This was the question: What is the key word in a formal letter?
The student stared blankly at the professor, who turned to me and said, ‘This is the globalisation era and he can’t identify the key word.’ Her tone said, ‘Can you believe it?’ I was glad that she hadn’t asked me to identify the key word. I did not want her to discover my own woeful lack of preparation for the globalisation era.
President Megawati, on the wall in her obligatory portrait, was the only un-jilbabed woman on the campus of the Muslim University of Indonesia in Makassar. A few weeks earlier hundreds of students, still enraged over the rearrest of Bashir in Jakarta, had clashed with police. Our friends at the Preparatory Committee had urged us to visit the campus for a taste of activism, but when Herry and I showed up at the end of June, en route to the sharia-friendly district of Bulukumba, we found it on break and mostly deserted. After searching in vain for rock throwers for more than an hour we stumbled upon the professor of English and her hapless student.
We sat under a lazy fan facing a picture of the Great Mosque in Mecca. A (properly punctuated) sign on the wall said, ‘Have you prayed already?’ The professor was fleshy like a fruit, with a face that recalled a long and losing battle with acne. She wore a colourful jilbab. Nine hairs of various lengths sprouted from a mole on her chin. She had a loud voice and a louder laugh and these made me warm to her at once.
‘Key word, key word,’ said the professor. The student—his name was Askar—continued to stare at her blank-faced. He sat opposite her, across the narrow width of a long table covered with green felt. A cowlick curled like a comma on his forehead. A notebook and a ballpoint pen lay in front of him. To his right, opposite me, sat Herry.
The professor turned to me again. ‘There is a key word in every letter. He has to identify the key word.’ She refused to be held responsible for Askar’s acute deficiency in the key word department. ‘His teacher before wasn’t me,’ she said. She was not that kind of professor she assured me. Her sister held a doctorate from Macquarie University in Australia.
At this point a girl in a severe black jilbab, tight jeans and a white T-shirt with a zip down the front breezed in. Evidently she was an hour and a half late. ‘Traffic,’ she explained without apology and pulled up a chair beside Askar. The professor ignored her and continued grilling the boy. She asked him what he would do if he had to ask his parents for money.
He thought this over for a few moments. ‘I would call them,’ he said softly.
‘See, telephone!’ exclaimed the professor in triumph. ‘They must have a conversation with their parents on the telephone. They use the telephone!’
Askar’s inquisition was the closest I’d come to a good time in Makassar, but Herry appeared distressed. He tried to intervene on the boy’s behalf. ‘You can’t really blame technology,’ he said politely. ‘It’s faster.’
The professor cracked a knuckle loudly. She wasn’t convinced. ‘Yes, they think problem can be finished. Short technology, short language.’ She raised an imaginary phone to her ear and mimicked a student. ‘Ok-bye-sudah. See you!’
I asked her if she expected them to write letters to their parents instead of calling. ‘Phoning is the informal method,’ she said. ‘Writing is the formal method, but they don’t even know how to compose a sentence.’ She turned to the students sharply. ‘How would you write if you wanted to ask your parents for money? Do this now. It’s your assignment.’
Askar was 22; Trimurti, the girl, 24. They were both students of English and would have graduated by now, except that they had failed English Correspondence, and an English major couldn’t graduate without passing English Correspondence. The grim responsibility for remedial coaching, of ensuring that Askar and Trimurti were fit to join other alumni of the Muslim University of Indonesia, Makassar, had fallen on the professor.
I didn’t want Askar’s suffering to end just yet. I said, ‘He might not know the key word, but I bet he knows all about football.’ I asked him to name the four Euro championship semi-finalists.
‘Greece, Portugal, Czech Republic,’ he said. He scanned his brain for a few seconds and added, ‘The Netherlands.’
‘He’ll get an A in Euro,’ I said to the professor.
Her cheeks reddened. She threw up her hands; her watch was slim and feminine with a thin leather band. ‘Look at their expressions,’ she said. ‘Just look at their expressions.’
She had a point. Askar and Trimurti resembled cattle trapped in a car’s headlights, their eyes blank, their brows perfectly unlined, the faces of innocents.
‘They don’t like me,’ said the professor. ‘I’m a killer.’ She snipped the air with imaginary scissors. But the students did nothing to make their dislike evident. They seemed placid, impervious to humiliation, capable of absorbing every barb with equanimity.
Since Askar was a student of English, I asked him what he liked to read.
‘I like novels,’ he said.
This came as a pleasant surprise. Whose novels did he like? He pondered this. Lines formed on his smooth forehead. Finally he spoke. ‘The novels of Mira W.’
I hadn’t heard the name before. Could he name a few of her books?
Again silence. You could hear the ceiling fan rotating overhead.
‘I forget the titles,’ he said. ‘There’s a sinetron on TV.’ (A soap opera.)
I thought I’d try out Herry’s technique of telling people exactly what they wanted to hear. ‘Kids are spoilt these days,’ I said to the professor. ‘I would bring back corporal punishment. These kids need a ruler wouldn’t you say?’
She laughed raucously. Yes, yes, they are all so spoilt. They need a thrashing. Can’t write a sentence. Don’t know the key word. Only want to use the telephone.
As Askar and Trimurti hunched over their assignment, three of Trimurti’s friends entered the room. They were evidently waiting for her to finish. They sidled up to Trimurti and whispered in her ear. They didn’t seem to care that this was under the nose of the professor, the killer, the sister of the doctorate holder from Macquarie University. The girls whispered in Trimurti’s ear. Trimurti wrote. Askar peeked at Trimurti’s paper, quickly turned his sheet over, and started again.
The professor now turned to Herry, whose business card lay on the green felt before her. She looked at the card and then at him again.
She said, ‘Friend of Amrozi.’ The Bali bomber. ‘Careful, terrorist!’ She laughed.
Herry grimaced. His feeble attempt to shield Askar had failed and now he himself was under attack. The professor went on. ‘Sabili is—’ She sliced the air with a make-believe sword.
‘It’s not only that,’ said Herry, his tone both testy and plaintive. He was struggling to retain his dignity. His lack of a formal education inflated the professor’s authority in his eyes and put Herry at a severe disadvantage. I found myself enjoying his discomfort as well. It seemed a small price to pay for lionising terrorists.
The professor was high on her own wit. ‘Careful! Careful Osama bin Laden! Dangerous.’
‘It’s not like that. It’s—’
‘Bomb Bali! Friend of Amrozi! Dangerous!’
This went on for a while, Herry alternating between pleading and glowering, the professor, the killer, too practiced in her art to be deterred by either tactic. Eventually Herry was rescued by Trimurti and Askar. They slid their letters across the table to the professor.
Askar’s first attempt had begun: ‘Dear Sirs, Firstly I would to talk my condition in Makassar is very fine and hope father and mother fine also, amien.’ On the other side of the paper was the letter he had written after cribbing from Trimurti and her consortium of helpers:
Makassar, 29 June 2004
Dear Father and Mother,
Assalamu Alaikum wr-wb.
Firstly I would like to talk my condition in Makassar is very fine and I hope father and mother fine also amien….!
Related with this letter your child would ask money for to pay the SPP next semester about Rp. 1000 000 I hope will send soon. I think that is all my letters. Thank you very much.
Wassalam wr wb.
It had taken them nearly an hour, albeit with distractions. The professor circled the words ‘Related with’ and wrote, ‘This is more the style of formal letter.’ Askar and Trimurti were free to go. They would both pass. An air of gaiety touched the room and even Herry managed a smile. It was only later that I remembered that I still didn’t know the key word in a formal letter.