Sun, 21 May 2000

A Pistol

By Sori Siregar

I frequently asked him to give me money. Maybe he was upset because of that. His resentment reached its peak the last time I came to see him. He grabbed a pistol from his drawer and put it on the desk in front of me.

"Take this and make the best use of it. Use it as long as you need it. When you think you don't need it anymore give it back to me."

I was dumbfounded. I had often heard the advice "instead of giving a fish to someone, hand them a fishing rod". With a fishing rod, a person will try to catch their own fish. My friend seemed to be following this advice by giving me the gun. He gave me a pistol so I could make money.

I knew he was not a thug and had no intention of committing a crime. But why a pistol? Why not get a job or start a business? He seemed to read my mind.

"Don't think anything negative. I'm not asking you to kill or rob. Make use of the pistol for positive purposes. For instance, by working as a private bodyguard or security officer. The pistol is legal because I have a license for it. I am giving you the authority to use it, and if something bad happens I will be responsible."

"A private bodyguard or security officer?"

"Why not?"

"With my frail body?"

"That's why you need a pistol to take care of yourself and the person who hires you or the company which gives you a job."

I looked him right in the eye. I hoped he didn't mean it. To my surprise he did, as reflected in his face.

"Take this pistol with you. You obviously need it."

Having said that he told me he could no longer keep me company because he had to preside over a meeting in his office. I held the pistol in my hand, examining it carefully. Since it was small, just like pistols designed for women (I jumped to this conclusion because in the American movies I watched on TV, women often kept this type of pistol in their handbags), I quickly dropped the pistol into the pocket of my pants. Then I took my leave.

Mursid was a businessman. What kind of business he was in I didn't really know. Because his office was located in one of the high-rise buildings on Jl. Sudirman, I assumed he was an important businessman. At least a little conglomerate, if that term can be used. Every month I came to the building to see him, and when I left he put some money in my pocket. Actually, the first time I met him I didn't even think about asking him for money. We had been friends as kids and I only wanted to see him, reestablish a contact that had long been severed.

The first time we met we exchanged hugs, asking news about one another then talking for two hours. When I took my leave, realizing that he had spent much of his precious time on me, he slipped a bundle of rupiah into my shirt pocket, making it bulge. During our talk, he asked me to drop by as often as possible so we could maintain our friendship. I nodded and waved.

When I got home I counted the money, which I had moved from my shirt pocket to my pants pocket. I shook my head repeatedly because I didn't believe it. He gave me Rp 500,000, just like that. I had to give a month of math tutorials to 10 high school students to earn that much money. What a generous friend Mursid was.

A month later I went to see Mursid again, and my visits became a ritual in the ensuing months. And it was routine for Mursid to slip banknotes into my shirt pocket when I took my leave. But the amount was getting smaller and smaller, though it was never less that Rp 200,000.

In the sixth month, when he failed to give me anything, unthinkingly I asked him why he had not given me any money. He tapped his brow and laughed, apologizing for forgetting his habit. Worried that he would pretend to forget his generosity toward me, from the seventh to the 12th month I always reminded him of his "duty", so I never went home with empty pockets.

I couldn't help wondering how, with no shame, I dared to remind him to give me money. Although it was not my wish, I had obliged Mursid to support me every month. By chance, in the last six months only three high school students had come to me for math tutorials, so I wasn't making very much by giving lessons. After paying the landlord each month, I only had Rp 50,000 in my pocket. Mursid's support, therefore, had become very important to me. Without his monthly contribution, I can't imagine what would have happened to me. Perhaps this was how I dared, without shame, to remind him of his "duty". To me, his support was compulsory.

I kept the pistol Mursid had given me on the back of my bookshelf. I was so scared of it. Since I had never checked it, I had no idea what kind of pistol it was, if there were bullets in it or how to use it.

What Mursid did was a great surprise. Why did he give me the pistol. Why didn't he just tell me he wouldn't keep giving me money? If he had told me that, I could have controlled myself and stopped begging. There was no sign that his business was suffering or he was going bankrupt. So if he continued supporting me every month, the amount he gave me would mean nothing to his business, which pulled in billions of rupiah.

I knew about the billions of rupiah from a magazine which ran a profile of him, the successful businessman. I also learned about his business from the magazine. He was a shareholder in several banks, the owner of ten interisland freighters and a three-star-hotel. Was it too difficult for a well-to-do person like Mursid to donate Rp 200,000 monthly to support an economically unfortunate friend? I couldn't answer this question.

What was obvious was that I had received a valuable lesson. And Mursid must have had a good laugh after teaching me this lesson. A feeling of shame slowly flowed into my heart. All this time Mursid had looked upon me as a beggar. Although physically I was skinny, as a healthy, knowledgeable and able young man -- I had a degree in economics -- it was evident he thought I needed to learn that life was hard and it was necessary to struggle to sustain it. I came to this conclusion after I had had the pistol for six days, during which time I had gone nowhere, just stayed at home.

"Sid, I don't need this pistol," I said to Mursid when I met him yesterday. "I can't sleep with this killing weapon in my house."

To my surprise, Mursid burst into laughter. After shaking his head repeatedly, he leaned back in his chair.

"Nowadays people are racing to kill each other. Whatever the connotation of the word 'killing', that is the reality in which we live," he said lightly. "The methods and tools that are used have become increasingly sophisticated, so we don't even realize we have become the target of a killer. But when a killing tool is given to you, you are scared. It means you prefer to be killed."

I didn't understand what Mursid meant. Businessmen and those engaged in politics are very fond of using complicated words. Or he really meant I could use the pistol to kill someone. If that was what he was saying, Mursid had completely changed.

"The pistol you return is a real pistol, not a toy. But this real pistol has been played as a toy."

I was more confused now. What I wanted was for him to make himself clear, so I wouldn't have to stay there with him any longer than necessary.

"You'd probably never guess, but the pistol was a gift to my wife on her birthday from someone who kept his identity a secret. A pistol was given as a birthday present, isn't that crazy?"

Though I was startled by his explanation, I didn't comment. To the best of my knowledge generous people habitually give luxury cars or plush houses to their business connections as birthday presents.

"My wife wept buckets of tears after receiving this pistol because she looked upon it as a bad omen. I took the pistol to my office and kept it in a drawer. The pistol troubled me and I was at a loss as to what to do with it until you showed up."

He waited for a reaction from me. I remained calm since I was not interested in the story of the pistol. I preferred to hear an explanation of the lesson he gave me.

"I dared to give you the pistol because it doesn't have any bullets. The most important thing for me was to get rid of the pistol. That's why I told you I had a meeting, so you would leave and take the pistol with you. I told you I had a license for the pistol, but in truth I do not. I suggested you make use of it for good purposes, for instance by offering yourself as a security officer or private bodyguard, because I didn't know what to say to you.

"I was really bewildered then, though I didn't show it to you. My fear and confusion suddenly disappeared when three days ago, I decided to get the pistol back from you and hand it over to the police. Then I convinced my wife not to believe the pistol was a bad omen. It was only a joke, a high-class joke among friends to cause surprise, although its impact was dreadful. My wife and I tried hard to suppress our fright. In the end we did it. At least, for the time being".

His story gave me peace of mind. My suspicions about what Mursid had done to me were completely untrue. He was not teaching me a lesson, but was only afraid of the pistol. I saved him from a cruel situation which had trapped him. I was his savior.

All of a sudden I wanted to scream, because I felt I had recaptured my trampled self-respect. I smiled, then laughed because the situation that had trapped Mursid made me his savior, and at the same time it taught me a precious lesson.

For me it was not important why someone gave a pistol to Mursid's wife as a birthday present. It was his business and his problem. Racing to kill one another was a problem among people in Mursid's world.

Since there was no more I needed to know, I told Mursid it would be better if I left. Mursid stopped me and slipped some rupiah into my shirt pocket. I returned the money to him. After being supported by him for one year, it was the first time I had ever refused his money.

I left his office with easy steps. I felt my dignity as a human being had been returned, after hiding in my home for six days, feeling despised, trampled on, with no self-respect, a beggar.

When I visited Mursid the following month, just to say hello, I again felt we were equal in our relationship, although I was only a tutor, in addition to my job as a clerk in a political district administered by a village chief, and Mursid was an important figure in his world.