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.