A story in a string

An old man let me squat next to him while continued drawing on the ground. As usual he did not speak any word. After several minutes, a glimpse of a shape appeared from the emptiness. It was a temple. A beautiful pagoda.

I sighed, “Wow….”

The old man looked at me, broke a chalk he held into two pieces and gave me one of them. In the next five minutes or so I found myself doodling next to him.

“I didn’t know you can draw.”

“I didn’t know you can draw either,” I replied.

He stood up, walked into the house leaving me wondering what had happened. Not too long he came back and gave me a white-colored kite and a marker, while keeping a set for himself. Soon we both were immersed in our own drawing. He moved his chalk painting into a kite painting while I drew my own rendition of a pagoda which perhaps looked more like a futuristic hybrid shrine that anything else. It was some Chinese temple with Sumatran (Minang) roofs completed with a pair of weird shaped wings.

“Any stock of killer gelasan (glass string), Sir?”

A man’s voice, coming from a costumer who came to grandpa’s little shop, a stall, to buy kite thread/string, stopped our activities. Our drawings were more or less completed so I just silently passed my kite on to him. He picked up the kite, stared at my drawing for seconds, and then looked at me in the eyes. I was not sure whether he smiled or not. Besides, I never saw him smiled. Yet I thought I saw a pair of smiley eyes. Eyes that squinted a little with their lids rose to just below the bottom edge of the pupil.

That old man was my grandfather. A father of my mother. He was a tall, thin man of about mid sixties, with white hair. Fine looking man, somewhat aristocratic, yet always appeared unfriendly. In fact, children in his neighborhood, Gang Sereh, were fearful of him. “I’ll send you away to Uncle Japar,” that was what parents in Gang Sereh said to discipline their children. I, too, was always frightened of him.

Uncle Japar, that his nickname was. Japar was the name of his kite stall. Such an interesting name. Nobody knows where he got the name. From the book of Ong Hok Ham, the famous historian, I learned that Mohammad Japar was the last Chinese Muslim captain (under VOC) in Old Batavia who died in 1827. Grandpa might hear about him on the road while being an inter-city truck driver, a profession he took before opened a kite shop.

Grandpa Japar spent most of his adult life on the road, driving his truck from Batavia to all over cities and town in Java. Being handsome, I heard stories from my mother (who heard them from my grandmother) how many ladies fell for him. In his older age, though, he decided to stop his adventure, stayed with my grandmother, and opened the first kite shop in the area.

He made really good kites. People said his kites had perfect balance. They flew gracefully but also made for great fighter kites. Grandpa also made strong fierce gelasan (glass string), an abrasive line used for fighter kites. He coated a thin cotton thread with a mixture of finely crushed glass, egg, and rice glue. Sometimes he put on coloring powder to the mix, too. Once dried, the string was rolled into a big wooden bobbin and later spun into small spools using a pedaled machine. I once was my grandpa’s spinner. In fact, a kite string spinner was the first paid job of my life. I did it when I was in fifth grade, about 10 year old, and I am proud to say that I was the only grandchild trusted to do such work!

Not much I know about my grandfather. One thing I know for sure, he was a remarkable kite maker. Not only because he made kites that were technically great but also could turn them into sophisticated artful artifact. He was an artist, indeed. Later in my life I found out that he was not only a painter but also a skillful harmonica player.

I never had any conversation with my grandfather, not even a casual one, even though I spent most of my evenings there, around his shop. The only intimate moment we shared was that only moment when we drew on kite together. He never said anything about my drawing nor asked me to draw anything after that. And sure enough a little me never dared to ask him. It was more than enough for her to see the kite hanging on the wall. She was always bigheaded to see it hung next to grandpa’s kite on the dining room’s wall. And now, a much older her still feels bigheaded about it….*smile*.

Grandpa died seven years after that special episode. But that only moment we shared is kept alive in me and in every kite I see in the sky.

m, in Tempe, AZ

image: “Kite” by merlynalim

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