If there’s one person who’d probably be glad that award-winning writer Lualhati Bautista has crossed to the other side, it would be Nanay, my mother, arguably her No. 1 fan. I can imagine Nanay peering through the Pearly Gates to check if her idol had safely embraced the light, and getting ready to spring on the newcomer the questions she would invariably ask me after finishing another Lualhati novel I’d given her: “So, when is (your) next book coming out? What is it all about?”
Nanay introduced me to Lualhati via Liwayway Magazine that came out every Thursday in the early 1960s. My parents, who had to stop schooling because of the war, couldn’t afford books outside the textbooks then, but they were big on Liwayway, Bulaklak and Tagumpay magazines, and regularly bought all the vernacular komiks so popular at that time.
Thus did I meet Mars Ravelo and Darna, Clodualdo del Mundo, Liwayway Arceo, Pablo Gomez, Jim Fernandez, and other notable writers in the fiction universe of the day. But it was Lualhati who stood out for her forthright and uninhibited language, the refreshingly frank dialogue of her independent-minded female characters, and her deep insight into their daily dilemmas that would eventually be acknowledged as the Woman Question in the nascent feminist movement of the early 1980s.
Nanay must have felt validated by Lualhati’s conversational use of Tagalog that was so different from the flowery and archaic turns of phrase that could be laughably absurd at times. A farmer’s daughter, Nanay had a salty vocabulary that expressed her frustration at the many vexations and unrealistic expectations saddling housebound wives and mothers in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Foremost of these was the obsession over women’s hymen. Brazenly described in those days as “bayad-utang”—virtual commodities to pay off debts—daughters must remain virginal until their wedding night. So it was with a smirk of satisfaction that one read Lualhati’s conservative characters bawling out errant daughters with a crisp “Buntis ka?!” instead of the ridiculous euphemism “nagdadalang-tao” that writers of that era inflicted on readers.
Many years later, at an erotic-poetry festival, Lualhati earned roaring approval from her audience when she titled her piece, “Dyugdyugan.” I recall a similar event, this time on love-themed poetry (was it at the Cultural Center of the Philippines?) where her piece’s opening declaration of a nonexistent bosom almost provoked a riot. “Tatapatin kita, wala akong suso!” went the raunchy line addressed to a new lover. It was greeted with hooting laughter, with the women in the audience self-consciously touching their breasts.
Lualhati was definitely an amusing and slightly revised version of that memorable song: “Madamdamin pero medyo bastos.”
Her readers lapped it up, maybe because in those tightly controlled days of martial law, the thought police couldn’t arrest fictional characters for what they said in a made-up world. Lualhati’s feisty characters articulated what many could not say out loud. Imelda might have hidden Manila’s urban blight behind whitewashed fences for the Unctad delegates in the late ’70s, but Lualhati’s novels effortlessly exposed them in her Palanca Award-winning novels. “Gapo,” for instance, showed the slimy underbelly of a city that recklessly lived off the sex trade.
Like her friends and colleagues in cinema—Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal and Joel Lamangan—Lualhati dove headlong into topics that many in the commercial film circuit would rather kick under the sofa, maybe for being too complicated or even insignificant. Would a single mother coping with the demands of a hungry household, or a conflicted mother grappling with her son’s newfound activism, be sympathetic and relatable enough for moviegoers fixated on the sanctity of marriage and the purported wonders of martial law? Lualhati thought so, and so did those who made “Bata, bata, paano ka ginawa?” and “Dekada ’70”—both the novels and the movies—among her most popular works.
A later novel, “Sixty in the City,” centered on elderly women who, defying stereotypes, acknowledged their sexual needs and sought ways to satisfy them. In my 2015 review of the book, I said that the main characters, while realizing that “fertility, good looks and youth continue to be the impossibly narrow yardstick by which most women are measured … [remain] fighters [who] cheerfully break through life’s rigid parameters.”
“As is typical of [Bautista’s] novels, the pathos is always tempered with earthy humor, the women doggedly determined to overcome, and the prose a delight to quote and remember,” I wrote. “Here’s our favorite, which might well sum up the novel’s premise: ‘Ang buhay ay hindi nagsisimula pagtuntong ng sisenta. Nagsisimula ito sa bawat ngiti ng umaga.’”
Just as prominent as her strong female characters are references to martial law, maybe because her former husband, the writer and activist Levy Balgos dela Cruz, was once detained and tortured by state agents. At that time, news on martial law abuses, while heavily censored and sanitized in the mainstream media, had managed to leech onto the consciousness of most people by their sheer brutality.
Among those that struck her most, Ne once told me, was this massacre of a family in the Visayas by soldiers who had sprayed their hut with Armalite bullets and then left posthaste, thinking the whole household had been killed. When neighbors—who had hidden nearby when the soldiers came—ran to check on the family, they found the little girl Daya under the mother’s body. She was wounded but alive, the only survivor in that atrocity, having been shielded by her mother’s body.
Ne has a daughter she named Daya. Was this to honor that little girl and the memory of her mother’s love and sacrifice?
“Desaparecido” meanwhile tells of an underground militant on the run from state forces who was forced to hand over her baby to a fellow activist; many years later, her friend would refuse to give her daughter back. The novel about a friend’s betrayal would turn out to be life imitating art for the author, when a writer-friend and a director seemed to have appropriated the story as their own and made their own movie from it.
It was a difficult time for her, Lualhati said. While some activists would have a similar experience, her erstwhile friends could at least have acknowledged her contribution to the idea, she said glumly in an interview with the writer Luna Sicat-Cleto.
In my 2008 interview with Lualhati for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, she expounded on why the incident hurt her so badly: “The circumstances hit close to home,” the writer confided. “I had very little political consciousness when I got married … but my husband was an activist. I would not say that I joined the [underground Left], only that I joined my husband. It was his life, not mine. But I could not live his life without losing mine in the process.”
It wasn’t an easy leave-taking, Lualhati recalled. “Before I left, the other people in the movement offered to take care of my son. Of course I said no. Imagine leaving my son with [people who were on the run?] What if something happened to them? Where and how do I start looking for my son? … I think in a way, as early as 1973, I was already sowing the seeds for this novel.”
I don’t recall exactly when and how I met Ne in person, but we instantly bonded because we both grew up in the grimy streets of Tondo in Manila, and relished recalling and mocking the gangsta moves of the male population in the neighborhood that had made Tondo a much-feared district.
Ironically, her father, Esteban, was the opposite of toxic masculinity, and she wrote of him lovingly, tenderly, in “Sonata.” In the Sicat-Cleto interview, Lualhati remembered him as an “uliran,” the type of man who helped out in the chores—from cooking to getting the groceries to washing the baby’s diapers. He did not smoke either. His only vice, if it could be called that, was betting on the horses at the Sta. Ana and San Lazaro racetracks.
My 2008 interview with Lualhati had her talking as fondly of her father, a sometime real estate agent, musician, photographer, and singer/ violinist. “When I was very young, my father had this telescope and, together, we would peek at the stars,” she recalled. “One time I asked him, how can I go visit those stars? And he said someday I’m going to build a ladder that you can climb all the way to the stars. I asked, and what about you, are you coming with me? And he said no, I’m staying down here to catch you should you fall. But I’m sure you won’t fall.”
From him, she got her love of words, recalled Lualhati whose first story was published in Liwayway when she was 16 and in high school. In the Sicat-Cleto interview, she recounted how excited her father was, and how he spent the day buying every copy of the magazine that he could find.
In 2008, I wrote: By the time Esteban Castel Bautista died on Valentine’s Day in 1992, his writer-daughter had become a household word in Filipino literature, while he remained very much in her mind. “I want to write about the music of my father’s violin,” says Bautista. “That music used to wake me so I won’t be late for school.” She adds: “I want to write about him and his kindness together with his imperfections, especially when I read or watch something that portrays fathers in a bad light. Gusto kong ibangon ang dangal ng mga ama, ganon.”
Was it her father she remembered when she spent the better part of the night comforting me at my own father’s wake in Tondo in the early ‘90s? As I held back my tears, she regaled me with stories of how people met this inevitable fate, like it was part of a grand plan with the circumstances already decided in some Council of Eternals, and would merely be played out in a predetermined time.
One of the most memorable of those was about this young man who was walking down a sidewalk. At some juncture, a huge puddle on the sidewalk made him step down to the street to avoid it. “Did you know that at that crucial moment when his feet touched the asphalt, a car careening out of control came straight at him and plowed him down?” Lualhati recounted.
It’s a horrible scenario that keeps coming to mind every time I walk on busy streets with little or no access to sidewalks.
At the end of her colorful storytelling, Lualhati stood up to go, but not before beckoning me to come closer. “Halika, halika!” she said, sharply nodding her head twice. I thought this normally undemonstrative friend was going to hug me, but she took my hand and pressed a P100 bill on it. Not much, but touching nonetheless since she still lived in a small apartment off Tayuman Street in Tondo at that time.
But then her limited means never stopped Lualhati from being generous—with her money, her time, her attention. Once, when we left my office at Jingle Magazine, which first published her novel “Dekada” before it became a book, she suggested that we get a bite at Aristocrat which had a small outlet in Cubao at that time. It was self-service so I got kare-kare and rice. As I fished out my wallet, she put out a hand to stop me, saying she’d already paid for our meal. I jested that had I known, I would have ordered more. “Hahaha, topo-topo barega!” she replied.
I had to ask Nanay later what it meant. “Walang bawian,” she said—or “no taking back what was given”—thrilled when I told her it was Lualhati herself who had uttered those words. Then Nanay said Lualhati may one day include me in her stories: “Aba, malay mo, baka maisama ka sa kwento nya balang araw.” Hah, in my dreams, I thought.
Years later, a friend called to tell me that my now-famous friend had mentioned me—by name!—in her latest work then: “In Sisterhood, Lea at Lualhati.” Even Nanay, whom Lualhati regularly asked about after I told her she was bedridden and showing signs of Alzheimer’s, would have been jealous. But oh, the stories that Ne would have been sharing with her by now!
The multiawarded Lualhati Bautista passed away on Feb. 12, 2023. —Ed.