Translated by Pamela Allen

Excavators at mining area in South Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Dominik Vanyi.

I felt as if my father had woken me that night and started talking to me. It was just a feeling, nothing more, that he was there in front of me again, peeling sunflower seeds with his teeth, with the occasional sharp intake of breath because of the saltiness that makes your lips and tongue swell up a bit.

We often used to sit together like that. On the table there’d always be a big pot of tea that would get topped up with hot water again and again. I ate my sunflower seeds the same way he did, with the same occasional intake of breath.

My father was a lovely man.

“How did you go in your test this afternoon, Alit?” he’d ask.


“Wow, you could be a doctor.”

“Should have been a hundred, dad, it’s a shame I didn’t do so well on question five.”

“Be more focused next time.”

“Yeah, next time I’ll pay more attention.”

“Ninety’s good though, Alit. With a score of ninety, the world’s your oyster.”

His ambition for me was that I be a successful person who earned plenty of money. He’d ask me the same question over and again: “What do you want to be, Alit?” And I’d answer, robotically, “A doctor, dad!”

I don’t know how long I kept up that automatic response. But when I was approaching my thirteenth birthday we got evicted from our house. I was in second year of junior high school. The eviction meant that my schooling was seriously disrupted. I rarely attended school and I had a hard time keeping up with the lessons. For a while we were living in a tent, which really did make me lose all interest in school. And of course, my grades were terrible.

Our neighbours suffered the same fate; they raged like wounded animals. The men clenched their jaws ‘til they resembled wooden statues, and their eyeballs were like balls of fire. The women took off their clothes and stood naked in front of the bulldozers that were going to destroy their homes. But the bulldozers weren’t about to desist just because the men had turned into wooden statues and the women had shed their clothes. We still had to leave our village.

My father seemed more sombre than usual but he never became angry. He didn’t fly into a rage like the others in the neighbourhood; he was like the calm surface of a lake, and I could never fathom what turmoil might be going on inside him. He warned my mum not to go taking her clothes off.

“So what’s better, dad, this land or the land we’ve been promised as compensation?”

“Do you know why those women were prepared to take their clothes off?” he asked me in return.

“Because they don’t want to move,” I replied. “None of us wants to move. Isn’t that right?”

“That’s right, because they don’t want to move.”

“Is it because the compensatory land is no good?”

He just grunted. I pretended to know what he meant.

“So why won’t you let mum get naked?” I pressed him.

“Because it’s too much for these poor eyes, Alit! It’s not right for a woman to take her clothes off in public.”

“But shouln’t we be resisting the eviction dad? They can’t just arbitrarily demolish our home.”

“You’re right that the eviction must be resisted. But do you really believe you can block the path of a bulldozer?”

It’s true, you can’t block the path of a bulldozer. My father said it’s because a bulldozer doesn’t have feelings. He was of the view that we all hold our own fate in our hands. That’s why he wasn’t too distressed. He never got caught up in the drawn-out rage and grief that accompanied whatever disaster had befallen us. What was there to complain about when everything is written on the lines of every individual’s hands? Prolonged grief, in his view, was tantamount to challenging God’s will.

“Does God not like being challenged?” I asked.

“Not even the village chief likes being challenged,” he replied.

Eventually our village disintegrated. People who’d previously been neighbours now occupied compensatory plots of land far removed from each other. Having at one point been a site of frenzy, tension and angry outbursts, our village now lay completely empty.

My father constantly reminded me never to curse or rue my fate, however bad it might be.

After we’d been living in a tent for several weeks, he moved us to my grandfather’s house. The day we began packing up our belongings did not go without incident. My youngest sister was sick, and the second youngest lost her favourite cat. She was refusing to go anywhere without that cat.

“We’ll get another cat when we get to your grandfather’s place,” my father cajoled her.

My sister was hard to convince. She sulked all night until she eventually succumbed to sleep, outside the tent. My father picked her up and took her into the tent, away from the steamy night air.

“You’ll really like it at your grandfather’s place, Alit,” he said to me.

“Maybe. As long as grandma doesn’t talk too much.”

“I’m going to build us a house on the adjacent vacant block. And then behind the house we’ll build a chicken coop. Just you wait, Alit! We’ll never be abandoned on God’s earth. So quit your grumbling. Just be grateful for both sadness and happiness. We call it grace.”

At that time I didn’t know whether or not he still harboured ambitions for me to be a doctor. He’d stopped asking me. Maybe it was a question he’d buried deep in his heart.

Grandpa’s house was a long way from my school, so I moved schools to a closer one. But the problem was that I thought my new school was far inferior to my previous one. I told my father that my old school was nicer, everyone was friendly and the teachers were all great. But despite my many complaints about my new school I still managed to pass.

After graduating from junior high school, I moved up to senior high and made every effort to get good grades again. I studied really hard. But the bulldozers were like devils that had been released from hell. They pursued us constantly and once again evicted us when I was preparing for my final exams. The yard of grandpa’s house, where we’d been living, was acquired for road-widening. So we all crowded into the one house with grandpa and grandma.

I really hated living with grandma. During the day she just talked non-stop and at night her constant hacking cough pierced my eardrums. It was like sleeping in the jungle and hearing the howling of a wolf which, if I let my guard down, I was afraid would claw at my throat.

And my father remained placid, like the tranquil surface of a lake.

“God is prosperous, Alit,” he would say. He spoke very slowly but I could hear a whirlpool-like roar below the surface. It was as if he was talking to himself. As if he was trying to convince himself.

After that I’d occasionally catch him looking despondent. He’d still remind us not to blame God for the fate we had to endure, but I really think he was reminding himself not to curse the bad luck that was pursuing him. Contrary to everything he was always saying, he transformed into a very dejected man. And his sadness was like a swamp that slowly sucked the life force out of him. I could see his body getting swallowed up, his hands waving as if he was hoping to be rescued. He died before I was strong to pull him out of that pool of sadness.

I really didn’t want to recall all that dreadful sorrow. But there it was, my father had suddenly appeared. My bedside clock told me it was 2 am. I really did feel that he had woken me up, wanting to talk. I told myself that maybe it was actually my wife, accidentally nudging me. I tried to close my eyes again, only to realise that she wasn’t there beside me.

She appeared a few moments later carrying a big glass of water. It was stiflingly hot that night; rain was surely on its way.

“I felt as if your father woke me up just now,” she blurted out before I’d had a chance to open my mouth. “He wanted to talk. And it was weird, Alit, it was as if we were old friends. Even though, as you know, I never met him. He died long before we were married.”

“What did he say?”

“Let me see …” She thought for a moment but gave up. “I can’t remember exactly but his voice was so clear. What was that all about do you think?”

“You can’t remember anything at all?”

“This often happens to me. Alit. I have trouble remembering what I’ve just been dreaming about.”

I wanted to tell her that I too felt as if I’d just been woken up by my father, but I changed my mind. If I told her, we wouldn’t get back to sleep till dawn, because she’d want to keep chatting. She’d like nothing better than turning our coincidental experiences that night into a mystical conversation. Why had we both felt we’d been woken up by him at the same time? I knew that the answer to that question would involve hours of discussion.

“You can’t remember a thing?” I asked again, trying to sound casual.

“Hmm … only a bit and it’s very hazy. If I’m not mistaken he asked us to go to Bagas and Yuni’s place. We haven’t been there for ages.”

How could it be? He had asked me the same thing. But I restrained myself; I didn’t say anything to my wife.

The next day I called in to see Bagas and Yuni on my way home from work. I thought it was important to see them as soon as I could, given our father’s request to both me and my wife. Both my younger siblings were still living in my grandfather’s house. He’d died a year after our father. So now, with grandma, there were just the three of them there. Grandma was still coughing all night long. Hers was an incurable illness it seemed.

“They’re going to demolish dad’s grave because of the arterial road project,” said Bagas when I got there. “I got the notification letter yesterday. He’ll have to be moved somewhere else. And if we don’t move him ourselves, well, the grave will just be gone.”

It was as if a low-flying vulture had begun tearing at my heart and my liver. I could almost hear the grousers of the bulldozer as it thumped out from its hellhole in pursuit of my father. As he used to say, we all hold our own fate in our hands. And my father? He was still being pursued by bulldozers. Even when the time came for him to rest, those creatures were still chasing him.

I reached for the notification letter that Bagas was holding out to me. I screwed it up and threw it into the gutter. The gutter is the only place for bad news.

AS Laksana was born in 1968 in Semarang, Indonesia. He is a graduate of the Department of Communication, Gadjah Mada University. He was founder and editor of DeTIK until the tabloid was banned in 1994. His first book, Podium DeTIK, is a collection of weekly columns he wrote for DeTIK. His fiction works include the short story anthologies Bidadari yang Mengembara (2004), Murjangkung, Cinta yang Dungu dan Hantu-Hantu (2013), and Si Janggut Mengencingi Herucakra (2015). The first two books were selected by Tempo magazine as the best literary books in their respective years of publication. The last book earned him a literary award from Badan Bahasa. He has also written two novels, Medan Perang and Ular di Tapak Tangan, each serialized in Koran Tempo (Jakarta) and Suara Merdeka. From 2009 to 2018, he wrote a weekly column titled “Ruang Putih” for the daily newspaper Jawa Pos.

Pamela Allen is Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Tasmania, Australia. She publishes in Indonesian and English and is a widely published literary translator. She began her work as a literary translator when she was an undergraduate student, first tackling a novel by the respected author Achdiat K. Mihardja. She has been translating for Lontar since 1992. In 1995, she was awarded her first translation grant, from the Australia Indonesia Institute, for the translating of an anthology of short stories by Indonesian women, published by Longman as Women’s Voices. She is the translator of the highly acclaimed novel Saman by Ayu Utami. Since 2008 she has been a translator for the annual Ubud Writers Festival anthology, celebrating the work of emerging Indonesian writers. She has been a mentor for emerging Indonesian translators. In 2019, she was the winner of the AALITRA (Australian Association for Literary Translation) Translation Award. In 2023 she won third prize in the AAPW (Australasian Association of Writing Programs) translation competition.


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