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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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!”
“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.”