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Belenggu Emas

Iksaka Banu was born in Yogyakarta, October 7, 1964. He graduated from the Institut Teknologi Bandung with a degree in graphic design. He started writing when he was ten years old. Kawanku and the children section of Kompas published him. Koran Tempo and several other magazines featured his stories in 2000. Pena Kencana listed “Mawar di Kanal Macan” and “Semua Untuk Hindia” in the best twenty Indonesian short stories in 2008 and 2009. His short story collection “Semua Untuk Hindia” (Gramedia  2014), won the 2014 Kusala Sastra Khatulistiwa Award in the prose category.

Iksaka can be reached at iksaka@yahoo.com

Copyright ©2017 Iksaka Banu. Published with permission from the author. Translation copyright ©2017 by Maya Denisa Saputra.

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Belenggu Emas

 

Ruang tamu ini sangat nyaman. Mungkin karena semua jendelanya dibuka lebar sehingga udara sejuk Koto Gadang bisa leluasa masuk, membawa pergi sisa kepenatan tubuh akibat terguncang-guncang selama enam jam di dalam kereta api uap milik Soematra Staatsspoorwegen yang bertolak dari Padang kemarin siang.

Kulirik Nyonya Joanna Adriana Westenenk yang duduk di sebelahku. Kurasa ia juga merasakan keletihan yang sama meski sudah terbiasa bertandang ke wilayah-wilayah jauh semacam ini.

Tujuh tahun yang lalu, suaminya Louis Constant Westenenk, menjadi terkenal karena keberhasilannya dalam mengatasi Kerusuhan Kamang yang disebabkan penolakan penerapan pajak di Kamang pada bulan Juni 1908. Kini ia menjabat sebagai Residen Benkoelen.

Aku berteman baik dengan Nyonya Westenenk, tetapi tidak menduga bahwa ia benar-benar menepati janji, mengajakku ke tempat ini. Sebuah tempat yang menurutnya akan membuat mata sekaligus hatiku terbuka lebar. Tentu saja perjalanan ini di luar kegiatan resmi suaminya. Dan aku merasa sedikit nekat bepergian sejauh ini hanya berdua saja dengan Nyonya Westenenk. Bertiga, sebetulnya. Karena selalu ada ajudan yang menemani Nyonya Westenenk.

“Louis tak bisa menemani,” kata Nyonya Westenenk kemarin. “Ada sejumlah acara di Padang bersama Asisten Residen dan para pemuka adat setempat.”

Aku mengiyakan. Seharusnya suamiku juga diundang mengikuti acara itu, tetapi ia telanjur ditugaskan kantornya ke Solok bersama beberapa Kepala Insinyur lain. Bulan lalu ia sudah mengirim surat permintaan maaf kepada Asisten Residen.

Maka, di sinilah aku sekarang. Bebas mengikuti kata hati. Ya, sudah lama aku menginginkan petualangan liar semacam ini, meski tampaknya aku harus lebih sering melatih kesabaran, duduk berlama-lama di atas bangku kereta api yang keras. Setiba di Fort de Kock, kami beristirahat semalam, lalu pagi hari tadi berkereta kuda ke tempat ini.

Tak jauh berbeda dengan rumah-rumah Hindia lain yang biasa dimiliki pejabat bumiputera terpandang, rumah besar. Empat keping jendela gaya Prancis menjadi penyeimbang di kiri-kanannya pintu depan. Ada pula bangunan tambahan, memanjang di kedua sisi rumah utama. Mirip ruang kelas. Itulah bagian yang sesungguhnya paling penting dari bangunan ini. Ingin sekali aku segera melongok isinya, yang konon telah membuat gempar banyak pejabat Belanda di seantero Hindia. Tetapi tentu saja aku harus sabar menunggu hingga tuan rumah muncul.

“Onne biasa datang sekitar jam setengah sepuluh,” kata wanita dalam busana Minang yang tadi menyambut kami. “Dan bila tak ada keperluan lain Onne akan terus di sini hingga sore hari,” sambungnya sambil menyuguhkan dua cangkir teh hangat serta sejumlah kudapan. Ia memperkenalkan dirinya sebagai Zaiza, atau barangkali nama lain yang kurang-lebih berbunyi seperti itu. Bahasa Melayunya bercampur dengan logat setempat. Agak sulit bagi telingaku yang sudah sangat terbiasa mendengar Bahasa Melayu Batavia atau Melayu Jawa.

“Terima kasih. Kami memang datang terlalu pagi. Tak apa, kami akan menanti kedatangan beliau.” Nyonya Westenenk mengangguk.

Zaiza minta izin kembali ke belakang.

“Onne adalah nama panggilan wanita yang akan kita temui nanti,” bisik Nyonya Westenenk. “Artinya: kakak.”

Aku mengangguk, lalu memutar pandangan ke beberapa sudut ruangan. Di hadapanku, dekat jendela, berderet buku berbahasa Belanda, Arab, dan Melayu. Tersimpan rapi di dalam sebuah lemari berkaca dengan empat ambalan. Di ujung kanan ada rak pendek, sarat tumpukan koran terbitan dalam dan luar negeri. Sementara di sisi kiri tergantung sebuah potongan kain yang dikerjakan dengan kehalusan yang menakjubkan. Mungkin itu salah satu contoh tenunan yang dikerjakan di sini. Dan terakhir, di atas meja, tampak terbitan terbaru sebuah koran yang belum lama ini menjadi perbincangan hangat di antara kami. Benar-benar ruang tamu yang sarat peradaban.

Bukan hal aneh menjumpai pemandangan serupa itu di ruang tamu para pejabat Belanda. Tetapi saat ini aku tengah berada di dalam sebuah bangunan yang jauh dari keramaian kota, milik seorang pribumi. Tepatnya, seorang wanita pribumi.

Seolah mengerti yang kupikirkan, Nyonya Westenenk menyentuh pundakku sembari melempar senyum.

“Ini belum semuanya, Nellie,” bisiknya. “Tunggu sampai kau berbicara dengannya. Dengarkan pemikiran-pemikirannya.”

“Ya, Nyonya,” sahutku. “Banyak berita tentang orang ini. Seharusnya aku malu. Ia berani menyuarakan dirinya sendiri di tengah tekanan hebat lingkungannya. Sementara aku, lihatlah, betapa menyedihkan diriku di hadapan suami.”

“Berhentilah menyalahkan diri.” Nyonya Westenenk memperbaiki letak sarung tangan putih berpola renda yang dikenakannya.  “Hindia Belanda tidak sama dengan Eropa. Di sini semua berjalan lebih lambat. Bahkan orang kulit putih pun tak bisa melangkah gegas. Tetapi bukan berarti kita tak sudi merentangkan kedua tangan lebar-lebar menyambut perubahan yang sedang menggeliat. Perubahan yang sebentar lagi membuat lompatan besar di seluruh penjuru dunia ini. Di Barat, di Timur, di seluruh penjuru dunia, wanita sedang bergerak.”

“Dan suami Anda sungguh luar biasa, membiarkan Anda pergi ke sini hanya ditemani olehku dan seorang ajudan, sementara aku harus mencuri waktu selagi suami bertugas ke luar kota.”

Kulirik jendela. Tampak Joep, ajudan Tuan Westenenk sedang asyik bercakap dengan kusir kereta yang tadi mengantar kami ke sini.

“Louis sama saja dengan pria-pria lain di dunia. Pernah terlihat rapuh, tidak percaya diri, bahkan sangat tidak ramah kepadaku saat berkobar kerusuhan Kamang tujuh tahun lalu,” Nyonya Westenenk kembali memahat senyum tipis di wajahnya yang tirus. “Tetapi setelah perang berlalu, ia kembali seperti yang kukenal sebelumnya. Memberi banyak kelonggaran. Dengar, aku tak ingin mencampuri urusan rumah tanggamu. Aku lebih dahulu kenal dengan Theodor Makenbrug, suamimu, dibandingkan dirimu. Ia teman dekat Louis. Sejauh yang kutahu, tak ada yang salah dengannya. Kalau tampak keras, barangkali karena ia mengkhawatirkanmu. Belum terbiasa melihat istrinya ikut sengsara, berpindah-pindah rumah di negeri ini. Louis dulu juga begitu.”

“Saya rasa semua memang tergantung dari mana kita melihat, Nyonya. Betul, ia baik hati dan setia. Itu satu hal,” kataku sambil bangkit, berjalan mendekati dinding dekat lemari buku yang menyimpan foto keluarga. Cukup aneh melihat banyak foto manusia di rumah ini.  Biasanya, sesuai tafsir agama yang mereka anut, keluarga Muslim Minang pantang memindahkan wajah ke atas sehelai kertas foto. Aku dengar, menurut mereka haram membuat tiruan ciptaan Allah. Tetapi rupanya keluarga ini bukan hanya terbiasa berfoto, mereka tahu persis bagaimana tampil anggun di depan kamera. Anak-anak lelaki berdiri gagah dalam seragam kelasi Victoria seperti yang biasa dikenakan para sinyo Belanda, sementara anak-anak perempuan mengenakan gaun dan sepatu putih. Dari semua sosok yang terpampang di situ, harus kuakui bahwa pemilik rumah ini ternyata memang telah memiliki tatapan sangat tajam sejak masa kanak-kanak.

“Theo setia. Aku tidak mengeluhkan Theo dari sisi itu,” aku melanjutkan bicara. “Dan barangkali Anda benar. Masuk akal bila semua itu membuatnya sangat khawatir. Tetapi untuk hal lain…” aku tidak merampungkan kalimat, karena kulihat Nyonya Westenenk tidak menyimak. Ia sibuk membolak-balik koran yang ia ambil dari rak. Kuurungkan pula niat untuk mengajaknya kembali membicarakan pokok masalah awal.

Ya, aku tidak mengeluhkan Theo dari sisi kebaikan hati dan kesetiaan. Tak pernah kudengar sedikit pun berita miring tentang dirinya. Padahal setiap malam hampir semua kelab, baik di Batavia, Bandung, atau Semarang sarat kisah perselingkuhan.  Mulai dari yang menggelikan, hingga yang mengerikan.

Aku bertemu Theo pertama kali di Singapura pada suatu petang yang sejuk oleh siraman hujan tiga tahun lalu. Seorang teman ayahku berulang tahun. Kami merayakannya dengan meriah di Singapore Club, sebuah perkumpulan para pialang saham yang terletak di lantai atas Hotel Adelphi.  Sejak kematian Ibu, aku sering menemani Ayah pergi ke segala pelosok. Termasuk menghadiri acara di tempat-tempat khusus semacam ini. Dan seperti mendiang Ibu dahulu, aku juga berperan sebagai malaikat penjaga. Tak ingin melihat Ayah kelewat mabuk sehingga harus digotong pulang.

Malam itu, kubiarkan Ayah melayari kegembiraan masa lalu bersama teman-temannya di meja bilyar, sementara aku memilih menyendiri di kursi besar dekat beranda dengan sebuah buku, mengenakan kebaya putih, serta sarung panjang. Menjauh dari gerombolan lelaki yang tak putus berteriak, “Boy, lagi, setengah!” sambil mengacungkan gelas wiski kosong kepada pelayan.

Beberapa wanita berkumpul juga di ruangan ini, tetapi tak ada seorang pun yang kukenal, dan aku terlalu malas untuk berbasa-basi.  Jadi, kubenamkan saja wajahku pada halaman buku.

Maka di sudut itulah beberapa saat kemudian, seperti penyulap yang muncul secara gaib dari balik tirai, seorang pria mendadak berdiri di depanku, mengangsurkan segelas cherry brandy. Wajahnya sangat Belanda. Penuh sudut di sana sini. Di atas bibir, sepotong kumis berwarna gelap menjulur rapi. Serasi dengan jas hitam yang dikenakannya.

“Lihatlah, betapa meriah malam ini. Seorang bidadari berkulit putih dalam balutan sarung Melayu, berkelana menyusuri bait-bait Tagore,” katanya. “Tetapi kusarankan engkau mencoba dahulu sekecap dua kecap minuman ini. Dan aku menyebut diriku sendiri Makenburg. Theodor. Panggil saja Theo. Insinyur di salah satu perusahaan ayahmu.”

“Cornelia. Nellie. Terima kasih. Suka Tagore?” kujemput gelas dari tangannya seraya mengutuk dalam hati keisengan ayahku menyodorkan orang ini. Tapi tidak seperti pria-pria pilihan Ayah sebelumnya, kurasa kali ini aku bertemu orang yang bisa kupertimbangkan lebih jauh. Ya. Getaran halus itu. Aku bisa merasakannya.

“Aku sering mendengar orang membicarakan Gitanjali.” Sangat berhati-hati Theo duduk di sebelahku. “Sayang sekali, untuk lelaki yang setiap hari bergaul dengan besi, mur, dan beton, sangat langka kesempatanku membaca karya sastra dunia. Tetapi engkau boleh yakin bahwa aku tidak melewatkan Max Havelaar. Sungguh berguna untuk orang yang ingin bertandang ke negeri asal kisah itu ditulis.”

“Itu salah satu buku kesukaanku. Setelah membaca, ada semacam panggilan untuk memperbaiki keadaan di sana. Seperti yang dikatakan Rudyard Kipling dalam salah satu sajaknya…”

The White Man’s Burden?” potong Theo.

Kutinju lengannya sambil mecibirkan bibir. “Lihat, ada seorang pendusta di sini. Kau penggemar sastra pula rupanya!”

Kami tergelak.

“Engkau menyukai wanita yang gemar membaca buku sastra?” pancingku.

Theo mengangkat bahu, memanjangkan bibir sejenak sebelum menjawab sambil tersenyum, “Asakan ia juga gemar membaca buku resep makanan Eropa dan Hindia.”

“Ah, tidak suka wanita yang mandiri? Bagaimana pendapatmu tentang Aletta Jacobs?”

“Demi Tuhan, Nellie. Kita sedang berada di tengah suasana gembira. Dan kau mengajakku berkelahi!” seru Theo sambil mengangkat kedua tangan, memasang kuda-kuda bertinju.

Kami tertawa.

Itu pembicaraan awal kami yang sangat bersahaja. Setelah itu, Theo mulai kerap bertandang ke rumah kami di Singapura. Sekali-dua mengajak aku dan Ayah bersantap malam di luar. Enam bulan kemudian kami menikah. Menjelang dua tahun usia pernikahan, setelah lelah menunggu kehadiran jabang bayi yang tak kunjung tiba, memaksa agar diperbolehkan mengikuti Theo menduduki posnya yang baru di Batavia. Melalui pertengkaran sengit, akhirnya Theo bersedia membawaku serta.

Kami tinggal di kawasan Gunung Sahari. Sebuah wilayah dekat pantai. Udara di situ sangat panas dan lembab. Tiada hari tanpa keringat, sehingga aku lebih sering mengenakan kain-kebaya dibandingkan pakaian Eropa. Seperti anjuran seorang rekan wanita Ayah, aku selalu mengenakan kebaya putih. Selain memantulkan panas, putih adalah warna kebaya kelas atas yang sebaiknya dipilih oleh wanita Eropa bila ingin memakai busana gaya tropis. Aku juga semakin terampil menggulung rambut tinggi-tinggi. Kini leher dan kuduk terbebas dari rasa gatal akibat panas.

“Aduh, Nyonya. Cantiknya!” Asih, babu kami, menggoda.

“Seperti Dewi Nawangwulan,” Mang Udin, kusir bendi langganan kami ikut menimpali. Entah apa yang ada di pikiran mereka melihatku berpakaian seperti itu. Tetapi menurutku mereka tampak senang.

Setelah kami pindah ke Padang, aku tetap berpenampilan demikian. Awalnya Theo tidak memberi tanggapan apapun soal rambut dan pakaianku. Namun pada suatu sore tiba-tiba ia mengajakku duduk di tuinhuis, jauh dari penglihatan para jongos dan babu kami.

“Ada baiknya engkau tidak terlalu sering berpakaian seperti itu,” ia menunjuk kebaya dan kainku. “Terutama di tanah Sumatera ini. Barangkali akan jauh lebih baik bila engkau tidak pernah lagi mengenakan semua itu.”

“Oh, mengapa?” aku terperanjat. “Apakah aku melanggar suatu larangan yang dikeramatkan di sini?”

Theo mengisi pipa gadingnya dengan tembakau. “Memang, ada kaitannya dengan mereka, tapi ini soal lain.  Bukan perkara keramat. Coba pindahkan sebentar sudut pandangmu ke pihak kita.”

Aku terdiam. Berusaha berpikir keras, namun tetap tidak menemukan sesuatu yang keliru. Sebenarnya aku bahkan samasekali tak mengerti apa yang dikatakan oleh suamiku.

The white man’s burden. Ingat?” Theo meloloskan serangkaian asap dari mulutnya beberapa kali. “Kita ingin mengubah keadaan, mengubah mereka. Bukan berubah menjadi mereka. Bukan merendahkan diri di hadapan para babu, jongos, atau tukang bendi. Aku tak pernah suka dengan orang Inggris, tetapi aku setuju pendapat Raffles dan Kipling. Orang kulit putih harus menjadi teladan untuk segala hal. Termasuk berbusana. Coba lihat, meski Raffles sangat memahami budaya daerah, bahkan menulis buku tentang Hindia, ia melarang pejabat memakai kain atau mengunyah sirih.”

“Ah, begitu rupanya,” aku menghela napas. “Tadinya kukira aku telah melanggar aturan setempat. Ternyata persoalannya jauh lebih sederhana.”

“Ini bukan persoalan ringan,” mendadak suara Theo meninggi membuatku menarik tubuh ke belakang.

“Maaf,” kataku lirih. “Tetapi hampir semua istri pejabat Eropa di Singapura tidak risih mengenakan sarung atau cheong sam. Para suami bahkan secara berkala mengenakan baju gaya Tiongkok. Sejauh yang kuingat, hal itu tidak menurunkan wibawa mereka di depan jongos maupun babu. Di Batavia kemarin, semua warga Belanda juga memakai sarung, kebaya, dan baju takwa. Engkau tidak merasa terganggu?”

“Kita bukan di Batavia,” Theo mengetuk pipa, membuang sisa abu. “Di sini orang masih mudah menghunus parang untuk alasan yang sulit kita cerna. Kita harus tegas, sedikit keras. Harus diingatkan bahwa jarak dengan kita tetap ada. Salah satunya dengan cara saling menjaga kehormatan. Mengenakan busana masing-masing. Jarak dan ketegasan akan memunculkan rasa segan, yang pada gilirannya akan membangun kepatuhan. Setelah patuh, mereka bisa kita didik, kita bentuk menjadi lebih baik. Semua untuk kebaikan mereka juga akhirnya. Dan tentu semua ada tahapannya. Bayangkan, di belakang kita boleh jadi mereka membuat lelucon. Menganggap kita seperti badut saat mengenakan busana mereka. Bagaimana pula perasaanmu melihat seorang jongos memakai jas?”

“Jongos? Tentu saja. Tetapi para bupati kerap mengenakan jas dan baju pesiar gaya Eropa. Kita tidak keberatan, bukan? Dan Nyonya Westenenk….”

“Ah, Adriana itu. Meski istri pejabat tinggi, ia jenis wanita yang tidak bisa kau jadikan panutan. Kehadirannya di rumah sangat langka. Kasihan Louis. Adriana tidak bisa seenaknya mempergunakan dalih pekerjaan sosial untuk bepergian ke sana ke mari tanpa suami di sisinya.”

“Ia tidak plesir, Theo. Aku tahu apa yang ia lakukan dengan wanita-wanita pribumi, baik di Agam maupun di Benkoelen. Ia memberi ruang bagi mereka untuk berkembang. Dan setahuku suaminya mendukung.”

“Louis tak tahu apa-apa tentang tata krama. Itulah yang memaksaku menemuimu sore ini. Aku tak mau kau bertingkah seperti Adriana. Ia seperti penyakit menular. Siapa yang ia dekati, berubah menjadi liar. Aku tak ingin orang bergunjing tentang dirimu. Selain itu, hendak kalian apakan wanita-wanita pribumi itu? Kalian ingin mereka melompat-lompat dengan kaki terangkat ke atas menari cancan? Di Eropa, engkau mungkin bisa jungkir balik menabrak tradisi. Seperti Aletta Jacobs, pujaanmu itu. Bekerja di luar rumah atas nama sendiri. Bahkan menuntut hak memilih wakil rakyat. Tetapi sekali lagi, tidak di sini!” Theo menyimpan pipanya lalu masuk ke dalam rumah, meninggalkanku sendiri ditaman dengan sejuta kegundahan.

Hari itu senantiasa kuingat dalam hidup, karena merupakan awal pertikaian tak berkesudahan dengan suamiku. Ada saja yang ia persoalkan. Pilihan makanan, cara bicara dengan babu, jongos, atau larangan bergaul dengan seorang nyai yang tinggal di dekat kami. Celakanya, semua selalu berujung pada pengurangan hak-hak istimewaku. Semakin lama ruang gerakku semakin sempit. Belakangan, lewat sebuah keributan hebat, ia tidak lagi memperbolehkanku membeli koran walau masih boleh menikmati buku. Kubalas perlakuannya dengan pindah tidur ke kamar lain. Kukunci pintu. Lalu kuhabiskan malam-malam panjang dengan menulis sajak atau karangan lain dalam berlembar kertas.

Akhirnya kemarin, saat Theo sedang pergi ke Solok, aku nekat mengikuti ajakan Nyonya Westenenk ke Koto Gadang. Kusuap jongos dan babu agar tidak menceritakan peristiwa ini kepada Theo. Ini kesempatan langka. Aku harus bertemu dengan wanita Minang yang luar biasa ini. Wanita yang telah menjadi ilham banyak orang di Hindia. Yang telah mendirikan sekolah, memberi bekal ketrampilan menenun, menjahit, serta membordir bagi kaumnya, agar tidak semata menggantungkan nafkah dari belas kasihan suami, atau sekadar menjadi perhiasan tak bernyawa. Serta yang paling penting, agar tidak jatuh kelembah nista, menyewakan tubuh untuk bertahan hidup saat suami mereka meninggal.

Tiga tahun lalu wanita ini bahkan maju lagi selangkah, menjadi pemimpin sebuah surat kabar khusus wanita. Sungguh, semakin bulat tekadku ke sini. Aku ingin diperbolehkan sesekali mengisi ruang pendapat pembaca di dalam surat kabarnya. Membantunya membuka belenggu emas yang sering dipasang kaum pria untuk mengecoh wanita.

“Ah, Nellie. Apakah tumpukan buku itu mengganggu pendengaranmu?” suara serak Nyonya Westenenk menarik sukmaku kembali ke ruang tamu besar yang sejuk ini. “Lihat, yang kau tunggu sudah datang. Pendiri sekolah Amai Setia dan pemilik suratkabar Soenting Melajoe. Beliau sendiri. Tak lain dan tak bukan.”

Kuikuti arah pandang Nyonya Westenenk.

Seorang wanita berusia tiga puluhan berdiri di pintu masuk. Kulihat wanita yang kuimpikan itu. Berdiri dengan tas rotan tersampir di pundak. Ia lebih pendek dari yang kubayangkan. Bahkan terlihat semakin mungil dengan kain ikat berwarna kesumba di kepalanya. Tetapi aku bisa melihat jelas semangat hidup yang berkobar dari kedua belah matanya. Juga dari kuatnya genggaman saat ia menyambut uluran tanganku serta berkata dengan suara lantang dalam bahasa Belanda yang sangat fasih, “Ik ben Roehana Koeddoes. Welkom op de ambachtschool genaamd Amai Setia. Van mevrouw Westenenk heb ik vernomen dat u een interessant manuscript over vrouwen heeft voor mijn krant. Saya Roehana Koeddoes. Selamat datang di Sekolah Kerajinan Amai Setia. Saya dengar dari Nyonya Westenenk Anda punya banyak naskah menarik tentang dunia wanita untuk surat kabar saya?”

***

The Golden Shackle

Maya Denisa Saputra was born on July 30, 1990 in Denpasar, the capital of Bali, and grew up on Indonesia’s “island of the gods.” She left briefly to finish her education, a bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Finance from the UK-based University of Bradford in Singapore. While holding a position in the accounting department of a family business, she pursues her interests in writing, literary translation, and photography.

She can be reached at: maya.saputra@gmail.com

 

 

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 The Golden Shackle

 

The living room looked very comfortable, with wide-open windows so the cool air of Koto Gadang could freely enter the room. The breeze gently blew away the fatigue caused by sitting for six hours on the steam train owned by the Soematra Staatsspoorwegen that had departed from Padang yesterday afternoon.

I glanced at Mrs. Joanna Adriana Westenenk, who sat next to me. Even though she was accustomed to traveling all over Western Sumatra, I assumed she felt the same kind of exhaustion that I did.

Seven years ago, her husband, Louis Constant Westenenk, had made his mark in government service during the June 1908 tax rebellion known as “The Night of Kamang.” He now was the Resident of Bengkoelen.

I was a good friend of Mrs. Westenenk, but I hadn’t expected that she would keep her promise to bring me with her to this place. She had told me this visit would enlighten both my mind and soul. I felt rather adventurous for traveling this far away with only Mrs. Westenenk.

Actually, there were three of us; the Resident’s wife was always accompanied by an aide.

“Louis won’t be able to come,” Mrs. Westenenk had said yesterday. “He has to attend a government affair in Padang.”

My husband had been invited to the same event, but had received an assignment from his office to travel to Solok with all the other engineers. He sent his regrets to the new Assistant Resident last month.

Hence, here I was—free to follow what my heart wanted. I had been longing to go on an adventure like this for a long time. I just had to practice sitting on the hard bench of a train coupé to develop my endurance. We had stayed overnight at Fort de Kock before heading for this place in a horse-drawn carriage early this morning.

Just like other Indies-style houses owned by high-ranking local officers, the walls of this house were made from wood. Four French-style windows flanked the front door. There were other buildings as well, built on both sides of the main building. They looked like classrooms. I really wanted to take a look inside those rooms; they had reportedly caused an uproar among Dutch officers across the Indies. But I had to wait patiently until the owner of this house appeared.

“Onne usually arrives around half past nine.” The woman who had greeted us when we arrived was dressed in Minang clothes. “And if she isn’t required to go anywhere else, Onne will stay here until evening.” The woman had introduced herself as Zaiza, or something similar to that, and served us hot tea and snacks. Her Malay was mixed with local dialect. I was accustomed to Malay with a Batavian or Javanese accent, and I had to adjust to the way she spoke.

“Thank you. We did arrive too early. It is fine, we will wait for her.” Mrs. Westenenk said.

Zaiza excused herself.

“Onne is the Minang way of respectfully addressing a woman,” whispered Mrs. Westenenk. “It means older sister.”

I nodded and turned my attention to the room. Near the window, books in Dutch, Arabic, and Malay were neatly stacked in a glass bookcase with four shelves. In the right corner, a rack was filled with local and foreign newspapers. A skillfully woven piece of cloth—a sample of local textiles, perhaps—hung on the wall. This living room showed a high level of refinement.

It would not be uncommon to find such an ambience in the living rooms of Dutch officers, but I was now far from the city, in a home of a native. To be more exact, I was in the home of a native woman.

Mrs. Westenenk lightly tapped my shoulder and smiled, as if reading my mind.

“This is not all, Nellie,” she whispered. “Wait until you talk to her, listen to her ideas.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” I answered. “I’ve heard a lot about this woman. She bravely speaks up for herself—unlike me, who is a pathetic presence at my husband’s side.”

“Stop blaming yourself.” Mrs. Westenenk adjusted the white lace gloves she wore. “The Dutch Indies is not the same as Europe. Everything moves slower here—even the white people can’t move quickly. It doesn’t mean that we are not willing to welcome change. In the West, as well as the East, women around the world are moving.”

“Your husband is a very understanding person for letting you come,” I said. “I had to sneak out between my husband’s assignments.”

“Louis is just like any other man in this world. I’ve seen his fragile, insecure side—he was even hostile to me when the riot in Kamang broke out seven years ago.” Mrs. Westenenk forced a smile. “But he returned to his normal self after the war ended, giving me a lot of freedom. Listen, I don’t want to meddle in your personal affairs. I’ve known your husband long before you and, as far as I know, there’s nothing inherently wrong about him. If he seems to be difficult, it might be because he’s concerned about you. He’s not used to seeing his wife suffer from moving here and there. Louis was like that, too.”

“I think it’s all about our perceptions, Ma’am. It’s true that he’s good-hearted and faithful.” I stood up and walked toward the bookcase where the family portraits were displayed.

I thought it was strange to see so many photographs. I knew it was forbidden for a Muslim Minang family to immortalize themselves on film; just like it was haram—condemned by the Islamic law—to reproduce the human likeness on paper. This family, however, seemed to be accustomed to taking photographs. The boys looked dashing in their Victorian-style sailor suits, which were usually worn by the Dutch boys; the girls wore gowns and white shoes. Judging from the photographs, I conceded that the owner of this house had a sharp look ever since she was a child.

“Theo is faithful—I don’t have any complaints in that regard. And maybe you’re right, It makes sense that such unrest would make him anxious. But, for other things…” I noticed Mrs. Westenenk was no longer paying attention to me. She was busy flipping through a newspaper she had taken off the rack.

I had never doubted Theo’s faithfulness or kindness. Despite the fact that all the clubs in Batavia, Bandung, and Semarang were filled with talk of adultery, I had never heard any rumors about him. The stories varied, from foolish to scary ones.

I had met Theo for the first time in Singapore, three years prior, at a birthday party of my father’s friend. We celebrated it at the Singapore Club, on the upper floor of the Adelphi Hotel. Ever since my mother’s death, I frequently accompanied Father on his travels, including attending events in clubs like this. Just like my late mother, I acted as his guardian angel. I didn’t want to see Father get so drunk he had to be carried home.

That night, I let Father have a good time with his friends at the billiard table. Wearing a long sarong and white kebaya, the native long-sleeved blouse worn over a wrap-around skirt, I secluded myself with a book and took a seat in a large, deep, easy chair near the verandah. Thus, I was at some distance from the crowd of men who continuously yelled, “Boy, fill up!” while waving empty whiskey glasses at the waiters.

There were a few other women in this room, but I didn’t know any of them. Too lazy to engage in small talk, I hid my face by holding up the book.

A moment later, like a magician who magically appears from behind the curtain, a man stood in front of me holding out a glass of cherry brandy. His angular features made him look very Dutch. A neat, dark moustache matched the black of the suit he wore.

“Ah! What a wonderful evening it is. A fair-skinned angel clothed in Malay apparel going through the verses of Tagore,” he said. “I recommend you take a sip or two of this drink. I’m Theodor Makenburg—just call me Theo. I’m one of the engineers in your father’s company.”

“Cornelia. Nellie.” I took the glass from his hand while silently cursing my father’s silly idea to send this man. However, unlike the previous men he had introduced to me, I had now met someone I might consider further. Yes, I did feel that gentle stir.

“Do you like Tagore?” I asked.

“I often heard people talk about Gitanjali,” Theo replied, carefully taking a seat next to me. “Unfortunately, a man who spends his days befriending iron, bolts, and concrete bars, rarely has the opportunity to read the world’s literary works. But you can be assured that I didn’t miss the Max Havelaar. It’s a very useful book for those who are going to visit the Dutch East Indies.”

“It’s one of my favorite books. I felt kind of compelled to improve the situation there after I read it. Just like what Rudyard Kipling said in one of his poems—”

The White Man’s Burden?” Theo interrupted.

I gently punched his arm and pursed my lips. “Look, we have a liar here! It seems that you’re a fan of literary works!”

We laughed.

“How do you feel about women who read literature?” I fished.

Theo shrugged and pursed his lips before answering with a smile, “As long as she also likes reading European and Indies cookbooks.”

“Ah, you don’t like independent women? What do you think of Aletta Jacobs?”

“For God’s sake, Nellie—we’re at a party and you’re looking for an argument.” Theo raised his hands in a boxing stance.

We laughed again.

That was our first conversation. Things were simple, uncomplicated. Theo started to visit our house in Singapore frequently. Once or twice, he invited Father and me to dine out. Six months later, we were married.

Almost two years into the marriage and tired of waiting for a baby who never came, I demanded that Theo allow me to come with him to Batavia, his new post. After a heated argument, he finally relented.

We lived in the Gunung Sahari district, near the beach. The climate there was hot and humid; not a day went by without perspiring profusely. I preferred to wear sarong and kebaya, instead of European clothing. Following advice from Father’s female colleagues, I wore a white kebaya. In addition to its ability to reflect heat, white was the upper-class color of choice for European women opting to wear tropical clothes. I also became skilled in putting my hair up in a bun. My neck was now free, and the heat did not make me itch.

“You look very pretty, Ma’am!” Asih, our maid, teased.

“You look just like the angel Nawangwulan,” the coachman added. I had no idea what they thought when they saw me wear such clothing, but they looked pleased.

When we moved to Padang, I continued dressing this way. At first, Theo did not pay any attention to my hair or the way I dressed. One day, however, he asked me to sit with him in the gazebo, out of sight of our houseboys and maids.

Theo pointed to my sarong and kebaya. “I advise you not to dress like that too often—especially here in Sumatera. It’s probably better if you don’t wear those clothes at all.”

I was shocked. “Have I breached some local taboo?”

Theo filled his ivory pipe with tobacco. “Well, it has something to do with the people here, but it’s not about violating anything sacred. Please try looking at the situation from the Dutch viewpoint.”

I silently racked my brains but could not come up with any wrongdoings.

Theo blew out several smoke columns. “The White Man’s Burden, remember? We want to change the situation, change the people, instead of changing into one of them. We should not lower our position in front of our maids, houseboys, or coach drivers. I never liked the British, but I agree with what Lieutenant-Governor Stamford Raffles and Kipling thought. The white men have to become an example in all things, including the way we dress. Look at Raffles, even though he had an excellent understanding of local culture, he forbade his officers to wear a sarong or chew betel nut.”

“Ah, I see—I thought I had broken some local taboo. This matter is much simpler.”

“It’s not a simple matter!” Theo’s raised voice made me jerk back.

“I’m sorry,” I replied. “But almost all wives of the European officers in Singapore wear sarong or cheongsam.  Even their husbands sometimes wear Chinese-style clothing. This doesn’t have any bearing on the way their servants perceive them. Last time we were in Batavia, all of the Dutch women there wore sarong and kebaya, and the men wore takwa shirts. Were you disturbed by that?”

“We’re not in Batavia.” Theo tapped his pipe to discard the ashes. “Here, people still pull out their machetes for reasons we can’t comprehend. We should remind them that the distance between us still exists—one way to do this is by maintaining respect for each other. We should keep to our own way of dressing. Distance and assertiveness will help build obedience.

“It’s all for their own good,” Theo continued. “Imagine, they might be laughing behind us, thinking us fools for wearing their clothing. How would you feel if you saw a houseboy wear a suit?”

“A houseboy? That would be silly, of course. But the regents often wear a suit and European clothes. We don’t mind that, do we? And Mrs. Westenenk—”

“Ah, Adriana. Although she’s the wife of a high-ranking officer, she’s not someone you should look up to. Poor Louis. Adriana shouldn’t use social work as an excuse for her traveling around without her husband.”

“She’s not traveling for fun, Theo. I know what she has done for the native women in Agam and Bengkoelen. She gives them room to grow. And as far as I know, her husband supports her cause.”

“Louis doesn’t know anything about local manners. That’s why I asked to see you this afternoon. I don’t want you to follow what Adriana does. She’s like a contagious disease—anyone who gets close to her becomes just as wild. I don’t want people to gossip about you. Besides, what are you going to do with those native women? Do you want them to kick up their heels and dance the can-can? In Europe, you might be able to break away from tradition, like your idol Aletta Jacobs, who works away from home using her maiden name, even demanding the right to vote. But I’m telling you, not here!”

Theo put his pipe away and went inside, leaving me in the garden with a million of restless thoughts.

It was a day I would remember forever, because it led to endless arguments with my husband. He protested everything—from my choice of our food to the way I talked to the maids and houseboys—and forbid me to socialize with a nyai, the native companion of a Dutchman who lived near us. Everything led to further restrictions of my privileges. Finally, after a clash, he refused to let me buy newspapers, even though I was still allowed to enjoy books. I took revenge by moving to another bedroom. I locked the door and spent long nights writing poetry and essays on numerous pieces of paper.

Then, yesterday, when Theo left for Solok, I recklessly accepted Mrs. Westenenk’s invitation to visit Koto Gadang. I bribed the houseboys and maids to not tell Theo. This was a rare opportunity. I had to meet this amazing Minang woman who had become an inspiration to so many people in the Indies. She had founded a school for women and taught them handicrafts—weaving, stitching, and embroidering—so they would not have to depend on their husband’s income. And, most importantly, they would not become destitute and be forced into prostitution after their husbands died.

Three years ago, this woman had taken a step further, by becoming the editor-in-chief of a newspaper for women. This only strengthened my desire to see her. I wanted to write for the opinion column of her newspaper. I wanted to help her unlock the golden shackle that men so often use to trap women.

“Ah, Nellie. Did you get lost in those books?” Mrs. Westenenk’s voice called me back to the spacious, cool living room. “Look, the one you’ve been waiting for has arrived. There’s the founder of the Amai Setia School and editor of Soenting Melajoe newspaper. That’s her, no one else but her.”

I followed the direction of Mrs. Westenenk’s gaze.

A woman in her thirties stood at the front door with a rattan bag slung across her shoulder. She was shorter than I had imagined, and the crimson headband she wore around her head made her look even smaller. But I clearly saw the passion for life in her eyes, and the strength of her handshake communicated the same when she took my hand and introduced herself with a clear voice in fluent Dutch.

Ik ben Roehana Koeddoes. Welkom op de ambachtschool, Amai Setia. Van mevrouw Westenenk heb ik vernomen dat u een interessant manuscript over vrouwen heeft voor mijn krant.”

“I’m Roehana Koeddoes,” she said.Welcome to the Amai Setia Vocational School. I heard from Mrs. Westenenk that you have an interesting article about women for my newspaper.

—***—

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