From Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao. Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Feminist Press.
Welcome to the Department of Unanswered Prayers! Here’s your ID. When it’s time to go home, put your badge in your bag and leave the bag in your car. Rather than tossing it in some drawer, I mean, or chucking it somewhere inside your room. Don’t worry. No one will steal it. And don’t forget to bring it tomorrow and the day after and all the days after that. You’ll need it to get past security and to access the main entrance, the department, the sub-departments, the letter storage facility, and the archive. It happens every now and then—someone forgets their badge and has to go home to retrieve it. What a waste of time and money. Remember, every minute you’re late will incur a corresponding reduction in your heavenly salary. Each minute you’re late also incurs a 0.33-point penalty, to be subtracted from your end-of-year point total. Don’t let it get so dire that you can’t redeem them for the leave you’re entitled to every fourth year, because if you’re short even a fraction of a point, you’re still short a fraction of a point.
This is your desk. You’re next to Rahel. She’s off on her points-spending leave. Where’d she go? Well naturally, before heading anywhere else, she’s checking in on her kids. Just FYI: she’ll give you hell if she hears you taking part in sexist office banter. This may be heaven, but there’re no luscious celestial nymphs here. Those dirty comic books littering the metaphorical corridors of your pubescence, they totally got it wrong. (Ha ha, that’s right! I skimmed your profile.) I’ll give you an example, one time Bobi and Loki were saying lewd things about Eva from DOC, and Rahel—who was getting a drink from the water cooler—paid them a visit and slammed her glass down hard on Bobi’s desk. Cold water everywhere! Then she began telling him off in one of the Earth languages. Oh, I almost forgot! About the language we’re using right now: you realize we’re not speaking English, right? Some- times you get so used to things you forget what language you’re operating in. We are actually speaking in tongues. That’s the Earth term, isn’t it? This is how the apostles felt! Ahmad is the head of your sub-sub-department. That’s him, in the corner cubicle. He’s the serious type, and as you’ll find out, the people who work under him are no-nonsense too. So if you’re looking for friends who like talking about Taylor Swift and exchanging funny cat memes, I suggest you excuse yourself, head to the bathroom, and just talk to yourself instead. It’s not too bad in there. The cleaners come twice a day! So, about your profile. Ve-ry interesting, I must say. Langston reader… Taylor fan… What did you do in your former life, anyway?
Oh yes, straighten your cuffs. Count yourself lucky that Ahmad wasn’t at his desk when you came in. Something to remember: Ahmad disappears to pray about two or three times a day, usually at 12:00 noon and 4:00 p.m. Actually, there’s no point to it anymore—we’re already in heaven after all—but I guess habits are hard to break. Me, for instance: I could never give up instant noodles. Don’t try to slip out when Ahmad isn’t around. It’ll really piss him off. However, if you have to, have to leave, notify Kayla, your sub-sub- department secretary—that cubicle there, next to Ahmad’s. Huh. Wonder where she went. She’s probably in the toilet, blubbering over what her life has become. She’s one of the office crybabies. As for you, hmmm… you don’t seem like a crybaby, but looks can be deceiving, can’t they? Don’t be like them. Oh, regarding permission to leave the office: chances are you won’t get it. Not if it’s not a matter of life and death. And it’s not like death is a problem for us anymore, am I right? Ha ha. Anyway, please understand. We’re extremely busy here. Extremely. Busy.
Don’t give Kayla any attitude if she rejects your permission request. That is, if you ever want to stop by Earth to see your old family. You’ll have to deal with her a lot. If you want to redeem your bonus, you’ll have to talk to her, and she’s the one who’ll speak to Ahmad about it. Direct interactions with your sub-sub-department head are strongly discouraged, except for social interactions at lunchtime and office parties. The tall, skinny guy in the cubicle in the far corner is Samuel. He’s one of the other sub-sub-department heads. He’s been around for a while. In fact, he’s been working in this department since the Reformation of 1929. He used to be Armenian. Word is, he died of dehydration trying to cross the desert on foot, but nobody can say for sure. None of us here has a strong interest in history, previously or presently. And Sam won’t confirm or deny it if you ask. Even if you press him about it. Even if you get him drunk. That’s why we’ve nicknamed him Mr. Mystery. A bunch of people who used to work under him—including Rina and Monika—went out drinking with him one evening after work. They tried to psychoanalyze him, and Samuel, who was half-drunk by that point, bit their heads off: “Leave me alone, you lunatics! I’m not your guinea pig!” See? He’s a sharp one, that Sam. Unfortunately, Clara and the entire HR division were there, drinking in the same bar! Whichever way you slice it, heaven’s a small place. Rina and Monika were instantly transferred to the Department of Dreams for violating the workplace code of conduct on employee privacy. Anyway, DOD is probably a better fit for busybodies like them.
This is your sub-sub-department’s photocopy machine. Frankly, it’s pretty much useless since the register of names you’ll be working with is kept in—well, let’s just call it “digital” format. Still. Don’t use the machine in any other sub-sub-department to make copies. It’ll create conflict.
And the first rule of conflict management from the powers- that-be is: zero conflict.
Sorry, what did you say? God? Oh no, no, no. By “the powers-that-be” I mean the mere ex-mortals like us who occupy higher ranks. Sorry for the confusion. Just ask anyone who works in this building. Not one of us has ever seen God. Come to think about it, that is a bit strange, isn’t it? But who cares?
That young guy with the massive trolley—the one who’s talking to Samuel. You’ll be seeing a lot of him while you’re here. His name is Antonio. He works in DOPR—the Prayer Receiving department. He makes his rounds every morning, delivering each sub-sub-department’s quota of prayers. The other people on delivery duty are Fina, Ismael, Jacob, Sudianto, Park, Mr. Nguyen, Luis, Kwame, Annisa, Leo, Tony, Barak, and Miranda. Here’s the name register assigned to you by DOPR. Read it. There are around five hundred people on this list. Once you receive your allotted prayers from Antonio, you have to calculate their exact total, then match them with the corresponding names on the register. Don’t sign off if the numbers don’t match up! Antonio used to secretly comb through all the prayers. Then he’d pick out the ones from his home village in the Venezuelan interior to try to get them answered. He was caught red-handed, and really, he should’ve been fired. I mean, talk about a breach in code of conduct! But then we found out he’d been a heavy drinker in life and used to beat his kids. On his daughter’s fourteenth birthday, he beat her and that same night she ran away. She didn’t end up becoming Venezuela’s answer to Madonna, if that’s what you’re thinking. She was found raped and dead by the side of the road. Antonio had been attempting penance. You know how it is. Men. They’re so good at regrets. Even in heaven, they wallow, demanding sympathy all the time. After a lengthy discussion, we decided to be more proactive and proceed with renewed caution and vigilance.
I know you’ll be busy, but you should take care of your health. According to your personal history, you had an operation to remove a kidney stone, correct? Don’t let it happen again. Because you won’t die. Nope. You’ll just get bloated because you’ll be full of pee—like Pras from the sub-sub- department next door. So here’s some water. Drink up. All of it. By the way, this is the office pantry for our sub-division. Here’s the fridge. You can fill it with snacks and canned soft drinks, if there’s any room left. Unfortunately, there’s no hot water, but you can buy a thermos from the super- market around the corner. If the water cooler is empty, tell Robert and he’ll call Doni in the Sub-Sub-Sub-Department of Pantry Stocking to get a refill.
This is the sub-department bathroom. No bath though. But if the water at home gets shut off, there’s a shower in the bathroom on the ground floor, near the lobby. Ha ha, yes, you heard right. Heaven and its water supply drama— embarrassing, isn’t it? There’s a smoking lounge next to the bathroom. You’re only allowed to smoke during lunch, which lasts an hour. Don’t smoke. Use your break to socialize. Only people with no friends smoke during lunch.
Here’s where we keep the stationery—your work will involve a lot of writing. Better get your scissors and staples now. Don’t lose them. We’re always running out. On the plus side, you can take all the pens you like—any kind. It’s one of our sub-department’s special perks.
So FYI: From the moment you start working here, people from other departments will begin talking about you behind your back. Maybe one of them has even come up with a shitty nickname for you already, like poor Dennis, who they call “Penis.” Don’t take it too hard, and try to see things from their point of view. They’re only like that because they know all their past hopes and dreams, which, mysteriously enough, remained unfulfilled—“mysteriously” because we know that some hopes and dreams, mysteriously enough, do get fulfilled—are now under our jurisdiction. They all want to know why their prayers were never answered. They want to read God’s notes concerning each of their requests. One time, this young woman from the Department of Hope—I think her name was Albertina—came in wanting to discuss the state of post-New-Order Indonesia. She requested full access to our digital archive. The sub-department head at the time, Mr. Sirius, refused. He said it was entirely against our department’s vision and mission and would make a mockery of the Organization’s Creed as a whole. Albertina held her ground, insisting that the fate of thousands—no, millions—of people now lay in our hands. “Indonesia was at a crossroads.” Those were her words. And everything came down to which path the country would take. “Everything,” she said, stretching out her arms as wide as they would go. Hah! If you ask me, is any nation—especially a postcolonial one—ever not at a crossroads? Even more so if you’re poor. Like I used to be. I was at a crossroads and a dead end all at once, every single day of my life. And then she said if her department were to save a nation’s people, they needed to find out the people’s greatest fear. “I make this request for the preservation of all humankind,” she told us. But during the long debate that followed, she revealed her true intentions. What she really wanted to know was why her prayers for a child of her own had been denied.
Poor Albertina the never-was Santa Maria. Boo hoo. Talk about cliché.
When it comes to lunch, I’d suggest sitting only with people from this department. Try to avoid interacting with the others, especially those in Matchmaking. Their department is touchy, especially when it comes to us. They secretly call us “the Self-Hanging Hangmen.” You’d think they could come up with a better insult. They refuse to admit they’re being irrationally mean. They know we don’t have a say in whether a particular prayer gets answered. Archival and storage duties—that’s all we’re responsible for. Even we aren’t allowed to read God’s notes concerning each prayer: we believe that unanswered prayers are no less sacrosanct than the answered ones. What’s more, their whole operating premise is absurd: according to them, no one should have to be alone. They even argue that all the prayers assigned to us related to finding a soulmate should be returned to the Secretariat and reassessed as new incoming prayers. (By the time some of the really desperate ones reach us, there are so many tear stains on the envelope you can barely read the name.) Get this. They insist those prayers must be answered.
Come on. Is there such a thing? Really? Really? A prayer that must be answered?
So remember what I said just now about not reading the letters? I mean it. Ignorance is one of our priorities—an essential part of what we do. Actually, we should consider ourselves lucky that we’ll never read what God writes about each prayer, unless we get nosy. The Secretariat Office spends every day reading them all, entering them into their notebooks. At lunch you’ll see a bunch of pasty people sitting in the corner of the cafeteria by themselves. That’s them. The ones who work in SO. Everyone thinks they’re creepy. The people who work in the Department of Enlightenment (you guessed it, they barely do any work) call the SO the “Zombietariat.” In return, the SOers call the DOE “the fuckwits.” No one likes the DOE. Honestly speaking, they’re jerks. One of them was whining in the lift once—ugh, what was his name? Petrol, or something like that—about how their working conditions have gone downhill. So, Christianity’s really taken off in South Korea, right? Now their department has to keep recruiting Koreans in order to stay on top of things. Petrol’s own words: “They play weird music all day, and it just gets weirder each year. Okay, their dance numbers are decent, but give me Westlife any day. Know what I mean? A bit of Backstreet Boys… Throw in some Jonas Brothers… That Nick is so dreamy! Nick, oh God… No one else has to put up with this.” That’s what he said. My point is, not a single DOE person has told him what a racist he is. And ever since, everyone has known what sorry scumbags the DOE are.
Now, about your specific tasks. Once you receive your quota of prayers for the day, and make sure the total corresponds to the total number of names on the register, all you have to do is file them in a binder. When you’re finished, bring the binder to the prayer archive. Write down the binder’s location in your notebook—yeah, that pink one. If you still haven’t finished archiving all the prayers and it’s getting late, then put the remaining ones in a binder and bring it to the letter storage facility. Write down the location of the binder in that green book there. But please do your best not to let work pile up.
And I’ll say it again: don’t start opening envelopes and peeping at God’s notes. There was once this guy working under Jenna, in another sub-sub-department, who was nosy enough to take a peek. Jaka Tingkir, I think his name was. He was depressed for months. Then one day he stopped coming to work. Then, the following week, he showed up again out of the blue. God, he looked pale. And tense. Didn’t say a word all morning. Then at lunchtime he blew up.
“This is madness!” he started yelling in the middle of the cafeteria. “Allowing one person to determine the fate of every desperate dream there ever was!” Of course, two guards came to secure the area. Jaka was never seen again. Apparently he picked the wrong envelope to open. It wasn’t that same old prayer asking to turn back time. Or a child molester pining for a new motorbike. Or a deviant piano teacher praying for their student to fail the conservatorium entrance exams. It wasn’t the prayer of some shitty old guy wanting to meet a younger woman so he could leave his wife. No, of all the millions, the trillions of hateful prayers he could have read, he stumbled across a prayer from an old woman whose only son had vanished one day—kidnapped by the military. She was waiting for him to come home.
No one knows what God’s notes were. No one knows why her prayer wasn’t answered. Nobody knows. Except Jaka, of course.
Well, I think that’s it for now. If you’re confused about anything, just ask. That’s my cubicle over there. By the way, I heard you live in the same direction as me. I take my car every sixth day. Happy to give you a lift when you are too lazy to drive. Don’t be shy, it’s no trou—oh, yeah. One more thing. Someday you’ll come across an envelope that has your name on it. You’ll be speechless. You’ll break into a cold sweat and your heart will pound. After all, you’ve arrived. You’re here. Why is your prayer only getting here now? Just remember: don’t trust any of your feelings. They’re wrong. When that time comes, you’ll have to steel yourself and treat the envelope as if it contains someone else’s prayers, not yours. Your name will be printed on it, but act as if the words inside aren’t written in the language of your innermost soul, even if you know the contents by heart. Pretend that the scent emanating faintly from it—if it’s scented, that is—isn’t the scent of your favorite perfume. Though you know it’s your perfume. There’s no doubt about it. It was the last birthday gift you received from your mother before you made that severe decision to sever ties. You know full well, don’t you? That the only relationship you can never leave is the one between you and your god. Sound familiar? Ha ha, looks really can be deceiving. This is our little secret: Before this, I was Indonesian too. Like you.
So, there you have it. Happy working! And again, welcome to the Department of Unanswered Prayers!
Norman Erikson Pasaribu is a Toba Batak writer of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Happy Stories, Mostly won the 2022 Republic of Consciousness Prize and was longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize.
Tiffany Tsao translates Indonesian fiction and poetry. She is the translator of Budi Darma’s People from Bloomington and also writes novels, the most recent of which is The Majesties. She lives in Sydney.