’s prayer can bring joy and light to a parent’s grave —”
“But, I have listened to you without interrupting, now please listen to me.” Yusuf leaned toward Saleh, who quietly settled back into his chair.
“I am apprehensive,” Yusuf began. “As a devout Muslim, I view idolatry as a great sin.
Those who serve idols will not be judged on Judgment Day; rather, they will be cast immediately into the depths of hell. Believing in spells is an act of idolatry. It is enough to suffer in this world: I don’t want to suffer in the afterlife.”
The bright afternoon sun crept through the slits in the planked wall. A hen clucked loudly, looking for the chicks that had entered the shop, pecking for food crumbs. Caya shooed the chicks out, and returned to her seat.
“Let me explain it to you,” Saleh said, patiently. “Cenning Rara is a spell that is handed down by our Buginese ancestors. It makes the practitioner’s client appear youthful and healthy, with an alluring attraction in her visage. Such a spell may succeed in enticing a member of another sex without producing any harmful side effects for the one the spell is cast upon. Indeed, Cenning Rara and other sorts of love magic are regarded as rather common.”
Saleh told Yusuf that spells, like Cenning Rara, were not something written down like a permanent formula. Rather, spells evolved and changed in accordance with a society’s spiritual development. For example, after the arrival of Islam, spells that were written in the ancient Bugis-Makassar language transitioned into spells that used verses from the Quran. “We no longer pray to a pantheon of gods, but to Allah the Almighty God,” Saleh concluded.
“You can probably use those spells to drive out evil spirits, but this is the first time I’ve heard that they can be used to make someone desire you,” Yusuf said. “Idol worshippers use verses from the Quran to trick people into liking them.”
“Please believe me, sir, that is not the case. I am a haji.”
“Being a haji is no guarantee that you’re telling the truth!” Yusuf became agitated again.
“Just look around you! After returning from the pilgrimage, many hajis are even greedier and more prone to embezzle public funds.”
Saleh smiled. “I can only offer help. It is up to you whether you want to receive my help or not.”
The clattering of Caya’s chair interrupted the conversation. Caya clenched the arms of her chair, as an epileptic seizure contorted her body. Yusuf jumped up to keep her from toppling forward, but he was too late. Caya writhed on the floor, eyelids fluttering.
Yusuf carried her into her room behind the shop. When he returned, he told Saleh, “This is what happens when Caya is placed under too much stress.”
Saleh had nothing more to say. He rose and excused himself to leave.
“How long will you be here in the village?” Yusuf’s voice was kinder.
“I return to Pangkajene the day after tomorrow,” Saleh said, as he walked out the door.
The soft, melodious magrib, twilight call to prayer, accompanied his departure until he disappeared behind a bamboo grove.
At midnight, Yusuf prayed desperately. “Oh, God, please, I only wish for my child’s happiness.” The night was unusually quiet. There were no bats shrieking as they fought over fruit. Yusuf repeated his prayers over and over until even the wind had stopped blowing.
He startled when Caya touched his back as the call to the dawn prayer softly announced a new day. “Father, let’s go to the mosque.” Caya smiled.
On their way home from morning prayers, Yusuf told Caya, “Idolatry is a grave sin. We can be tempted into committing idolatry at any time. The devil is very good at tricking humans. He can even trick us into sinning while we’re on our death bed.”
The morning breeze caressed the bamboo leaves at the street corner. Yusuf and Caya turned and followed the small path to their home. “Do you know how to escape the sin of idolatry, my daughter?”
Caya shook her head.
“We say the shahadah, confession of faith, before taking our last breath.”
Yusuf said nothing as he accompanied Caya to the bus station for her journey to Pangkajene. At the station, Yusuf stroked his daughter’s head when she kissed his hand.
Saleh waited patiently as father and daughter said goodbye. “Don’t worry, sir,” he said. “I will take care of Caya as if she were my own child.”
Yusuf couldn’t speak. He simply nodded.
Caya and Saleh boarded the bus. Yusuf ran to the open bus window. “Take care of yourself, Caya! Obey Bissu Saleh!”
Caya wiped her tears and waved.
Slowly, the bus pulled out of the station. Caya looked back at her father, standing on the roadside. When she could no longer see him, she settled into her seat, watching the passing scenery of trucks burying dry rice fields with dirt.
Saleh sat calmly beside her.
Caya saw that her village was indeed bustling with construction. New houses and shops had sprung up everywhere. A flock of birds flared up when the bus took a turn near their bushes. I shouldn’t be the one who has to learn Cenning Rara so people will accept me. They should learn to accept me as I am.
Caya took a last look back before the bus took another turn and she could no longer see her village. As they crawled up the twisting road of the mountainside, Caya dried her eyes. I’ll come back as soon as I can. Poor Father is all alone.
Caya was still in disbelief that Saleh wanted her as his student. He barely knew her! His only reason was that she suffered the same fate he did, being ostracized. There must be another reason behind it — but why question it? Saleh is going to teach me a skill that will keep me from being lonely, and that is all that matters.
“Have you already forgotten your friend?” Saleh pointed his chin to the empty seat next to him. “Your friend is lucky. She didn’t have to pay to get on the bus.”
Caya turned to him, eyes sparkling. “Yes, and she didn’t have to pay rent either.”
Saleh quickly covered his mouth. His face reddened as he tried to keep from laughing. “I wasn’t wrong when I invited you to become one of my disciples.” He chuckled.
The bus engine growled as it crawled up the last part of the mountainside before it cruised leisurely down the other side.
“When I was a child, I was like you, a rebel,” Saleh said. “People ridiculed me for walking like a woman. My father beat my legs until they were swollen, trying to change my natural gait.”
Saleh sighed, remembering. “Whenever I tried to walk like a man, my friends said I looked like a boy who had just been circumcised. In the end, I grew tired of trying, my father grew tired of beating me, and my friends grew tired of teasing me.”
Saleh smiled, looking down at Caya. “When I was growing up, I enjoyed helping my mother cook. My mother was a patient woman, but she told me that cooking was a woman’s job. She told me that I should help my father in the fields. So I tried doing that, and I went to help him early in the day. But after working just a few rows, I had an epileptic seizure. My father never asked me to work in the fields again.”
Cayla listened, rapt.
“I was one of seven children. Fortunately, my mother’s busy-ness in the morning turned to my advantage. My father had no choice but let me help my mother make breakfast. My job was to prepare the coffee and tea. Under my mother’s guidance, I soon became an expert in making coffee and tea — even better than my mother! Little by little, I started helping her make all kinds of breakfast dishes, like fried rice, glutinous rice, and grits.
“As my cooking skills improved, I began catering for parties. It was at one of the wedding receptions I had been commissioned to cook for, that I met Puang Matoa, the bissu leader. He had been invited to perform the ma’giri, a sacred bissu dance that showed how a bissu’s graceful body was invulnerable to sharp objects. Only bissus were able to perform the dance and it was extremely difficult to become a bissu.”
The process of becoming a bissu, said Saleh, required him to be sanctified and have a protective spirit. After a three-day fast, he would be wrapped in a burial cloth as if he were dead. His soul would then depart his body and travel to the spirit world. The distance his soul traveled depended on the strength of his spirit. If his soul returned, he would be confirmed as a bissu. If his soul did not return, he would die.
“Why would you risk your life like that?” Caya glanced at Saleh.
“Because it was my destiny.”
The Kali Bersih river divided Pangkajene, a small mining town near Makassar on the island of Sulawesi. The quarries nearby had gouged the rocky hills for mining operations. Saleh lived in a wooden stilt house on a noisy street behind the market. Cars and trucks honked endlessly on the busy street, accompanied by the rush of the river.
On her first night in Saleh’s house, Caya lay awake until she heard the dawn call for prayer. Several mosques blared prayer calls from every direction, as if competing with each other to reach heaven.
“You couldn’t sleep?” Saleh asked when Caya walked into the living room.
“No, it was too noisy,” Caya said, fluffing her flat, bed hair.
“Your village will soon become just as busy, and you will have to learn to live with it.” Saleh sipped his hot coffee. “But it is all good; the booming mining industry will also increase attendance at the mosque.”
Caya felt a tug of homesickness. If it were not for the fact that Saleh would start her lessons that night, Caya would have asked to return to her village.
Saleh invited Caya to meet his guiding spirit. When he opened the door to the arajang, sacred chamber, the aroma of frankincense enveloped them. The room was smaller than Caya’s room. It had a small bed, draped with a mosquito net that served as a spirit-altar. The only light in the room came from the living room. Saleh seated himself cross-legged on the floor in front of the bed. After saying a short prayer, he stood, opened the mosquito net, and lit the frankincense in its earthen container at the front of the bed. The bed was decorated with antique trinkets.
As Saleh talked with his guiding spirit, he pulled Caya’s hand to sit next to him. Saleh introduced Caya to his guiding spirit and explained why Caya wanted to learn how to cast the Cenning Rara spell.
As Caya entered the spiritual world, she began to float. She saw her imaginary friend embrace an old man dressed in a white robe, enveloped in a blinding aura. The longer she looked at him, the brighter the light became. Caya put her hands over her eyes, but she couldn’t shut out the light. She screamed. The light disappeared, and Caya plunged into a deep, unconscious darkness.
“What happened?” Caya asked when she came to.
Saleh grabbed Caya’s hands. “What did you see?”
“I saw an old man, dressed in a white robe, surrounded by a blinding light.” Caya told Saleh. “Who was that?”
“A sufi, a mystic,” Saleh said. “I’m not allowed to speak his name.” He told Caya to perform ablution, change into a sarong, and return to the arajang chamber.
They sat cross-legged in front of the small bed. “Now I will teach you the Cenning Rara,” Saleh said. “You must never use the spell for evil purposes. If you do, the man you saw will punish you.”
Assuming that she could immediately return to her village, be with her father, and sleep soundly in her own bed that night, Caya nodded happily. But Saleh kept her in Pangkajene. Caya still needed to learn how to use Cenning Rara for bridal makeup.
There were three weddings coming up during the next three months and Saleh told Caya to assist him as he performed his task as an indo’botting. Saleh taught her how to skillfully apply bridal makeup. At times, he lost his temper when Caya became distracted. “That’s why you must recite the Cenning Rara mantra while you work,” he scolded. “That way, you’ll be focused on every line you draw. Remember, you’re not drawing on a piece of paper! You’re working on a human face.”
The girl who was Caya’s practice model giggled when Saleh reprimanded Caya. When Caya dutifully started reciting the Cenning Rara mantra, Saleh snapped, “Not now! Wait until you work on a real bride!” At that, the model burst out laughing.
Upset over being laughed at, Caya made the girl look like a monkey. And then it was Saleh who could not control his laughter.
After Caya had worked for two weeks as his apprentice, Saleh told her she was ready to work on her own. Initially, Caya felt awkward when she had to do the makeup in front of so many people. But in the end, she proved herself, and Saleh congratulated her.
Caya had lived with Saleh for almost three months when, one evening, they sat relaxing on the porch, watching a light rain. The sounds of passing trucks and boats filled the evening air. Caya smiled. The noise that used to keep her awake now lulled her to sleep.
“Why are you smiling?” Saleh asked.
“I’m beginning to enjoy my stay here.”
“How did you feel after you finished your first job?”
“I was delighted.” Caya’s eyes sparkled. “It made me very happy.”
“The harvest season is the wedding season — that’s when the indo’botting is busiest,” Saleh said, showing his crooked smile. “But the harvest season is over, and now it is time for planting.”
The drizzle danced through the light of the dim streetlamp. Saleh let out a long sigh then said slowly, “I have finally fulfilled my promise to Puang Matoa.”
Caya then realized, why Saleh had taught her. He had passed on his knowledge.
“You will go home tomorrow,” Saleh said. “Your father must have missed you very much.”
Saleh rose and went into his room.
Caya remodeled her father’s store into a beauty salon. People liked her makeup style and she quickly became in very high demand. After serving her last customer for the day, Caya sat down in one of the salon chairs.
Yusuf joined her and said, “I am so proud of you.” After a moment of silence, he asked, “How is your imaginary friend?”
Caya broke into a big smile and said, “Oh, there are many of her now!”
Yusuf gazed across the road where the bodhi tree once stood. “Thank you, my daughter,” he said, gently.
“It is I who should thank you.” Caya took her father’s hand and kissed it.