Sun, 28 May 2000

The fall of a Deity

By Putu Arya Tirtawirya

In his living room, in the last of the evening's fading light, High Priest Ida Pedanda Madi Sugriwa paced back and forth as he ground his false teeth on the stem of his cold pipe that jutted outward from his face beneath a white mustache streaked with gray from the near-constant billows of tobacco smoke pouring from the tunnels of his prominent nose. His nostrils and the pipe's bowl were strikingly similar in appearance.

"Discrimination," his visitor had said. The man's effrontery, his bold words earlier that evening rang like a harsh knell in his ears. He stood erect for a moment to relight his pipe. "I'm sure that your opinion is not that of a priest but of a personal nature. Seems like discrimination to me." He exhaled the smoke from his pipe so forcefully it seemed to whistle through the air before being deflected and dispersed by the green-colored wall opposite him. He nodded his head while stroking the smooth skin of his chin.

His visitor, who had left no more than a half hour ago, was a young man of around thirty. He had no mustache but did sport a wispy beard. His waist sash, used as a cinch for his batik sarong, matched the color of his shirt. He sat, cross-legged on the floor, several meters distant.

When the young man began to explain the purpose of his visit Ida Pedanda cocked his ears while keeping a bright look on his face.

"I've come to see you, Pelungguh Pedanda, to ask you to determine an auspicious day for as well as your willingness to formalize the marriage of my younger brother."

"When did your brother get married?" asked the aging high priest in a fatherly tone.

"He eloped with her yesterday."

Ida Pedanda Madi Sugriwa nodded his head, then turned towards the doorway behind him and called to his son: "Please bring me that book with the brown cover. It's on my table."

While adding fresh tobacco to his black pipe, he inquired, "Who did your brother marry?"

The young man replied without hesitation: "Ida Ayu Sukerti."

The old priest, whose topknot resembled a woman's bun positioned squarely atop the crown of his head, stopped lighting his pipe and gazed steadily at the carpet before him. He ignored his son, who had come into the room carrying the book that he had requested. The book was a manual for determining auspicious days for the holding of religious and life-cycle ceremonies. He suddenly found himself feeling insulted. He was a man of Brahman descent, and here, before him, was a supplicant asking him to formalize the marriage of a man and woman of different castes.

The man, with the title "Gusti" before his name was obviously of the ksatria caste, while the woman, who bore the title "Ida Ayu," was definitely from the Brahman caste. Under centuries-old customary law, such a couple, were they to marry, would be exiled from their community, cast out to live in some isolated place. The old man realized of course that world had changed a good deal and conditions today were no longer what they were when he was in his childhood, when children, both boys and girls, were not in the least embarrassed to be seen running around naked in the pouring rain. With some trends, he found himself able to keep apace. Thing were going to change whether he wanted them to or not! But the problem that he faced this evening was special. There was no way that he could accept it.

In his circle, adherence to the principle of self-respect, as opposed to bowing to peer pressure, was a matter of course. To not to do so would be like daubing ink on a light-colored cloth; no matter how many times afterwards the cloth was washed, the stain would remain. Rarely before had a situation caused him to think so deeply. He pondered the problem for several minutes before the young man, who was seated half-bowed before him, raised his head.

"I won't do it," he said to himself. "Let him find another priest." Decision made, he struck a safety match to light his pipe. He picked up the thick book with its brown cover, looked through it momentarily, then gave the young man what seemed to be a look of surprise when his eyes fell on a certain page. "The auspicious days for formalizing the wedding would be...."

The young man leaned forward, his body twisted like a snake ready to pounce on a field mouse. Ida Pedanda Madi Sugriwa sat erect one more, groped inside a pocket of his coat, and took out his glasses. Still holding his pipe in his left hand, he put the glasses on his broad face, then searched through his book of dates. He found himself telling the young man the details of the auspicious days for the event, including the proper names of the days, weeks and months of the Hindu calendar.

The young man nodded his head as if trying to comprehend the calendrical calculations, but as he was likely to have spent far more time mastering English than Sanskrit, the terms went completely over his head. Though aware that his question would reveal his own ignorance, he finally asked the priest, "Could you tell me what the date would be on the ordinary Indonesian calendar?"

The priest looked at him closely, craning his neck in order to better see through his glasses. "Fifteen days from now. You tell me when that would be." He paused before adding, "Unfortunately, I myself won't be able to preside over the confirmation ceremony. I'm sorry about that. I hope that you'll be able to find another priest."

"What? Do you have something else to do? Is that why you can't do it?"

Now the priest really felt offended. First this young man's brother had dared to take a girl from the Brahman caste in marriage, and now here he was asking him to consecrate his brother's wedding! "Dammit," he swore beneath his breath. "This really is too much."

He drew a deep breath. Since a high priest must not lie, he had no choice but to be frank: "Something else to do? No, I don't have anything planned for that date, but I just think it would be better if you found another priest."

"I'm sorry, I don't understand." Amazement seemed to issue from the young man's lips. "But here in this town, in this district, the only high priest is you yourself. So, I really don't understand."

Ida Pedanda Madi Sugriwa found it hard to break free from his upbringing, to discard that set of beliefs he had held firmly to through his youth, his adulthood, and even now as an old man with false teeth. Call his attitude feudal but the simple fact was the young man's questions made him nervous. All he wished was that his guest would leave, without making any more fuss. Yet here he was, face to face with modern times and a talkative representative of the modern human species whose questions, whose desire to analyze problems, and whose pounding on the doors to the secrets of life left him completely baffled.

He knew that he should try to explain things to his guest so that he wouldn't misunderstand. He also knew that today's youth, with their own strong and independent attitudes, were sensitive and easily took offense.

He lowered his arm, resting the fist that held his pipe on his knee. "The problem is your brother eloped with a woman of the Brahman caste. That will lower her caste level. Speaking as a Brahman, I'm sure you understand why I must refuse what you've asked of me."

"I'm sorry, sir, but love has united them, and I don't think anything more can be done. It's a fait accompli, a reality that we can't turn away from."

"I know that, but as a Brahman I can't agree to it."

"Forgive me for asking, but if all high priests share your opinion, what is to become of the future generations? Will they share the same fate as my brother?"

The old man's nose twitched repeatedly. His mouth was clamped shut, but he could not stop his lips from trembling. The way he sucked on the stem of his pipe he might have been a child suckling its mother's breast.

His words seemed to travel the length of the pipe stem: "I don't want to argue. Please, just find another priest!"

"I don't want to argue either," the young man replied. "Please forgive me. I came here to find a high priest, not to talk to a Brahman in his private capacity, especially one who's not in the mood to argue. With your leave, I will go."

The young man uncrossed his legs, stood up, and bowed respectfully. He then stepped back, turned around, and went outside to his bike, muttering a complaint as he left. Not much of what the young man said was clear, but one particular word, an English word, caught the priest's ear: "Discrimination."

The priest called his son again and asked him to tell him what the word meant. His son's answer made him understand what kind of conclusion his guest had reached about him. Now, as he paced back and forth in his living room, that word rang in his ears.

When a servant lit the lamps in the house, their light fell outside to the front yard and its garden full of blossoming flowers. Ida Pedanda Madi Sugriwa stepped through the doorway of the living room and called to the servant: "Go to the house of that young man who came here with the wispy beard," he ordered, "and tell him tonight that I'll be ready to consecrate the wedding when the time comes."

Translated by I Ketut Dharmita and Thomas M. Hunter.

The story is taken from Menagerie 4, printed here on the courtesy of The Lontar Foundation.