Indonesian Short Stories | Kliping Sastra Nusantara

Tuesday, 27 February 2018


MY father’s first love had been a woman who carried the ocean inside her. He had told us many tales of how she sang to the sea and held hands with the moon when the entire world was asleep.

The last time he had seen her was at his high school graduation ceremony when she had stood at the podium, bearing the honor of being the school’s valedictorian. And while my father spent the next few months after finishing high school dreaming about sharing kisses under the moon, she had gone on to pursue her dreams, tirelessly traveling from one country to another. Her restless heart had wanted more than what her hometown could offer.

“Did you love her more than you loved Mother? Did she love you back?”

“She loved the ocean more than anything else,” my father replied. “She’d left my heart on the shore and told the tide to carry it away.”

I thought of the two of them standing by the edge of the water, staring out at the horizon stretched out before them, the glimmering water beckoning them to wade in. I thought of the way her long hair would tickle his face, of the way she would fall asleep to the sound of his heart beating, just a few feet away from the crumbling sandcastles they had built on the beach, and the pile of shells my father kept in a broken bucket.

They had chased the ice cream van and skinned their knees on the pavement, their lemon popsicles dripping down their hands as they talked about the people they wished to become, of the places they wished to go.

“So, where did she go?” Zoe looked up at him, wide-eyed. “Did you ever see her again?”

“Sometimes I think the ocean carried her away,” he said.

He’d kiss us good night and flick off the light switch, leaving us wide awake in the dark to wonder about our father’s first love.

NO matter how many cans of Red Bull or coffee you try to gulp down in one night, staying up until half past one and looking through year books and trying to trace some nameless woman through the internet is never a good idea — especially if you have plans to go out. After canceling on brunch, Wendy and I settled for dinner at seven o’clock at our favorite diner.

“So I’m assuming your father has absolutely no idea at all about this brilliant plan of yours to reunite him with his supposedly nameless high school sweetheart?” Wendy squinted at me in the golden glow of the coffee shop.

“Don’t be daft. She must have had a name,” I rolled my eyes and swatted her hand as she reached for the last fry.

Wendy raised an eyebrow, amused.

Our fathers had introduced us to each other at a soirée held by one of their mutual friends, and although my father had made a fuss about the excessive amount of eyeliner I’d been wearing, which he thought was remarkably unattractive, Wendy had managed to ingratiate her way into my father’s heart.

By the end of the night, we managed to escape the intoxicating heat radiating off of people’s voices, their words bouncing off us as they talked about which of their children would most likely inherit the companies they were currently running, or potential rivals, whose names would be highlighted with a bright yellow pen to remind them of the possibility of a ruined legacy.

She had stolen glances at me as the conversation began to spiral into shape, and I understood what my father had meant by dreaming of kissing someone underneath the wing of the moon.

Perhaps it was the small doses of soju we were consuming out of tiny shot glasses, or just the party that had gotten to my head — but as our conversation progressed, it began to uncover layer after layer of our guarded souls as we both struggled to suppress our hopes to catch a glimpse of something that neither of us had experienced before.

Sunday dinner was the only thing I’d been looking forward to after a strenuous week of school, and Bessie’s burgers and two tall glasses of root beer were the perfect solution to our ceaseless complaints, which, most of the time, were about the excessive amount of homework from school.

While Wendy filled me in on the possibility of several new students joining her class, I told her about my plan to find the woman who had broken and healed my father’s heart at the same time.

“Don’t you think it’s a little odd?”

“Why are you so determined to find her?”

I shrugged, suddenly feeling deflated. “I don’t know,” I retorted flatly.

“Your father must have loved her,” Wendy said wistfully. “Maybe she would have loved him back.”

“What if she did?”

“Is there any point in knowing if she did?” she raised an eyebrow. “Would it change anything?”

Despite the fact that we bickered constantly, there were a lot of things that we had in common. We were both motherless, and we were quite petulant as children. We had found comfort in the darkness that we had kept hidden beneath the polished facade we held up like shields; and inside that sense of comfort, something else began to blossom.

“Did I tell you what I found?” she said, rummaging in her pocket.

“What did you find?”

I eyed the plate of fries that the waitress had delivered to our table. “Go on, then,” she nodded.

Abruptly, I stood up. “I should get going.”

“You have somewhere you need to be?”

“My father’s office.” I stopped to brush the crumbs off my skirt. “Wait, you never told me what you were going to say.”

“No, it doesn’t matter anymore.” She paused. “Do you want me to walk you there?”

“It’s alright, I’ll just call an Uber to pick me up.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

Sighing reluctantly, she nodded. Although I felt a little odd to be leaving early, she stayed behind to watch me walk down the street before eventually disappearing from my peripheral vision.

As expected, my father’s office was in complete disarray, his books were stacked messily in the corners, along with a pile of newspapers dating back to November 2011. A bunch of photo albums were spread out across the floor, lined up in a chronological order — photos scattered randomly at my feet. Cans of instant coffee were lined up by the trash bin, their varying colors glinting at me in the dim light. He must have been in the toilet, because I could hear the tap running.

I bent over to inspect the framed photograph on his desk. The four of us, dressed in matching yellow ponchos, huddling underneath a massive umbrella, smiling half-heartedly at the camera as the rain dripped onto our backs.

When was this? I thought to myself. Obviously before our mother got sick.

Feeling something crunching underneath my boot, I picked up one of the photos. It was a photo of a young man and woman with their arms around each other, dressed in matching graduation togas, the same kind of smiles plastered across their faces. The camera flash illuminated their faces and their happiness had leapt off the glossy photograph to greet me.

“That was my high school sweetheart. My first love.”

My father stood in the doorway, a sad smile on his face.

“This was your first love.”

“Yes, she was.”

“Where did she go? What happened to her? You never told me the end of the story.”

“You don’t remember?”

“What is there to remember?”

“I didn’t come to your sister’s piano recital and she gave me a hard time for it.”

“Seeing her was a mistake?”

My father paused before shaking his head. “It was, but it might as well have been the best mistake I made.”

Snippets of memories began to flood in: the smell of powder and perfume wafting in the air. My sister stood as still as a statue, watching carefully as my mother painted her lips scarlet and tied the ribbon on the back of her satin dress. It was the same color of the moon, and at the end of the night, it had been stained by tears of disappointment.

“She told me to turn around and forget about that night.” My father sighed. “It was one of the best nights of my life and it would have been one of the best nights of her life too.”

“Was it too late?”

“Much too late.”

“Did she… have a family?”

He paused. “Her only daughter… was Wendy.”

OUR love had folded in on itself after my father’s confession, the way a gingerbread house doused in milk would crumble and eventually dissolve. Her hands were warm, just like the soufflé we had for dessert, meanwhile my hands no longer craved the touch of hers. This time, we had held each other at arm’s length, careful to leave gaps in between our shoulders and while the soles of our feet scoured the city and everything in it, our hands stayed safe in our pockets.

Sitting cross legged on the sand, the two of us let the wind ruffle our hair as we spoke, a hint of tenderness dripping off our voices. The same tenderness which her mother had possessed, the same tenderness which wasn’t there before. There was no hostility in her eyes, just a tinge of unhappiness that might or might not have been directed at me.

We had made small talk about the weather, and then about her part-time job. There seemed to be millions of things to talk about, yet every single subject felt like foreign territory, unexplored and strange to our wandering minds, although the two of us had been capable of discussing the formation of the universe.

We appeared as though we were two distant planets, anticipating destruction and whatever would come after it. We were waiting for the end of the world, for annihilation. For everything that we had not seen coming.

“Is this it?” she drew a sharp breath. “Is this how it ends?”

“This is how it ends,” I whispered, my words disappearing in the dark as I tried hard not to cry.

“I should be the one crying,” she told me. There was a pause. “Did you find her?”

“I didn’t.”

“Was it worth the risk?”

“It was.”

“So you found her.”

“You were right, I suppose. He did love your mother.”

Wendy turned away from me to wipe away her tears. “I wish I could have saved her.”

“Me too.”

Of course, I had run out of apologies by this time, and all I had to offer was a hug, and choked sobs. She melted into the shadows after a while, leaving me to mourn on my own.

A part of me wondered whether the choices I had made in the past few days would be the exact same choices I would live to regret.

She was old enough to know how it ends, but not old enough to know what the aftermath feels like; and she was old enough to know what pain is supposed to taste like.

Latifa Sekarini is an Indonesian writer. Her stories have appeared in The Jakarta Post.

[1] Short story was written by Latifa Sekarini
[2] Had been published in " The Jakarta Post" at February 25th, 2018

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

“Mad Man”

THEY call me the mad man. Maybe it’s my long and messy hair. Maybe it’s my shabby appearance. Maybe it’s my habit of roaming around the city for years. Maybe it’s the fact that I am different from the socalled “normal people.” Or maybe I just look like a mad man.

Actually, I consider myself the happiest person in this town. I am a free man who has the privilege to do anything I want. My life is joyful; I have no burden — free as a bird. I’m free to laugh, sing, scream, cry, hop, or smile at nothingness. They say I’m mad, right? A mad man can do anything without punishment. The state and God forgive mad men. Adult people can understand mad men. Only children can’t. They like mocking mad men as if mad men do not deserve respect. Sometimes they throw stones at mad men without guilt.

When I was a child, a mad woman used to walk down the alley in front of my house. Her name was Aminah. She smelled terrible, because she was dirty. Her clothes were dirty rags. Sometimes I could see her flabby breasts through her shabby blouse. She was almost toothless. Her hair was long and specked with dirt. When she walked past the alley some kids in my neighborhood always followed her in a group and mocked her. They laughed at her joyfully. Sometimes they threw pebbles at her. Of course, it made her angry and she would chase them furiously.

I had never joined the others in mocking her. I pitied her, instead. There were times when I would glance at her secretly and silently from the balcony of my mother’s bedroom until Aminah’s body disappeared at the turn.

My mother’s maid’s attitude to mad people like Aminah is another story. She was a middle-aged woman who often spoke harshly toward me when my mother was not around. She sometimes used the mad woman to intimidate me and my little sister in order to make us obey her. She thought we were stupid kids. But I knew that mad people are not dangerous unless we disturb them.

I thought a crazy person like Aminah was a loner who loved and enjoyed her loneliness very much. She seemed to enjoy being alone and happy in her own little world. Her world is a world that doesn’t need other people or things except herself and anything she thought existed. She only annoyed other people if her world were disturbed by others.

But my little sister was afraid of mad people. If I was in the mood to bully my sister, sometimes I would also intimidate her using the mad woman. She was very scared of Aminah. If the mad woman by chance grinned at us when we looked at her from behind the balcony railings, my sister would panic. It was my opportunity to make her cry. I just had to intimidate her a little more by saying that Aminah would climb up to our place and kiss her. Of course, she would be very scared and then she would cry.

Like I said: I am free to do nothing except dreaming and imagining whatever I have in mind. I don’t need go to school or college. I don’t need go to work. No work, all play. Oh, how happy I am.

People often get it wrong. Their minds are very shallow. Every time they see people dressed in dirty clothes like mine, they’d label them as crazy. But sometimes the shabby one is not crazy, just as the crazy one sometimes doesn’t look shabby. Shabby is shabby. Crazy is crazy. I know plenty of people who dress shabbily, yet who are quite sane. And I know quite a lot of people who are well-dressed and who drive expensive cars, yet are quite mad and delusional.

There are people who pretend to be crazy. They do that so they won’t be ashamed about living a terrible life on the street, eating food fished out of waste bins, wearing dirty rags, or sleeping on the sidewalk.

While we’re on the subject of being crazy — we should also talk about how crazy it feels to fall in love. The French say: Qu’est que la vie sans l’amour? What is life without love? Crazy people can fall in love. And people who fall in love can be mad. I myself once fell for a mad woman; and a mad woman once fell for me.

This was the story: It was a rainy and cold afternoon and everything was wet. I was trembling on a street corner in front of a store across the town square. My elementary school uniform was very wet. My feet below my pants felt very cold. My shoes were soaked. My eyes stared powerlessly at the falling rain. Occasionally cars would pass in the rain.

In the distance was a movie poster strapped to an old theater wall. Not far from me, between a newsstand and a few becak — three-wheel cabbikes — who were sheltering from the rain, a young woman stood wearing a traditional kebaya blouse and batik cloth. She carried a cloth sling and was barefoot. Her calves were slim but her breasts looked full, peeking out of her blouse. Her half-wet hair was pulled over her head to reveal her swan-like neck.

I stared at her without blinking. She wore no make-up but, in my eyes, I could only see beauty. Suddenly my penis, which had been circumcised a year ago became erect. I felt something warm inside my body. I kept staring at her face and her body. Suddenly she caught my eyes. She glanced at me sharply. Feeling ashamed, I avoided her gaze. Then she turned to a different direction. I glanced at her secretly. I thought I fell in love with her.

She smiled at the cloth she carried. Sometimes she laughed. Then she looked sullen and sad. And then she smiled again. First, I thought there was a baby inside the cloth sling but it turned out to be an ugly doll. The becak drivers began to mock her. One of them threw a dirty joke. His friends responded and harassed the young woman. They laughed at her but she didn’t care. She just enjoyed herself and continued smiling and laughing at the doll in her cloth.

A short becak driver with a straw hat seemed to not be able to hold his desire. He approached the woman and pinched her hip, and then squeezed her buttocks. Everyone kept harassing her, but she didn’t give a damn about that. I tried to avoid watching the scene unfold, but I could see the straw-hat man pulling her hand and dragging her to a dark corner on one side of the old movie theatre. I could hear her screaming, but her voice was swallowed by the drivers’ laughter and the sound of the falling rain. I trembled in the corner. My body was wet. My eyes were red. My heart was broken. But the rain was still falling.

On another afternoon, on my way home from school, I stood in front of a picture of ice cream on a restaurant’s glass window. My friend and I talked about the colorful pictures that looked tasty. I didn’t realize that from my right side an old woman approached me and kissed my cheek very fast. I was shocked. I stared at the kisser. She smiled broadly. Her eyes shone and she was toothless. Her clothes were dirty and shabby. Well, it must have been her: Aminah!

I went from that place hurriedly, still shocked and resentful. I scolded my friend who didn’t tell me about the presence of the mad woman. He tried to defend himself with a sentence that got me feeling even more furious at him, “But I thought she was your friend!”

Time flew. At the moment, I’m absorbed in my thoughts. Sometimes I whistle happily. Sometimes I smile at people I see. A few of them smile back at me. But some just look at me with astonishment or fear. Maybe they think I’m mad, but I am actually pretty happy. The happiest person in town. I have nothing to lose. I have nothing and belong to nothingness. I have left my worldly life behind.

I live on the street. I live my life freely. I don’t need friends or connection. I live with no rules. I am not afraid of being poor because I don’t need anything. Like a dervish, I need no money, a luxurious home, a new car, fancy things, a beautiful wife, or a sexy mistress. I have no obligation to bribe a government officer to get a big project. I have no need to be involved in any corrupt schemes. I don’t need to please my boss because I am my own boss. I don’t have to live in hypocrisy. I don’t need to be afraid of hunger because I can eat anything — even leftover food inside a trash can. Plus, there are always people out there who are kind to crazy people like myself. Perhaps they show kindness because they think it will send them straight to heaven; or perhaps they do it out of sheer fun. I am not offended when someone refers to me as a mad man. If I am mad, at least I am a well cultured mad man. I know Dante’s and Rimbaud’s poems. I can understand paintings by Van Gogh and Dali. I like Mozart and Beethoven. I know about Foucault and Habermas. I understand what Einstein and Hawking talk about. Sometimes I even talk to God about the secret of creation, not at the mosque or at the church, but in the city park. Isn’t it nice to be me? I am happy. How people can label me as someone in need is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Maybe it’s my long and messy hair. Maybe it’s my shabby appearance. Maybe it’s my habit of roaming around the city for years. Maybe it’s the fact that I am different from the so-called “normal people.” Or maybe I just look like a mad man.

Never mind. It doesn’t matter. We are free. Me, myself and I.

[1] Short story was written by Anton Kurnia
[2] Had been published in " The Jakarta Post" at January 15th, 2018

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The Ocean in Between

IT was her thirty-seventh birthday today, and he — the husband — had taken her out for a romantic dinner at the Ritz, followed by an evening of rhythm and blues at their favorite café in Kemang.

A tall African-American performer stood on a corner stage, rendering Seal’sKiss From A Rose. The husband called for the waitress and asked for a bottle of champagne.

The waitress returned, moments later, bearing a tray of wine glasses and a silver bucket filled with ice to cool the liquor bottle. As she poured cold champagne into their glasses, the husband thanked her, and this was when the wife saw something ominous at the bottom of her glass.

You shouldn’t have, said the wife, fishing a golden necklace out of the glass with one hand, before laying it across a napkin to dry off, then handing it over to the husband, who diligently stood from his chair and walked around one half of the table to stand behind the wife.

Using both hands, the wife lifted her hair up to make room for her husband’s hands and sighed pleasantly when she saw the jewelry, coiled around her swan-like neck, glittering under the neon lights. The waitress, her face beaming with hope, smiled at this romantic gesture she rarely saw displayed in public, and took her leave just as the wife reached for the husband’s hand and patted it gently.

You shouldn’t have, the wife repeated herself, as the husband reclaimed his seat across from her. It must have cost you a fortune, she said. And, finally, a thank you, as she rose halfway off the chair, leaning forward and meeting his lips with her own.

The performer was now singing a birthday song, which the husband had also specifically asked for. The wife now reached for the husband’s hand across the table.

IN bed, at at two-thirty in the morning, the husband stared closely at the even rows of square panels up on their bedroom ceiling. They had made love earlier in the evening with the necklace still attached to her neck. It was the kind of love-making that felt easy, comfortable and undemanding — for they knew what to expect: all the terrains of their bodies already discovered in the years they had been making love to each other, here in the same bed, which gradually helped them to appreciate sex in a way that would have been lost on them in their younger years.

The husband turned to look at his wife, the small of her back facing him, beckoning him to give it some space, and he felt compelled to relive their youths.

They had met as freshmen on campus, and again as juniors actively taking parts in a student organization. She was a psych major, he was a man of ideology. She called him a communist once, when she learned of his admiration toward Che Guevara. Over time, though, she began to understand why, and together they took a year off college to backpack across South America, hoping to find what Che had discovered decades ago.

The husband and wife weren’t communists, of course. They were merely in love with the vitality of Che’s writings, more than his ideas; amazed by his physical journey, more than his spiritual one. That same year, they discovered something else: companionship. Upon their return to Indonesia, they decided to tie the knot.

Determined to obtain their college degrees first, the two postponed their wedding until after graduation day. On campus, they worked part-time at the library — not for money (there was no money to be made, anyway) — for unlimited access to a world of various possibilities. They stayed up late, read to each other, debated on how the world should best be run, and went to sleep exhausted.

They also made plans for future travels, wrote a long list of places they had always wanted to visit: Monaco, Albania, Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Russia, etc. — it was a particularly long list.

I love Persia, she said to him one day in their favorite second-hand bookstore, as they went through stacks of old, dusty books. Wasn’t it once the greatest empire in the world? He smiled at her, pictured her walking the alleys of Tehran, bargaining for silk or souvenirs, donning a blue chador. He could see himself touching her face in these alleys, and wiping away the sweat from her face, the back of her neck, with his palm.

Then, he thought of the Persian King who was rumored to have had one-hundred-and-eighty-six wives: women who had given birth to over three-hundred heirs — all of them bearing the name Shah, all of them proud, though most of their mothers had been lowly women plucked out of society, forced to serve and satisfy the King’s insatiable desire. He didn’t tell her this.

Outside their bedroom window, the wind gently rustled the trees, and the husband thought he saw a face painted over the moon. As a child, he was told never to point a finger in the direction of the moon, lest his ear would be slashed by the gods and goddesses who served as guardians of the moon. He’d heard stories of other children who ignored the advice and how they ran home to their mothers, in tears, their ear bloodied and nearly severed. What did I tell you, the mothers responded later, what did I tell you not to do?

Both the husband and wife had donned a set of matching pajamas. This was her idea, which struck her quite spontaneously while they were out shopping for bed sheets. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a cute set of matching PJs? He shrugged. I can sleep naked, if that’s an option. She tenderly, playfully slapped him on the chest. He loved this about her. I’m taking two sets, she said. Okay, he replied. He preferred to sleep naked, perhaps because of the heat, but mostly because it would be easier for him to seduce her in bed, to let her feel him in the dark. Yet her strict religious upbringing forbade this, though she didn’t know exactly why. It’s just not done, she told him: It’s obscene to flaunt yourself like that.

Turning away from her, the husband looked at the room they occupied. For a master bedroom, it was sadly monotone, sparsely furnished, with bits and pieces of memorabilia from their travels nailed to the wall, whose paint was beginning to chip from the constant heat. There were pictures of them on the nightstand, on top of the bureau, on her make-up table — in Peru, Mexico, Brazil — one arm around the other’s shoulders, laughing, pouting, holding a dead fish in a market full of dead fish.

They’d never been anywhere else, though they often said they would visit other places, and every year was a reminder of the things they failed to realize. So, they thought of that year they had gone to South America the way most people think of moments in the past they know they can’t get back. What a wonderful time, she would say to him, we’re very lucky to have that to remember.

THEY were a childless couple. For years, they had gone to see different specialists, who told them to adopt this and that strategy, administered this and that treatment, until they all came to the same conclusion: The couple was doomed to never have children of their own. Why, the husband asked the doctors. They shook their heads: It is God’s will.

The wife cried and cried until her husband thought she would shrink into the size of a pea from all that crying; yet as much as the husband tried to comfort her, he knew there was nothing he could do to interfere with God’s will. Was it him, or was it her — the doctors couldn’t tell. Their medical records were fine, and in test tubes and on petri dishes his sperms and her eggs were reacting normally. The doctors suggested they conceive the child inside the womb of another woman, but the wife couldn’t bear it — she needed to carry her own child: it was either that or not at all. Be patient, advised the doctors. Perhaps God has other plans. That plan, the husband thought, was for them to grow old bitter and alone.

Childless, their existence became trivial. Spared from the financial burden of supporting a child’s life, they were free to spend as much as their monthly wages allowed. They spent most of their time apart and inside office cubicles, working on spreadsheets and going in and out of meeting rooms. When they could, they would dine at fancy restaurants, buy front-row tickets to sold-out concerts, and occasionally stay at five-star hotels on the weekends to avoid boredom.

They stopped socializing with people they had become friends with throughout their lives, pained at the thought of having to hear them marvel about their children. So they created a new circle almost entirely comprised of single men and women — people whose lives they needn’t envy, whose achievements are not remarkable, and whose eternal search for the right life partner gives them solace in the fact that they, at least, had found each other.

Of course, there were women the wife never knew about, women who had been the husband’s clients and colleagues, whose perfume often lingered on him hours after they had left the cheap and obscure small motel room, where he would pretend he was living the life of another man — someone with greater courage, kinder dispositions and more of a man than his pathetic self. In that way, the husband wondered whether she too had had other men he never knew about, men who made love to her the way he’d never dared to, who worshipped her body the way he always thought would be improper between husbands and wives, who made her come again and again as if the moment would never end.

There was an ocean between this side of the bed and the place where she lay night after night. He could cross that ocean with one swing of his leg, and it would be so easy for him to reach out an arm and pull her close to his side — but he wouldn’t do that. It would inconvenience her and make him feel awkward. The thought saddened him.

Later, in the early light of dawn, the husband hesitantly — and then with determination — drew himself closer to his wife’s body, closing the gap between them, and rested his forehead against her back. He held her like that for what seemed to be forever, the hours rolling past them, minutes and seconds going in and out of them, while he waited for her dreams to end and for them to start again.

Maggie Tiojakin is an Indonesian writer, translator and the managing director of The Jakarta Post Writing Center.

[1] Short story was written by Maggie Tiojakin
[2] Had been published in " The Jakarta Post" at Desember 18th, 2017

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Given Another Life

FIVE minutes to three in the early hours of the morning, Adinda sat upright on her bed and wiped the sweat sticking to her forehead with the back of her small bandaged left hand. Clutching the glass of water beside her bed, she took a sip thirstily, waiting.

At exactly three, she took the cell phone beside the glass of water and dialed the number she now knew by heart. She did not put the number on speed dial because she wanted the pleasure of punching in the numbers on her phone in the dark. It took a while for the connection to get through­ − a number for Singapore. Ten rings in, a familiar female voice barking down on the end of the line filled her ears. Without saying a word, Adinda breathed heavily in response.

The first couple of nights, the voice on the end of the line — jarred with bewilderment — bellowed exasperatedly, “Hello? Hello, who is it?” Adinda held her silence. Then came the familiar note of annoyance, flaring in the voice each time she did not carry out the tasks to her satisfaction, bridged to a not-too-distant past where Adinda had sought to make a better life for herself and her family. Now it was all broken and her future was dimmer than before she had set foot in Singapore.

By the 97th call — a day short of her entire stay in Singapore — Adinda broke the silence and spoke: “Why you do this to me? Why you made my life susah[miserable]?”

GIVEN another life, Adinda would not have wanted to be where she was. Easing the curtain to one side, she took in the muggy haze outside. Even without opening the window, she could smell the stiffness of the air permeating her nostrils.

“It is the smell from your home lah,” her madam’s mother-in-law said.

She missed the sarcasm at first, but learned later that the smog blanketing the island emanated from her homeland. She marveled at how the fires raging in her part of the world were suffocating those living further away.

High over the city-state, hundreds of windows embroidered life stories of which one was now her own in the apartment she would have to call home for the next two years. As she wondered hard how things were back home, in the same breath of thought, she stole time to stare out of the windows with curiosity to find out what went on behind those windows opposite hers that she cleaned daily — a morning chore before she prepared breakfast for Sir and Madam and their toddler son.

Adinda wasn’t sure life was any better in the city-state with the constant frowns that creased Sir and Madam’s faces as they returned home after work. Back home as evening fell, her good neighbor and friend Ainul would sit with her outside their homes chatting, taking in the bustle of villagers coming and going, exchanging hellos and words with other neighbors passing by, looking up at the stars stitching their brilliance into the skies.

Here, Adinda soon learned that Sir and Madam retreated behind the shut door, the curtains drawn as hundreds of windows, not dissimilar to theirs, were torched with lights. The whiteness shone through the darkness with dissonance as night fell.

In her homecoming, Ainul’s fruits of labor in full display — modern goodies, money to rebuild her dilapidated, rotting wooden house into something sturdier — awed Adinda. She pictured in her mind the kind of life that could possibly lie ahead of her in the city-state. More so, the better life she could have in her own homecoming, to deal with her immediate wants: to patch the leaking roof over their heads, to fill sacks of rice in the lumbung (rice storage), to no longer endure hunger.

Her Madam’s mother-in-law was the demanding one. She would give Adinda a makeshift stick made of a half-cut bamboo pole with a cloth tied around it and asked her to extend herself out of the windows to clean the outer panels. Arching her hand against the window panels as she extended her body outwards, Adinda tried to suppress the giddiness rising up her head, resisting to either look upwards or worse, downwards, keeping her eyes peeled over to the hundreds of windows on the opposite block.

She wondered at the obsession of having the squeaky-shiny cleaned windows that served little purpose since the curtains were drawn shut most of the time. Was she being punished just because the soot from the forest fires burning back home had stained the windows?

BEFORE she had the maid, Lynn Tan reminded herself not to be too fastidious, to cut her maid some slack.

Given another life, Lynn wouldn’t have wanted to get a maid at all. Having someone else living in their midst was the last thing she wished for. As it was, being out and about, working long hours five days a week, she wanted the freedom and quiet in the evenings and weekends to move about in her home.

The slightest noises intruding upon her shook her with annoyance: the closing and opening of wardrobe doors as the maid placed the folded laundry back; the clattering of the plates and cutlery as the maid washed them; the dull, plodding sound of footsteps as the maid stomped heavily across the floor to pick toys up. Her presence was everywhere; Lynn did not like it at all.

But a year into taking care of her newborn, Lynn was exhausted by the never-ending regime of diaper changes, the unreasonable shrillness of her newborn’s crying, the dull routine that trapped her in the apartment. No longer was she able to steal time in between lunches to do up her toes or hair, to put on a dress or a pair of high-heels, to catch up with gossip over lunch with colleagues before heading back to the office.

Work in itself wasn’t always pleasurable, but it offered pleasant distractions, moving her mood along the way, along a spectrum that was unavailable to the life with a newborn at home.

After her newborn was hospitalized for weeks with a viral infection, after her mother-in-law’s insinuation that she shouldn’t have brought the boy out shopping just because she was bored, after her husband’s rationalization that she might feel better ditching the role of a stay-home mom, Lynn decided to hire a maid.

The arrangement was that her mother-in-law would watch over the maid, who would in turn take care of the daily needs of the boy, and also to complete as many of the household chores as humanly possible each day.

ADINDA had a fitful sleep the night before she was sent off to Singapore. She dreamed about how Singapore was so clean that the pavement could be eaten off of if she was hungry enough. She was on all fours, licking the pavement that tasted of roasted pine nuts, the air sticky with cotton candy, the sun warming a toast of rendang curry.

Then it began to rain in her dreams. The skies opened up: rags after rags of damp fell, some slapping on her head, shoulder, body with a disapproving thud. Soon she found herself unable to move forward, stuck among the rags piling high as the skies gave no sign of letting up. That humid morning, as Adinda left her dreams and woke up soaking wet with sweat on her back and forehead, she was lost to the future lurking ahead.

In Singapore, her family pawned whatever little valuables they had, borrowed from their relatives too. Grateful, Adinda promised herself that once she was able to pay off the loan owed to the agent, she would start to remit as much of her wages as she could back home. She knew the first 10 months would be tough in Singapore, getting little more than 30 dollars each month from her employer, the rest going to the agent for the fees in bringing her to Singapore.

But seeing her neighbors returning home, laden with goodies and modern appliances from Singapore, it strengthened her resolve to go out there to seek a better life. She pictured herself returning home with the latest handheld game for her adik (younger brother), a wardrobe of nice clothes for her kakak (older sister), a brand new Yamaha motorbike for her abang (older brother), a good quality TV for her ailing orangtua (parents) already in their 70s, always squinting their eyes to see what was on the TV.

Sitting in the newly renovated home, she would regale her siblings and parents of life in the city-state, of the people there, of their secrets, of their success, of the modern conveniences that someday, somehow would come to their village, slowly but surely.

“YOU clean like that, not clean. Must clean like that.” Impatience rose up in her mother-in-law’s voice as she snatched the mop from Adinda’s hand and showed her how to do it.

Then she ranted on again, “Thought they teach you how to clean before you come to Singapore. Did Mum show you how to clean the floor? She didn’t scold you?”

As the weeks went on, Adinda was quick to realize the reassuring smiles that welcomed her soon ceased to bracket their faces. The voice grew harder, harsher each time she did something wrong or what they thought was wrong.

When the bowl slipped out of her hand — crashing onto the floor, sending the half-eaten rice all over the corner where she sat on a high stool to eat her dinner in the kitchen — Adinda went to bed that evening hungry.

Slipping into the bathroom to relieve herself when everyone in the household was asleep, she drank from the tap to dull her hunger. The wound stitched between her left thumb and index finger glistened in the dark as she unwrapped her bandage to take a closer look.

“You are very stupid. Why use your hands to pick up the broken bowl? Use the broom to sweep it up,” her Madam’s voice quivered in anger, as she stood with her at the accident and emergency department at Changi Hospital to get her wounds treated.

“JUST send her back lah,” her mother-in-law said the next day. “If your boy is near her, he could have gotten hurt also. Lucky. I can cope with the boy on my own. Now this one stupid, cannot do things properly.”

Since the maid had come into the picture, Lynn was annoyed that her mother-in-law and even her husband presumably made her the custodian of the maid. Any fault with her, any complaints about her clumsiness, her inefficient cleaning that left ant trails, the inability to coax her boy to take naps, rested squarely on her shoulders: teach her, manage her, tell her. Lynn was sick of being the one telling the maid what to do.

“Why can’t your mom just tell her properly what to do,” Lynn said to her husband.

“Mom doesn’t speak much English or Malay. How to communicate? She needs you to instruct the maid,” her husband replied, conveniently brushing aside any responsibility.

That evening, when the decision was made to send her home, Lynn felt heaviness in her heart. But she acquiesced, hoping to put to rest her mother-in-law’s nonstop complaints about the maid. The inconvenience of a maid was perhaps too much to manage, as if life hadn’t put enough on her plate.

One morning the following week, while she was getting ready to clean the windows by wetting the cloth to tie on the bamboo stick, Adinda was asked to pack her belongings stuffed in the storeroom, where she also slept. The Madam’s mother-in-law then quickly did a thorough check by ruffling through her personal belongings.

“Just to make sure she didn’t steal anything,” she said to Lynn, ignoring Adinda who stood by and watched on cluelessly.

At the airport, her Madam pressed two 50-dollar notes into her small hands and said: “Use it to get something you like inside.” It was the first time that she came into contact with so much money since coming to Singapore.

“For me? Thank you, Madam,” Adinda said gratefully, resolving that she would bring it home and show her family what a 50 Singapore dollar note looked like. Then she asked, “Why am I going home?”

“We’re going on a holiday. You balik kampong [go back home] first,” said Madam’s mother-in-law, her face crowded with a disapproving glare.

“WHY? You send me back to agent I can still work in Singapore. Why you send me home? You lie. Why?”

On the other side, Lynn uttered little more than a sorry — one that sounded more tired than sincere. Since the maid left, she had to face the task of coaxing her son to sleep, something she had never been good at.

Despite her mother-in-law’s assurances to help out, Lynn came home mostly to unwashed laundry or dishes — the menial tasks that were once forgotten and relegated to Adinda. She had to take it upon herself to do it.

“Stop calling, Adinda,” Lynn begged. “I’m sorry, as I said.”

It was barely past three in the ungodly hours of the morning when Adinda let out a loud sob on the end of the line. The 98th call, the number of days she was in the city-state. Long after she hung up, the sob stubbornly sat, ringing restively deep in the air. ***

Jonathan Tan Ghee Tiong works as the head of the Culture and Information Division at the ASEAN Secretariat.

[1] Short story was written by Jonathan Tan Ghee Tiong
[2] Has been published in " The Jakarta Post" at Desember 4th, 2017

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

The Party

THE military is rounding people up,” my boss said, sipping his coffee in the house’s small but sunny kitchen. No cream, two sugars. If you were what you drank, then the sweet, black coffee suited him perfectly. He was not a bitter man, despite how he might seem and all the rumors that circulated behind his back.

“So I’ve heard. People are starting to leave town,” I replied, stifling a yawn, the result of a seemingly never-ending night.

Yesterday, I waited two hours for groceries, usually delivered by our regular grocer. It wasn’t until the neighbor’s maid told me that the grocer and his family had left town that I realized my order would never come. I had to walk 15 minutes to find another shop that was still open, after stumbling upon rows and rows of neglected, closed stalls.

I was lucky that I arrived just 10 minutes before they closed. The price was way higher than it should have been, but I had no choice. My bed was untouched until past midnight, after I finished with the groceries and house-cleaning. The street was empty and steeped in an eerie silence, a contrast to other days when dangdutmusic and waves of laughter from street stalls selling bootleg booze and jamuflooded the night.

“Will you be leaving too?” he asked.

“Me, leave? Who will cook and clean this house, then? How can you live here without me?” I said.

I had lived in the house since I was very young, brought here by my mother, who died five years later. Not only did my boss ensure that my mother had a proper funeral, he also ensured I would always have a home here. Leaving was unthinkable, not after what he had given me.

I was beating eggs, trying to make a thick foam, and my boss absentmindedly flicked through the day’s newspaper when someone knocked on the door.

We shared a glance. Then I walked to the door. It didn’t take long as the house was a small one, unlike that of other businessmen in our mining town — let alone a foreigner like him. I knew this because, well, people talked.

I opened the door, letting in a gleam of sunlight that blinded me for a second. Two men clad in army uniforms popped up. No smiles, no greetings. Just sweat across their foreheads and stained around the armpits. Must be hard running around in uniforms in this hot and humid weather, especially if you are not used to much running.

“We need to talk to the owner of the house,” one of them said. I recognized his face as one of the regular customers at the bar near the market. Then I remembered what my boss had said about the military. Just like that, drops of sweat beaded on my back. The air felt suffocating.

“Yes?” he asked from behind me, in a slightly patronizing manner. A tone he rarely used inside the home, I often forgot that we came from two completely different worlds despite sharing the same space.

“We are sorry to disturb you, Sir. We have come to inform you that your cook,” the other soldier pointed at me with his chin, “is a suspected communist and will be arrested.”

So it’s true. They have come for me.

I looked at my boss, who kept his eyes on the soldiers.

“But not till after lunch,” he said, “I’ve a big party planned.”

Then he closed the door.

FOR a while, there was only the whirring sound of a fan spinning and the clock ticking. But I was not scared of what was to come after lunch. I did not fear the soldiers. I was scared of what would happen about the party.

Why could not they wait for just one more day? The party demanded our utmost attention, even more than the annual celebrations like Christmas, Passover, or New Year.

But there was none.

He broke the silence. “I think you have to beat the eggs again, or else the cake won’t rise.”

When I failed to come up with an answer, he went on, “We want this party to be perfect, don’t we? Time to get back to work.”

He walked to the kitchen, sat and continued drinking his coffee. I stood frozen for a while, before following his steps. I set aside the beaten eggs, now deflated, and cracked new ones.

It was not until I had made a perfectly thick foam that I realized he did not even ask whether I was really a communist.

OUR small town was a rather red one. Streets were packed with parties and gatherings after the election result had been announced, declaring that the Party had won big. I joined the festivities, volunteering as a cook, but only because someone, a friend — or rather someone I was trying to be friends with — asked me to do it. Besides, everyone was there. It was just something you did.

Then I was invited to cook for meetings, ceremonies, or assemblies. I did not even know who came or what they talked about. I did not even realize that I was branded as a communist by any association, despite my lackadaisical attitude toward politics. I only knew the envelope filled with money that came after every dish had been served, not what came out from the very same mouths that ate them.

What was on my mind was the house: its general tidiness, dinner and the boss. I did not care about what was happening in the capital. I did not care about who ruled the country.

Simply put: I was young and stupid, like every other teenager before me. The problem was the people I had surrounded myself with were now carrying the brand of state enemies.

Lunchtime came. The cake was ready, with pink and white fondant, and several little candles on top. I put the cake on the long mahogany table used only for dinner parties, fit for a dozen people. My boss sat behind the cake and I lit the candles. Nobody sang. It was a party but the chairs were empty.

We shared a somber, halfhearted smile. Clapping would hurt too much.

My boss blew out the candles, after muttering some prayers. He did not even go to church anymore, saying that he did not believe in a God that was so cruel. Maybe at this point, prayers were just something you said out of habit, or something you needed to say, but not to anyone in particular.

Or maybe, to those who were not here anymore.

With one swift movement, he pulled out the candles, cut the cake and handed over the first slice to me before cutting one for himself. We ate in silence. The cake was so soft, almost fragile. I was proud of myself, but felt vain and guilty to have been disrespectful for feeling that way.

“He would have been three this year,” he said. I nodded. There was no need for me to say anything, and there was nothing to say anyway. Words, however carefully crafted, would just crumble into thin air and fail us both.

I remembered the moment I noticed his wife had been vomiting for three consecutive days. The boss thought that she was just sick. I urged her to visit the doctor in any case.

The doctor came in the evening and we had the most wonderful dinner. Everyone came and congratulated my boss.

Nine months later, the doctor came in the evening and we had the most sorrowful night. I cooked dinner that nobody would eat, and ended up giving the food away. Everyone came with flowers and condolences, but none had ever come back. I did not know whether the magnitude of the grief was so much it that oozed out of the house and prevented people from stopping by, or it was because my boss had practically turned into a ghost — as if he had been the one who died, and not his beloved. Maybe both were true.

There was a knock on the door. I took my mantle from behind the back door, which connected my small, plain bedroom to the kitchen.

“This is my cue,” I said.

He nodded and stood up to put the dishes in the sink. I kept looking at his back, wishing he would turn to me and say something. Just a goodbye would be enough.

The water kept running as he stood by the sink, still refusing to look at me. Someone knocked on the door again.

I opened the door and found the two soldiers waiting for me. They did not say anything.

“Wait,” said a voice behind me. I turned around and found my boss handing a carton, “Bring this, I won’t eat it anyway.”

The soldiers took the carton, cordially thanking him.

“She makes a mean cake, don’t waste that,” he said, closing the door between us.

When my mother died, I was devastated. As I grew older, I thought that one day you would just get used to all the losses you suffered. When the boss’s wife and their baby died, I grieved with him. I cloaked myself with the weight of loss, thinking the day would come where it would slip off and I would not even notice it anymore. I learned to care less and less each time, so that every loss would become more bearable.

I never thought about being the one leaving, and the burden I would leave behind. Maybe next year, he would have all the more reason for a party. ***

Devina Heriyanto is an Indonesian writer and avid reader. She is also the Community Officer at The Jakarta Post.

[1] Short story was written by Devina Heriyanto
[2] Has been published in " The Jakarta Post" at November 20, 2017

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Helper’s Man

THE nagging would come later. At the moment, the scene involves a setting sun, descending toward its place of retreat at the bottom of the sea. The waves rush to arrive at the beach for the very first time. White sparkling foam across the top of the waves are splattered against the rocks. Seagulls, squealing mid-air, swoop down to catch their prey through surprise attacks.

She is a beautiful princess. Her shiny and long black hair falls nicely down to her waist. She has a fair height; the shape of a goddess. Perfection in everything. And there is love in her eyes. There is a certain glow on her face. There is also sincerity, and kindness that sparkles like diamonds.

She looks a little worried as she looks out onto the sea. Her heart is pounding with anticipation. She is expecting someone. There is a deep, longing aura radiating from within her.

Then suddenly — why always so suddenly? — the long-awaited prince arrives. He bows and reaches out for her hands. It’s a magical moment of two lovers being reunited once more. The joy is palpable. The sun, it seems, descends slower upon the horizon.

“Hey, Supiah, what’s the matter with you?” a loud, shrieking voice startles her, cracking holes in her daydream, her moment with the handsome prince. Why does the blow always hits so unexpectedly? “You work too slow! Quickly chop those cabbages and cucumbers!”

The loud woman was busy moving about the small kitchen area of a Padang restaurant. She was a large, middle-aged woman who appeared too big to move around with ease. However, as the head cook at the busy restaurant, she was quite a fast-paced worker, a kitchen maestro who could do little but nag at everyone around her.

“Come on, what’s holding you, ha? It’s lunch time now, plenty of customers are coming. Mind your pace. Keep up. Don’t you know how to work?” the loud woman kept going, moving from one flaming wooden stove to another — stirring the bubbling hot chicken gulai and inspecting the pot of simmering beef rendang. Meanwhile, Supiah, who took her time to recuperate from the shattered daydream, quickly rushed to chop fresh cabbages and slice cucumbers even though there was already a mountain of chopped pale-green cabbages on the chopping board.

Supiah tossed them into a big plastic bowl nearby and continued to chop more cabbages. At a restaurant like this one, especially during rush hour for lunch or dinner, the demand for vegetables can create a significant pressure. Chopped cabbages or sliced cucumbers are the usual types of vegetables served in Padang dishes. The preparation is simple. The shredded cabbages and sliced cucumbers are soaked in boiling water, drained, and ready to be served fresh in an instant. Another type of vegetable is boiled young cassava leaves, sometime simmered with light gravy. Those are a lot easier to prepare compared to lodeh or gulai of raw jackfruits.

“More vegetables, Mak Inah, quickly! The stock is running out!” a waiter dressed in a light blue uniform shouted from the doorway which connects the dining room with the kitchen. The restaurant, as usual, was very busy.

“Ya, ya! Coming up!” Mak Inah shouted back in response, before hastily delegating orders: “Quick, Piah! More veggies! Take the ones that are ready to the front!”

At a regular Padang restaurant, shouting is expected — and the patrons don’t seem to mind it and continue to enjoy their meal. The restaurant is also typically divided into three major areas: the outer section, which is boxed in with glass walls, where various dishes on ceramic plates and bowls are stacked like a pyramid; the dining area where patrons would sit and enjoy their meals; and the kitchen where the meals are prepared for serving. Loud shouts are commonly heard between these three areas as servers try to navigate the hurdles of a rush hour.

Upon Mak Inah’s instructions, Supiah quickly took a big tin bowl containing a mountain of chopped cabbages into the dining area. Just as she was about to step past the doorway, the head cook called out to her again, even louder.

“What are you doing, Supiah? Why are you going in that direction?”

Supiah stopped moving and tried to think of where she was heading.

“Are you trying to spoil our good name? You want to show your ugly face to our patrons and get them to lose their appetite?”

Supiah gasped in regret. It wasn’t her place, of course. How could she have forgotten? She was not supposed to show her face to anyone in the dining area. So she turned around and put down the vegetable bowl on the table leaning against the wall by the connecting doorway. That was exactly the place. It was not her job to take anything past that doorway, especially during rush hours.

It was the job of the waiters and waitresses in uniform to take the vegetables and all other prepared meals from the kitchen to the dining area. It was a simple division of labor, actually: cooks and kitchen helpers handle the meal preparation and kitchen management; while waiters and waitresses in uniform serve the patrons.

Supiah made a fast return to her station. Her heart was still beating fast. While biting her lower lip, she immediately occupied herself with other chores. Focus, she thought to herself. She sliced a pile of onions thinly. They were to be fried until crisp to add flavor to the meals.

In the kitchen, Mak Inah has three helpers. Two are in charge of cooking, including Supiah, while the other is in charge of dishwashing and another at cleaning. It is not easy working at a busy restaurant. Each day, Mak Inah has to make somewhere between 15 to 20 dishes in bulk.

At the moment, Mak Inah stood with her left hand on her waist, sweating profusely, while her right hand was busy stirring up the lamb gulai on the burning stove. The act of stirring had to be repeated several times at certain intervals to make sure the coconut milk gravy stay thick and the meat moist. Otherwise, the gravy would become watery and the meat dry. Mak Inah wore a long scarf around her neck, the same scarf most other women would use to cover their hair. Everybody liked Mak Inah, except for her nagging mouth.

Supiah was an easy target. Even while she was busy cooking, Mak Inah would always find ways to belittle her or tease her. Some cooks like to listen to music while they do their magic at the stove; Mak Inah loves nothing more than to show her absolute authority in the kitchen.

“Supiah, what on earth gets into your head today? It’s always up in the clouds somewhere…” and so the nagging began. “Are you tired of working here? Do you want to quit?”

Supiah did not respond to the nagging, because it was better not to — no one ever responded to the nagging. However, Mak Inah didn’t stop there, “Do you think it’s easy to get work anywhere? Even many university graduates are now unemployed, let alone an uneducated person such as yourself. With your ugly face, your dark skin, and your skinny body—what are you going to offer? Think very hard about it. You should be thankful that you get to work with me. And what do I get? Gratitude?” Mak Inah scoffed. “No, not gratitude. All I get is your laziness and your tendency to leave your head up in the clouds. If it wasn’t out of pity, I wouldn’t have let you work here! But do you even realize that?”

Supiah swallowed hard the bitter taste in her mouth. It was an impossible situation for her. She owes Mak Inah almost everything — difficult as she is to work with, Mak Inah is the best cook in town. Everybody wants to taste her food. And she is the secret of this restaurant’s success.

“Do you think you can survive if you quit working here? If you have a husband, maybe yes. But, do you even have a man now, huh? Where would you find a decent man who is willing to marry you? Even a sickly old blind man would reject you. Never mind the younger ones. You won’t be a spinster like you are now if you had been lucky enough to find one. You don’t need to work in a hot dirty kitchen like this. Count your blessings, Piah! “

Supiah, again, could do nothing but tolerate the incessant bullying and berating. No beautiful, magical surprises would suddenly seize the moment to save her. Just the hot air, wood fire fumes, loads of work and Mak Inah’s endless nagging. While she tried hard to bear all the torment, the two other kitchen helpers busied themselves with their own tasks, trying to obscure their presence to invisibility. Clearly, even a clown wouldn’t dare to show up here; forget about the prince.

Supiah felt her hands stiffen, clutching onto that sharp knife, imagining what it would be like to slice her own heart into small cubes. Tears welled in the corner of her eyes. She remembered her old village where she had happily lived as a child; how she would spend the entire day playing by the beach. Her father, a fisherman, died at sea. He went fishing one night and there was a storm — her father didn’t make it home. After a long illness, her mother also died. She became an orphan at such a young age, and she had had to live most of her life at the homes of relatives who would take her. She was dependent upon the mercy of others, always. There was never a prince or a princess. Mak Inah is actually the closest person she has in the world who feels like family. The constant nagging is simply proof that life isn’t perfect, but it’s real. The fairytale, on the other hand, only exists up in the clouds. ***

Anwar writes short stories, poems and essays, lives in Jakarta.

[1] Short story was written by A.J. Anwar
[2] Has been published in " The Jakarta Post" at November 6, 2017

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