“So what amount of money are we going to decide on for Syahrial?” the headman had asked at the meeting earlier
Datuak Bandaro Rajo stood up quickly and rushed to the door. He had run out of patience and felt his self respect as head of this clan had been demeaned. The family of Sutan Siri hadn’t listened to a word he’d said. So what was the point of inviting him to this meeting?
“Datuak… wait!” Sutan Siri stood up and rushed after him, trying to stop him from heading down the stairs of the traditional family house. All eyes were upon them. Everyone knew Bandaro Rajo was angry.
Syahrial huddled further down in his seat. He knew Bandaro Rajo was angry because of what he had just said.
“What more is there to say, Sutan? I’ve made suggestions and I’ve heard the decision you and your family have made, which means that the business has been concluded and I’m taking my leave.”
“We want you to give your blessing to the steps we’re taking. Datuak, please allow Syahrial to go ahead with the decision he’s made. It seems to us what he said just now is perfectly acceptable.”
Sutan Siri tried to encourage Bandaro Rajo to sit down again.
“Sutan, I’m the traditional head of this village. All issues regarding customary law handed down through the generations have been decided in the traditional way. Syahrial’s decision violates tradition. I can’t possibly give it my blessing.”
“Excuse me. Assalamalaikum…”
Bandaro Rajo descended the steps one at time and strode off. Sutan Siri was still calling out to him but he paid not the slightest attention. He really felt he’d been belittled. He was the headman of the Kutianyir clan. A buffalo had been slaughtered to celebrate his inauguration as headman of the clan in Kurai Taji village in Pariaman. But now? Syahrial, this kid still wet behind the ears and only just out of university, had argued with him on a matter of traditional law which he regarded as wrong.
What did this kid know about it?
Sutan Siri came back inside and collapsed into his chair. Syahrial faced his father, his mind in turmoil. This was his fault. However he knew he was doing the right thing.
It was exactly two in the morning. The night watchman had just done his rounds, striking the electricity pole twice. Syahrial still couldn’t get to sleep.
He had assumed it wouldn’t all go smoothly. But once they had it explained to them, Syahrial hoped they’d understand. Evidently not. In fact, not only had Bandaro Rajo been against what he’d proposed, but his older brother and sister had also been shocked to hear Syahrial’s decision. His father and mother hadn’t agreed either at first.
The matter, which to Syahrial’s mind was so trivial, had clearly caused the very foundations of traditional law—which had until now been firmly upheld—to collapse. Syahrial only wanted to replace it with something new. He hadn’t meant to stir up conflict and disunity, but was merely trying to correct a wrong.
“So what amount of money are we going to decide on for Syahrial?” the headman had asked at the meeting earlier. Actually meeting was too formal a word for it. It was more of a get together of Sutan Siri’s extended family. Datuak Bandaro Rajo had been invited because he was the head of the clan in that village.
“There’s not going to be any, Datuak,” Sutan Siri replied, bowing his head. He knew this was not the response that Datuak Bandaro Rajo had been expecting.
“What do you mean, not going to be any?”
“We only want to go and make the proposal and, if it’s accepted, to set a date for the wedding.”
From this point a serious quarrel erupted. Datuak Bandaro Rajo flew into rage.
“Since when has this rule applied to our village? We are substantial people. Syahrial is even a graduate, and he’s got a job. We have to set a high price if people want to have him as their son in law.”
“Datuak, I beg your pardon, but this is a marriage not a commercial transaction. I’m the one getting married. Please let me do it my way,” Syahrial responded.
“But it means you’re going against the law.”
“Which law, Datuak? Am I committing a sin?”
“These are traditional laws handed down through generations.”
“But we are Minangkabau people, Datuak. Our law is based on religion and religion is based on the Holy Book. There’s nothing in our religion that can explain the origins of the belief that a man who wants to marry has to be bought.”
“I don’t need to explain it to you. I just know. I understand these matters of traditional law better than you do.”
“But, Datuak…” Syahrial couldn’t finish what he was going to say. Datuak Bandoro Rajo had already hurried to stand up and was about to leave.
Syahrial went back to staring at the ceiling. The hands on the clock showed almost 2:15.
The previous week Syahrial had told his father and mother about his plans.
“Are you sure…?” The old woman was looking right into the face of the young man before her.
“I am sure, Mother. There’s nothing else holding me back. I’ve already got a job.”
“So you’ve already chosen someone?” asked Sutan Siri, who was sitting with them.
Syahrial smiled. “I have. You both already know her. It’s Siti Rohani from the next village; I used to go to school with her.”
Sutan Siri and his wife looked at each other and smiled.
“When?” his father asked.
“The sooner the better, Father. Next month. I’ll take a week’s leave and if we can, we’ll hold the wedding then.”
But in this village a wedding was not just the concern of the two families directly involved; it was also the business of the two traditional communities and their headmen. So that night Sutan Siri invited Datuak Bandaro Rajo to his house, along with several other elders to discuss plans for Syahrial’s marriage to the girl from the next village.
It had always been the tradition in this village that it was the boy who had to be proposed to and who had to be bought. Syahrial had no idea why it had to be this way. Tradition, said the village elders. The going price depended on who the boy was. Was he educated? Was his family well off? The higher their social status the higher the price paid by the girl’s family. Was this marriage or was it commerce?
Syahrial was well aware that they hadn’t yet been able to redeem the rice field at the foot of the hill that his father had mortgaged to pay for Fatma’s husband.
Why was marriage, something sacred and holy which even the prophets said was part of religion, only valued in terms of money and other assets?
Syahrial didn’t want this to happen to him. He wanted just the religious part. They would go and propose to the girl’s family and if they were accepted then the day of the wedding would be set. If anyone had to pay, Syahrial would rather it was he who forked out the money.
Before the formal proposal was even made, he knew full well that Siti would accept him. They’d known each other a long time. They’d both already agreed to the marriage long before Syahrial informed his parents. But the customary proposal still had to be carried out. Didn’t the term khitbah—to propose—also exist in Islam? Syahrial wanted this to be done before the wedding itself.
Their problem was that in this village there was no precedent for the groom not being bought before marrying.
Sutan Siri went back and forth three times to see Datuak Bandaro Rajo at his house to ask him to agree to accompany the family when they went to propose to Siti Rohani’s family. But with absolutely no success. The headman stubbornly stuck to his views.
“Forgive me, Sutan, but don’t ever tell me to do something that goes against customary law. How could I show my face if anyone in the village knew Syahrial had got married this way?”
Sutan Siri went home. Each visit was to no avail.
“That’s it, Father. We’ll just go there by ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there? Why do we have to involve Datuak Bandaro?”
“Syahrial, you don’t know anything! If anyone in the village knew we went to propose without the headman coming with us, we’d be a laughing stock. Even the girls and boys who’ve been caught red handed having sex still get married according to traditional law before the headmen of both of their clans. You, especially, have to get married properly.”
“So what’s the position of a custom that’s based on Islamic law, Father? Why does religion have to take second place to customary law? Shouldn’t customary law adapt itself to religious rules? If it’s a matter of following custom or religion, shouldn’t it be religion that we follow?”
Sutan Siri remained silent. He could never refute the arguments his son put forward. Syahrial’s wish not to be bought had infuriated him all along. He’d had high hopes of getting back the rice field that had been mortgaged for Fatma’s wedding if Syahrial fetched a high price. He was also sure Syahrial would be a good catch as a son in law for any parents. Syahrial was an excellent young man—university educated, handsome and already quite well off. No matter what price they set, the girl’s family would be sure to accept it. But Syahrial had dashed their hopes. A pity he couldn’t refute his son’s argument, but he was right.
“Father, will the wedding have to be cancelled just because Datuak Bandaro Rajo won’t come with us to make the proposal?”
“I’ll go and see him one more time. If he sticks to his decision then it’ll be enough for just the family to go to Siti’s house.
Syahrial sat in front of the window of the family house. From time to time he looked out at the road, but the people he was waiting for were nowhere in sight. The full moon was ruling the heavens with a smile. Its bright light made the nervous expression on Syahrial’s face clearly visible.
It was already 11 at night. The party that had gone to propose hadn’t yet arrived back home.
Just after the night prayers they had set out for the next village to ask for the hand of Siti Rohani as Syahrial’s wife. Datuak Bandaro Rajo had finally agreed to go with them. Syahrial had thanked his father profusely for his persistence in persuading him.
Syahrial could just picture the conversation that would’ve taken place between Datuak Bandaro Rajo and the traditional leader of the Tanjung clan in the next village. Just how did he explain how they weren’t setting a price on Syahrial?
Before the party had set out, all that Syahrial could do was get his father to propose to Siti on his behalf and enquire about the dowry she’d be asking for. This dowry would later be his only obligation in seeking her hand.
A cell phone buzzed in Syahrial’s pocket. The ring tone indicated a text. He quickly opened it. The text was from Siti: “Your family has just left to return home. The khitbah process has been finalised. The wedding date’s been fixed for the first Friday of next month.”
Alhamdillilah… Syahrial offered up his thanks. Then he replied to her text: “Thank god. Were there no problems with the formalities just now?”
“I could only hear from inside the room. Both our parents agreed. And the two headmen were in agreement too. Twenty-five pieces of gold is the sum we’ll be paying for you.
Syahrial’s body sagged. His cell phone fell to the floor. Twenty-five pieces of gold? How did this happen? Syahrial looked up at the full moon and saw there the image of his father and Datuak Bandaro Rajo, their smiles full of victory.
Uda Agus was born in 1980 in Payakumbuh, West Sumatra. He is an emerging author of short stories and prose. Having joined the Forum Lingkar Pena writers’ association in late 2000, his first published work appeared in the July 2001 edition of Annida magazine. His work is now published in various national newspapers and magazines.