Indonesian Translation

Karin Amatmoekrim
Scenes from: Wanneer wij samen zijn (When we’re together) 2006
(Translation: Paul Vincent)

This story begins with Wagiman, the child of Javanese parents, born in Surinam, a country traditionally exposed to winds from every corner of the globe and with a multi-coloured history.
When Wagiman came into the world, his mother’s waters flowed onto the same earth that just over half a century earlier had been drenched with the blood of runaway black slaves. Little Wagiman took his first tearful breaths without knowing how many tears had been shed before him. No one was to tell him about the revolt of that other workforce. No one was to tell him about the many events that complicated the lives of the plantation owners and added to the interminable list of atrocities to which the black population of Surinam was subjected.
Wagiman knew nothing of the sugar cane mill workers, the black medical orderlies, the cleaning women and the Creole matrons who streamed exhausted to the towns, where for the first time in history they could live their own lives. The black men who learned what it meant to be paid for their labour. The women who learnt what it meant to bear a child that did not automatically become the property of the person who owned its mother. He did not know that while the slaves of Surinam were gradually adjusting to the recognition of their humanity, scores of boats full of British Indians had sped across the ocean to fill the gap left by the slaves. That anxious plantation owners had wrung their hands because of the excessive protection given to the Indian coolies by the British authorities. Wagiman did not become part of Surinamese history until the Netherlands decided to call on its own resources and to send shiploads of Javanese, who might not be as strong as the blacks or even the Indians, but were at any rate Dutch citizens and could therefore be treated as one saw fit.
Hence from the end of the nineteenth century onwards a steady stream of Javanese crossed the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. An East-Indies enclave was created on the Caribbean coast of South America. So it came about that Surinamese plants sprang up where African and Western blood had mingled and that Indian sweat flowed where Javanese women screamed in the primeval throes of labour, giving birth to a first generation of Javanese Surinamers.

Meanwhile a religious dispute had led to insurmountable problems between Wagiman and his second cousin. Every day Wagiman laid out his prayer mat on a clean piece of ground and bowed in prayer facing westward. One day his second cousin had remarked that he had heard that Mecca, the sacred spot towards which Wagiman was turning, lay not in the west but in the east. Wagiman had been flabbergasted. For as long as he could remember, Muslims had knelt facing west. There followed a long period of debate, in which Wagiman was hindered by his lack of geographical knowledge. Finally he was forced to accept that he had been taught to pray facing west because that was the position of Mecca in relation to Indonesia. When one was in Surinam, Mecca lay in the east. Strictly speaking his cousin had been right, but Wagiman still saw it as a lack of faith and a break with highly esteemed traditions.
When, after his theoretical opposition to the traditions of prayer, his second cousin actually started spreading out his prayer mat in the opposite direction from Wagiman, the situation became impossible. And although it was not in their nature to allow arguments to escalate, they found themselves literally face to face on a daily basis – the cousin facing east, Wagiman facing west. Wagiman refused to work for his second cousin any longer and decided to devote all his energies to his own plot of land. It was a near thing, but this saved his good relations with his cousin, though at the same time depriving him of an income that, however meagre, was crucial to the support of his family.
Whenever he could, Wagiman drove into town with one of the village farmers to help him sell his produce. He didn’t like leaving his village, but it was the only way of earning some extra money. It became increasingly clear to him that he really knew very little about Surinam. Or rather about all the different peoples of Surinam. In Paramaribo he saw Hindustanis and Dutch, to whom he seldom spoke, and Creoles, whom he avoided as far as possible. In general, his Surinam was simply Indonesian. He did not know Java himself, but he had heard it talked about so often that it felt like his native country. The older people in the village particularly remembered what it had been like in the motherland country. They talked about its smell, what they ate and how they would eventually return. Java sounded like paradise. Many of the old men and women, who had now had children in Saramacca, were in Surinam against their will. They longed to go back to their warm, beloved island and cursed the day when evil men had bewitched them and sold them to Dutch human traffickers. They remembered scarcely anything of the journey, only that they were shaken roughly awake in the scorching heat of the Caribbean sugar plantations. All that kept them going was the promise of one day returning to where they belonged.
But Wagiman sometimes heard other, whispered, stories. About men and women who were no longer welcome on Java. About relatives left behind in poverty and shame. The older people seemed to believe firmly in infinitely repeated stories of the lost paradise and the magical voyage to the new country. And Wagiman in turn was keen to believe them. For although he was not well off, he usually had enough to eat and his love for Soeminah covered each meal with the most wonderful sauce imaginable. He was happy. And yet. It was difficult to build a life for yourself in Surinam. It couldn’t possibly have been any worse in the mother country than here. The burning sun when you worked in the fields, the impossibility of earning any more money than was necessary for survival, those were the least of his afflictions. Mainly it was the way the other people who lived in this country looked at him, how they spoke to him. Perhaps he would be jeered at in Java too because of his scruffy appearance, his thin tattered trousers and his worn shirt, the dirt under his fingernails, his skin scorched black by his daily work in the fierce sun. But those mocking looks would certainly hurt less in the mother country. When he stood in the waterside market in Paramaribo, the contempt was tangible. The Indians were fairly arrogant, and the Creoles couldn’t exchange two words with him or about him without making it clear how inferior they considered him. They thought it ludicrous that his people, who had toiled to build a life on the plantations, were now doing of their own free will what for generations they had been forced to do. Now they were free they could live like the Dutch and despise the Javanese as they had once been despised.
Every time he had to go to town and saw their hectic, godless behaviour, he said to himself that they were just stupid blacks. They didn’t realise that they were beneath him. He knew about Allah and Mohammed. Those loud black apes, with their conceit and all their gold, would eventually be punished by the sword of Allah. Whenever he passed a group of rowdy youths, he turned his face away. And whenever Creole boys saw him look away before a single word had been exchanged, their own prejudice was confirmed: that of the haughty Javanese, for whom they were so insignificant that they did not merit even a simple hello, from one Surinamer to another.

There was not a breath of wind. The heat enveloped the wooden houses of Tambaredjo. Wagiman was squatting in the grass along the river waiting for the fish to take the bait suspended from his line. He watched the thickening blanket of clouds weighing down the sky. An hour passed as the sky grew slowly darker and gusts of wind drove away the heat. As the first raindrops fell, he counted his catch – three small toekanaries – and resigning himself pulled in his line. Hurrying back to the village in the cloudburst, he wondered how he was supposed to feed eight mouths with three scraggy fish.
Fourteen years had passed since Wagiman and Soemi had eloped. Their house in Tambaredjo now numbered six children and the seventh was curled up in Soemi’s belly waiting to be born.
Their fat years were over, reflected Wagiman as he returned home with his measly catch, yet he had every confidence that Allah would take them under his wing even in the less good years. In any case he would save the plumpest piece of fish for Soemi. At first he had not noticed, but finally he had seen that every day she divided the food among the children, taking no account of her own empty stomach. She gave the little ones the last mouthfuls of rice, and contented herself with the crispy layer of burnt grains sticking to the bottom of the pan. When he mentioned it she had answered with a smile that she liked that bron-bron and wasn’t hungry anyway. And while her belly swelled because of her pregnancy, Wagiman saw her face getting thinner and thinner.
He had blamed himself for not noticing earlier how she effaced herself, especially since the year before she had lost a child. Wagiman still felt his throat tighten when he remembered how he had found her that morning.
He had heard her screams as he worked. By the time he ran into the house the bleeding had already begun. Sitting on the next to their bed she clawed at her blood-soaked sarong in a despairing attempt to undo what was irrevocable. The women who came later to nurse her told her that the child was dead and that she must give birth to it. It seemed barbaric to him to ask a woman to do such a thing, but Soemi did it. When the contractions came she pushed the child out of her body without a single cry. When it was laid on her breast, she threw her arms round the small body, still warm but motionless, and her screams were even more deafening than her silence had been when she gave birth. Her maternal feelings had been deeply wounded and she screamed because she could not find the strength to ask how this could happen and when the child had stopped moving and why, why, why it had to be like that.
Wagiman was in the room, where his helplessness had driven him into a corner. He looked at Soemi without saying a word, without feeling his tears falling on his hands. He wanted to comfort her and tell her everything would be all right. He would lie to her if that would alleviate her pain. But their loss became an immovable obstacle between them; she was oblivious to his consolation.
She couldn’t explain to him that that her grief was so great it made her body ache. That she so loved this child that had stopped living before it had begun and that she nevertheless knew like all her other children, because it had been shaped in her body. That she should have protected it because it was still too small to live without her, but which she had not been able to save even when it was still inside her. Her body wept so much that it forgot how to breathe and Soemi almost died of the unbearable pain of the loss of a child.
And yet, after the sun had twice set and after all risen again, she allowed the women to bathe her and realised that her pain was still huge but had suddenly become bearable. She buried the child in the Muslim cemetery next to the village. She chose a cool spot under a large tree where bright-red flowers appeared, marking the grave, and gave the child a name that she told no one else, not even Wagiman. It was her child and it had chosen not to be part of other people’s lives. She would respect that wish, if such it was, and buried the child anonymously, but in her dreams and nightmares she called it by its name.

The telephone rang (…). Soeratijem nodded to Deborah to pick up the receiver. ‘Hallo, Deborah here.’ The line crackled. A Surinamese accent, made thick and syrupy by the distance the voice had to cover crackled, reached her ear. ‘Deborah! Well, hallo. And how are you?’ ‘Hallo, Uncle Hendrik. It’s Uncle Hen,’ she explained unnecessarily to her mother. ‘Fine. Mum’s sitting here, shall I put her on?’ She gave her mother the receiver and sat with her back against the sofa.
‘Hen? Fa?’ Soeratijem slid effortlessly back into the world she had left behind. She knew that when she hung up it would feel as if he moved a little further away from her. But for the next few minutes she ignored that and closed her eyes as she listened to her little brother’s voice.
‘Soen, everyone’s here. Listen.’ There was a sound of cheering in the background. She heard Toekinem laughing. Sheila called out her name. Hen spoke down the phone again. ‘It’s Amir’s birthday. We’re celebrating it here, instead of in Tambaredjo. Dad’s here too. He wants to speak to you.’
Crackling. The old sandpaper voice of Wagiman. The Javanese of her childhood, ‘Soene? Soene, are you there?’
Hen’s laughing voice: ‘Dad, you don’t have to shout. She can hear you’
‘It’s OK, I’m here, Dad. How are you?’
‘Fine, fine, my child. I can’t complain. I miss you all though. How’s the baby? How old is it now?’ She realised that he had never seen Stephanie. ‘Hen has shown me photos. They’re really lovely. What’s Holland like, Soen?’
‘Still cold, Dad. Very cold. But we’re doing fine.’ A babble of voices in the background. Wait a minute, I haven’t finished yet. They’re saying I’ve got to hang up in a moment. But how cold is it, Soen?’
She smiled. ‘Very cold. In a few weeks’ time it’ll freeze again.’
‘Where are the children supposed to play if it’s so cold?’
Now she grinned. ‘Outdoors. Sometimes the ponds freeze over and they go skating.’
‘The water freezes? But how?’ The voices had been listening in and burst into laughter. Someone who sounded like Hendrik Amatoeloes, shouted: ‘When water freezes it’s like ice cubes, Dad.’
‘Ice cubes?’ Wagiman’s voice was full of astonishment. ‘But how can they play with ice cubes?’ The guffawing swamped the connection. Wagiman joined in. ‘Soene, can you hear how they’re making fun of your old father here?’
She nodded.
Hen said in the background. ‘Dad, the time’ll be up any moment. You must say goodbye.’
‘Yes, yes, I know. All this rush. Listen, Soeratijem. However cold it is, you must keep doing your best. Your mother and I didn’t have it easy either. But that’s the way it was. Can you hear?’
‘Yes, I know.’
‘Oh, Soene, Hen has got no time left. We miss you all, you must come over soon, will you?’
Before she could answer two metallic pips brought the conversation to an end. There was silence for a couple of seconds before a long-drawn-out tone filled the space of Wagiman’s voice.
Soeratijem hung up. Deborah drank her tea. Outside the wind whistled noisily through the railings of the balcony, forcing its way breathily through the chinks in the window frames. Just a little while and the trees would be losing their leaves. No long after that the first snow flakes would arrive. It was so natural. She could never have imagined it before. As little as her father could now.

Leave a Comment