The Prayer House Sweeper
“Don’t call me a sweeper. I prefer to be called a caretaker. It doesn’t give such an impression of inferiority. My name is Farabi..."
“When you turn 40, go to Kampung Kedung. Go see the prayer house sweeper!”
His father’s dying wish from all those years ago echoed in Bayu’s mind. Pronounced right before he’d passed away. His father has now been in his grave for decades and his body has probably turned to dust, yet Bayu had failed to fulfil his father’s dying plea.
But now, here, right in front of him, was a signpost with the name “Kampung Kedung” on it. The signpost was one of the reasons his father’s dying wish flashed back into his mind. It wasn’t that it hadn’t been important to him. But something struck a chord in his heart, and that was his inability to be the kind of son who honored his father.
Ah, had he been such a bad son?
Bayu was now 50. Ten years had passed since he had failed to carry out his father’s will. He wanted to bewail the fact, but what was the point. He took a look at himself. A man with a body that was no longer fit. A father who’d successfully raised his kids almost to adulthood. A husband who’d successfully provided for his wife. Someone who had earned respect for his small family.
Chance had now brought him to Kampung Kedung. His office had sent him to do an in-depth story on the village, which had once been known for its harmony with nature, but had undergone considerable change. Bayu had been assigned to take a close look at the changes that had taken place. He happened to be a senior journalist with experience in social change issues and Kampung Kedung was considered to be the best test case.
“We’re giving you this opportunity because you’re senior and have the best understanding of this particular issue. We wanted you to take on the position of editor, but you’ve chosen to continue working in the field,” said the editor in chief, referring to Bayu’s recent request to be sent out on assignment again.
True, Bayu did feel he belonged out on assignment.
Bayu remembered that at the time his father died he had just finished university. It was as if his father had timed his death to coincide with Bayu finishing his studies. Secretly he had admired his father, who had slaved so he could get a good education despite their precarious economic situation. His father and mother had been willing to stint themselves so their children could go on to achieve their goals. A month after Bayu graduated his father passed away. A fitting ending.
Especially as Bayu had by then been accepted as a journalist at a prominent newspaper, the Modern Post. He applied the work ethic he’d inherited from his father to the job. Time was all about making deadlines. He spent his days chasing stories. He discovered the joys of life in the field. It was a routine he thoroughly enjoyed, right up to the time he turned 29. Until then he hadn’t given a thought to his father’s dying wish. It was also at this age that he got married, and the plea became lost in the folds of his mind. He was caught up in work and family. His children were born just as his career was taking off. Yet he continued to feel as if there were something missing in his life. He tried to find out what it was but failed to do so. When he turned 40 he felt even stronger pressures within himself, but couldn’t understand them. Over these past ten years he’d become bogged down in his work routine and no longer paid heed to the urgings of his turbulent heart. It was just now, when he was approaching retirement, that he remembered.
“Kampung Kedung,” he whispered, as he stood in front of the village signpost.
Bayu stepped out and headed down the tarmac road leading to the village.
He couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if he’d come looking for the prayer house sweeper ten years ago. The road may not have been in such good condition, he thought. He was endlessly grateful for the serendipity that had brought him here. Despite being ten years late he was here now for work. And it coincided perfectly with his father’s dying wish. He felt it was serendipity coming to him as he was getting on in years.
“Better late than never!” Bayu’s heart spoke like a sinner comforting himself with belated repentance.
He went looking for the village prayer house. A man gave him directions to walk towards the lake in the middle of the residential area. He would find the prayer house by the lake shore. The lake was easy to find and Bayu went straight there. When his eyes lit upon the shoreline he was overwhelmed by the sight of the prayer house building right on the water’s edge. It was magnificent! A beautiful building. Painted green with a pretty dome. Unfortunately, however, the prayer house was enclosed by a fence and locked gate. It looked deserted, though it was time for the mid-afternoon prayers. The only people around were some village folk fetching water from the lake.
Bayu approached one of them and said: “Excuse me. Can I see the sweeper of the prayer house?”
The man pointed to a pretty little cottage just north of the prayer house. It was built in the same style and it too was beautiful. Bayu was delighted. It looked like it wasn’t going to be too late to carry out his father’s dying wish after all. Full of anticipation he approached the cottage.
“I’m the prayer house caretaker. You wanted to see me?” Bayu was startled by the young man’s greeting. He guessed him to be about 15 years younger than himself.
“Yes. I wanted to see the sweeper of the prayer house. Are you he?” asked Bayu.
“Don’t call me a sweeper. I prefer to be called a caretaker. It doesn’t give such an impression of inferiority. My name is Farabi but my friends call me Fredy,” he said.
“I was supposed to have come here ten years ago,” Bayu said, seeming to have picked up a strange signal from the way the man spoke.
“Oh, ten years ago. I wasn’t the caretaker then. And the place wasn’t in such good condition as it is now. It was still just a platform with wooden walls full of holes and a patched wooden floor. Most of the roof tiles leaked. In the end, some friends and I put a proposal to the regional government and got some funding to build this prayer house. As you see it now. Magnificent, eh?”
“I hold the keys. The funding body has entrusted me to manage the place. I have to keep it locked because if I didn’t, it would get dirty and run down. It saves energy and money. Efficiency is what they call it nowadays. I only open it up at prayer times. That is, if anyone turns up for prayers. You know yourself how most people are pretty lazy these days. I usually only open it up once a day, for sunset prayers,” said Fredy with a smile.
“So what happened to the old sweeper?” Bayu asked.
“When we got the funding to tear down the old prayer house he decided to leave the village,” Fredy replied.
“Where did he go?”
“He was really strange about it. He said he was going to look for someone. He didn’t say who. Someone, he said, who was supposed to come to him, but having waited for him, this person didn’t end up coming. So eventually he went off to look for him.” replied Fredy.
“When was this?” asked Bayu.
“About ten years ago. If you don’t believe me, look at the inauguration plaque. You’ll see the date and the name of the official who signed it. The sweeper left exactly a month after the old mosque was pulled down. The rebuilding took two months, so it was nine years and nine months ago.”
“Did he ever come back?,” asked Bayu.
Fredy shook his head.
“Has he got any family here?”
Fredy shook his head again. However, he immediately suggested that Bayu go and see the head of the village to find out more about the sweeper who’d been there ten years earlier. So Bayu met with the village headman and heard the sweeper’s story.
“He wasn’t from these parts. He spent all his time in the prayer house. He’d come here when he was no longer young, already past 40. From what I know he never married. When he left he was over 80, which means he was here for 40 years or so. I knew him but not very well. I really only knew him by name; the people here called him Wak Alim. He often fasted and the people would give him food to open and break the fast. He didn’t do any other work, just took care of the prayer house. If any minor repairs were needed he’d be the one to do the patching up. If it was something he could do himself, he’d do it,” explained to the village head.
“To be perfectly honest, since then there’ve been a lot of changes here. After the renovations on the prayer house, the road were upgraded. Then came electricity, TV—a lot of progress—and many other things too, by which I mean all sorts of things that had never happened here before. Lots of illicit couplings, lots of unmarried girls and divorced women getting pregnant. Every month cases of adultery and people caught in flagrante, evenmore so in the wet season. Crime is rampant.
“As an old man I’ve felt very concerned over these last ten years. I agree with the views of the old people here who believe that Wak Alim was not the only sweeper of the prayer house but also the sweeper of all the filth and garbage in the village. I acknowledge that he was the one who watched over the village all the time he was here. The evidence is the constant rubbish and filth here since he left,” he continued.
The village headman spoke more about the drastic changes that had occurred, painting a detailed picture. Bayu listened to it all. He was known to be a good listener. It was only when he looked at his watch that he became aware it was almost nightfall. He took his leave.
“Oh yes, before I go, do you know who it was the prayer house sweeper was looking for?” asked Bayu, before setting off.
“I don’t know exactly. Maybe someone from his family.”
“Yes, it was probably someone from his family,” Bayu repeated, if only to settle his own confusion.“Thank you,” he said, and moved to leave.
On the journey home Bayu opened his laptop. He felt under pressure, instinctively responding to the call “deadline, deadline, deadline.” He wrote his report, giving it the rather catchy and poetic title: “Free sex taints Kampung Kedung”.