The Lotteries of Haji Zakaria: A Story

by MOCHTAR LUBIS

1

IT WAS on the bus going to Kerinchi that I began thinking about Haji Zakaria. I had not seen him for more than fourteen years. My father had recently died in our little village in Sumatra, and I had had to return home to console my mother and look after alt the affairs that need handling when one’s father dies. One of them was this trip I had to make to Kerinchi, where he had a little rubber estate. And there I was to stay in the house of Haji Zakaria.

At first there was no chance to think of anyone or anything except the bus. I had not liked the idea of this trip, because I knew that the motor road from Padang to Sungai Penuh, its terminus in Kerinchi, was in the worst possible condition. Myny big rivers must still be crossed by pontoons, and the road goes through dense wild jungles, up and down great mountains. I could not refuse my mother’s request. But the trip from the beginning proved to be everything I had expected.

Not that we had grave accidents, though twice the axle of the bus broke, and we skidded to a stop a few feet from the gaping mouths of deep ravines. Rut the driver seemed to be used to this, and indeed had quite a supply of new axles in the back of the bus. Still, such incidents kept one a little tense.

The near-murder was even more distracting. From the very beginning of the trip a young man returning from a religious school in Pariaman had been loudly chanting Koran verses. The passenger beside him, already distressed enough by the heat and by the bus’s speedy swings round the hairpin mountain bends, was made quite ill by the loud chanting, and asked the young religious fanatic to stop. Rut he only chanted the louder. The sick man suddenly lost his temper and angrily shouted to the singer to stop that noise, to shut his mouth.

“Cursed infidel!” the young fanatic shrieked back, clapping his hand to the long knife inside his belt. “How dare you order me to stop chanting the sacred verses of the Holy Koran?”

He thereupon let loose a stream of Arabic sentences, then switched back to his local dialect, cursing the sick man with Hell’s fire, God’s wrath, and Black Death for seven generations. This done, he looked at each of us in turn. Seeing that nobody wanted to challenge him, he quieted down, forgot his intention to murder the sick passenger, and again started to chant his verses louder than ever.

But one finally gets used even to broken axles, chasm brinks, and chanting fanatics, and my mind went back to Haji Zakaria. It was when my father was district commissioner in Kerinchi, a long time ago. I was only a small boy then, but I always remember Haji Zakaria as one of the kindest men I have ever known.

At harvest time, he never forgot to send Mother rice, still young and green, from which to make sweet cookies for us. Returned from a hunt, he always sent her dried well-seasoned strips of tender deer meat. And at the Lebaran, the great day after the month of fasting, we children were overwhelme by his gifts. Fireworks were best, and once Father, on opening a case of them, was shocked to see that each was as big as a stick of dynamite. We therefore regarded Haji Zakaria as part of the family, as the kindest, most generous uncle that ever was.

He was a very rich man. He had acres of rice fields. And, in those years when coffee prices were high, he had huge coffee plantations, with the best Robusta and Arabica types.

My father also had a coffee plot, but much smaller. When rubber began to bring higher prices in the markets, my father decided to cut down his coffee trees and plant rubber instead. Haji Zakaria advised against this, but Father feared the coffee market would crash, and then rubber would be the thing. Haji Zakaria laughed at Father’s idea as crazy. People would always drink coffee, he said, but who would eat rubber?

Every New Year he and Father and Mother would make a promise to go toget her on t he pilgrimage to Mecca. But Haji Zakaria always had to go alone. Father and Mother could never make the pilgrimage to Mecca; and it was only later I knew that it was because they did not have the money. Each year Haji Zakaria tried to get them to accept the money from him, and said to Father:

“Oh my friend the district commissioner, why are you so cruel to me? Is not my money your money? Is not my house your house? If you will not accept money as a gift, regard it then as a loan, which you can pay back whenever you wish.”

But my father would laugh and refuse the offer, and Haji Zakaria would leave our house angrily. And when the day came, it was once more alone that he would set out on the pilgrimage. But when he returned from the Holy Land of Mecca, he never forgot to bring Mother the red coral stones of the Bed Sea, small branches from certain holy trees in Mecca which were used as toothbrushes, and the zam-zam water in a bottle from the holy springs.

And then I remembered also how fond Haji Zakaria was of lotteries. Every month he would spend large sums on lottery tickets from Padang — four hundred to five hundred rupiahs-worth. And in those days that meant almost three hundred dollars. As far as I could recall, he had never won anything. Yet he never threw away the old tickets, but kept them carefully as a collection. I remember that on the night of a new Lebaran Father and Mother took us to visit him, and he began to tell us about the lotteries.

“Oh, my good friend,” he said, “last month I almost won the big prize. The winning number was 567889, and one of my tickets was 567888. Now I am getting close to winning; next month I shall buy more tickets.”

Father, who thought lotteries as great an evil as gambling, disagreed with Haji Zakaria, and they often fought about it. This time a naughty twinkle came into my father’s eye, and he asked:

“Ah, Haji, how much have you wasted on these lotteries without getting a single cent back?”

Haji Zakaria left the room and returned with a big tin case. Inside it were lottery tickets stacked thick upon each other.

“There are about ten thousand rupiahs-worth there,” he said, banging the case with his palm. “It is just the play of fortune. If you win, you get great profit; if you lose, well, what do some five hundred, or eight hundred, rupiahs a month matter?”

My father shook his head, and then said:

“What use are these paper tickets to you? 1 strongly advise you to throw them away. 4’hey are evil, and will bring sorrow to your heart later.”

Haji Zakaria laughed aloud:

“No,” he explained, “the pleasure of lotteries lies in realizing how close you have sometimes been to winning the big prize. Only one or two numbers make all the difference.”

2

IT WAS just at this point in my reminiscences that the bus stopped at Haji Zakaria’s house, and I jumped out. Haji Zakaria was already waiting out front, and he hugged me to him as if I were still a child. Inside, his wife, sons, and daughters welcomed me. And food was ready too. Only after dinner did I begin to feel that the big house had changed and now seemed somehow empty. I missed the thick Smyrna carpets on the floor, and the noise the children used to make.

They too had grown. He had six children, and now only one girl, Maryam, remained at home, si ill unmarried. She used to play with us as a child, but now she had become a beautiful young girl. I kept looking at her.

Haji Zakaria talked and talked, remembering the old days, and repeating how wonderful it was to see me again, and how sad that my father had died. Later, when the married sons and daughters had left, and Maryam and her mother had gone back to the kitchen, Haji Zakaria suddenly said:

“We are poor now, son. When the coffee market crashed, many years ago, I followed your father’s example, cut down my coffee trees and planted rubber. But just when the rubber trees had grown, that market crashed too. And I stupidly cut them down and replanted coffee. But coffee prices stayed down. Your father was lucky: he stuck to rubber during its slump, and when the Korean War made rubber boom, it paid off. He asked me to take care of his plantation, and that has helped us much. But now rubber is down again,” he concluded, “and I do not know what will happen.”

I told him my mission: Mother asked him to continue to care for the rubber plantation, but now that Father was gone, to regard it as his own.

Later in the evening, he went to the mosque, and Maryam came in to talk. It seemed that, when coffee crashed, her father had not taken it too seriously. He still went to Mecca each year, and bought his lottery tickets, just as usual. Later on, he had to sell some rice fields each year to pay for his pilgrimage.

But the biggest blow had come after the Japanese military occupation. Haji Zakaria was a patriot, with his sons in the revolutionary army, and he had sold many of his rice fields to buy Republican National Loan Bonds. Not that it was only patriotism, either: the Republican government guaranteed the interest on the bonds, and full payment of the principal within three or four years. Rut when Indonesia had won her freedom, the government failed to redeem the bonds. Then came the Korean War, however, and fortunately my father had asked Haji Zakaria to oversee his rubber plantation, for one half the profits.

From Maryam’s story, T considered Haji Zakaria still well-off by ordinary standards. All his sons were working, and helping him. And he still had a few rice fields, so he did not need to buy rice.

“But,” said Maryam, “he can no longer afford to play the lottery or to make his annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and that saddens him.”

When, later, Haji Zakaria came home from the mosque, an impish impulse caused me to ask him about his lotteries. His face lit up, and lie brought from his bedroom the big tin case, which he opened:

“Do you remember how I used to buy lottery tickets every month? And how often I was very close to winning? Please, try to estimate what all this is worth.”

“Oh, it must be thousands of rupiahs,” I said.

“No, not just thousands, son. I know exactly how much I paid for them: fifty-six thousand rupiahs, no more, no less. And they were good rupiahs, mind you, not our present rupiahs.

“And yet you never won?” I asked with amazement.

“And I never won,” he answered. He laughed, shut the case, and started toward his bedroom. “Sleep well, son,” he said.

Then I exclaimed: “Fifty-six thousand rupiahs, the old good rupiahs! Don’t you realize that means more than a million and a half today? What could you not buy with so much money, even at today’s prices. Why, you would be rich today!”

Haji Zakaria paused and laughed; then suddenly he stopped laughing, a cloud crossed his face, and he looked strangely at me. Then he muttered:

“You talk nonsense. Sleep well. You must be tired from your journey.”

My room was between that of the old couple and Maryam’s. I heard her being restless, and in my heart I hoped that if she could not sleep it was because of me.

I was back in Jakarta only a month when I received a letter from Maryam. She wrote that she fell uneasy about her father ever since my A isit. He often shut himself in his room, and once they saw that he was busy counting his lottery tickets. He had become very quiet, and for hours and even days did not talk to anyone. And once, when he took his gun to go hunting, he had come back emptyhanded, refusing to say where he had been or what had happened. And the lakes were so full of wild ducks just then that he couldn’t have missed them.

I wrote back, telling Maryam not to worry, and saying, as young people do, that old people have their own problems but they blow over.

A week later, a telegram from Maryam informed me that her father was dead. A letter following the wire explained that Haji Zakaria had committed suicide in his locked bedroom by blowing out his brains with a gun. When they forced the door, they found him lying in the middle of the room, his blood spattered over all his lottery tickets and Republican Government Bonds spread around him on the floor. “My mother,” Maryam ended, “has fallen ill, and I do not know what to do.”

So this is now my problem. What am I to do? For nights now, I have not been able to sleep. I feel guilty. I murdered Haji Zakaria by reminding him of his lottery tickets: in sorrow he killed himself because I reminded him of his folly.

I love Maryam. But can the murderer of the father marry the daughter?

With what great happiness would I make Maryam my wife, if I could only feel the certainty and assurance that it was not because of the lotteries that Haji Zakaria killed himself. If only I could believe that what led him to suicide was his sorrow over the unpaid Republican National Bonds!