To Paradise or not to Paradise by Eliza Vitri Handayani

An interconnected suite of short pieces that examines and questions the states of paradise

TO LIVE OR NOT TO LIVE

My grandmother has been bedbound for years. She says everything hurts, including eating, so she only eats very little. Even though her mind remains sharp, her body continues to wither – to the point that it hurts to look at her, a mere skeleton wrapped in dried skin. Her seven children take turns taking care of her every day of the week, and over the years when I visited I bought her new clothes and jewellery, anything to spark her interest in life, in getting better. Nothing worked. I asked her what music she liked, I’d make her a playlist; what books she liked, I’d read them to her; what movies she liked, we’d watch them together. Finally she said,

“Give it up, Eliza, I don’t enjoy anything anymore. Everything hurts.” “So we’ll just talk,” I said. “Talking hurts,” she said. As the nation around her obsesses about getting halal certification on their shampoo and refrigerators, renouncing music, dating, or whatever else the latest sensational YouTube ustadz tells them to, my grandmother doesn’t seem to care. If there is a heaven, paradise, surga, or jannah, she only wants not to be.

A picture of two elderly hands, one crossed over the other on the person’s lap.

Image: iStock

TO BELIEVE OR NOT TO BELIEVE

As a child, I was taught that if I perform my daily prayers, fast during Ramadan, honour God and my parents, give alms to the poor, and do more good deeds than bad deeds, then I could go to heaven, or paradise as we say.

As a young woman, I was told that for women to get into heaven, we must remain chaste, stay at home, obey our husbands, and we must never say no when our husband wants us for sex.

I lost interest in paradise. I thought: if we can only be happy either in this life or in the afterlife, at least let me be happy in this one – for I know this life is real.

As my family and surroundings become more and more conservative, I’ve decided to restudy religion so that I can have conversations with them. I found that paradise is mostly described in the Quran as a garden with flowing rivers – and to enter paradise one only needs to have faith and do good deeds.

I of course asked “Having faith in what, and what deeds are considered good?” If I was to embrace any religion at all, then I must believe that the essence of all religion is goodness. And thus, I take it to mean that I must have faith in goodness. But, what is goodness then?

Since paradise is described as gardens with rivers, and they say we reap what we sow, maybe goodness is much more than performing rituals, about bringing value to other humans, beings, and nature, and living in such a way that allows for life everlasting – a green and lush planet that nurtures all creatures, and a global society that understands, instead of destroys, one another.

TO THINK OR NOT TO THINK

God says, “Read!” God says, “Think!”

Men say, “It’s easy to be pious, don’t think and just follow me.” 

If your God orders you to kill your son and leave your family in the desert, would you do it?

Would you do it to get to paradise?
If you do it, does that mean that you fail to do good?
Or, does that mean that you have faith, that God would not order you to do something evil?
That something worse would happen if you don’t do it?
But how do you know that the voice who claims to be God is not the Devil’s or your own twisted mind’s?
What does it say about one who commits violence and abandons their family to get into paradise?
Is paradise a place for those who obey, not for those who are good?
If so, then is your God nothing but a tyrant?
If so, why would you ever want to go to that paradise?

 “Paradism: the belief that morals, compassion, justice, equity, and goodness are irrelevant or secondary to some perceived commandments or rules, which if followed will get the observers into paradise; the belief that humanity and compassion is secondary to the rules of getting into paradise.”

True paradise is without paradism.

TO SEE OR NOT TO SEE

In 1965 a man wanted to create a nation in his image and killed millions who stood in his way. He erected a paradise of development and became a king in all but name – skyscrapers and rice fields grew from the blood-soaked ground. You choose not to see, but people DIE in PARADISE.

People from all over the world flock to this paradise of white sandy beaches, clear blue seas, and terrific tax breaks. Their wastes choke bays and wilt corals, and their heaving desires crush women and children. They choose not to see, but there is RAPE in PARADISE.

Now the king is gone, and a new group wants to create their own nation, a heaven on earth where no queer people and nonbelievers are allowed to enter. They choose not to see, but there is always PRIDE and PARADE in PARADISE.

And the people protest in thousands banging at the parliament’s gate. The police shoot water cannons and tear gas at them, and the men in power SEAR our forests to create a PARADISE for themselves and hell for everyone else.

Paradise, it seems, is created by excluding, repressing, or turning a blind eye to some people, those the dominant ones consider as ‘others’: a place without sinners, the poor, the queer, without critical voices, without communists, liberals, without those who are different, or those who disagree...

We all seem to need a paradise of our own, but can your paradise ever be mine as well? Will I always be lonely in paradise? 

TO CARE OR NOT TO CARE

If good people go to paradise and the bad ones burn in hell, would the people of paradise feel any compassion for those who are suffering just outside the pearly gates? Would they help those in hell, even if ordered not to? And if they obey, are they still considered good?

This thought brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. In his lifetime the prince lived in the palace of Sans Souci – “where sorrow wasn’t allowed to enter” – and he never looked beyond his palace’s walls.

After death, they turned him into a golden statue, soaring in the middle of the city. With his sapphire eyes he finally saw how the people were suffering, and that his pleasurable life was only possible by keeping the people poor and out of sight.

With the help of a little swallow, the prince gave away his jewels, his golden covering, and his sapphire eyes to the poor. After the swallow died from the winter’s cold and the prince’s now plain statue was demolished, an angel brought the prince’s heart and the swallow’s body to paradise.

And yet the prince and the swallow didn’t do what they did to get into paradise. I feel the prince finds meaning in helping the poor seamstress, poet, and the little match girl. The swallow had imagined spending the winter in a sun-kissed paradise, but instead he helped the prince create a paradise of golden rain for the city’s children. Maybe paradise isn’t for us to chase, for it will only move away from us like the horizon or the swallow’s dreams of a warm Egypt.

Maybe paradise is not a perfect place where sorrows aren’t allowed to enter, and birds aren’t allowed to die. Maybe it’s about filling our lives with moments of meaning and joy – momentary, shared paradises – a kiss on the lips, listening to a friend in need, looking into your beloved’s eyes as she lies beside you.

If there is a heaven, paradise, surga, or jannah, I only want to be.

ELIZA VITRI HANDAYANI

Eliza Vitri Handayani is a novelist and creator of the art events House of the Unsilenced and Fashion ForWords. Her latest novel is From Now On Everything Will Be Different (Vagabond Press), which explores how free Indonesia really became after the start of democratic reforms in 1998. Her short fiction has been published internationally, including in Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings, BooksActually’s Gold Standard, and the anthology The Near and the Far Volume 2. She is also the founder and director of InterSastra, an independent initiative that provides free and inclusive platforms for creative exploration. Her translations have appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation and others. She is currently participating in the Arts Leadership Program with Australia Arts Council. Find links to some of her works on elizavitri.com and reach her via Instagram or Twitter @elizavitri.

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