Although she was only twelve, Amba knew a thing or two about being faithful. Her own mother was faithful, waking before sun up every morning and, talc-dappled and fresh-faced, serving her husband’s first coffee of the day. She kept her house sober and fragrant even though times hadn’t always been easy. She was the smile that sent her three girls away to school every morning.
Amba was told that her mother, when she was growing up, was considered the most accomplished girl in her village. She was multi- talented, did well in school and was exceptionally pleasing to the eye. Her parents had done all they could to safeguard her purity, for a flower so fair was so much more than a child — she was a duty. Her soulful face and dulcet voice had also made her one of her hometown’s favourite pesindens — female singers — of the local shadow puppet troupe. In fact, so fond was she of singing that she learned many more old Javanese lyrics, and more keroncong melodies in Dutch or Indonesian-Malay, than she was ever taught at school.
The story of Amba’s mother’s encounter with the great performer Srimulat, the beautiful lead artiste of the Rose Flower Keroncong Orchestra, was the stuff of family legend, titillating not so much for how close she had been to being lured away by Srimulat and her troupe, than for the fact that she wasn’t. Whenever her daughters asked her the reason why, their mother had only one answer: ‘Where was I to go? And what was I to run from?’ Her parents, despite their strictness, had doted on her, and her loveliness was, to them, a source of pride. They had promised her a good match, a man who would show her the lasting joys of marriage. Who knows, they had murmured, maybe they would find her someone like Srimulat’s husband, a man so gentle, so loving, he who would speak to her soul. A man who would encourage her to sing and watch performances for the rest of her life, for by then she would be a respectable adult woman.
Amba’s mother had accepted Amba’s father’s proposal three months later. And to him she had remained faithful. Only in the last ten months, after sixteen years of marriage, of tending to the needs of her family and of never earning her own money, had she been supplying local desserts to Rusmini’s warung, the most popular local roadside eatery in town, a small but important way of having an income of her own.
The fact that it had taken her this long to effect such a little change to family tradition, was itself a form of loyalty — to the idea that any man worth his salt could, and should, single-handedly look after the well-being of his entire family.
Yes, Amba’s mother had certainly been faithful, and Amba had loved her in the way most daughters loved their mothers: as tutor, role model, caretaker, someone who taught her to do things like cook, clean, sew, and look after her sisters. But some days she didn’t think of her mother at all. It was her father who taught her how to feel.
When Amba was eight, she suddenly discovered there was another way to see her father. He was her father, but he could also be her friend. At first, the revelation was startling. But Amba soon saw why it had made sense. Hadn’t he given her half of the blood that coursed through her veins, hadn’t he given her part of her bones, her tissues, her cat’s eyes? Didn’t that make them soulmates, wedded to each other for as long as they lived? It made absolute sense that he would want to share with her things that really mattered to him. Things that were honest and true. Some of the literature she had read had taught her that there comes a time when a man stops talking to his wife and starts looking for other objects he can possess. And because of this a man needs the ear of someone he can absolutely trust. It was her father’s luck that that person was she.
Besides, she knew certain things about herself that made her particularly well-suited to the task. She had a ready wit about her, yet she always used her judgment before throwing a barb on anyone’s path. This made her feel powerful. She also knew that something in her sharp, knowing eyes, and in her fecund imagination that had a way of running riot, spoke to her father, to the inner things he often felt, but which were not proper for him to admit. She was a child before her time, and indeed that lovely anomaly, a self-willed bird.
Later, when he had to account for why he had loved Amba more than his other daughters, he said it was because of something she asked him one day, after she’d just turned eleven. It was as if he’d forgotten his first daughter in the joy of siring twins, and twins too beautiful at that, but on this day she bewitched him anew.
This is what happened on the day Sudarminto fell in love with his eldest daughter.
He was returning a few books to the shelf in his little study. He had a few loose sheets of paper in his hand, and when he thought nobody was watching, he bent down to shove them back into a cardboard box on the bottom shelf, like a dirty secret. But Amba was behind him all along, sitting on the living room chair with a textbook on her lap.
‘What makes Centhini so important?’
Sudarminto swung around.
‘I mean, Centhini is a woman, a servant no less…’
‘Have you read the book?’
‘Just some parts.’
Sudarminto paused. He thought about what he should say if Amba had indeed read the whole Book of Centhini, and, worse, the parts that she was not supposed to. He could already see how this long, languorous day he had set aside for himself, a day after his own heart, would now have to descend into a strained disquisition on sex and debauchery, and then a moralising discourse on sex and morality, religion and redemption—stuff he himself had always wrestled with, finding no easy answers. For it was no secret that certain parts of Centhini, Book 9 in particular, were startlingly lubricious, while somehow managing to remain cool and cheeky, and they were decidedly inappropriate for a child.
Sudarminto looked at his daughter. He was almost certain that she had indeed read the book in question — the girl was a book freak, as other teachers had told him. Despite all the texts he had on explaining the unexplainable to children, he hadn’t prepared himself for this unexplainable.
It came as a surprise to him, then, when his eleven-year-old daughter decided to save her father the embarrassment, saying, ‘I think I know the answer. Centhini is a servant, a low caste, an outsider, someone who’s paid not to have her own opinion, and because of that she can’t possibly give advice to or pass judgments on others. And that is a wonderful thing.’
So relieved was Sudarminto that he forgot those very words had once come from his own mouth. Amba had recited them verbatim. For Amba, nothing about that moment pleased her more than realising that, with intellect, she had staked her claim over her father.
It was no secret that Amba’s father, a school principal, had loved such old Javanese texts as Wedhatama and the Book of Centhini. He loved the Centhini in particular. He believed that this had endeared him to his wife-to-be, Nuniek, for she had performed parts of it as a teenager and knew most of the songs by heart. He loved this work so much because he was, first and foremost, a teacher, someone whose chief duty was to educate children and ripen their souls, and there was no greater cause for magnified love than the need to hide parts of it, those parts too inflammatory for young minds, from the subjects of his vocation. He learned to select which passages from Centhini were appropriate to read to his students, which parts should be replaced with milder songs from the Wedhatama. Meanwhile, the book’s grand design still fell into clean segments and he never had trouble following them.
The Book of Centhini isn’t only one of Indonesia’s oldest manuscripts. It is also an encyclopedia of life filled with poetry, song and prophecies. What’s more, it is named after a maid. Yes, a maid — the maid companion of the Lady Tambangraras, to be precise. A coddler, a liberator, a clown and sage rolled into one, but a maid all the same: a woman low on the pecking order, but one who held all the wisdom of the world. Sudarminto always thought it a rather gorgeous idea that a woman of such a lowly description could rise so in respectability, but try telling this to thirty sniffly schoolchildren in a crammed classroom, most of whom were so poor they had not the faintest idea what having a maid even felt like. So he waited patiently for that moment, when one of them would ask, ‘Why Centhini, why the maid? Why is the book not named after Centhini’s mistress or her mistress’ husband, whom the book is mostly about?’
At such a moment in the narrative, Sudarminto had learnt to skirt the brink of the allowable; he would recite a livelier poem and scan his students’ faces, one by one, to test for signs of appreciation. Out of such experiments came those rare moments when all childish voices were suspended and it seemed the world softened to a hush. Once, in such a time, a young girl had broken the silence by asking what it meant: If you make water thirst, water will thirst for you.
Then Sudarminto would recite another poem to them. Each time this happened, he could barely remember having been so happy. It was like falling in love with versions of the same woman. He would go home, light as air, marinated in a sense of rightness about what he was meant to do in life, and when he went to bed he was impatient for the morning sun.
Other men might have dreamed of winning a lottery, buying hectares of land and building grand houses; they might have hunted the strongest, most elusive prey and married off sons and daughters. But all Sudarminto wanted to do was to write down years of secret dreams.
In bed at night he would listen to the radio — to familiar macapatan songs, or to Pak Besut’s famous talk show, or to the music accompanying a shadow puppet performance that he reluctantly abandoned halfway for the kindness of sleep. But often sleep eluded him altogether. He would lay still for what seemed like an eternity, listening to the noises of the night and his wife’s soft breathing next to him. Then, as if in an opium-induced trance, his thoughts would travel with Prince Jayengraga on his sexual escapades. Sometimes he had difficulties dampening his gasping breath and the next morning his spine would hurt from being pressed too hard against the bed frame.
Whatever his guilty night pleasures, the next morning he would wash them off with dawn prayer, in much the same way Jayengraga would rush to the mosque after a wild night with a seducer. Sudarminto would call to mind particular lines, and sometimes quote them loudly:
‘Behold the fire of hell/Burning all of your sins/And the ridicule of all ingrates/For while faith’s flags live on/Divine revelation has turned into ash/And while the soul is a labyrinth of smoke/The universe of the body is but wood/Sin like sperm falls of a sudden/The fire dies within me/Leaving only a spirit that rules.’
All the while, young Amba was watching and taking notes. She instinctively realised her father secretly admired the randy prince. There was nothing sexier, she later learned, than a man who dared design his own destiny, and who made no apologies for chasing pleasure. (That the prince happened to be handsome and virile was a bonus.) Even at the age of eleven, she understood how this sort of bravado, this confidence in life might have appealed to her father, who could hardly be considered in charge of, let alone the architect of, his own fate.
Despite his little secrets, Amba’s father too had been faithful. Not once did he ever betray the love of his wife, or the trust of his daughters. For he had an even larger kingdom to rule than his wife’s, and a bigger example to set. Being a teacher made life in so many ways easier for him, for it gave him respectability and trust. But it also made life difficult because it meant that he had the wisdom of many books, and was as such permitted no error of judgment. To the town folk, knowledge and wisdom were not things he had to teach or train himself in; they were supposed to have come to him like a mandate from heaven. Knowledge was supposed to be part of him. Moreover, he was both a teacher and a member of the aristocracy — his father, a school principal, was also a priyayi, a man drawn straight from the administrative layers of the royal court of Yogyakarta — and this gave him a rather special status in town.
Although Amba’s father called himself a Muslim, he was not a descendent of a religious person. Most Javanese are only partly Muslim, meaning they were also faithful to local traditions older than the fourteenth century, the time when traders from other parts of the world began to spread the Islamic faith. Like most Javanese, Amba’s father held onto traces of Buddhism, Hinduism and animism as if they were glorious sequins of the past.
Sudarminto felt he was first and foremost part of Kadipura. The small town was located on the foot of the Merapi Mountain, not far from the Central Javanese city of Klaten. It only took twenty minutes on bicycle to reach the main road. The town’s paddy fields, which supplied rice for the neighbouring towns, possessed a sturdy irrigation system. Through the centre of town stretched a shopping street and rows of solid stone houses, interspersed by colonial buildings left by the Dutch. The old missionary school, once the pride of the town, was suddenly no more; it had been replaced by new schools and staffed by new teachers who seemed to have sprung out from nowhere. These included the so-called ‘instant’ teachers brought in to match the alarmingly fast- growing number of students.
Sudarminto was not among them. He was proud to call himself a ‘true teacher.’ And he was the truest among the true. How could he not be? His father was a school principal, so was his grandfather. He also knew how to distinguish the instant from the true at a glance, and he knew how to surround himself with his own kind.
But Kadipura had changed all too swiftly: its town hall, its mosques and its schools suddenly found themselves overcrowded and it had taken Sudarminto some time to notice that the true teachers were being fast outnumbered by the instant ones, quite a few from the neighbouring towns. In time, like everybody else, they too became split into two camps. One called the other ‘That PNI person’ or ‘That PKI person,’ ‘That Nationalist’ or ‘That Communist.’ The rest, who weren’t quite sure where they were in the ideological divide, stayed silent.
Sudarminto was a moderate man. He smoked in moderation, liked his coffee triple-sugared, and couldn’t stand even the merest hint of garlic or chilli in his food. He had no visible hobbies other than those he felt compelled in showing off every now and then — gardening, mainly, something soothing and entirely non-polemical. He never understood how to be in the middle, how to avoid tension. Perhaps he was too mild-mannered. Of his dark secrets only he and Amba knew, and this complicity made Amba love her father more deeply, more fiercely, even though he didn’t know it. But he sensed that he was living and labouring on an escalating crossfire.
Amba didn’t make matters easier.
One afternoon in late 1956, Amba went looking for her father in his study. As she later remembered it, the air was hot and thick despite the settling of dusk, and all around was the familiar mix of incense, burnt grass, oil and fermented prawn. She could hear the sound of footsteps and soft patter in the kitchen. Soon on the table there would be fried soybean cakes, a relish of grated coconut and spices and mixed blanched vegetables served with steamed white rice and prawn crackers. And few pieces of fried chicken, if Amba’s mother was feeling generous.
Amba was clearly upset. Before her father could ask her what was wrong, she told him that her religion teacher just reprimanded her for not reading the Qur’an.
‘Is that true?’
‘Well, I don’t mind learning the Qur’an but I find Arabic letters hard to pronounce,’ Amba said, ‘Mr Baedowi said everyone has to be able to read the Qur’an properly, for that is the sign of faith. He told me I shouldn’t become like those Kadipurans who love their macapatan but are strangers to their religion.’
‘I guess your teacher is right, Amba.’
But deep down Sudarminto was just as upset as his daughter. This man named Baedowi was a newcomer in Kadipura. Sudarminto heard he was never seen attending any tablikh. Nor was he ever invited to preside over sermons in private houses, as was increasingly the norm in those days. Was it possible that he was a free agent, a religious teacher unattached to a boarding school? For he didn’t seem one of those loud and combative kyais from the Nahdlatul Ulama, with loyal disciples and followers. Why had Sudarminto not attended to his recruitment into the school more carefully? Now this simpleton was teaching his children.
Yes, Kadipura was changing. The world Sudarminto knew had begun to slip away. He wanted to tell his daughter that whoever wrote his beloved Book of Wedhatama was wruh sakdurunging winarah, a seer, a prophet, because he had seen the coming of a new age. He wanted to say to his daughter, ‘And that age, my tiny love, is the one we live in today: one which bandies religion about as pure show and passes damning verdicts on people.’
But Kadipura was made up of silences. Not the silences of things lacking, but rather the silences behind things. And Sudarminto understood these silences more than anybody else. He was part of this world, he had helped make it. Flawed architecture and lack of money might have contributed to the gaps in the walls and windows that didn’t close, but what the walls and the windows concealed ran deeper than blood. Although people discussed troubles as calmly as they could, or avoided discussing them altogether, he soon learned that his absence from the mosque during Friday prayers had been a hot topic for some time. Some had been blunt: Be careful, there will come a time when the distance you deliberately kept from God will cause you to fall and perish. There will come a time when these Commie bastards will come to your house in the night, and cut your throat and the throats of your wife and children. Then you will regret not having been closer to the Plumbon men of faith.
And it was the silence that accompanied these words, in the straight-faced greetings of his neighbours, in the seemingly respectful nods of his students’ parents, which to him was the greatest silence of all. It was deep and
For Sudarminto, things had been different back when the girls were born, Amba in 1944, the twins two years later. In those days, most people had thought like him. They certainly didn’t lose sleep over this shapeless, faceless God of the preachers and zealots. For how could they, when life kept changing with such speed and force — the Second World War, the fall of the Netherlands Indies, the arrival and then the defeat of the Japanese, the renewed battle for independence, the Dutch aggression, the battle against pre-occupation, rebellions by the scores…
Sudarminto had lived through all of this with a certain calm, a certain confidence, made possible by his quiet submission to old wisdoms passed down through generations. For centuries the Javanese had lived with a poetic prophecy that hinted at the coming of foreign rule. The ulemmas might scream their lungs out about Allah striking down these foreign enemies, but even before they came, the Javanese had always known they were coming: ‘The Javanese would be ruled by whites for three centuries and by yellow dwarfs for the life span of a maize plant prior to the return of the Just King.’ God might be all things to all people but, as far as the Javanese were concerned, they were united by one faith: that the foreigners would eventually be banished from their land. And banished they were, as surely as the ages that came and went, ushering change, ushering new beginnings.
But neither God nor any subversive poem from old Javanese texts nor prophecies of the most profound sagacity had prepared Sudarminto for being the father to three daughters. Even though he taught for a living, what he taught his own daughters was different to what he taught other people’s children. No theory. No science. No platitudes. Just folk tales. And tales from the wayang, drawn from the great Indian epics, which flowed through their lives and the lives of the people around them.
Blessedly, his daughters seemed to know what he expected of them and proceeded to teach themselves how to breathe meaning to their names. They understood instinctively that telling is always retelling, casting the old anew.
Yet Sudarminto was also slightly afraid of them, those girls. Especially of his eldest daughter, who, despite herself, had the qualities of a princess: hard-headed, self-absorbed, self-entitled. He found her utterly mesmerising.
‘Pak, in the Centhini, Ki Amongrogo and his wife are said to meet with their family after their death. How is that possible? How do the dead communicate with the living?’
‘Hmm. Do you believe in spirits?’
Amba didn’t answer right away.
‘Well, do you?’
She didn’t say it but of course she did. Every day at least one of her friends at school would talk of one sighting or another. A dead grandmother, who materialised at dinner and told stories of her life. Or a special corner of a house was ‘our dead brother’s corner,’ where the mood of the dead brother set the tone of the day. Friendly spirits could keep a boy out of harm’s way, or reveal the fiend that murdered a family not so long ago.
Amba lowered her gaze.
Something swelled in Sudarminto. He began speaking in the way she knew and loved so well.
‘Amba, know that in the world I know, the dead do not sleep; they existed in the same sphere as human beings. Remember that while reincarnation may be the pillar of Hinduism and Buddhism, it is not known in Islam. Yet we, in Java, live with both. We are Javanese because we are both…’
Amba was deaf to anything else, completely entranced by her father’s voice.
Meanwhile, beyond the two of them, outside the vicissitudes of their family, the times were changing. Something larger was taking hold.
It had begun the previous year, 1955, the year of the first General Elections for the new Republic of Indonesia. There was something acid and shrewd in the air. It was as if blood had been spilled long before anybody stepped in it. At work, among his fellow teachers, politics had become more and more unbearable for Sudarminto. He often came home subdued and tired, for there was no space for moderates like him.
There were so many party emblems to choose from that people had difficulty remembering which was which, what each signified, what was good what was bad. But still they chose, as though the highest truth. Families and neighbours started to avoid, rebuke or repel each other, just because they didn’t share the same political beliefs or choose the same party.
Voices became coarser, throats lined with broken glass. People started to lock their doors.
Through it all, Amba watched how her father, who had prided himself on running a pretty simple ship, couldn’t quite convince his wife to vote for the Nationalist Party. He’d warned her of the dangers of fragmentation, saying it was one thing to dream up a nation and quite another to live it. Independence has its costs.
One day, a few weeks before the General Elections, Amba’s father found his wife coming home a few hours late, the vegetables almost wilted in the shopping basket.
Even Amba could see that Nuniek looked different. Her face was glowing. She didn’t even apologise for being late.
‘You remember our old neighbour in Kertosono?’ she asked, before he had a chance to admonish her. ‘The one whose aunt just died of lung disease?’
‘Hartoyo, you mean?’
‘Yes, that’s it. Well, I just saw him speak at the town hall. He was really impressive. Talked a lot about women and their struggle. At the end of his speech, everyone applauded.’
Sudarminto looked a little rattled.
‘Well, he’s always been a smooth talker. And of course he was talking about women because the place was surrounded by Gerwani.’ Gerwani was the shortened name for the Indonesian Women’s Movement, and it was closely linked to the party of this neighbour who had so impressed his wife, the Indonesian Communist Party, a new party which had surprisingly come fourth in the elections, having gained a lot of traction in a short period.
‘Still. He seemed to know what people wanted,’ Nuniek said.
‘As our dear president Bung Karno said, what our country really needs is unity,’ Sudarminto countered.
‘Well, Bung Karno is a revolutionary, so of course he would say that. But where is the revolutionary fervour in the Nationalist Party? To unite is well and good, but tell me, where is the revolution?’
Sudarminto’s face instantly changed.
‘It is astounding,’ he said, ‘how easily impressed you are by the power of cheap rhetoric. That Hartoyo isn’t even the best of them. But did you really listen to his speech?’
Amba watched her mother retreat. She knew that you had to feel your way through a marriage, not unlike politics. Just when you thought your relationship with your husband was firmly in place, the tables began, ever so swiftly and unfathomably, to turn. But as she went to the kitchen and laid down her sad and shrivelled veggies, it was plain that she was annoyed at her husband.
‘Precious little good had the principle of unity done to the Nationalist Party,’ she whispered to Amba conspiratorially. ‘For didn’t it, just the other day, split into two parties? One had for its symbol a chicken feather pen, the other a shovel. Now how idiotic is that.’
Some weeks ago Amba’s father had had the walls of the house pasted with the image of a bull’s head inside a triangle. Then the same scenario played out so many times Amba lost count: her father insisting to her mother, ‘We have to choose correctly. The bull’s head means the Nationalist Party and that means Sukarno,’ and Nuniek responding, ‘How about the hammer and sickle? How about the Communist Party?’
At which point Sudarminto’s pedantry would border on caricature: his eyes would roll, his brows arch in mock astonishment: ‘My dear, just look at these two things — the hammer and the sickle. The hammer, granted, is the tool of the labourers. Fine. Now look at this sickle. What’s wrong with this picture? We’re talking the working class, aren’t we? We’re voting for them, yes? Because they are the true revolutionaries we’ve been dying to have, yes? So why are we looking at a sickle? Is it not a fact that with a sickle the peasants can only cut grass, or a small branch? Shouldn’t we be looking instead at the shovel, a tool that is capable of so much more? So, even the symbolism of the Communist Party is suspect. Now ask yourself, should we be voting for a party that cannot even get its emblem right?’
Later, Amba would learn that politics is not about getting it right. It’s about getting it wrong rightly.
Then she would remember how fond her father was of saying that all the islands of their country were like a thousand little foundlings with their mouths turned towards their mother, which he called The Big Nipples, who had to endlessly provide. She remembered him saying, ‘Ten years after our country gained independence, in the chaos that was the 1955 General Election, those thousand foundlings had fused into four fat suckling sons. They were the Big Four. They were the chosen ones. The Giant Nipples then spoke to the first son, the Indonesian Nationalist Party, known as PNI, and to the second son, Masyumi, or the Council of Indonesian Muslim Associations, and to the third son, the Islamic Party Nahdlatul Ulama, shortened to NU, saying, ‘Go over to the right hand side of the table.’ To the fourth son, the Indonesian Communist Party, commonly referred to as PKI, she said, ‘You, stay where you are on the left hand side of the table.’ Then the father, President Sukarno, said proudly, ‘We are all one family sitting at one big dinner table.’
‘But the truth was, the table never seemed big enough for those four suckling sons. Besides, it was not in them, those different, greedy children, to get along. Most certainly not with that kind of mother: too various, too sprawling, too soft and porous in her constitution.
‘So when the fourth suckling, the Indonesian Communist Party, rose spectacularly, claiming a membership of three million in less than a year, his three siblings cried foul: ‘How can our brother be more important than we are? It’s impossible.’’
And yet Amba understood that anything was possible, in the tuck and tumble of those hungry, grasping mouths all sucking on The Giant Nipples, the mother who was simply an idea. An idea that was starting to shrivel away.