Dewi Anggraeni was born in Jakarta and now lives in Melbourne. While being the Australia and Pacific correspondent for Tempo News Magazine in Indonesia, she contributed — in both Indonesian and English — to other publications in Australia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, South Korea, United Kingdom, and United States.
She has published eight works of fiction in the form of novels, novellas and short stories, and five works of non-fiction on social and political topics. Her latest Indonesian novel, Membongkar yang Terkubur, and her bilingual collection of stories, Yang Gaib dan Yang Kasat Mata / The Seen and the Unseen have been published by Penerbit Ombak in 2022.
Dewi Anggraeni: email@example.com
In the arts community on the banks of the Elo River, I was welcome and appreciated. The leader showed how pleased he was that I also called him Mbah Kung, the same as the other villagers addressed him.
I was given a small hut for Norman John and myself. The east-facing cottage had wooden walls and one bedroom. A turtledove sang in a cage hanging on the front veranda. It occasionally sang when the gamelan was playing, creating a magical ambience that I was unable to describe. I thought of staying two more days, and after that I had nothing definite planned. I still hadn’t forgiven Ruud.
In two days Mbah Kung’s troupe was to perform at the foot of the Borobudur Temple as part of the ceremony welcoming Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono, the Javanese king who would be visiting from his royal palace in Yogyakarta. He and his entourage were bringing a guest of honor from Batavia, Jacob Theodoor Cremer. The name struck me, as it was the same as that of the Dutch Minister for Colonial Affairs.
Mbah Kung agreed to let me perform a dance with his daughter, Astri. All the other members of the community supported his decision. This gave me the confidence I needed. I hoped I would not disappoint him.
I felt appreciated in this community under his leadership. At the same time, I was reinforced in my stance that humanity was above nationality or ethnicity.
In terms of myself, who was I? My father was born in Friesland, a Dutch province, yet never felt part of the Netherlands. And my son, issue of my marriage with a Scot, would I refer to him as a Scot, as if he were from Scotland? I thought about the Scots, English speakers, but not necessarily a part of England.
How did I refer to myself? My mother originated from the Borobudur region, the cradle of Javanese civilization. No doubt I was human, and lived among other humans.
The next day I had to perform for government officials. It would be a first for me. First experiences always excited me and drove me to keep going. I didn’t want to disgrace myself. I wanted to impress those important persons with my dance.
Mbah Kung told me, “Derive the spirit of the twin dance from the relief images on the walls of the Borobudur Temple.” I was intrigued by his enigmatic instruction and wondered which images he referred to.
That morning I rose before dawn. As soon as light came into our little house, I bathed Norman John, and prepared to go to the Borobudur Temple. Astri came to keep me company and help me find the images. Without her I wouldn’t have known where to search in such a big temple.
Astri took me to the main wall in the second gallery, the Gandavyuha, which had 128 panels. There I saw the image of two dancers with nothing covering their breasts on the right hand side, facing the lead dancer in the middle. I saw nothing irregular about the image.
Astri tried to explain it to me. She spoke in refined Javanese and at first I had difficulty understanding her. Luckily, she pointed to the clothing of the characters in the image and said, “Buddha.” She indicated the lead dancer, and said, “Hindu.”
“Oh, I understand,” I said. “This image is a bit strange because in this Buddhist temple there’s a character wearing a brahmana attire. Is that it?”
“Yes, yes,” she said.
At last we found the image referred to by Mbah Kung. We studied it to draw inspiration for our dance. The image depicted the two dancers tilting their heads slightly upward and to the right. Their right arms lifted with elbows the same height as their chins and the forearms slanted lower, while their left arms extended forward and touched the knees elevated to the height parallel with their breasts.
This was a still stance. Now we had to define the movement prior and following this stance. Combining our imagination we developed the whole, continuous dance, merging body and soul to create beautiful art.
I should have been thinking about the king from Yogyakarta, but instead I concentrated on the official from Batavia. I wanted to know what he looked like. In the end, I was determined to impress the entire audience. Yet I was also aware that what was important was not the quality of the performance, but whether the performers were good looking, and whether they would be willing to be seduced and used. This was conventional practice, Mbah Kung said.
Being away from home the officers and officials took advantage of the situation and requested that their subordinates supply them with live bolster pillows to make their beds more comfortable.
Mbah Kung’s information intrigued me greatly and I wanted to meet such a person. He also said, “All high-ranking officials have two ta-s on their minds: wani-ta, women, and har-ta, wealth.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Mbah Kung explained, “Women are easily tempted by wealth. Understandably, officials are aware of this and take advantage of it.”
How interesting. I knew that an official’s wealth was usually obtained through corrupt practice. The Dutch East India Company was falling because of rampant corruption and the wealth gained from the corruption was used for high living with women. So much for adults and their world. A child’s world is far better.
The following morning I saw the children of the community play a singing game. I watched and listened. The words sounded simple, but contained advice to take life as it was presented because even in the luckiest situation, one still has to overcome obstacles before reaching a goal. And occasionally, despite of one’s efforts, one would still fail.
I mused about the important gentlemen coming to Borobudur. What would they look like? Would they have moustaches? Would the tallest gentleman be bald? The thought of a bald man made me yawn with boredom.
Luckily, Jacob Theodoor Cremer had a full head of hair. He was neither young nor old. His overall appearance and demeanor reminded me of the Jewish people in Amsterdam who often assessed a situation by its prospects of bringing a profit or a loss.
Three other European gentlemen positioned themselves around Cremer as they toured the different levels of the Borobudur Temple while Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono waited at the ground level.
Cremer’s visit was part of the endeavor to promote the temple as an extraordinary monument that every enlightened European should see. Having completed the tour, Cremer joined the Jogjakarta king to watch the performance. The sun had set and light came from the strategically positioned torches around the field
Someone walked to the front and delivered a speech welcoming the guests of honor. It was very flattering, and he obviously thought he was following the correct protocol. Finally the time came for Astri and I to dance.
As I expected, Cremer sent one of his guards to see me after we finished. A Limburg-accented Dutch guard invited me to see Cremer.
I remembered Mbah Kung talking about the two ta-s when Cremer spoke to me. As we talked, Cremer kept sneaking a look at my breasts. “You are very good at Javanese dancing,” he said.
I smiled modestly, aware he was an official of the colonial administration.
“Where are you from?”
I answered, “I live in Ambarawa,” knowing that was not what he expected to hear.
“I mean, where in Holland?”
“I was born in Leeuwarden.”
“I once bought a hat in Leeuwarden.”
“The manufacturer has long gone bankrupt.”
“How do you know?”
“The business belonged to my father.”
“Heavens. Small world.”
I laughed awkwardly, hoping I didn’t come across like a fool.
Cremer quickly continued. “What is your name?”
I answered, “Mrs. MacLeod.”
He looked serious. “Oh? Your husband is English?”
“So where is Mr. MacLeod?”
“At this moment it does not concern me.”
Cremer’s face relaxed. “You have problems with your husband?”
I didn’t answer, knowing he would keep asking and I was right.
I decided to challenge him. I said, “Even if I told you, there is nothing
you can do to help.”
Cremer held my hands. For a moment I thought he was being fatherly, albeit with doubtful sincerity, because he also moved closer to my breasts. A certain tension in his hands made me nervous.
“Why not? I am ready to help. What happened?”
“Common domestic problem. He’s old. I’m young.”
“I see, I see,” Cremer said in the manner of a marriage counselor. “This is a serious problem. You are still excited about life, while your husband is already aging.”
I expected him to have dirty thoughts. “That’s not the problem, Mr. Cremer.”
“What is it then? Tell me, and I will help.”
“I would like my husband transferred away from Ambarawa.”
“Who is your husband?”
After I told him, he said as if it was an easy matter, “Where do you want him moved? To Batavia?”
“I leave that to you, Mr. Cremer.”
“I will make the arrangements. In the meantime, I would like to contact you directly. Please write down your address and your maiden name. What is your maiden name?”
“Margaretha Geertruida Zelle.”
“Hm. Yes, of course. Zelle was the brand of the hat. If you move to Batavia, you must work for me.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cremer.” I started to leave.
“Wait,” said Cremer.
I stopped and turned around. “Yes, Mr. Cremer?”
Cremer pulled my hand toward him, placed an arm around the small of my back, and kissed my cheeks, the Dutch way, left, right, then left again. With his arm around my waist, he looked at my breasts and asked, “Are you pregnant?”
A little embarrassed, I replied, ‘Yes, going on three months.”
He moved his hand to my shoulder and said, “Take it easy with your dancing.”
“Yes, Mr. Cremer.” Very Dutch-like, I didn’t show any emotion.
I heard Norman John cry in the distance. Mbah Koeng’s wife had carried him the entire evening.
I made a point of not going home to Ambarawa until I felt ready. After what had happened with Ruud, I was emotionally distant from him. I did not miss him in the least. I intentionally stayed with the community near the Elo River. While enjoying the fertile land and the peace with nature, I quietly hoped I would also be able to commune with my mother’s ancestral spirit. I was convinced that by now Ruud would be panicking in Ambarawa.
When I returned after a week, Officer van Donck’s wife reported that Ruud had been looking for me everywhere. He had even consulted a hermit who lived on the slope of Mount Ungaran, known as René du Bois. Mrs. van Donck told me that René had tried to find my whereabouts in a pack of cards.
René was a Frenchman who had come to Java twenty years ago as a Dutch officer, posted in Salatiga. The story went that René had come with another French man, Arthur Rimbaud, who was known in his country as a poet. I tended to believe the story because on the table in our house I had found several sheets of paper with Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry. One poem in particular interested me. It was handwritten, titled Départ, and talked about the poet’s satisfaction with the life he lived and his readiness to continue.
I had just picked up the next sheet of paper when Ruud appeared. He startled me with his braying voice.
“Margaretha, darling,” he exclaimed, rushing to hug Norman John and me. “Where on earth have you been?”
I didn’t answer. It was a long story I was not ready to tell.
Ruud showered me with kisses starting on the cheeks to the tips of my fingers. “Oh, darling,” he said, “I was so worried about you and Norman.”
A Malay proverb says, “Light always comes after dark.” Maybe I could rebuild our relationship from the ruins created when Ruud told me about his idea to bed Nyai Kidhal.
However this was not easy. I wasn’t sure if he had retracted the proposition and was prepared to mend our relationship. I still fretted about him never having said, “sorry,” despite his understanding of the word.
However he never said anything. Maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he couldn’t. In any case, his apology meant nothing if he went on with his crazy idea, nothing but a futile exercise. Oh, why was I so complicated?
Little by little, I learned more about my husband. He was a difficult person to live with. His brain worked like a tangled spool of rough black rope, the kind used to bring up pails of water from the well and blistered my hands. I was left with the unresolved hurt.
I had to admit that during the next five days Ruud treated me with the devotion of a slave toward his sovereign. His behavior after my weeklong absence was more absurd than that of a crazed lover who tried to pluck a star from the heavens for his beloved’s earring.
This bothered me. It was so unusual I expected to see a change any time. Deep down I still waited to hear him say “sorry” for causing me so much hurt. When this never happened, I was very disappointed. Could it be our relationship was the same as it had been in Amsterdam? I felt victorious, but not peaceful.
I assessed a man’s masculinity by his ability to admit to his wife that he was wrong, and apologize.
That night, after putting Norman John to bed, I went to sit on the front verandah. Ruud joined me and put his arm around my shoulders.
Elated, I gazed at the blue sky, but I couldn’t find real peace of mind. Was I too hard to please?
Ruud whispered sweet endearments to me. I was flattered he made the effort. Unfortunately, flattering words only last as long as the scent of a flower. They did not represent the essence of a person’s soul. Had he really abandoned the idea of bedding Nyai Kidhal?
Stroking my belly, Ruud said, “I hope this baby is going to be a girl as pretty as her mother. I’ll be very proud to be her father.” He continued pensively, “Perhaps I’ve not taken fatherhood seriously, but now love has revealed to me the magnitude of being a father to two children.”
I did not respond. I suspected that this idyllic scene was not going to last.
Ruud picked up my hand and kissed my fingers. “What name will we give our child this time?” he asked, still caressing my belly.
“You don’t find many people called Hercules,” I joked, trying to hold on to the constructive atmosphere.
He laughed. “What if it’s a girl?”
“I like Pertiwi.”
“What kind of a name is that?”
“In the West people think of their country as masculine; they call it fatherland. Here in the East, people attribute motherhood to their country, pertiwi.”
“You like that name?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then why did you ask me?”
Ruud may not have been able to see my face in the dark, but if he had any sensibility at all, he should have known I was irritated.
He hastened to kiss my cheek and patted me on the back as if to calm me. And then a miracle happened. He said, “Sorry, darling.”
I turned to him, my mouth gaping. I was speechless.
Ruud didn’t understand my reaction. He waved his hand before my face. “What happened to you?”
I was so happy I grabbed him and kissed him. Crushing him in my embrace, I forgot all my hurt and suspicions. If the sky can produce a full moon, I can find happiness in the future. I’m convinced that love derives from passion. I said, “I’m tired, Ruud.”
He took my hand and we went to bed.
I thought, he loves me.