Asian Culture and Arts - 2005-2006





Considering the Kurawas, by Seno Gumira Adjidarma


The story "Suyudana Gugur" ["The Destruction of Suyudana"] had already finished. Even the Bharatayudha war had ended. The few audience members left were drifting home wearily. And at last the town square was gradually returning to its customarily profound silence. The performance hall used for the wayang orang performance of "Ngesthi Kurowo" became quiet in the middle of the night, careless of the fact that it had suddenly become bankrupt of spectators. As Lord Kresna proceeded toward the direction of the trees wishing to be surrounded by Sangkuni, the giggling laugh of a street prostitute soared freely, spread by the wind. Semar evidently had been hanging out there for some time.

The building was like that hut of the giant Bale Sigala-gala which had been used to pay off the Pandawas but failed [part of a wayang story]. Mulyohandoyo inhaled a kretek cigarette with a bitter face...wishing to feel himself powerful, like the character of a wayang. Tomorrow the gamelan would be transported by Babah [a Chinese honorific name] Cong -- he'd already sold it. His underlings all had to eat somehow. That didn't even take into consideration his two wives, Drupadi and Banowati. The performance hall was soon to be demolished, shortly to be made into the Exhibition Celebrating a Decade of Development on the property. They had to be sidelined. But to where? Who cares?

"That's not our concern," said the government official at the Department of Culture. "I've already told you from the beginning that if you'd created a dangdut group then you'd have made it; it's your own fault for having chosen wayang orang. These days, who wants to watch wayang? What for? Who needs it? Better to watch films! I myself can't abide to sit through wayang, to tell you the truth."

Mulyohandoyo again inhaled his kretek much longer would this "Considering the Kurawas" group last? They had already performed in the small villages, the major regional cities, moreover in the remotest districts. There was one time when they even performed simultaneously with a dangdut music group. At that time the story was "Brajadenta Mbalela," with the unfortunate result that the audience evaporated. That was because they'd had to compete with the thundering roar of the dangdut audience, who were only a hundred meters away. What could one do? Even Gareng and Petruk [two of the clown characters] were forced to dance dangdut themselves in order to stay in character.

"Hey, you, come on, it's chilly out here." There was a soft, melodious voice calling him from behind a bamboo gate. Mulyohandoyo turned around... hey, it must be Sembadra. He already had Drupadi and Banowati altogether, but he had already enjoyed Sembadra's wildness between the backdrops backstage. Heh heh heh, Mulyohandoyo smiled to himself. Whatever happens to "Considering the Kurawas," I've already gotten some pleasure here.

"What is it, dear?" he asked in a fatherly manner. "Where's your husband?"

"Ah, that crazy guy doesn't deserve to be mentioned. He's already been cuddling with Murni since earlier this evening. Huh! Her name might be Murni ["pure"] but she herself is filthy! Grabbing someone else's husband like that! They say she plays the role of Srikandhi, yet her actions...!

"Hey, but what about you?"

"Yeah, yeah, who can blame me if I follow their lead?"

Sembadra clung tightly to Mulyohandoyo, whose thoughts flew to the past. Before, yes, before, he was once a dancer, a wayang performer. Usually he played the robust roles, starting with Rahwana, Werkudara, Kumbakarna, right up to Batara Bayu. His intense power onstage radiated outward to the point that the gamelan ensemble's singer could fall for him. Wow, wow, it was fantastic in the old days, asked to perform abroad almost every year. Yes, that was all in the past. And now?

"Darling, don't think so much. If the Good Lord intends to offer you a course of action, that path will become clear to you."

Mulyohandoyo didn't respond. Inside the bamboo structure, Petruk, Buto Cakil, Gatutkaca, and Dursasana were still having fun playing gaple [a board game]. The others were who-knows-where, wasting what little money they'd earned.

"...lelewane gawe gandrung, kincanging alis weh brangti..." Sembadra gently sung these lyrics inside the embrace of the ex-Rahwana. Not even the gods could come between them.

The man, 50 years old, at this point had to account for several matters. The group indeed would soon disperse. Everyone carried his own fate. But it was his responsibility to ensure that each person could earn a living. The clowns could still re-form as a comedy group. The musicians could also be changed. Several people would be likely to find another group, maybe in the street theater ketoprak...or perhaps they could even start up a new wayang orang group. There were a few who were interested in opening up a roadside stand. But for most of them, their fate remained a question mark. They were hanging on every word of Mulyohandoyo, the boss of the wayang orang troupe "Considering the Kurawas."

Time drifted along as if in a dream, but Mulyohandoyo felt his daydreams drift more rapidly while he himself came to a halt. Time stopped, the world came to a standstill, just as it had been halted by Triwikrama Batara Kresna [wayang scene]. The night isn't going to pass before my nervousness comes to an end, he thought.

The town square was like the Kurusetra battlefield, but devoid of corpses. For his entire life Mulyohandoyo had been a child of wayang, a person of the stage, moreover his own birth had taken place in the performers' quarters while his father still danced onstage. The stage was no longer a make-believe world for Mulyohandoyo; it was difficult for him to draw the line separating the stage from his daily life. Except of course those who usually play the roles of kings or warriors, no matter how great they are, in their daily lives they are little more than "the folk," with minimal, uncertain wages. The difference between them was like the earth and the sky.

"Mul, if I get a divorce later, afterward you'll marry me, won't you?"

"Huh? What's your hurry? You don't need a divorce -- wouldn't you feel sorry for your child?"

"That jerk husband of mine does whatever he pleases, breaks my heart, hmpf! Could care less that I'm pursued right and left by other women's husbands, yet along comes a regular guest and he's half-dead with jealousy. The man doesn't know the point that he's all paired up with another woman!"

"Okay, okay, let it go, don't get all fired up. What a lot of fuss this's all water under the bridge, now you can just be with me, okay?"



"Are you going to marry me or not?"

"Oh, marrying is easy."

"Don't forget that Arimbi [a wayang character] was abandoned..."

"Forget about Arimbi, your name is Sembadra, the story is different altogether."

Mulyohandoyo steered Sembadra toward a different direction because emanating from the darkness in front of him was a special kind of woman's giggle. Sembadra could care less, just like she could care less that starting tomorrow she would no longer be Sembadra. Every person would sink into himself, one by one. The wind whispered quietly, bringing with it the potential of lung problems. At a coffee stand by the side of the road, Mulyohandoyo stopped. Sembadra quickly swallowed some cough medicine. They ran into Suyudana, alias Duryadana; his face was somber, like someone who had just narrowly escaped death.

"We're through, my friend," he said without being asked. "People don't need wayang anymore, people don't need a symbol anymore, don't need a philosophy, don't need anything..." He squatted morosely, drawing out a Siluman brand of cigarette. "People's needs come on their own now. There's TV, cassettes, watched alone in the room, listened to through headphones. Problems get dissolved with a single pill of Mogadon. Wayang isn't necessary anymore, and we aren't necessary anymore either. The Bharatayudha battle is over. Suyudana has been destroyed, the world is already safe..."

The sound of the transistor radio at the coffee stand seemed to become loud rather abruptly, blaring out a dangdut song..."I'm sick of listening to your chatter..." the sound of a guitar and flute tripped out gaily to the accompaniment of bongo drums. Sembadra sang along with the song, her head swaying and turning joyfully.

"Hey, why don't we just turn ourselves into a dangdut group?! I can sing, you know."

She didn't await his answer. Her head just kept on swaying right and left, accompanied by the shifting and swaying of her ripe body rubbing against Mulyohandoyo. The wayang orang boss remained silent. Dancers were sometimes pretty spoiled in their hearts, and sometimes they just didn't think too much. But who cares, he thought, interesting women can always be forgiven. Dancers, hmmm, behind that tight, closed cloth, well...

Along came two people, Batara Narada and Pregiwa. They sat down weakly.

"Wow, what are we going to do, Mul? What happens tomorrow?"

"Now now, don't ask for the moment, Mul is a little confused right now," said Sembadra while still swaying her head around. She smoked her kretek cigarette and her voice became rather hoarse. The smoke swirled around her mouth, appearing warm in the middle of the cold, dry night. Narada was surprised to be addressed that way. Man, she was really shameless, that Sembadra.

"Hey Mul," he said nonetheless. "What's going to happen to us?"

But it was Pregiwa who answered.

"I already told you earlier, you know, don't worry about it too much, because Mul is going to think up something to solve all of our problems for us. Our work can follow our roles... I'll be Pregiwa, you'll be Narada. True or not, Sister Sembadra?

"Ho Ho Ho!! True! True!" Mulyohandoyo stepped into the role of Rahwana who had awoken from a spell, "and my role is to be Mul who controls life and death for all of you! Ho Ho Ho!! Good! Good! Really clever! You're just in it for pleasure!! You just want to dance pop-style, making me the fool! Ho Ho Ho!!"

"Hey, wait, it's not like that, Mul. What I meant..."

"Aaaah! That's enough, no need to go on! The thing is, you don't need to bother yourselves thinking. I'm responsible for all of my wrongdoing!"

They all fell silent. Only the coffee stand's transistor radio was busy doing dangdut. Mulyohandoyo turned back to sipping his coffee calmly as if nothing untoward had happened at all. Night crept on. Voices didn't enter his ears. Everything froze. Who knows how long he was in that condition. And suddenly Petruk came running.

"Mul! Mul!"

"What's happened?" Sembadra was the one who responded.

"Our building!" said Petruk breathlessly. "Our building!"


"On fire!!"

Everyone took off running for the town square. Luckily the distance wasn't so great. From far off, Mulyohandoyo could see the signs of the conflagration. Smoke poured into the cold night, stunning tongues of flame licked the heavens. This really was like the Bale Sigala-gala, he thought.

"Gatutkaca!!" He heard someone screaming. "Gatutkaca was drunk, he lost at gambling, his wife was paired up with someone else. He threw a torch on the roof!"

"Gatutkaca is crazy!"

People were running all over the place, with nowhere to go and unable to do a thing. So, this is the end, Mulyohandoyo thought as he drew a deep sigh. This is the end of all my diligence and hard work and pressure which was so heavy a load to bear. This is it, this fire. As if Batara Agni himself was dancing between the tongues of fire, uttering the command for the Batara Guru.

He saw the intensely cooperative efforts of his underlings, spraying the embers one by one. The crackling sound of the bamboo and the broken-down walls one by one were like a song of pitiful lamentation. People ran everywhere in confusion, trying to save whatever they could. Screams and cries mixed with the roar of the fire. There were clashes and fights. Mulyohandoyo saw Gatutkaca fighting with Werkudara, each one carrying sticks. No one was brave enough to separate them. The loud sobbing of Gatutkaca's wife was heard by nearly everyone. Meanwhile there wasn't a single break in the efforts to put out the fire. The building was being completely destroyed. Sadly Mulyohandoyo observed the backdrops of court, volcano and forest blacken almost instantaneously.

"Mul! Mul! What's happening?!" shouted people in the midst of their tears and confusion.

"All my things are gone, all the costumes were inside."

"Mul! My little child Marning was still sleeping inside the quarters!"

Without speaking, Mulyohandoyo himself was drawn in. Like lightning he leaped lightly into the midst of the confusion and destruction.

"Mul! Wait, Mul! You'll be trapped by the fire in there!"

"Let me go!" screamed Mulyohandoyo, freeing himself.

"Use this, Mul!" someone threw him a wet towel.

Mulyohandoyo quickly entered the scene of destruction. If he was quick, he still might be able to save little Marning. Hey! How come it had to be Marning who was still asleep inside? In his heart of hearts he thought to himself, so it's in this way that I'm forced to play the hero. As he pressed forward, Mulyohandoyo felt himself to be like Anoman [the monkey king] in the play, "Anoman Obong," who reduced a portion of Alengka to rubble. He immediately headed in the direction of the room, his feet insensitive to the burning coals. It was as if he was entering the center of the world in the midst of that fire, a world glowing red, bearing with him a quiet clarity. He felt as if he was flying, walking above the earth.

Brak! He burst through the door of the child's room. Oh God, empty! Marning must be safe! Outside people were still sobbing and screaming.

"Mul! Mul! Get outside quickly! Marning is already here!"

"Sir! Sir!"

"Muuuuuul! Oh God, Muuuul!" screamed Sembadra. "Hurry, get out!"

"Oh no, he's trapped inside!"

"What are we going to do? Help!"

The fire engine arrived, but the giant shed of "Considering the Kurawas" was already almost entirely destroyed. Drupadi and Banowati had fainted. The burning building was sputtering small fireworks everywhere, and the sound of exploding bamboo rattled out. The wayang orang performers at that point could only show faces of surrender, it was as if they were watching the destruction of a legendary castle that had -- for them -- come to life. The brightness of the fire lit their faces, blackened as if for witchcraft, like robots who had stiffened up when their control centers had been destroyed.

"Muuuuul!" the voice of Sembadra could be heard, sobbing.

The night wind whistled intensely, enlarging the fire and at the same time bringing an end to the historic building. The fire engine was soon out of commission anyway, since the water was insufficient in the town square.

The next day a group of people were busy tearing down the remains of the building. Well, actually there weren't really any remains, the shed was at the same level as the ground; everything had already become ashes and cinders. Occasionally one came across a piece of stage jewelry, bits of costume, or the edge of a crown. There was also a kris [ceremonial dagger]. Metal from the gamelan. But the corpse of Mulyohandoyo was nowhere to be found. The search was carried out with the greatest care and detail, lasting from morning until the late afternoon. Not even a piece of bone could be found.

"You saw him enter, last night?"

"He's not there. If he'd come out, we certainly would have known. After all, we were encircling the entire fire!"

"So what happened then?"

"Yeah, I have no idea!"

"Who saw him?"

"Don't even think of saying that he didn't go in."

"Hey, I myself am the one who threw him the wet towel!"

"I also saw him go in."

"I saw him as well."

"Me too."

"Me too."

"But where is he now?"

"Yeah, where?"

"Yeah yeah! Where?"

"If it's true, then he must be safe!"

"Yeah, if he was killed, there would have to be a corpse."

"But it's not possible that he could just disappear like that. We would have to know if he'd come out!"

Yes, where did Mul go off to?

Could he be supernaturally powerful?

Meanwhile at another city there was a riot. A bomb went off near the city of Paris. An industrialist was kidnapped in West Germany. A Solidarity demonstrator was killed by a ricocheting bullet. A grandmother coughed. There was a demonstration in Tel Aviv. Lech Walesa wrote some poetry. The Monday market was pretty crowded. Streets were backed up. A newspaper was muzzled. Some pickpockets were hunted down. The spaceship Columbia was ready to be launched. Idi Amin got the flu. A religious person went on a pilgrimage. Wati nursed her baby. The Soviet Politburo had a meeting. Some white tourists sunbathed nude at Kuta Beach. Boomboom tarataratarataratumtumbuzz. Camelia Malik danced dangdut. Danarto hopped on board a bemo [local conveyance]. Robert Mugabe peed. Some spies listened in. A noodle factory got flooded. Milk was thrown in a river. Lius Pongoh took some Baygon [insecticide]. A clown at Ancol [amusement park] was shot. A traffic cop blew his whistle. The Senja train from Yogyakarta arrived at the Gambir station [Jakarta]. A plane to Bangkok took off. Lady Di dreamed of meeting Yuyu Kangkang. The soccer ball kicked by Joko Malis shot into the goal of Mercu Buana. There was a drunk person. A leaf fell. A speck of dust entered the drink of Miss Lingling. Blumblumzipozipoblumblumblumbuzzbuzzhyaaaaa. Three people greeted each other. Sliced onions fell into some frying oil. A cow's udder was milked. A stream flowed. The ocean yawned. Air was normal. New York night. Semarang morning. London rain. Surabaya rain. Call to prayer. Dalai Lama. Liza Minelli. Donna Summer. Disco. New Wave. Ajinomoto [a popular brand of MSG]. Honocoroko. Hello hello, this is Semprulwati, who am I speaking with? Hooray! Two ants died. A Mercedes tire exploded. A donut was eaten. A clock ticked. Goal! A rooster crowed. A bullet flew. A bomb was thrown. An aquarium broke. Hey hey! Who else? A floor was mopped by hand. Deng Xiaoping gave an order. The Jakarta Theater showed [Kurasawa's] "Ikiru." Someone took some Megadon. A motorcycle slipped. Someone fell in love over the phone. A city bus broke down. Langen Madra Wanara [wayang title]. Kirda Beksa Wirama [wayang title]. Mandiri Theater. Something was inhaled. Chairil Anwar. Howls mixed with dust. Germs. Unexpected events. Bajaj [3-wheel conveyance]. Um. Jerk. Singko. Nyate. Gedhiny. Ngowa. Ngowe. Waiyoyaesiyonaera-siwahadibukulubukbugbugbugbugbuggggggngngnggg!

But, where was Mul?

Could he be supernaturally powerful?

18 October 1982, Jakarta

Translated by Sean Williams

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