Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Three Tales From the Batak

Three Tales From the Batak of Indonesia.(Short Story)
Source: World and I
Publication Date: 10/01/2001
Author: Knappert, Jan
COPYRIGHT 2001 News World Communications, Inc.

Why There Is Only One Sun

When the earth had only just been molded from the heavenly clay by his daughter Si Borudea, the great God Mulojadi created nine suns. They would provide light for his grandchildren and dry the soaked earth. After a few years the earth was no longer wet. It became parched, and the air was very hot. Every day the earthlings longed for nothing so much as sunset. Even today, the people still celebrate the beginning of the night with songs and the music of zithers and guitars.

One night, when the day had been hotter than ever, the people flocked to an open plain to await the full moon. Majestically, it rose, and the people prayed: "Oh, Moon, mother of ten thousand stars, please help us! Liberate us from the power of the nine scorching suns."

To their great joy, the Moon answered them in their own language: "Dear people, I have no power to meet the suns in battle. But I will think of a stratagem to overcome them by cunning. Four weeks from now I will come back in my full form, and with me I will bring the answer. Meet me here again in four weeks' time."

Twenty-seven nights later, the people assembled on the same plain. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, had come to hear the Moon speak. Patiently they squatted there. The Moon rose in her full beauty, and the people worshiped her. Then she spoke: "People of the earth, I have found the answer to your problem, but I cannot tell you yet. Now go and collect betel leaves for me, as many as you have."

During the long, dry days the people had acquired the habit of chewing betel, to reduce the thirst in their parched mouths. Now they went home and quickly returned with all the betel they possessed, though knowing they would have to go without it for many days. Having taken the offerings of the people, the Moon collected all the mist banks in the night sky and built a huge wall, so high that all the cheerful stars could hide behind it. Then, the Moon put the betel in her mouth and began chewing it, spitting frequently and scattering the blood-red juice all over the sky, while her mouth and chin became red. When she was ready to disappear, the whole horizon looked as red as if an ocean of blood had flowed past. Just then the suns rose, first the father and after him his eight sons. Surprised to see the redness of the sky, Father Sun addressed the Moon.

"It seems that a massacre has taken place here. How many were killed?"

"A massacre indeed," grinned the Moon, letting the red juice run freely from her mouth as if remembering an exceptional enjoyment. "I ate all my children, the stars."

"You ate your children? I noticed there were no stars. How did they taste?"

"Wonderful, delicious," grinned the Moon, leaking more juice. "Why don't you follow my example? Yours are much bigger."

Murderous hunger raged in the old Sun's mind. He opened his fiery mouth and devoured his sons, one after the other.

Since that day there has been only one Sun, enlarged and intensified by the strength of his sons. Burning with rage, regret, and greed, he still scorches the earth but alone. The next night the stars came out again, and soon the Sun discovered that the Moon had lied and tempted him to eat his children.

So it is, the Batak people say, that the sun chases the moon and the moon travels away from the sun, appearing a little more distant from the sun every evening. But in the end the sun overtakes it and reduces it. Then the moon hides for a few nights, during which the people pray to the gods: "Please do not let the sun win. We cannot live without the moon. Do not permit the sun to devour the moon as well!"

Fortunately the moon always reappears, thin but growing.

The Lake of the Gods

In the Batak lands there is a great lake. Grayness spreads with the quickly multiplying clouds, and the foamy rush of the waterfalls is joined by the ugly spatter of the froth-topped waves, which are whipped by the wind. On such days the Lake of the Gods demands sacrifices.

Many centuries ago there was no lake there, just a broad, fertile plain, neatly divided into well-kept rice fields. Through this lovely scenery there flowed a great river. One day, in that remote century, a young man was fishing in the river. As the hours went by without even one bite, he was beginning to wonder if the fish had been bewitched.

Suddenly, as he was becoming sleepy, the line almost jerked him out of his boat. At once he awoke and began hauling in his catch. The boat swayed as he pulled the fish on board. It was almost as heavy as he was. Triumphant, he rowed home, lifted the fish out of the boat, and put it on the floor of his shed. Then he went to his kitchen for a little rice, as he had taken no food that day.

As soon as he had finished he went back to admire his catch. The fish was gone. Dazed in the darkness, the young man slowly realized that someone was in the corner. He went closer, and to his surprise, he saw a woman, trying to cover her shapely body with her long, flowing hair.

Terrified, the young man made for the door, but before he reached it, the young woman began to speak. "Help me! Bring me a sarong and a kain (bodice) so that I can dress myself properly and go out. Have you no pity?"

The man ran from his hut. His mother had died recently, and in her chest he found the clothes she had once worn. He took out the best sarong he could find and a bodice. Then he went back to his shed. The young woman was still there. She took the clothes from him, dressed quickly, and tied her hair up in a knot. The man watched in silence. When she was ready he led her to his hut. There they sat down and, without being asked, the woman began telling him her strange story.

"I was that fish you caught. A long time ago I met a datu (magician) who gave me a formula that would turn me, a fish, into a woman. There was one condition: I would be allowed to pronounce the magic words only when a fisherman had the patience, perseverance, and strength needed to pull me up from the water and carry me to his house. You have shown dedication, and I am now yours. I will stay here and live with you if you love me. But tell nobody any of this."

"I promise," said the man solemnly.

"Never tell anyone where you met me and how I became what I am," she continued.

"I promise."

"And one more thing. Never mention death or the end of anything," she shuddered, pronouncing the word death as if she felt the cold shadows of clouds foreboding disaster.

"I promise," the young man said once more.

The days that followed were very happy. The man went out hunting, and whenever thorns or sharp reed blades cut him, his new wife cared for his wounds so they healed more quickly than before. He went out fishing, and every day he caught more fish than they needed. When the dry season came, he dried some of his catch in the sun and made supplies for the winter months. One day the woman said to him: "Go today to the market with your fish and with the money you sell it for, buy a selendang, a cloth to carry our child that is coming soon."

Overjoyed, the man did as his wife requested. In the days that followed, he often found his wife near the riverbank, staring into the water. He forbade her to go there, saying: "The child might ..."

But she stopped him: "You promised not to mention such things. And I have no friends to talk to."

In due course their baby was born. A strong and healthy boy, he did not need to lie in the selendang for long. Soon he could walk, and in no time at all he became lithe and skillful as he ran about. His body was a smooth and shining light brown.

One day his father came home tired after hunting birds. The boy was sitting in the kitchen, eating the meal the woman had prepared for her husband. That was sacrilege! No child is permitted to touch his father's food. The father raised his hand but the boy ran away, taking the rice bowl with him.

The hungry father was furious. His anger opened his heart, in which all his secrets were kept. At that moment a begu, an evil spirit, flew near and slid into his heart. The begu whispered: "Say it, go on, say it!"

"Anak ni dengke!" the man shouted. "Child of a fish!"

The next moment he knew he had sinned. But he could not pull the words back into his mouth. His wife looked at him. She knew a begu had caught him unawares. Without a word, she went inside their hut and collected all the boy's clothes and other belongings. She put them in a basket. She ordered the boy to find a bamboo pole and follow her. He obeyed her in silence, sensing that a terrible thing had happened. She led him along the path in the direction of the mountains.

At the foot of the steps, where the path led up along the rock wall, she told the boy to start climbing. "Go over the top and find yourself a green place in the valley beyond. Build your own hut and plant your own rice. Good-bye."

She watched the boy as he silently mounted the stairs and climbed along the path as it clung to the rock wall. When he was at the edge of the escarpment, he looked back one last time, still stunned and wondering why it had all happened. He waved, but his mother signaled that he must continue on his way. It was the last he ever saw of her. He turned away and entered the valley, out of sight of his homeland.

The woman went back to her house on the riverside. Her husband was still sitting there, given over to total despair. She stood on the bank and called the waters. The river became agitated. The water swelled and rose up like an angry monster. The flood rose up above the fields, above the bamboo, even above the tallest palms. But her husband was not drowned. Instead he became a fish. She too went back to her life in the water, putting on her garment of scales once more. She remained faithful to her husband--as she felt she ought to--but as his punishment for breaking his promise she forced him to share her underwater existence.

The valley became a lake, which even today is often menacing in appearance. That is when it demands offerings from the people, to remind them that the worst evil a man can do is to speak words he does not want to say.

Fate and the phantom

Raja Doli Martua was a wise king in the ancient days of the Batak lands. Every time he spoke to the assembly, the elders were full of admiration for his fair words and knowledge. He was also a very rich man, but he had no children. In this, he knew, he was poorer than the poorest father in his kingdom. He married a second wife, then a third-- one from a very prolific family--but his dearest wish was not fulfilled. Finally he prayed to the great God Mulojadi: "Oh, Grandfather, please hear me. You have given seven sons to my brother. If you will not give me seven sons, give me six, if not six, give me five, if not five, then four, or three or two or even only one, but let me not die childless."

Some months after his fervent prayer, the king's third wife told him she was pregnant. In due course she gave birth. But the child was malformed, worse than any child ever born. It was only half a boy: half a head, one leg, one arm, half a back, one eye, one ear, half a nose, half a chest, one buttock. So they called him Siaji Sambola, "the one who has only one side."

The boy did not die, as everyone expected, but grew up as normally as was possible considering his condition. He learned to talk with his half mouth and got about by hopping on his one leg. Naturally he was an unhappy child, subject to melancholy. Most evenings he could be seen sitting in front of his father's palace, staring toward the western sky. One day, however, when he was fully grown, he decided that he had had enough of dreaming. He would go out in search of Mulojadi, the Creator and forefather of all Bataks. So he limped away with his stick in his one hand, in the direction of the sunset.

He had been told by the elders that the gateway to heaven was in the far west. Would he get the other half of his body there? When he eventually reached the horizon, Mulojadi sent down Mandi, his messenger swallow, to pick up the boy. The giant swallow said to Siaji Sambola: "Come and sit between my wings and I will take you up to Heaven."

Before the throne of the Almighty, the half-boy squatted down reverently and said: "Grandfather, why did you make me different from other boys? People mock me, making me more unhappy than I already am. No girl looks at me except in disgust. None will marry me, although my father can pay a larger bride-price than any other. Great God, I am in search of completeness. Give me a whole body!"

"Your halfness is the result of the disobedience of your tondi (double- soul)," answered God. "It did not enter a good body, as I had told it to do. Tondis are impatient to live. In their haste, some pick a leaf from the tree of life without looking at the inscription. It may contain an evil destiny. Such people may become thieves and murderers. Come with me to the Sixth Heaven, and I will show you what happened in your case."

In a moment God and the half-boy descended from the Seventh to the Sixth Heaven. There, Mulojadi spoke: "See, my little son, your tondi was given a complete body. We had assigned to it a beautiful future, a great destiny. But your tondi said: 'This fate is too heavy, it will take me too long to carry it to earth. Can you cut it in half, please?' So, I cut your destiny in half and your body with it, for only that which the soul has chosen itself will develop. But for once--as I feel pity for you--I will grant you what is not usually given to men: to choose again. Here, I spread out for you your destinies. Now, select with care. You will have no third choice."

There, before Siaji Sambola's one eye, several lives unfolded: a life full of travel, another loaded with love and hate, another full of toil, and a life like his father's, filled with royal responsibility. But the half-boy wearied of his task. "Please, Grandfather," he complained. "All these lives are much too heavy for me, I cannot carry them. Look at all these emotions, labors and responsibilities! They would crush me or wear me down. I understand now. Can I please have my original, light destiny back?"

"Yes, you can," answered God. "But remember, after that, you can never complain again. You will live in half a body. There is only one other solution, one that I have never offered to anyone. I could melt you down again and mold you anew."

"Yes, please, Grandfather!" pleaded the half-boy. "Melt me, make this ugly body disappear. Let me have a normal human shape, without the terrifying condition of a heavy life before me!"

Mulojadi put the half-boy into the iron melting pot that he keeps ready for the purpose. Six times the half-boy failed to get a new, whole body. Only the seventh time did a complete body emerge, light and airy, fragile and unstable, but outwardly complete. So at last Siaji Sambola could go home, a whole man.n

Jan Knappert is professor of Asian and African languages at Leuven University in Belgium.

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