Your Grandmother's Voice

Cliffnotes is a column where writers take us behind-the-scene and shows us their inspiration, process, and intimacy of their book. In this column, Raka Ibrahim writes about inspiration behind his first story, Anasir, his family, and how the political landscape of Indonesia in the 1960s shaped their lives. Bagaimana Tuhan Menciptakan Cahaya can be purchased here.


My grandfather has dated my grandmother since they were in middle school. He had many siblings, all renowned for their musical prowess and love of fighting. The family house in Karangmenjangan was frequented by musicians and premans alike. 

A favorite memory of my grandfather's was the time a member of Dara Puspita performed in our family house for a friend's party. Another is the time his own grandfather fought with a Soekarno era policeman who was angry at him for playing then-banned rock and roll music.

My grandmother, a keen singer, played with Bubi Chen in a Surabaya nightclub. My grandfather shared drinks with dignitaries and even auditioned for an action movie. The lines between what they supposedly did and what they actually did has always been blurred. They lived life to the fullest, yet to my mother they were irresponsible parents to never had time for their children. This dissonance inspired "Pak Tua"s character in Anasir. The house where my great-grandparents lived in is a place stranded in time.

There was still the same becak driver, the same neighbors, the same sate seller, the same tukang sayur, since the 1950's. if not them, then their children of their children's children. It's a place untouched by the world. but their time is almost up. The last time I went there, a neighbour's house was torn down to make room for a co-working space. The garden I played in as a child was dilapidated. My grandfather is decaying. All things pass.

As he gets older, I find my grandfather telling the same stories of his youth over and over, while listening to the same songs that remind him of his late wife. When i told him about Bagaimana Tuhan Menciptakan Cahya, he simply said "Your grandmother would've been so proud." The piano in our family house is rusting, as is the guitar. I asked my grandfather - a wonderful musician - why he doesn't play anymore. He said, "Everytime I play, there's an absence that should've been filled with your grandmother's voice." 

In Bagaimana Tuhan Menciptakan Cahaya, the story of Pak Tua ended abruptly. The narrator asked his lover, "Do you believe in heaven?", and you - the reader - have all the freedom in the world to make up your own ending. Again, Bagaimana Tuhan Menciptakan Cahaya is a conversation and you're welcome to interrupt. 

Namun Surabaya adalah kota yang penuh kenangan indah. Saya rindu pulang kampung. Duduk di teras rumah, membeli roti di toko langganan eyang, dan membahas kenapa berita pagi ini begitu menyebalkan.

It is a quiet existence. It is a life I understand amidst the chaos. Thank you for reading and giving me room to rant. It's afternoon, Bagaimana Tuhan Menciptakan Cahaya is available in all Gramedia bookstores, and I will take this time to call my grandfather.