Today, a person’s name came to mind: Nambar.

I never met him nor talked to him. He passed away one year before I was born. The story written here is based on hearsay, mostly from my late father.

Nambar was born in Blitar, a kotamadya in East Java, in 1917. In Javanese language, ‘Nambar’ means ‘to exterminate’. His parents intentionally gave him the name in order to exterminate an illness he’d been suffering when he was a baby. Lately, I actually learned that his name is widely used in Mongolia with, probably, much different meaning.

His parents were dukun obat (shaman), and both embraced Kejawen (Javanese religious belief). They were said to have a small pig farms to make ends meet.

Nambar had one elder sister and one younger brother. His elder sister opened a small coffee shop in Telumpu area, while his brother joined an army to work as a soldier. His brother tragically died during the war against Japan: the cause was grenade’s explosion.

When Nambar was young, he was taught by a teacher called Mbah Sosro until he finished Sekolah Rakjat (elementary school). I recently found out that Mbah Sosro is actually Raden Soekemi Sosrodihardjo, the father of former Indonesia’s first president Soekarno.

After finishing Sekolah Rakjat, he worked in a ketchup company. Therein, he was fascinated with the perfection and precision: how the machine could exactly pour a perfect volume of ketchup into the conveyed bottles. He was probably good factory employee, but he liked teaching more. In his teen, he changed job and went to teach in an elementary school. He taught sports and berhitung (calculation). After several years, he quit his job, and was transferred to a middle school (SMP 3 Blitar). He went on to teach sports and calculation. The calculation was, by then, changed to Aljabar (Algebra). He was also remember to teach Pembukuan (finance administration). He liked teaching subjects related to numbers. His students liked him because of his clarity in describing the meaning of mathematical concepts. He could deliver most subjects in a simple way. Certainly, the subjects were much simpler in comparison to the present standard. He also had a good sense of humor. Simplicity and humor were two important ingredients in his class. Nevertheless, not all students liked him. He was known to be very strict and disciplined. He was often to be very critical about other teachers, in the sense that he often criticized some teachers who only emphasized on ‘teaching’ rather than on sopan santun (ethics).

When he turned 19, he was married Siti Asnah, a lady from a rather wealthy family in Blitar. Siti Asnah had only finished elementary school. They had four children. Their first child, a son named Prastowo, was born in 1938. The second one is a daughter named Hartati (born in 1943 and died in 2005). The third one is Harnowo (born 1945), who was born in Wlingi, outskirt of Blitar. The last one is Goenawan who was born in 1947. To many of their relatives, having four children was thought to be strange. Most families at that time had more than five children. But he insisted that it is difficult for parents to give their utmost attention if they have many children. Larger families would only yield insufficient care, specifically from parents to children. Small family was their option.

Initially, Nambar’s family lived in Wlingi. Then, they moved to Blitar. In Blitar, they were given a bigger house by Siti Asnah’s father. The house was located near alun-alun (city square) of Blitar, behind Masjid Jamik (central mosque). The house had many bedrooms. They thought that the house was too larger for his small family. So, Nambar sublet several rooms for other people, mostly students from the surrounding villages who were sent by their parents to study in the city. Some of the parents send their children so that they could receive proper education (read: strict discipline) from Nambar.

Supernatural world

Nambar was not interested in supernatural world nor its its phenomenon and creatures. But he kept having the experience in encountering the supernatural phenomena time to time.


As usual, Nambar rode his bicycle back from teaching classes. He passed through an empty, dusty street. The street was straight and lined with canopy trees. He could barely see the end of the street. It was almost dark, and he rushed up his wheels. Suddenly, everything came very static. Everything was not moving except his bicycles, and he stayed at the same spot. He realized that he went through the same canopy trees. No displacement. But, within seconds, everything was back to normal. Now, he could see a small house in the distant that he usually saw in that area. He thought that it was possibly due to an absent mind during a ride. But he was not sure. That often happened to him.


His restroom (toilet) was built separated from the main house. Separating between bathroom and toilet was a common architectural design in that period, or even nowadays in a rural area. There was no electricity, so people relied on oiled-lamp. The connection between main house and the loo was very dark at night. Jambu trees were everywhere. In one night, Nambar went out to the loo, did his business and immediately came back to the main house. He thought it was eerie out there. He felt that something was watching him. So he rushed back to the house. And, when he tried to open the back door, the handle was jammed. The door was also locked. He was panic and scared. He knocked the door like crazy but no one responded. He felt he was screaming. But he actually could not speak; something closed his mouth, he said. He felt his body weakened, his knees were bent, he was slowly falling in front of the door.

Suddenly, his youngest son opened the door and said “What’s wrong, Pak?”

Nambar sat down in front of the door. Powerless. And he answered: “There was a ghost … “ But he discontinued his words. He stepped into the house and got some rest.

When they were all inside, his son told him that the door was actually not locked.

It’s also smooth, right?

One day in his classroom, he was checking on his students’ notes. In one of the note he found this:

Her cheek is so smooth. I want to kiss her.

Coldly, he called loudly upon the student. The student was called affront. Everyone was shocked, and all eyes stared at the student. In such a cold event, students were ready to hear a thunderstorm anger from his teacher.

But Nambar immediately changed his tone, and coldly asked: “Can you get a bottle of ketchup from the bakso (meatballs) stall?”

The student was pale and sweating. But he ran outside the classroom and rushed to find a bottle. Not long after, the student came back with a bottle of ketchup. It’s an empty bottle but little bit dusty.

Nambar said, “Please clean it up.”

The student followed, and cleaned the bottle.

“Do you remember what you wrote in your note?” Nambar asked.

The student nodded.

Nambar then said: “Now … you may kiss the bottle, kid … ”

Laugh was bursting out of the class. But the poor student had to kiss the bottle anyway.

After several kisses, Nambar smiled at the student: “It’s also smooth, right?”

The laugh was even louder!

Bell’s code

Nambar had a bell in his house. The bell was made of metal. A metal rod was also accompanying the bell. The sound created by the rod hitting the bell was loud. So, he created a code for everyone. The sound or rhythm or combination of both may correlate with someone’s name. For example, “ting-ting” was used to call person A, and “ting-ting-ting” was used to call person B, and so on. The code was not only for his children; his tenants were also subjected to this rule. And, there was also a collective bell’s code. It means that everyone must be at home immediately once they heard the collective code.

As mentioned, his house was located nearby the city square where his children and his tenants usually played. By distance, they only played probably 80 meters away from the house (blocked by the mosque actually). But his bell was still effective. At 17:00, he usually hit the metal bell with a collective code. Of course, most kids found his bell was rather annoying, and they thought it was better to ignore him. But, no one dared to play deaf. Until today, during the reunion, they still couldn’t know why they can’t play deaf. They could have said: “Sorry, Sir, I didn’t hear your bell …” But none has ever skipped the bell.

Learning Arabic

Nambar was not born as a Muslim. Nambar’s parents believed in Kejawen. Practically, he was not able to read Qur’an. In his late 50s, he turned to Islam, and began to learn Qur’an. He started to pray five times per day and fasting during Ramadan month. Luckily, his environment allowed him to learn the basic of Islam. He then studied Arabic in order to be able to read Qur’an. In his spare time, he sometimes joined a pengajian (a study group discussing about Islam) in the mosque. His skill in reading Qur’an amused his son.

So, his son asked, “How did you do that?”

Nambar’s answer was short: “Yo mek diwoco le (just read, my son).”


Nambar’s cousin from a neighbouring district came in the afternoon. She came with her daughter. His cousin politely said that she needed to borrow some money. The amount was Rp 60,000, and it will be used for a tuition fee of first semester in a university. Without further due, he went to his room, and came back with Rp 60,000. It’s his only money. Nothing left. But, he gave her anyway.

He said, “This is for her education, a good future. Please pay immediately.”

After they left, his wife started to complain that they had no money at all. “Why you gave all our money?” his wife was upset.

Nambar said “The money will be used to pay someone’s school-fee. Education is more important. Tomorrow, I’ll eat whatever you cook. Rice and salt will do. Just believe that God will someday repay us fold-wisely.”

Just the next day, Nambar came home with smiley face. He waved a cheque to his wife. The cheque was sent from his first son.

“Look at this! Remember what I said: God will repay us…”

He immediately cashed in the cheque.

Nambar’s Last Day

Nambar had a high-blood pressure. So, he had to go through medical check on a regular basis. At that time, the hospital in Blitar had minimum facility. So, he had to ride the train to a hospital in Malang (80 kilometer east of Blitar). The hospital was Syaiful Anwar General Hospital.

One day, he had an appointment with his doctor. His wife usually accompanied him. Before they left for Malang, Nambar asked his wife to bring all her jewelleries. It was strange request, but his wife obeyed him.

It was early morning. For breakfast, they brought three pieces of steamed-banana. Then they boarded the economic train to Malang.

In the hospital, he was attended by his doctor, and asked to come into the examination room. His wife was waiting in the corridor. After 20 minutes or so, the doctor went out. He calmly told her (in Javanese language): “Your husband passed away.”

She was suddenly muted. Her tears dripped down. Now, she knew, Nambar was right about asking her to tak all her jewelleries. She immediately sold them all, and used the money to pay for the ambulance to bring her husband back to Blitar and for his funeral.

Nambar was burried in Blitar, the city he was born, in 1977.


For the memory of my grandfather. As told by my father.  

– Arief Yudhanto

2 thoughts on “Nambar

  1. your grandfather comes across at once a strict disciplinarian, not to be played the fool with, yet kind and compassionate, and so endearingly funny! it’s a pity you did not have an opportunity to know him first and. That would have been such a privilege!

    so sad for his wife tho, the way he passed away. sounds like he had a premonition. i will let you know when stories about my grandmother are up. thank you for sharing!!

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