Writing from 1993: The Storyteller

Going through my computer, I found an incomplete scrap of writing that I wrote in 1993, when I was just on the verge of moving from a village near Solo, Central Java, to Jakarta. I’ve forgotten almost everything about that time of my life. It was amazing to read through what I’d written. I drew on some experiences with a few different dhalang in the district.

The Storyteller

The most important member of the audience at the performance was a man who had been dead for more than a hundred years. For some long forgotten reason, a distant relative, perhaps a grandson, perhaps a cousin, of a nineteenth century king had been buried in the ricefields not far from the village. No-one remembered why he had been buried there. In fact, hardly anyone could recount more than the sketchiest details of his life. It was not really clear whether he had been marked by any particular distinction while alive. It was fairly certain that he had fathered a ridiculously large number of children, if that can be considered a distinction. But of course, that would have been standard for a member of the Javanese royalty, even one distantly removed from the king. Still, the peasants were fairly certain that he had, in some fashion or other, been an exceptional person. Perhaps he had been a great scholar. It was easy enough for the villagers, most of whom were illiterate, to convince themselves that this was so. Perhaps he had written poetry. It was the kind of thing an aristocrat was likely to do.

Even if no-one could say whether he had been fat or thin, bald or bearded, mean-hearted or generous, there was rarely a day when he did not draw attention to himself.  When the reckless and arrogant son of the headman had driven his bike at high speed into a brick wall not far from the grave, breaking his neck in three separate places, the villagers had nodded their heads in a knowing fashion and cast glances in the direction of the tomb in the rice field. When the sun rose in the morning and the rains fell on the ricefields, they did likewise. When the price of insecticide rose to usurious levels, they sighed and again cast their eyes in the direction of the tomb.

While the ways of God are unfathomable and unknowable, spirits are slightly easier to deal with. This one, to the great relief of everyone, had a vast range of weaknesses. At times, he seemed downright easy to manipulate. Through flattery and gifts, he could be wheedled into granting any number of favors. He liked gifts of cigarettes, and was partial to sweet rice left on pieces of banana leaf. He adored attention, and was known to grant boons to those who sat through the long nights at the side of his grave. In this he was capricious, however, and by no means bound by conventional moral values. He might ignore the earnest pleadings of a barren woman begging for a child, only to receive more favorably a sly request from an ambitious official pleading for the fortuitous death of an inconvenient rival. Then, a few weeks later, he might display a more beneficient aspect, relent and allow the rains to fall, ensuing a bountiful crop for all.

While the spirit had many little needs and desires, there was one thing that he positively insisted upon. There was to be no bargaining on this point. Once every thirty five days, on the day of the Javanese cycle that represented his birth, he insisted that the villages hold a puppet performance within earshot of his grave.


The headman sat cross-legged on a plastic mat spread out on the concrete floor of a disused rice barn next to the stage, a couple of hundred meters from the site of the grave, playing a lively game of cards for loose change with a small handful of cronies. They were lean and wiry men, all except one old grandfather in their late forties, but a lifetime of hard work in the ricefields in the heat of the cruel tropical sun had etched deep lines into their leathery faces.

When the old farmer sitting opposite him giggled slyly, turned over his cards, and raked in the handful of coins with his skeletal claw, the headman made an exagerated moue that dissembled the real pain he felt at the loss of the money on the table, then threw his own hand down with some disgust.  He laughed just a little too raucously, then shook his head. He made a little show of pulling a Djie Sam Soe from its packet and lighting it, blowing a thick plume of luxuriant smoke into the air. He knew he wasn’t on form this evening, but he dealt for the next round, blowing on the pack for good luck, and slapping the cards down with unnecessary force. “Okay, Gramps, you old codger, don’t go out and spend your winnings yet,” he said, glaring at his opponent with what was intended to be mock ferocity. ‘Gramps’ smirked toothlessly, but out of deference to his opponent’s position in the village hierarchy, refrained from replying and kept his eyes cast down on his cards.

In truth, the headman was feeling rather unwell, and he scowled as he thought of his impending meeting with the Storyteller. The headman had never quite been able to reconcile his feelings regarding the performance at the graveyard, and his relationship with the Storyteller was equally troubled. The headman had been born in the village, as had his father and grandfather before. Their bodies lay in the same graveyard as that of the man in whose honor the monthly performance was held. As a grandson and a villager, his acceptance of the necessity of the performance was complete, unquestioning and absolute.

As a government official, however, even a lowly one without the salary or lands that went with higher office, his attitude was more equivocal. Government policy towards

He seemed to remember that as children, they had even been friends. As a villager, he would be the last to mock

On the one hand,  and his feelings regarding the Storyteller were As a lifelong inhabitant of the village and a member of one of its old est families, he knew in his bones that the performance must be held. But his position as a government official, albeit a minor one of no consequence, wealth or power, created a deep conflict within him. As a villager, he knew that the Storyteller’s credentials were impeccable. The Storyteller had performed the required ritual at the graveyard nearly every month for more than twenty years, ever since the death of his father, who had performed the ritual before him. The headman sighed and shook his head to himself as he remembered the father, a thin austere man who performed as a puppeteer only occasionally, and only in the immediate neighborhood of the village. While he had lacked his son’s flashy brilliance, his beautiful voice, and his dramatic style, he had made up for this lack in other ways. The headman cast his eyes in the direction of the grave. Pak Gondho had admittedly been rather eccentric. Granted, a puppeteer was expected to perform all manner of austerities and practices to gain the powers he needed to manipulate the puppets all night long. Even so, Pak Gondho’s interest in these practices was almost excessive, even for a puppeteer. He had rarely eaten, rarely slept. On most nights, he had sat up, alone, in the graveyard, doing no-one knew quite what.  Despite his solitary, anti-social demeanor, he had received a steady stream of visitors at his house. While Pak Gondho treated his visitors in an abrupt, almost rude fashion, they told him of their erring husbands, of stolen goods, of sick children. While they poured out their most shameful secrets, he had stared into the distance, as though he was barely listening. At the conclusion of the séance, he would instruct the visitor to, perhaps, bathe in a pool in the nearby river on three consecutive midnights. Or, to cut their hair and burn it. On one occasion, the headman had accompanied his parents when they took his sick brother to visit Pak Gondho. Pak Gondho had listened abstractedly, and had got up as though to look at the child more closely. Without any warning, he had spat in the baby’s face, then turned to the parents, smiling slightly. The parents had started, but they held Pak Gondho in such awe that they



imperative. He agreed, too, that no-one was more qualified than the Storyteller to conduct the performance.

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