Monday, October 22, 2012

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Here's a story I heard from a friend recently.

In the process of selecting underprivileged children to provide scholarships to, she came across a family with two children. The mother is a busker, a street musician; the father does odd jobs here and there. They insist on putting their kids into private school, which costs Rp.350,000 per month per child.  They complain that they can hardly pay the fees.

"Why do you put them into private school?  You do know you can put them into public schools free of charge, right?", asked my friend.

"We don't believe in public schools. We want our children to receive very good religious education, so that their religious values are deeply embedded.  We hear the public schools are not very good about religious education," said the mother.

Over the course of the conversation, my friend explained to them the scholarship program and how they might become eligible for it.  After listening to her intently this is how the father responded:

"As a Muslim, we must accept the intentions of those who wish to do good in the path of Allah."

My friend was taken aback and exasperated that he had the air of someone who was doing her a favor, with the fanciful wisdom of a saint.  She saw him as an ordinary man with a lack of competence over his family's financial management. A family deluded into believing that religion can solve everything and magically guide them into making the proper decisions in life. A family who has squandered many opportunities on poor choices.

But there was more.  There was this sense of entitlement, bordering on arrogance. Not to be confused with a peaceful and serene acceptance of their fate. Not to be confused with a humble gratitude of whatever life gives, no matter how small.  Theirs was an attitude of being poor, therefore being entitled, to be on the receiving end of what God obliges the wealthy to give away.  

Admittedly many of the wealthy are also arrogant. They expect their hands to be kissed (literally) and the poor to pray for their continuous prosperity / happiness. Happens every year during Ramadhan month at orphanages, overflowing with food bestowed on them by people who wish to reap 70 times more blessings by doing something good in the holy month. The little children are taught to kiss our hands and pray for us and thank us for the rice-boxes. The remaining 11 months at orphanages are dry and without event.

There is something very banal and commercial about the whole thing. Like a supply and demand of religious brownie points.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


They say writing is like bleeding, or breathing.  They say a lot of crap that makes me feel bad about my writing because I don't feel like I write like I bleed or breathe.  I have a life and friends and I don't always feel like bleeding/ breathing my thoughts out to survive the day.

I went to the Ubud Writers Festival the other weekend and went to see some talks. Jeffrey Eugenides was talking about how he wrote the Virgin Suicides over a span of three years, writing two hours every workday and three hours every weekend with a 9 to 5 job. He says inevitably that you will withdraw during the writing of your novel and come out at the end of it to meet people whom you haven't met in a few years, but they usually understand.  I wouldn't mind disappearing from this circle for a few years but when I come back my career might possibly have bottomed-out.

I've read writers who encourage excessive sentences and writers who value brevity. I've tried both and don't see why they can't coexist on one page. I have trouble "bleeding/breathing" words and don't see why I can't just spurt out my words in painfully asthmatic spasms. I like a little bit of everything but not everything in its entirety. I would commit but only if I didn't have to sacrifice.

Also, artists and writers seem to have this obsession with extremity. Case in point: "I would commit but only if I didn't have to sacrifice".  Who does that, truly?  It is an over-dramatization of a tendency towards a certain character but is by no means the absolute reality of such character.  Of course I have sacrificed before, who hasn't? 

For the plane ride back from Bali I bought a book at the airport, the collection of surprising short stories edited by Neil Gaiman titled "Stories".  My colleagues were with me, the ones I had separated from for one day so that I could go to Ubud and they could go do water sports. They made fun of me in a good-humored way, which I get quite a lot around here.  It's very peculiar, although it shouldn't be peculiar to me because I am no different to them, supposedly. They see something they admire, something they think is beyond their capabilities or desires, and as a gesture of appreciation they make fun of it. They exchange furtive looks and declare that I am intimidating and point to the perhaps least attractive person in the group (according to social jest and her own admittance, not my judgment) and laughingly tell her to follow my lead. She laughs and says, "even if I read a book I wouldn't be as beautiful."

One can only smile a baffled smile as if not understanding.

Which is phenomenally better than not having friends because they are too intimidated. In fact it is great. I get to be myself, and yet still be accessible enough to be an object of affectionate ridicule. I almost love it.  But it is peculiar because on that airport row at the boarding gate with all my colleagues I was the only person with a book in my hand. Well of course they would think I'm different, which is ridiculous because having a book in hand is no different from having an iPad in hand whilst playing video games - in that it is simply something to chase away boredom and avoid meaningless conversation.

But of course it is different.  An English novel full of words - who am I kidding?  It also dawned on me that there were so so so few Indonesians at the Ubud Writers Festival. And a sea of caucasians in Eat Pray Love attire - linen shirts and exotic sarongs, all gobbling up the literary festivities with thirst and wonder. In the airport I almost felt guilty about holding a book, about choosing to ignore the world to be buried in my book. I almost felt anti-social, literally, the antithesis of my social surrounding.