The Spurned Bride’s Tears, Centuries Old, in the Rain

lontar-5-cvf-sm“The Spurned Bride’s Tears, Centuries Old, in the Rain” appeared in issue 5 of Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, a wonderful publication out of Singapore.

During the winter of 2010, I spent approximately two months in Indonesia (with much of that time spent in Depok, an exurb of Jakarta), where my then-girlfriend—now my wife—was studying Bahasa Indonesia, the official national language of the country. Indonesia’s not an easy place to be, at times: Jakarta’s traffic is pure insanity, and I got the worsst food poisoning of my life there. But the place had a powerful effect on me: rereading the story at some remove, I find Depok rushing back into my mind with vivid, overwhelming immediacy.

One interesting thing about Jakarta is that, despite the nation’s official semi-secularity, and the overwhelming popularity of Islam there, the’re a certain amount of Hindu cultural material that still is very visible in Jakarta (let alone over in Bali, where Hinduism is still commonly practiced). Hinduism in Indonesia (as in much of Southeast Asia) predates the arrival of the now-dominant religions of Islam (in Indonesia) and Buddhism (in much of the rest of Southeast Asia) by a significant margin. Angkor Wat depicts scenes from Hindu, not Buddhist, religious narrative. The Ramakian of Thailand is a localized remix of the Ramayana. It got me thinking about Hindu cosmology underlying modern Indonesian religious practices and identities: what if the Indian model of the afterlife—reincarnation for as long as people need to work out their karmic and dharmic balance—were correct, despite the majority of Indonesians adhering to a different model of the afterlife today?

Which brings me to the other major inspiration for this story: when I was a high-schooler, the Peter Brook version of The Mahabharata (adapted to a six-hour film, from its earlier stage incarnation) aired on PBS, and I fell in love with almost all of the major characters in this story featured in it. (I have a lengthy post about the film queued up for sometime soon, but till then, I wholeheartedly recommend the film on its own merits, but also as a profound statement of what preoccupied the whole Western world back in the late 80s and early 90s. Brook’s treatment of the original is controversial—or it was at the time—but for me it was a doorway into this vast, important Indian narrative, and it still matters profoundly to me.)

I have to admit that, despite having picked up the (heavily-abridged) Kamala Subramaniam translation more than a decade ago, I haven’t read through the imposingly massive hardback yet… I like to think I’ve been saving it for a rainy month, but the truth is that it’s just a daunting text! Still, the story of Amba and Bhisma, like so many others, has hung around in my head ever since. I couldn’t find anything about Amba on Youtube, but this scene portrays the death of Bhisma, which also appears—rather differently—in my story:

Here’s a more emotional version of the scene, though I can’t understand what’s being said:

The Hindu influence on Southeast Asia—even in places that are now predominantly Muslim, Buddhist, or otherwise—is unmistakeable: you can see it in old temples, in the surviving fascinating with the Ramayana, in the artwork of the region, and more. In downtown Jakarta, I was surprised to see a massive statue of Arjuna astride his chariot, a famous scene from the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata.

Arjuna Wijaya chariot statue and fountain in Central Jakarta. Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata used under a Creative Commons license. Click image for more information.

Arjuna Wijaya chariot statue and fountain in Central Jakarta. Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata used under a Creative Commons license. Click image for more information.

Later I read about Indonesia’s past, suffused (like so much of Southeast Asia) with narratives and gods of India, and tumbled around very hard by its vault into postcolonial modernity, I couldn’t help but feel the contrast between ancient Indonesia and the country’s present-day conditions—its crazy traffic, its guitar-playing-buskers on minibuses, its wealthy Chinese subpopulation (and the tensions between that subpopulation and native Indonesians, especially in Java), as well as the everpresent remnants of the traditional culture (such as the wayang kulit puppets available all over the place), and the massive shopping malls—and I started to wonder how a past and a present so alien to one another, and so centered on different philosophical and religious cosmologies, could be contrasted in a single story.

It’s worth noting, for those who are unfamiliar with the Mahabharata, that the gender/sex Srikandi (that’s the Indonesian name for the character called Shikandhi in the Sanksrit original) varies from version to version: sometimes Amba’s reincarnated form is as a male, sometimes as a female, sometimes as a eunuch, and sometimes it’s something even more unusual. In the Indonesian version of the story, Srikandi is a female reincarnation of Amba, though apparently in some versions she becomes male by one or another means, temporarily (and, if I remember right, eventually ends up female and a wife to Arjuna). I suspect that someone out there would be offended by the idea that Bhisma’s relationship with Shikhandi could end up keeping Bhisma stuck in the cycle of death and rebirth, but it seems reasonable to me.

In any case, those are the kinds of questions that underlie “The Bride’s Tears, Centuries Old, in the Rain.”

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