Alvin Steviro was raised in an evangelical family. He became obsessed with existential questions and Western philosophy during his teenage years. Steviro holds a bachelor’s degree in English Studies and a master’s degree in Cultural Studies.
In addition to his interest in social, political, and cultural issues, he also addresses the practical sides of life. He is currently employed as a content writer and freelance translator.
The man with greying hair sat on the side porch of his house, looking at a lalijiwa mango tree, laden with fruit ready to harvest. Wibowo should’ve felt as happy as he had the seasons before, but this year, something disturbed him terribly. “I have failed,” he murmured and sighed deeply, wishing to rid himself of the unrest.
“No, we haven’t.” His wife’s voice rose from alongside him, breaking through the stifling silence of the afternoon. “She finished her master’s study in Germany with a scholarship. Now she’s working as a researcher at a big institution, earning good pay. We didn’t raise her in vain.”
Wibowo looked at Respati Rahayu, his wife of more than thirty-five years. During all those years, this woman had supported his decisions on everything: from life choices to decisions regarding the construction of their new home and even selecting a son-in-law from the many candidates their only child introduced to them. “I thought we agreed that the parents’ success in educating their child is not measured by how educated the child turns out to be.”
Wibowo was about to embark on a long lecture, but when his wife offered him his favorite lemongrass tea, he merely swallowed and sighed once more. He then took a sip of the fragrant tea, their ever-faithful companion during their afternoon talks. Sliced ginger in the tea warmed his throat. It was the vocabulary of taste that lingered in his mind whenever they were apart ⸺ the lemongrass tea with ginger, brewed by Respati Rahayu. His wife resumed their conversation. “While a lot of people don’t know how to handle their children’s education, we taught our daughter that getting a degree with a scholarship award is an honor. We did not have to bribe anyone to secure a good education for our child. She always went to the best schools, from elementary to graduate studies. In addition, Palupi grew into an independent adult who doesn’t trouble us. This is our achievement as her parents.”
“The most important achievement as her parents is to impart the value of nationalism,” Wibowo said, clenching his fists. “Education is very important, yes, but nationalism is the foundation of a person’s character.”
Respati Rahayu squinted at her husband. “You don’t think our daughter is nationalistic enough?” Her voice rose. “She can recite the Pancasila — Indonesia’s official philosophical theory — by heart. In one of her closets she stores an Indonesian flag she can raise anytime. She can sing all three stanzas of the Indonesia Raya, our national anthem. What more do you expect of her?” Respati’s gentle eyes now flashed. “We even have gamelan instruments that we still play! We speak Javanese and Indonesian in our daily conversations. Our daughter also —”
“How can you say that your daughter is nationalistic enough?” Wibowo interrupted. “She even chose an imported name for her child as if there are no Indonesian or Javanese names that carry a sense of beauty or pride!” Wibowo’s taut face tightened even more. Sorrow clouded the eyes of the Javanese man who had insisted on building a joglo — a large gazebo with a traditionally trapezoid-shaped roof — in front of the main house.
His name, Wibowo Besari, carried an important message from his ancestors: he was to be a gentleman, an unbeatable man who does no harm, a man noble yet humble, a protector who doesn’t belittle others. Wibowo’s name resonated his father’s wishes.
“A person of Javanese descent should never let go of his Javanese-ness,” his father had told him. “He should never lose his identity.” His father, who once served as the head of the Tejowangi district, considered a name to be a directive of one’s lifestyle. Fate had made Wibowo a Javanese man, and, as befitted a Javanese man, he showed his Javanese-ness: He built a joglo and bought slendro and pelog gamelan instruments to play. Occasionally, when he came by some extra money, he invited his neighbors to the joglo for a kenduri, a celebration of gratitude, where he served the Javanese staple dishes for such an occasion: nasi tumpeng — coned rice cooked in coconut milk, turmeric, and other spices — and ayam ingkung, a whole spiced, roasted chicken.
“Palupi Retnaningrum Hapsari is too long,” Respati remembered arguing with her husband while being pregnant of their daughter. “A two-word name, like we have: Wibowo Besari, Respati Rahayu, is enough,” she had grumbled, rubbing her growing belly.
“Do you know what the three words mean, dear?” Young Wibowo had teased, smiling.
“Of course, I do! ‘Palupi’ means role model. ‘Hapsari’ means shining gem. And ‘Retnaningrum’ — wait, what does ‘Retnaningrum’ mean?”
“Retnaningrum means a flexible and compassionate personality. I hope that one day this child will be a generous, noble person admired by the people around her.” Young Wibowo’s eyes sparkled.
“That’s if our child is a girl.” Respati peered at her husband. “What if it’s a boy?”
“Then I’ll name him Jagad Reksaning Bawono!” Wibowo grinned victoriously. “But the midwife said that our child will be a girl.”
It was then that Respati realized that there were unwritten rules for naming in the Javanese community. Having only a one-word name marked a person as coming from a low, working-class or farming family. Civil servants, teachers, and traders commonly had two-word names. Three-word names signified a lineage of royal blood or high-ranking officials.
While such name-ranking was no longer relevant in modern Indonesian times, Wibowo was firm. His children and grandchildren must be given three-word Javanese names that reflected the rank of blood that flowed through their veins.
The news that their daughter, Palupi, was expecting her first child brought some light to the lives of the old couple who had waited a long time for a grandchild. When the sonogram revealed that Palupi’s child was a girl, Wibowo started thinking of possible names. For weeks he pondered, until one day, Respati found him sitting in his joglo, smiling.
“I have found the perfect name for our granddaughter,” he said to his wife when she pulled up a wicker chair and joined him. “Maharani Mahisa Suramardini.” Wibowo looked content as he carefully pronounced each word.
Respati’s eyes widened.
“What’s the matter?” Wibowo asked smugly. “Isn’t it perfect?”
Respati shook her head. “According to Javanese belief, a child with such a pretentious name may be prone to illness.”
“Now, just wait a minute.” Wibowo’s eyes glowed. “Maharani Mahisa Suramardini is the title of Queen Shima, the seventh-century ruler of the great Kalingga kingdom. She was not only fair and capable of reconciling religious differences, but she was also beautiful. She was noble, so she was loved by the commoners and respected by royalty.”
“But we’re not nobility, dear, let alone royalty,” Respati countered, confused. “Yes, your father was a district head before he retired, so we’re just a family of a retired civil servant. Would it be proper to give our grandchild such a regal name?” After a moment of silence, she continued, “Just spelling the names is already difficult. For me, names like Ningsih, Endang, and Wati are easier to pronounce and more beautiful.”
Wibowo smiled radiantly. “I’ve thought about this for weeks! I searched for names and compared them. Look in my notebook. You’ll see how many hundreds of names and their meanings I went through.” Wibowo reached for a blue notebook on the small table and handed it to Respati. “Finding the best name for our first grandchild wasn’t easy. As her grandfather, I’d like to partake in conserving our traditional names, as a token of love for our ancestors.”
Respati could only shrug. Like all of her ancestors, she, too, was full-blooded Javanese. But, when it came to adhering to Javanese culture and tradition, her husband had far more Javanese-ness than she did.
Wibowo clung to the philosophy of Memayu Hayuning Bawana — doing the best you can for the world and everything that lives within it. Those who did good in this life would be rewarded in the hereafter. In practicing this belief, Wibowo refused to build a concrete wall or iron fence around his home. Instead, he planted a camphorweed hedge which would also be beneficial for the neighborhood as anyone was allowed to take cuttings of the camphorweed for their vegetable salad.
Certain that he had found the perfect name, Wibowo excitedly called Palupi. “Maharani Mahisa Suramardini!” he crowed into the phone. ” It’s perfect! Our Javanese bloodline will be recorded in your daughter’s name. As she grows up, people will recognize your daughter as a Javanese. Don’t forget to tell everyone who asks that her grandfather gave her the name!” The soon-to-be grandfather laughed cheerfully.
“Dad,” Palupi’s voice was filled with reluctance.
“So what do you think?” Wibowo could not hide his pride. “Didn’t I pick a great name?”
“Yes, Dad, but we’ve already picked a name for our baby.”
Wibowo stiffened, speechless. His face fell. He looked helplessly at his wife, who stood looking at him.
“So,” Respati said into the speaker phone, wanting to relax the sudden tension between the two, “what will you name her?”
“Alexa Caroline Andromeda,” Palupi replied happily, as if she had plucked a star from a celestial constellation.
“What does it mean?” Respati inquired.
“Alexa comes from a Greek word that means a woman who fights for mankind. Caroline means tough and amazing. Andromeda is the name of a galaxy greater than the Milky Way!”
“Why do you want to borrow Greek words?” Respati spoke Wibowo’s words for him. “Aren’t there any Indonesian or Javanese names that describe an amazing girl?”
“Oh, well, Mom, it’s a done deal.” Palupi sounded anxious.
Now Respati was the one who started to feel concerned. In Javanese culture, a baby’s name wasn’t a “done deal” until the baby was born. Respati didn’t want her daughter’s actions to tempt fate. The Javanese culture strongly opposed making any preparations for the baby’s birth before the fetus was seven months old. She probed, “How can that be? The child hasn’t been born yet.”
“Mom, we’ve already ordered monogrammed clothing and a crib. The mural in the baby’s room also has that name on it.” Palupi lowered her voice as if she were sorry for having told them.
“How dare you!” Wibowo interrupted “You can’t act ahead of God’s will! You can’t buy things for the baby before the seventh month of your pregnancy, when we hold the tingkeban ritual for you and your baby’s wellbeing and an easy delivery!”
Silence followed Wibowo’s outburst.
“Palupi.” Wibowo suddenly probed, “Do you know why the ha na ca ra ka letters, the Javanese script, have nearly vanished?”
Still, Palupi remained silent.
Respati wiped her face with both hands. She realized this argument would last for some time.
“It seems that this younger generation no longer respects their ancestors.” Wibowo’s voice rose again. “Why do you have to use foreign words for something as essential as a name? A name should be used to preserve one’s sense of self, so that the young won’t forget where they came from!”
Wibowo stopped, waiting for Palupi’s response. But as Palupi gave none, he grew more furious. “You should be ashamed! Look at the Japanese. They are a developed nation. They’ve adapted to the times, but their behavior is still Japanese. Their culture is eternally Japanese. Their kanji script is still used to this day.” Wibowo caught his breath then continued firmly, “Their names are still Japanese!”
Palupi still would not respond.
Desperate to break through her silence, Wibowo shouted, “What are you? A Javanese? An Indonesian? Or are you a foreigner? From which country?”
Ever since that day, Wibowo refused to talk to Palupi, the daughter he had always been so proud of, the daughter who had been the topic of every conversation he had regardless of with whom and the occasion.
Just like any mother would, Respati tried to repair the rift between father and daughter. The soon-to-be grandmother called her daughter without telling Wibowo. “Dear, shouldn’t you reach out to your father first?”
Palupi only sighed.
Respati heard her sigh and pressed on. “What’s so difficult about accepting your father’s suggested name for the baby?”
The question was met by a long pause before Palupi eventually replied. “Mom, I am Javanese. There’s no denying that the blood that flows through my veins is Javanese. But as an individual, I have the right to name my child the way I see fit ⸺ just like you and Dad named me ‘Palupi’ according to your wishes as my parents.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Respati conceded. “What your father doesn’t like are the foreign names. Can’t you use some Javanese or Indonesian names that pay tribute to your ancestors and heritage?” Respati had never experienced such a sharp disagreement with her daughter. It bothered her very much but she rallied, “If only you knew how your father labored over his first granddaughter’s name, you would be proud to be his daughter.”
“I understand, Mom. But I have to respect my husband’s preferences, too. Syarif also has a say in naming his own child.”
Respati’s strength crumbled. Slowly, tears rolled down her wrinkled cheeks. She knew she had not steered Palupi wrong, but she had never expected her daughter to hold on this strongly to her opinion. “So have you discussed the name problem with your husband?” Respati’s asked hoarsly.
“No, I haven’t. I’m still waiting for the right time to discuss Javanese names with Syarif. When we do I’ll let him know what I think. I respect my husband just like you respect Dad. Isn’t that what you taught me?”
Silence strained the distance between mother and daughter.
“I hope your husband will understand.” Respati lowered her voice. “The name we give to our children is an attempt to preserve our Javanese identity. One day, the children will trace their cultural and ancestral origins, first and foremost by asking what their names mean.”
Respati felt she had found the right words. “The uniqueness of a place will be stamped in the name a child will carry wherever it goes. Whichever country your daughter travels to, she’ll be known as an Indonesian, more specifically, a Javanese.”
Palupi knew that when her mother lowered her voice, she was sharing her innermost feelings. Palupi didn’t interrupt, and Respati continued. “Although we’re born Javanese, we also try to be less old-fashioned. Do you remember when you first introduced Syarif to us? Your father didn’t ask you why he wasn’t Javanese; he didn’t ask whether Syarif owned a nice house; he didn’t ask which family he came from. He didn’t. He only asked you if this suitor upheld your honor as a woman.”
Respati heard her daughter’s choked sob through the phone. She steeled herself, not allowing the emotionally-charged atmosphere to get the better of her. She realized that in a borderless world where everything moved at lightning speed, conserving traces of nationality was an arduous, quixotic task. Foreign names sounded more modern. Preserving Javanese names was like trying to keep a wet thread standing upright.
Dinner had always been simple and joyful over the course of three years of marriage, but not tonight. Palupi was noticeably restless while her husband chewed his food indifferently. The TV broadcast of widespread flooding added to Palupi’s anxiety, and she turned it off.
Syarif Hidayatullah, the Bugis-Palembang man who had courted Palupi with gold jewelry and a Islamic prayer rug, beads, robe and Quran, finished his dinner in silence. Reluctant to continue the conversation Palupi had started when they first sat down to dinner, he finished his glass of water and rose.
“Wait, dear.” Palupi touched his arm. “We’re not done.”
Reluctantly, Syarif sat back down and started spinning the empty water glass.
“Please accept the Javanese name for our child,” Palupi pleaded softly, “and the tingkeban ritual that my mother is asking for.”
Syarif held his wife’s eyes. He was done with this discussion. The naming issue was non-negotiable. It’s the parents’ right to name their children without anyone’s interference.
“It’s not simple being the only child.” Palupi continued in a firmer tone. “There are unwritten responsibilities and expectations about passing on cultural and ancestral heritages. I tried to refuse their suggestions for the baby’s name and their request to hold the tingkeban ritual, and all I accomplished was getting into a fight with my parents ⸺ something that has never happened.” Palupi bowed her head, tears running down her cheeks.
Syarif planted his elbows on the table and dropped his chin into his hands, covering his mouth. Guilt crept into his heart, but his mind was made up. “When a daughter is handed over to a man in a wedding ceremony, doesn’t she become her husband’s possession?” Syarif asked matter-of-factly.
Fury rose in Palupi. “No! Just because a husband presents his wife with a dowry, it does not mean that he purchased her!”
Her words struck Syarif as harsh. This wasn’t the Palupi he knew. He glared at her.
“If a man could purchase full ownership of a woman in the prime of her life with just some gold jewelry, a set of Islamic praying beads, robe, mat, and Quran, then how does that expenditure compare to how much her parents spent on raising her, from conception till she walks down the aisle? How big was their investment?”
Syarif swallowed the words he had been ready to speak.
Palupi was ready to deliver several carefully prepared sentences, but she was mindful of her husband’s dignity. She said, “I surrendered myself to you, my husband, because I love you.”
Syarif remained silent, dumbfounded.
“After my parents gave all their love to their only child and raised me to be an educated and well-mannered woman in good physical and spiritual health, I voluntarily handed myself over to you. Now, why is it so hard to accept the cultural gift from my parents in the form of a Javanese name for our baby just because you’re the father of this child?”
Syarif saw the anger in his wife’s eyes. During their three years of marriage, Palupi had never once spoken with such force as she had tonight.
“All right,” Syarif slowly conceded. “Our first child can be named according to your father’s gift. But our religion doesn’t acknowledge the meaning of a tingkeban ceremony.”
Despite her large belly, Palupi rose quickly and straightened herself. “Tradition and religion are two things that cannot merge. They walk side-by-side, like railroad tracks headed for one destination ⸺ in this case, harmony!” Palupi left Syarif sitting at the dining room table and hurried to the bedroom to call her mother.
Gamelan music floated softly through Wibowo’s joglo. Played by men and women from the neighborhood, it was the best part of welcoming the honored guests. A warm and relaxed atmosphere filled the joglo and the main house, surrounded by mature trees. People who might not see each other even once a year, came together that day for the celebratory occasion.
The previous evening, prayers were said for Palupi and her unborn baby. Seven trays of coned rice surrounded by miscellaneous rare side dishes, native Javanese snacks, a sticky rice compote, and a special variety of banana were served. Today, it was time for the complete tingkeban ceremony, which started with the siraman a component of the ritual.
In a corner, decorated with flowers, stood a special container filled with water from seven different sources and seven different types of flowers: rose, jasmine, cananga, magnolia, tuberose, orange jasmine, and impatience. Palupi wore simple make-up and a red, tie-dyed kemben, bustier. A shawl of laced jasmine covered her shoulders and chest. Seated on a wood chair, Palupi was ready for the siraman. All present elders, including those on her husband’s side who had come all the way from Makassar, stood ready to pour a ladle of the flowered water over her.
As for Syarif, he could not stop smiling. His family had gladly accepted the tingkeban ceremony. The women were excited to wear the kebaya, Javanese long-sleeved blouse, and sarong. The men eagerly donned the traditional blangkon, Javanese cap, and beskap, jacket. All these formalities delighted Syarif’s youngest brother, who recorded everything for a YouTube presentation.