Welcome to the fifth installment of A World with a Thousand Doors, a showcase of contemporary Indonesian literature brought to you in partnership with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. This week it gives us great pleasure to present a story by the award-winning author Nukila Amal, translated by internationally published writer, InterSastra founder, and past Asymptote contributor Eliza Vitri Handayani.
If you’ve just discovered A World with a Thousand Doors, you can find an introduction and the first installment here. And we invite you to read the second, third, and fourth works in the series as well.
Batara—or Bunny Battery to his pals—likes to hold a festive and meticulously prepared smokol (a.k.a. brunch) once or twice a month, depending on how often the Brunch Fairy has graced him with her visits.
According to Batara, this Manadonese fairy is the ruler and protector of brunches, brunch cookers (like Batara), and brunch fanatics (like Batara’s pals Syam, and the twins Anya and Ale). However, his three pals suspect that this fairy is really Batara’s own invention. All Ale can report after actually visiting Manado is that the locals do indeed eat brunches, which consist of tinutuan, a kind of porridge, accompanied by banana fritters and fried anchovies dipped into dabu-dabu, a chili paste so hot that it makes their eyes weep, their ears ring, and, if prone, their minds hallucinate.
To Batara, however, brunches aren’t that simple. With surplus imagination and a passion for perfection, Batara comes up with odd themes and dishes for his brunches. His three pals can never guess what will appear on his table.
For example, once he reconstructed “The Dinner of Trimalchio” and started the brunch with an apology: “Sorry, friends. My menu is much more humble. By no means as ambitious as Petronius’s.”
Batara can draw inspiration from anything—cookbooks, novels, essays. One time he cooked lamb roast out of a 13-page long essay-recipe, even though the writer had warned readers that the recipe had never been successfully executed. Another time Batara served only yellow and green foods. Yet another time, he dished out nothing but rare white tea brewed in a clay teapot and served in little dented ceramic bowls. Another time still, he spread a carpet in his backyard and held a makan patita (a beach picnic a la Ambon) by an imaginary shore. Sometimes his three pals are fooled by the dishes’ fancy names, such as gnocchi di patate alla crema delicata di Gorgonzola, which they found to be only balls of boiled potatoes with cheese. And so on. Batara made his way through all ages and chefs, from the Middle Ages to 1980s Nouvelle Cuisine, from King Richard II to Batara’s own Grandma Sjanne who lived in Tomohon.
As far as his three pals can remember, only once did Batara serve a normal brunch.
Still, to Batara’s three pals, Smokol Day is always a joyful day. They wait eagerly for these special Saturdays. The night before, they take care to not overstuff themselves or eat anything that might cause a toothache or digestive problems. They go to bed early, and the next morning they arrive at 9 a.m. at Batara’s. Brunch is served at ten, and then they have a couple of drinks around 1 or 2 p.m. while waiting for coffee and plates of cookies, which come out around 4 p.m. Then they have a post-brunch meal at six, drinks with leftover snacks at ten, and finally a post-post-brunch meal at midnight.
On days like these, Batara appears to his pals as though a chef god, possessed of some grand and splendid powers. But he also turns into a garrulous grandma sheathed in pinafore apron, fussing over foods he has painstakingly, carefully, and lovingly prepared since dawn. He bosses his three pals around as if they were his own kids or minions—they have to whip eggs, pour rice from the steamer, take turns carrying serving bowls to the table. At last, when all the dishes have been brought to the table, Batara takes a step back to admire the delicious universe he has created—a true god, with one hand on his waist and the other raised over his head as he commands his pals to plunder the table. With authority and delight he nudges them to eat, get seconds and thirds, but only until they are full.
By the end of the day the pals are swaying deep in Batara’s phantasmagoric universe, where trees yield fruits of fat goulash balls, their flowers strawberry gelatin pies with shimmering red dewdrops, their leaves parsley and basil, their branches long swirls of buttered pasta. Its lake is a broth where chunks of meat, carrot, potatoes, and bell peppers swim freely, and squares of foie gras loll on crostini canoes. Its waterfalls are streams of juices, wine, coffee, and Batara’s love. Amid all these the pals lie, struck down with satisfaction, as bizarre sounds burst out of their mouths.
Sometimes during brunch, between trips to the kitchen to refill plates, Batara will pause and say something like, “The real sign of a true gastronome, my friends, is this: he has gained a keen understanding of just what and how much of an ingredient to put into a dish. His secret is but one: moderation. Remember this: everything in moderation, just like a perfectly conceived meal. He who lives with moderation shall keep good health and, when he dies, he’ll die peacefully in his sleep with a smile gracing his face—just like my grandma did, God bless her soul. And when a gastronome has understood the beauty of the twirling pineapple peels, for example, or the meaning of non-stickiness in pans, then, my friends, he will have become a gastrosophe.”
With pity he’ll talk about “the scrawny girls who always look starved”; he’ll say, “they always bring out my chef’s instinct to feed them.” He’ll sneer at people who calculate their fat, cholesterol, and calorie intake, and hop on the scale after every meal; people who obsess over their looks and make vain “lifestyle” choices; those who consider blessings as poison, in whose bodies nutrients become bad energy and bearers of diseases.
When his three pals rain praises on his culinary universe, Batara will burp, ooh and aah, or laugh proudly with shining eyes. But sometimes, his pals also criticize him cruelly and mercilessly, especially regarding his table aesthetics. Batara has a vision of the ideal arrangement for each brunch, comprising types of dishes, table setting, and overall atmosphere. His stubbornness in keeping with that vision often results in small incidents among the pals.
For example, one Saturday Batara set down a gigantic vase on the table, filled with an intricate arrangement of towering flowers whose names the pals couldn’t even guess. Batara then returned to the kitchen and re-emerged with a big steaming bowl, which he placed on what scrap of acreage was still vacant on the table. As usual, he then took a step back, put his hands on his hips, and admired his table setting. He raised a finger and issued his solemn command: “My fellow brunch fanatics, let us conquer the food before us!” He looked like a herder with his cattle, or perhaps like Columbus on the deck of his ship when he first spotted America.
Ale: Bunny, I can’t see Anya’s face.
Anya: I can’t see Ale’s.
Syam: It’s your stupid vase!
Batara: So what? We don’t have to look at each other while eating.
Ale: Yes, we do.
Anya: We always do. Our parents taught us to look at the person who is talking to us.
Batara: I won’t remove the vase. You can’t imagine what I’ve gone through to achieve this composition, this high level of harmony.
Syam: Did you sell your soul to the devil? Or your body?
Ale: Just remove the vase, okay? Then we all can eat more pleasantly while looking at each other.
Anya: And our parents will be happy that their children remember what they were told.
Batara: But I spent all last night arranging the flowers! After spending a whole day at the flower market, too! You know how bad traffic was yesterday, and how the sun was scorching, yet I spent the whole day walking around selecting flowers.
Ale: We get it, okay? This is magical realism on the table. Now can we please remove the vase?
Anya: At least remove something, Bunny. If not the vase, then just the flowers, okay?
Batara’s face turned red and spiteful. That was not a good sign. All the muscles in his plump body swelled, making him look like a ticking human bomb.
Whenever something like this happens, for the rest of the day Batara puts on his butcher face, as sour as vinegar and as silent as a cutting board, but with a gaze as sharp as steak knives. He’ll still serve the remaining dishes, but garnish them with mumbles like Sancho Panza’s. “All ills are good when attended with food,” or with mean grumbles such as, “This is the last brunch I’ll ever throw! The last one I swear!”
When they hear Batara’s swearing like that, the three pals will finally relent. They’ll allow the vase to remain on the table, for example. Or allow Batara to cover this singer’s songs, or play that song on the accordion, and they’ll listen attentively.
As easy as that, Batara’s energy and smile will return; he turns once more into a fully charged bunny rabbit. That’s how Batara got his nickname—since he was a little boy he’s always been hyperactive. Regarding this, his pals have had lengthy chicken-or-egg discussions: is Batara living up to his nickname, or is it because he was nicknamed Battery that he became hyperactive? But isn’t it exhausting to have to live up to your name? His pals agree, Batara is the number one battery—a bottomless well of energy that just keeps going and going and going . . .
They know that despite his pouting episodes, Batara has a pure and loving heart. He asks nothing of those he loves, and, like a child, he gives his love amply and with no strings attached. He is the most cheerful person in their group—the most cheerful person in the whole city. Only a few times have his pals ever found him sad.
After brunch, while his pals wash the dishes, Batara sits down with Patchouli, his red accordion, and plays a solemn song. The Brunch Fairy sits before him, pushing and pulling the accordion, spreading heavenly notes in the air, while the three pals clank pans and clink porcelain.
Late at night, the pals lounge in Batara’s backyard. They lie down on the grass with their stomachs bulging and feet propped up, staring at the stars. They ramble on, discussing whatever comes to mind, from the living kitchen fantasy in Fourier’s cosmology to the definition of “rancid,” and, one night, the taste of the afterworld.
“The afterworld . . . I suspect it tastes just like this,” said Batara. “Satiated and content. In heaven, we will be satiated—too satiated to desire. Olives and wines within our reach, angels just sitting on their hands, wasting away. God will watch us as we stare in amazement at the absence of our desire, and He will say, ‘Why couldn’t you act like this while you were alive, humans?’”
As the night goes on, a taste of coming home will float in the air. One of them will say something, and the rest believe what they hear. They sense what the others sense: an aftertaste lingering sweetly on the tongue and the glow of stars, flickering faintly, but delectably.
A few days ago Batara became depressed. It was the lowest point in his life. He wept before his pals, holding a jumbo box of Kleenex.
He spoke haltingly about a village where people were dying from hunger, about children with bulging stomachs and hollow eyes walking barefoot, dragging what was left of their emaciated bodies—scenes that lately were often appearing on TV. Batara remembered Grandma Sjanne’s table in Tomohon, how it was always so crammed with dishes that not one guest or traveler ever emerged hungry from her house. Batara reflected on how his own table arrangements all this time were really his attempts at recreating his late grandmother’s tables. At that moment Batara suddenly wondered why Grandma Sjanne never included the smell of starvation among the millions of smells in her kitchen. Why her tables never presented the realism of empty tables in poorer homes.
The ghosts of hunger that were always pushed under her table now jumped up to Batara and perched on his damp eye sockets. Although wet, Batara’s eyes now gazed fiercely at the nation, whose far corners the Brunch Fairy never visited. An insatiate, discontent, unheavenly nation.
Batara looks quite skinny these days.
Nukila Amal is an award-winning writer of short fiction and novel. The Original Dream, the English translation of her first novel Cala Ibi, is published by AmazonCrossing (trans. by Linda Owens) in 2017. She has won a KOMPAS’s Best Short Story Award with “Smokol”.
Eliza Vitri Handayani is an internationally published writer of fiction and nonfiction. She writes in English and Indonesian. Her novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different came out in 2015 (Vagabond Press), and her short fiction has appeared in The Griffith Review (AUS), Asia Literary Review, Kill Your Darlings (AUS), Exchanges Journal (US), and other outlets. She is also the founder and director of InterSastra, a platform for literary exchange, and House of the Unsilenced, an art project with sexual abuse survivors about what it means to speak up. You can find links to her works at elizavitri.com, and you can greet her on Twitter or Instagram @elizavitri.
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