Photo: Agung Hendri/Unsplash
A lake in Jambi, Indonesia | 2,000 words
Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Sarah Leys
When I’m preparing to depart Bangko, the town I live in now, to visit my home village in Kerinci, I think about the thing I most miss about my destination: hearing my grandmother’s never-ending supply of stories.
Grandmother will tell stories at the dinner table or while strolling towards the musalla at prayer-times. If there’s an opportunity, grandmother will start a story as the two of us are walking along the edge of the forest, which begins about two kilometers from where the village houses peter out, a place where we can find all different types of plants, including the kabau tree, whose fruit we often take to grind into sambal chilli paste.
This village in Kerinci where grandmother still lives in her small house is called Tanjung Pauh Hilir. In the past, getting there meant travelling along a twisting narrow road amid the foothills of mountains, but now the road there is mostly wide and straight, though it still has the old elevations and descents.
My grandmother’s stories deal with history – like the Dutch and Japanese colonizations, with Holland exploiting our natural resources, coffee, tea, and the rest, and Japan leaving behind irrigation systems and dams, though achieved by such cruel methods. But also myths – from Arab travelers shrewd at using magic brooms to make objects small or large disappear, to an old lady fortune-teller leading astray those who harbor evil intentions.
Since about 2013, lots of the mountains and hills around here have been cleaved apart to make way for new faster roads. After that, tigers and other wild animals began appearing in human settlements here more often – but they didn’t constitute a disturbance. That’s because the people of Kerinci, or those among them who still uphold traditional beliefs, have a relationship with the animals grounded in rites and rituals. Namely, they believe tigers are their ancestors. When a tiger appears, most Kerinci people respond by saying special prayers and feeling happy, as if at an unexpected but welcome meeting.
In my grandmother’s house, there’s a tiger statue affixed to the wall. Another story my grandmother tells is of a tiger who snuck into the house of a woman who had just given birth. The tiger asked that a fresh human be given to him. At this, the panicked mother poured boiling water into its eyes, at which point the tiger’s form changed – it transformed into a witch. Then the mother ran into the forest with her baby, calling out for help. At that point, a good tiger—a real tiger—came and pounced upon the witch. Such good tigers live only in the forest, and if they occasionally enter villages, it will be to help people. Evil tigers, always, are people who take on tiger form.
The new road that has cracked open the mountains and hills all the way into Kerinci got made, I think, because there’s lots of interest now from tourists who want to go up the mountain or visit other tourist attractions around here. Or possibly it’s also about parties with commercial ambitions. At times I’ve glimpsed big trucks going back and forth along this road, sometimes full, sometimes empty, making this rural road not so different from the larger roads throughout Jambi province that are full of coal trucks. If you’re travelling on them in the early afternoons or the middle of the night, you’ll be stuck in a traffic jam because of them.
Yet along this Kerinci road, travelers are still, now, presented with views of the cooling mountains, and flowing water springs, and what seem like a million trees.
This time, I was returning to this village where my grandmother lives in part to hold Tuan Man to his promise—made two years ago, when I was last back, for Eid al-Fitr—to take me fishing on Lake Kerinci.
At that time, Tuan Man (“Tuan” in this context means uncle) had said that if we fished on a boat in the middle of Lake Kerinci, we’d get lots of fish, but also an enjoyment that one is not able to get anywhere else. Even though I didn’t really understand what he meant, I agreed, and now I was back to meet up with him for it.
I know that Tuan Man is also a good storyteller, perhaps as good as, although no better than, grandmother.
At around 10am I arrived and went first to my grandmother’s house, which is flanked by two village pathways. If you follow the path to the west, there’s a musholla. East is the direction of the forest. Upon arrival, I was greeted with a warm smile from grandmother, and a loving hug. Not much had changed. This atmosphere always promises me tranquility.
Soon after lunch I took a siesta, then I continued greeting the neighbors. As I’ve done in previous years, I enjoyed asking the old people to walk a little around the village with me, into the semi-wild land on the settlement’s edge, searching for whatever can be obtained, like fruits, which can be eaten then and there. I guess this old habit of mine has made quite the impression, for every time I come back and meet the old people here, if I don’t invite them first, they’re all ready to invite me, indeed, sometimes they even force me to go on such jaunts. I’m usually happy to do it and reluctant to refuse, but today I was already imagining what it would be like to fish on Lake Kerinci.
Before I left, my grandmother prepared me basic provisions: nasi kepal sprinkled with salt and then wrapped in banana leaves that had been heated over a fire until they were black and soft. The resulting bundle was so neat it resembled a stone. Grandmother suggested that I eat this food later alongside some grilled seluang fish. Seluang are now supposedly rare, but Tuan Man, apparently, has a map of where under the waters of Lake Kerinci they live. According to grandmother, Tuan Man is in fact the spiritual custodian of the seluang fish of this area.
I salivated imagining the delicious seluang. The small bones inside the fish usually soften when fried or grilled. As I was about to leave, grandmother whispered softly: “Hopefully he won’t be tricked.”
I didn’t pay too much heed to this comment at the time: only later, at the lake, did I think of it again, then recall a story that grandmother had told me long before.
Around 2pm I started out, walking down the path immediately behind grandmother’s house. After a distance of five hundred meters, I crossed a wooden bridge between rice fields with views of several cows grazing. I didn’t really feel the blazing sun even though it was hot. I continued to walk and greet farmers who were in the fields, stopping occasionally to talk for longer. The distance from grandmother’s house to Tuan Man’s house is not far, but because the people in this place are friendly and happy to greet and have a chat, I finally arrived at Tuan Man’s at a little before 3pm.
Neither Tuan Man nor his house had changed much. It was all like years ago. A guava tree stood in front of his place, and his bamboo fence was securely tied with rattan, just like before. I entered the house and sat down on a chair, was greeted with familial warmth then served lemang and black coffee. Tuan Man is tall, with a face that’s growing lined, and hairs that are turning white. A few minutes later, after preparing our fishing equipment, we got on Tuan Man’s scooter and hurriedly sped off to the lake.
When we arrived at the shore, Tuan Man steered our scooter in the direction of a boat-owner. I watched Tuan Man speak, then give 100,000 rupiah to rent a boat. Without further ado we jumped in, and Tuan Man ignited the outboard motor by pulling its start cord. The machine roared, and soon we were in the middle of the lake.
I was amazed: I couldn’t believe that I was now in the middle of a lake with such clear water and surrounded by green hills and mountains. The coldness of the air that I had already felt on the bank was now slicing into me, even making me shiver occasionally. Tuan Man just laughed at me. He said, “In a week or two you’ll get used to it.” I wasn’t so sure of that: here in the middle of the lake it felt really very cold.
“I don’t know yet if I can stay as long as a week or two here,” I told Tuan Man.
“I always have to answer the call if I’m summoned,” I answered, laughing as I did. And Tuan Man laughed as well.
“And what sort of summons might that be?”
“Well, it could be anything,” I replied, laughing again.
While preparing the bait and all the rest, I confirmed with Tuan Man that the place where we had moored was a place where we could get seluang fish. Tuan Man gave a strange little smile and answered, “you know, ‘seluang fish’ means ‘opportunity'” – engaging in some wordplay by working the similarity between the name “seluang” and the Bahasa Indonesia word “peluang”. I asked what he meant, but he just smiled, and didn’t answer.
Starting to fish, I listened to Tuan Man chinwag about the forty villages close to this lake and several small islands, like Pulau Tujuh and Pulau Selaru. On Pulau Selaru, said Tuan Man, there are traditional houses that are still maintained today. And there are forests around here that still hold a lot of natural wonders, that are still home to wild animals.
Then Tuan Man told me about Calungga and Calutat, supposedly siblings, who were exploring the forest in the Mount Raja area.
To be honest, I already know this story well, but Tuan Man so gets into the spirit of things when telling tales that I have no wish to stop him.
“One day Calungga, ate an egg and turned into a dragon,” said Tuan Man. And he continued the story: Calungga ran down to the lowlands and dug in the ground until he found a spring, while Calutat, who had not seen this, shouted and shouted, calling Calungga until it got dark. At dawn, when Calutat woke up after he had exhausted himself looking for Calungga, he saw a bright light in the lowlands below him, and ran towards it. When he arrived at the edge of a lake that hadn’t been there before, Calutat was flabbergasted to face a dragon. The dragon spoke and said that he was Calungga who had turned into a dragon because he ate an egg.
I laughed so hard that the boat we were on was rocking. Tuan Man reeled in his line, but no fish had grabbed the hook.
“Too bad,” I said.
“Tricked,” replied Tuan Man, then returned to baiting the hook, and casting it into the lake.
Because of that word “tricked” from Tuan Man, I now remembered something my grandmother had told me once – and I recounted it now to Tuan Man. The seluang fish in Lake Kerinci are not easily tricked. According to grandmother, Lake Kerinci is believed to be the place of residence of Persada, a queen who controls things that are invisible to humans, including fish and other things that are in the waters of this lake. Grandmother had told me that, long ago, there was a man who was out fishing here late at night. He didn’t catch anything, and got mad. At that point, the beautiful Persada came to the surface and warned him not to curse. The fisherman broke out in goosebumps, terrified. Persada, who was indeed angry, and ready to overturn the fisherman’s boat, softened when the fisherman pleaded for forgiveness and said he just wanted to go home and give one fish to his son, who was five months old. Touched, Persada instead filled the man’s boat with fish.
But the fisherman did not do what he had said. The overflowing fish on his boat he immediately sold. Great wealth came to him – but soon, it disappeared with the same speed.
Recalling this story of my grandmother’s made me speak up and warn Tuan Man not to tell so many stories and instead just focus on fishing, so we could get down to grilling some seluang and eating them with nasi kepal. Who knows why, I was feeling a bit spooked. But Tuan Man was the one laughing this time. He split his sides guffawing: he didn’t want to stop laughing.
In the end, Tuan Man and I laughed at each other and exchanged stories until the sun set and it got dark. The stars in the sky began to shine, and we turned on our boat’s lights here in the middle of the lake. All was quiet: there was only the sound of the wind and the soft rippling of water. Sounds of a lake’s center. Occasionally we heard a whirring sound of another engine, then it disappeared, and the silence returned. Tuan Man and I had still not caught a fish.
“Usually, one gets bigger opportunities at night,” said Tuan Man as he switched on a light run off a car battery, which are typically used for small boats.
I listened to this as I cast my bait into the lake. After a fairly long while without any talk, something occurred to me, and I asked Tuan Man, “is it true that you’re spiritual custodian of the seluang?”
Tuan Man smiled wryly and didn’t answer.
So, I asked him: are the seluang fish really still here?
Tuan Man, again, did not answer this. I didn’t say anything else, simply cast out my bait again, and thought that my nasi kepal was surely already too cold. And also that grandmother’s stories about goddesses, and fish, and that statement “hopefully he won’t be tricked” seemed a message meant for me.
© Beri Hanna
English translation © Sarah Leys
Commissioning editor: Wahyu Nur Cahyo