Sigobai and Akbar Get Out and About

Sigobai was in a spot of bother.

The word was out that he had been making nocturnal visitations to a lady friend in a neighboring settlement. He liked to get out and about. For example almost every other afternoon he was to be found playing Ping-Pong at one of the huts owned by the Social Affairs Department, and who had supplied the equipment. This was mainly a pursuit of the village youth who would spend several hours at a time playing back-to-back matches.

At dusk and into the evenings, following long Ping-Pong sessions, they would often bring out a guitar and sing into the night, songs of love lost—and yet to come. Sigobai liked his Ping-Pong, loud cries of “bat tilei alei” (what a “bitch”) issuing forth when a point was lost. He probably spent too much time there. Still, he had no wife to be responsible to, hence the name “gobai”, the term used to refer to a widower. His daughters were all teenagers and could look after themselves, and him as well, although sago-processing was still his job, being largely a masculine pursuit, along with tending the pigs, which was a pleasure.

The thing was that Sigobai had taken to wandering about in the dead of night. In a community where everyone is acutely aware of what everyone else is up to—and if not, then expend great amounts of energy finding out—particularly those wandering about at night, this was not an activity that went un-noticed, although Sigobai might, wistfully, wish that it had.

A complicating factor in all this is that the “truth” about what people get up to, with whom, and why, and so on, was not something that did one much good trying to discover in some sort of pristine or transparent form. Nor was it a case of the simple circulation of “rumour” in which one could automatically dismiss what anyone said about anyone else. To do that would be to cut oneself off from the flow of “sociality” that made the community…well, a community. (I have occasionally toyed with the idea of a new object for social science, “rumour/truth”, or “ruth” for short!). Such is the power of discourse, that in the absence of any objective measure of its veracity, once uttered it takes on a life of its own. Whether or not events depicted in this continual production actually took place or not are a secondary consideration. So when the word got out that Sigobai was on the prowl, it was as good as a feit accompli (and in his shoes if we were not actually partaking of amorous nocturnal liaisons then we may as well get on with it anyway since it had become a reality).

Now, the problem with this sort of thing was not so much the activity itself. It seemed that just about everyone either had a spouse or a brother or sister or friend who had become involved in such liaisons at some stage of their life. The problem lay with the implications for the relations between groups. Enjoying the product, as it were, of one group without forking out appropriate compensation for the right to do so was the real issue—murmurings about the unseemliness of such behaviour were only ever reflections of this more fundamental issue.

Around the same time a tourist guide who would bring western trekkers out to flounder about in the mud for a week or so at a time (he would often pass through the village a couple of times from different directions; the tourists never knew the difference thinking they were covering great distances, which they were, except that it happened to be akin to running on the spot), took a shine to one of the local girls. Akbar who had a wife and two children back in Bukittinggi on the Sumatran mainland began an amorous liaison with Bailar whose father’s uma would be the first stop for every group of trekkers that Akbar brought through the area. He would employ her to be the group’s cook meaning she would accompany the group wherever they went on the seven or so days of “trekking”.

The immediate family were comfortable with this, for a time. Then the pressure was on for Akbar to “clarify” what his intentions were in relation to the girl. They were, firstly, dead set against her going off to Sumatra to live. That was non-negotiable. Parents in the Rereiket are loathe to be separated from their children by significant distances. But the main issue for them was that Akbar would initiate proceedings to bring about a formal union, a course of action, however, that Akbar had no intention of embarking upon. As far as unions go this one was on good footing.

The girl’s family were, nominally, Muslim, as was Akbar, and were more or less active in the local umat (Islamic community). The upshot was that once the heat was on, Akbar went into a period of voluntary retirement in which he pursued other interests on the mainland, leaving the trekking business to the other guides for the time being.

Anyhow, Sigobai had been found out. And people were watching—and talking, commenting, judging. If he kept to his present course then the pressure would be on for him to make some sort of formal approach and become involved in formal discussions concerning bridewealth, that is how many pigs, chickens, durian trees and the like that he would have to hand over to his potential bride’s family to compensate them for her loss. And then there was the issue of brideservice, in which he would be obliged to help out his wife’s family where they needed extra labour.

I’m not sure what Sigobai exactly thought of this. One could surmise that it was not to his liking. Anyhow, the whole matter just sort of died down, faded away. The production of discourse surrounding Sigobai’s activities slowly became subordinated to and subsequently displaced by other issues. The reprieve was probably only short-lived for Sigobai anyway, since neither widows or widowers are permitted to remain in that state for too long. Such people, particular older people, tend to wake up one morning and find themselves with a spouse. In the meantime Sigobai had his pigs and his Ping-Pong, with which he was reasonably satisfied.

Post-script 2000
Sigobai is now married with a new child on its way. His daughters have married and moved elsewhere (women generally move to reside with their husband’s relatives; with the marriage they become a member of that family), which may have given him extra incentive to take another wife, someone to look after his domestic needs. Yet he would never have been able to batch-it for too long. Marriage is still the most appropriate state for any adult. He still loves his table-tennis morning, noon, and night. Sporting a few more grey hairs he is no less enthusiastic, although he does seem to have toned the language down just a bit.

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