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from the March 2019 issue

The Biography of a Newborn Baby

In this Indonesian short story, one baby’s fate is entwined with that of the nation.
 

For the first time in his long career as a biographer, Abraham Yusra felt that he was being put to the test. Someone special had asked him to write the biography of a baby and he felt that he couldn’t refuse. But what could he say about a baby that had just come into this turning world? What would the child know of life? How would one begin the narrative?

Abraham Yusra looked out the window. The hot sun shone brightly. He swallowed. There was a bitter taste in his mouth. He had not yet said that he was willing or able to accept the task; there was no deal so far; he had asked for time to consider it. But there wasn’t too much time left because the book had to be launched soon. Time was limited. Especially in comparison with the other books he had written. He had always needed a long time. For research and finding accurate information. Positive words and respectful language. In the current terminology: “an inspiring narrative.” He had a reputation to uphold. Having once made his name as a journalist, he had then walked away and decided to focus on writing biographies.

He had written many biographies of important people, from vice presidents to ministers, field marshals, generals, warriors, business people and governors. Sometimes the people he wrote about still held those positions, sometimes they had retired. Everything always went very smoothly, and the books had been warmly received at their launches by the delighted families, friends, kinsfolk, and relations. These events usually took place at birthdays and wedding anniversaries. Just one person, a cultural figure, had asked that his biography be launched to mark his retirement.

Only one of his books had ever been controversial. He had written about a rebel leader in a district that wanted to break away from the Republic. But thanks to his literary skills, Abraham had been able to convince the public that his subject was a great nationalist; he and his troops had taken to the jungle in order to correct the over-centralization of state power. The outcome did not affect Abraham’s reputation; in fact, in many ways he was praised for having successfully depicted the man in a precise and well-balanced manner.

There was a lot that one could write about people like this because they had led interesting lives. But what did a baby have to show for its life?

 

Abraham Yusra could have rejected the strange request. But despite everything, he felt challenged. Very challenged. He felt that he couldn’t resist. Because he had written biographies for many years, he had grown accustomed to certain patterns. The plot ran in a straight line. It was neatly integrated. If it sometimes zig-zagged, it never deviated very far. The characters had predictable parts to play. Now the commissioner wanted to turn things on their head. To do something very different. Whether this was some kind of breakthrough didn’t really matter. He would just try to do something he hadn’t done before, for good reason. 

“Why should one only write the biographies of successful people?” Abraham wondered. Why not the failures as well? Why should the leading figures be major individuals and not ordinary people? Why should they be sixty, sixty-five, seventy, seventy-five years old, and covered with wrinkles? Why couldn’t they be young, teenagers or children, even babies, whose future could be guessed, rather than their past which was already settled? Babies were just as attractive. They cry loudly, they laugh loudly, they move at will, they are innocent. Look, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters were defined by their relationships to babies, like an umbilical cord bound to the afterbirth. And our babies cast a spell over everything that is natural, honest, unadorned.

Abraham Yusra sighed again. A long sigh.

He looked out the window. A baby not only has its family, he thought to himself, it also has an amazing external world: history, ritual, civilization. Yes! Babies are often mentioned in history and in the holy books, aren’t they? Ismail, the son of Abraham, began his new life by crying and kicking at the sand around him, and in this way he created the Zamzam well in Mecca, which will run with fresh water until the end of time. And remember Mary’s holy baby, who overturned the common way of creation as she wept alone beneath a leafy olive tree.

And if we live in binary oppositions, between happiness and suffering, trial and success, who says that babies are exempt from this? According to the Koran, all the male children were massacred in Pharaoh’s time, except for Moses who was saved when his woven basket was caught in the bathing place of Pharaoh’s daughter. Muhammad, the Prophet of God, was born in the dark age of paganism, when baby girls were considered a burden and often killed before they took their first breath of desert air.

Unfortunate babies flashed through Abraham’s mind. He had once seen a film about babies who were aborted in their mother’s womb. The fetuses struggled to avoid the pincers which would crush their soft skulls. Each time they avoided the instruments, the pincers chased them again. Eventually the tips grabbed their heads and finally they had to surrender. They came into the world as innocent shreds of pure flesh.

How many babies had been strangled, thrown into grassy fields, abandoned outside the doors of strangers, or drowned in gutters? How many!

And what about babies in war zones? 

Abraham Yusra was shaken. Very shaken. The force of his emotions banged against the window. He knew that there was a war raging across the sea, at the tip of the continent. There were babies being dragged beneath barbed wire fences, in fields filled with wild dogs and wolves; floating on the ocean, one of whom had been washed up dead on a beach dressed in elegant boots; some were moaning hopelessly in ragged tents. He also remembered a small-scale war that was taking place in his own country—a minor disturbance—and how horrified he had been to see babies falling to the ground. And the story of the civil war that divided his own village, babies being born with swollen bellies and sunken eyes, too weak to cry.

 

Although Abraham’s thoughts gathered and wove together various ideas about babies, fortunate and unfortunate, with families and without families, in times of war and peace, he had gained all he knew about this particular baby from Tanamas. Abraham’s biography of the successful cane merchant had been published and launched in 1995. After that Abraham had no further contact with Tanamas, a professional practice he always tried to observe. It was important to stay on good terms with people, but he was reluctant to continue relationships with his subjects in other ways. Especially when the other person was very busy. He had only met Tanamas twice while he was writing about him, getting the rest of his data from other sources. For that reason, the biography was rather short. Perhaps that was why Tanamas’s trusty men had contacted him again after twenty years and he had answered their call. He was sure that Tanamas wanted to revise the book or ask for a sequel.

 When they met in Cirebon, they wasted no time on polite preliminaries. Surprisingly Tanamas made absolutely no reference to his own biography. Instead, he asked Abraham to write the biography of a baby. “Does that seem weird?” Tanamas calmly asked him. 

Abraham was surprised but tried to smile. Without waiting for a reply, Tanamas continued: “You’re an experienced writer. I want you to write something unusual this time.”

Abraham said nothing. It was possible that had he heard such a request when he was thirty, when they had first worked together, he would have been excited and responded quite differently. Perhaps he might have suggested that such a project could change the world. But now, in his fifties, it seemed an enormous task, very existential indeed.

Tanamas then told him about this “rather unusual” problem. About a reddish newborn baby that had dropped into his lap, like a falling star. “The path that has brought us together is long, very long,” Tanamas said. He didn’t know why he had always believed that the presence of the baby did not just begin and end in the capital, but, directly or not, was connected with many other events as well.

In fact, Tanamas continued, it began with the civil war in Central Sumatra in 1958. The military Buffalo Council was supported by the Socialist Party and the Muslim Masyumi. They declared themselves to be the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia, PRRI. Jakarta responded by sending other Army forces, who were known to support Sukarno and were considered to be the Capital’s army. The largest military operation in the history of the motherland began. The militia of the communist party also became involved.

Everyone followed a different path. While Tanamas admired Syahrir, his father was totally dedicated to Masyumi. Some of his relatives joined with the PRRI. But on the other hand, Tanamas had a good friend called Marlupi, who was an important member of the communist party in a small cold town—which quickly heated up when people crossed each other’s paths.

The conflict lasted almost three years. The PRRI troops began to tire and they gradually came down from the mountains. Quite a few of them surrendered and were then massacred by the communist troops. This brutality may have stemmed from Sukarno’s troops wanting to regain their reputation, a desire for revenge, or as a true act of commitment to the Republic. Tanamas sold things people needed when they were living in a war zone and was eventually exposed as a PRRI informant. One day he was captured.

Fortunately, Marlupi begged the troops to hand him over. The national army may have thought that he would then be killed at a particular place, as the communist party often did. But Marlupi had let him go. “Get out of here before my friends find out.” Tanamas went to Tanjung Karang, then took a boat to Jakarta.

After three years in the capital, Tanamas heard that Marlupi, the friend who had saved him, had also moved to Jakarta. Marlupi had been chosen to expand the party and given a high position. Tanamas and Marlupi met several times. They were still like brothers, even though they did not work together on the same sort of activities. The communist party went from victory to victory, protected by Sukarno and the army.

Unexpectedly, one dark evening in October 1965, someone knocked repeatedly on Tanamas’s door at Kalimalang. Tanamas opened the door and found Marlupi and his wife crouched outside. It was their most emotional meeting. Bainun, Marlupi’s wife, was holding a reddish newborn baby, although it seemed very pale when one came closer. Perhaps the night was cold. Tanamas dragged them into the house. Before he or his wife had a chance to ask what was happening, Marlupi said: “Please look after Bainun and the child. I need to assess the situation.” That was all. Marlupi left immediately, vanishing into the thick darkness. The night became even blacker.

 

Tanamas did not yet understand what was happening, even though he had just heard that an ominous new comet was making huge scratch marks across the sky of Jakarta, and stealing the light of other stars in that sky. Yes, the stars on the big shots’ uniforms. Those with the most stars were killed. And the slashes of the comet extended across the whole sky throughout the nation, and not only snatched the stars from the shoulders of the great, but also extinguished the flashes of compassion in the souls of the common people.

Tanamas only began to understand the situation after Marlupi did not come back. When the situation became even more difficult, Bainun, the mother of the baby, asked to be allowed to leave. Tanamas and his wife did all they could to prevent her from going. “The situation is critical,” Tanamas said, repeating something he had heard on the radio. But Bainun was planning to rejoin her husband at a specified place. She entrusted the precious baby to Tanamas’s wife. She never returned. Tanamas realized that Bainun, the good mother, had tried to protect Tanamas’s family, including the baby, from the accusation that they were hiding a criminal. Because, shortly afterward, a mob had raided the houses in their neighborhood, wanting to find anyone who was hiding criminals or being hidden by the residents.

The baby boy in his wife’s lap made Tanamas nervous. There were all sorts of possibilities. It was an insane time. Some of his neighbors were jealous of his cane business and often spied upon the baby in a threatening manner. “What if they said that my wife had never been pregnant and had never given birth to a baby?” Tanamas was worried.

And that was what happened. In March 1967, several large men came to Tanamas’s house. One of them, a man with bloodshot eyes, said without any hesitation: “We know that your wife was not pregnant. She couldn’t possibly have had a baby. We will take the child and give it back to his real mother.”

The precious baby was still sleeping in its cane crib. Moved by her motherly instincts, Tanamas’s wife edged forward and tried to take the child to the back of the house. But rough men’s hands forbade her to do that.

Tanamas’s blood boiled. He was angry at anyone who tried to tell him about the baby, and even angrier at these visitors.

“Be calm, friend. We’ll return the baby to its mother. We know that she is at a certain place.” The second man’s voice was partly convincing, yet suspicious. But Tanamas was happy and surprised to hear that his friend’s wife might still be alive. Somewhere or other.

“Where is Bainun?” he asked impatiently.

The man smiled. “You’ll find out. We’ll take the baby first.”

Tanamas realized that he had been caught in a trap. But he struggled. “This baby is my flesh and blood.”

“As far as we know only Jesus had a birth like that. His mother was suddenly discovered to be pregnant. Somehow she gave birth to him and still remained a virgin. This here is even stranger. Your woman was never pregnant, yet here is a real baby of flesh and blood . . .” The man took some papers out of his pocket. “Just sign here, or else!”

There was nothing Tanamas could do in the face of such a cold-blooded threat. The baby changed hands. His wife wept briefly. Tanamas stiffened. He had hoped that he might be able to use his remaining strength and resources to raise the innocent child. He imagined it as a small red baby learning to crawl under his guidance, then standing and taking its first few steps . . .

Tanamas immediately moved to Cirebon without drawing any attention to himself. He had wanted to move for a long time because there was a network of cane collectors in Cirebon. The terrible event he had just experienced made it impossible to postpone the move any longer. He and his wife were in definite danger as well.

That was the story of the baby as far as he knew it, and that was what Tanamas wanted the biographer to write. “There has to be more than one chapter!” he said at the time, very poetically. “The tree of this baby holds many names and bears the fruits of many events.”

He turned diplomatically toward Abraham, who could only stare at him. “You must understand me, my friend.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?” Abraham asked in a quivering voice.

“Be kind, friend. The Big General was still in power. Even the smallest connection with anything red was dangerous. He took advantage of difficult situations. Nevertheless, I had to look after my business. I did, my boy! Well, do you want to write the whole story?”

Abraham indicated that he wanted to think about it. He needed time.

 

Abraham struggled with time, worked with time. He breathed deeply. Bewitching the world he was creating. Considering one act of destruction after another.

Abraham realized that there were far more things that he didn’t know than those he did know. Babies in their mothers’ wombs, as far as he knew, were not completely blank. Allah, the Lord of Life and Death, had bound various promises around them. But exactly how He bound them was uncertain. Abraham had only heard a few stories from his teacher at the mosque. The teacher had said that before a spirit entered the womb, it promised to always be loyal to the Creator. After the spirit entered through the crown of the head, the baby promised to be faithful to its lord.

But the World changed everything. It fouled the pure innocent baby which belonged to the realm of the soul and the womb. The babies who died before they were sprayed with muddy specks of worldly filth, his teacher had told him, didn’t count. Because they were still pure. In fact, thanks to the attenuation of their sins, they could help both their parents and their relatives, who were living in the afterworld.

The elderly teacher also said that the souls of innocent babies were rocked in cradles hanging on a tree in the moon. If they had siblings on earth, they could follow their siblings wherever their brothers and sisters went. At that time, Abraham couldn’t understand how this might happen. But when the moon was full, Abraham and his friends deliberately walked more quickly than usual because they seemed to feel the moon move swiftly through the sky with them. Abraham remembered that he had felt sad because the moon seemed to stand still when he walked. Even though he sensed that the moon was following him, his friends stubbornly insisted that the moon was not following anyone. “Why not?” he asked, in a sort of a protest, to no one in particular.

“How do we know?” one of his friends replied.

“Perhaps you aren’t related to anyone up there,” said another.

“My mother said my older brother died the moment he was born,” he insisted.

“Did he have a name?”

“He did, he really did. He never used it, of course, because he was already dead in the womb.”

“Well, we don’t know. Just try to do it.”

And as tiny Abraham tried it again, the other children shouted: “The moon is moving! The moon is moving! Hurray!” Abraham was happy. The children all jumped about happily.

“Your mother and father chose a name for your brother so it is still useful,” said the child who was considered the cleverest of the large group of boys. “You can find the proof on the moon.”

Abraham smiled when he remembered his childhood. He could see it spread out on the window, as bright as the full moon, everything was there. He felt that he could see lines on the moon which suggested a bending tree, covered with the cradles of baby spirits. Even though he knew now that this was only a myth, he still felt something was missing every time he walked beneath the full moon and he shouted, “The moon isn’t moving, the moon isn’t moving . . .”

He walked more quickly. His friends hurried him up, saying that the moon was not moving at all.

“My father said that my dead older brother had a particular shape and appearance. It was just that he never drew breath.” Abraham sounded quite forlorn.

"But our mothers say that you are all alone. You don’t even have a mother and a father.”

“Oh, don’t I?” he replied, patting himself on the chest.

“They aren’t your real mother and father!”

“Our mothers say that Pak Syamsurizal has no connection to you.”

Abraham shrank and began to cry. He went home and wept in front of his father, Syamsurizal.

 

Slowly but surely Syamsurizal turned over his cards. “Don’t cry,” he said, “that is just the way things are.” Syamsurizal told him how Abraham was taken out of the capital when his birth mother died in Bukit Duri Prison, without ever having had any trial. At that time Syamsurizal had a food stall near the prison. He saw with his own eyes how the children of Adam suffered behind the wall around that old building. He was allowed to take rice to the guards, without any supervision. He saw women repeatedly interrogated, repeatedly tortured, but still refusing to speak. As he washed the plates and glasses, he often heard groups of men speaking coarsely, as if trying to outdo each other.

“Damn bitch! She wouldn’t say one word.”

“The slut!”

“I’ve been all over her skin, Commandant . . .”

“I’ve woken her up with wild cats, but she wasn’t bothered . . .” 

Another guard rushed towards him looking happy. “I’ve found a way, Ndan.”

The man called Ndan, Commandant, turned to the guard. “What way, heh?”

“A baby!”

“A baby?”

“She had a baby. I’ve found out where she left it. We can use the baby to make her talk.”

The Commandant wasted no time. “Let’s get it!”

That was all Syamsurizal heard. He didn’t know how they found the baby or brought it to the prison. He was only aware of hearing a baby crying behind the prison walls. For several days, the baby refused to stop crying. Finally the guards gave up. They argued again.

“Damned bitch! You haven’t got anywhere with her that way.”

“No Ndan. The woman is even sicker. She might die before long.”

“Take the baby back to where it came from. I don’t want to be responsible for two deaths. The mother is enough trouble. Get rid of the baby.” The Commandant appeared to be somewhat panicked. But he couldn’t lie to himself: the baby’s eyes had made a deep impression on him. He had dealt with tens, even hundreds, of people and hadn’t been bothered, but for some reason, it was impossible to look at this baby. The eyes, the clear innocent eyes, dragged his soul—if he could be said to still have a soul—far into the fathomless depths of his being.

“Don’t forget. Ask the cane merchant to pay for the return of the baby,” the Commandant shouted fiercely as the soldiers started to leave with the baby. He had a reputation to uphold. “If the husband and wife won’t pay to get it back, drag them here!”

 Syamsurizal didn’t know what happened when the baby was returned to “where it came from,” the cane merchant’s house. But he clearly heard the baby crying again the next day. 

“Damn,” the Commandant sighed. “The cane merchant has gone away. No one knows where he is. And the baby’s mother is dead now. Where can we leave the baby?” He was frightened by the baby’s eyes.

Syamsurizal, who had been married five years and only once succeeded in making his wife pregnant—and the baby had miscarried—answered spontaneously: “I’ll take it, Commandant.”

The Commandant frowned. He was amazed. The offer freed him from the spell of those two eyes. It was one “small” problem solved. But he joked: “Prepare us a hundred packets of cooked rice, Bung Syamsul, to redeem the child.” 

And Syamsurizal did precisely that. He prepared one hundred parcels of rice. When he took them to the “headquarters,” the cruel guards couldn’t escape. The baby changed hands. This was the last rice Syamsurizal cooked, because he closed his shop and took the baby back to his village at the foot of Mount Singgalang.

 

It was strange how Abraham had suddenly remembered that village at the foot of a mountain. He remembered an old man who welcomed him with open arms the moment he returned home. Even though, to be honest, he had never known where his father was, or where his mother was buried. But he gave thanks to God for the situation. Two old people who could prepare curries and beef rendang were as good as his own parents, weren’t they?

Abraham felt relieved. “I’ve found the missing link at last,” he mumbled. It had been a long, weary journey. He decided to telephone Cirebon. He imagined the special book he would write, to be launched on Tanamas’s seventy-fifth birthday—and, although the cane merchant didn’t know this, Abraham’s fiftieth birthday.

A gentle afternoon breeze blew through the window, ruffling the sheets of the draft’s white pages. It revealed a correction: the word “biography” had been crossed out and replaced with the word “autobiography.” His autobiography and that of his nation.

 

Translator’s Note: The story presents an allegorical history of Indonesia: “His autobiography and that of his nation,” as the final sentence states. The main points of reference are the PRRI regional rebellion in North Sumatra (1958–61) and the 1965 “Abortive Communist Coup,” as well as the rise and fall of President Suharto (1966–98). The nation is likened to a newly born baby, which logically has no history but in fact has quite a lengthy list of events to its name already.
 

© Raudal Tanjung Banua. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Harry Aveling. All rights reserved.

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