The Women’s Association(*) of a nondescript village was holding a meeting. The day before the meeting, Mrs. Scholar had been in quite a flap. She looked as if she was organizing her own daughter’s wedding, borrowing chairs from here and there, dropping in and out of homes to invite members. For Mrs. Scholar, Women’s Association meetings were very important events in her day-to-day life.
“She really is enthusiastic,” said one member to a friend.
Mrs. Scholar rose to her feet and spoke to open the meeting. With the voice of a cold, shivering cat, Mrs. Scholar explained that she was in receipt of an instruction from her superiors to hold a meeting to discuss a number of matters.
A member sitting directly across from Mrs. Scholar muttered, “Well, you wouldn’t dare do this without being ordered to.”
As she spoke, Mrs. Scholar glanced at the member with a sour face. The other member’s face twisted into a mocking look.
Trembling slightly, Mrs. Scholar continued what she had been saying. She spoke for a long time, she had not finished everything that she’d been ordered to say by her superiors. All the members yawned, like soldiers on a silent battlefield.
Ten minutes… twenty minutes, Mrs. Scholar talked on and on. Her mouth moved like the snout of a squirrel, puffing up and down like a bellows. Her nostrils flared widely, like a fishing net ballooning in the water. The hairs were visible, dark like a squid. As she spoke, saliva oozed from her teeth and rolled down her chin like a small child’s snot.
Shyly a member rose to her feet and said, “Mrs. Scholar, please excuse me, but I have to leave to go home. I have a lot of things that need doing at home.”
Mrs. Scholar felt offended and in an angry tone asked, “What is the matter, Mrs. Waluyo? The meeting is not over. We’ve only just begun. At home, you work for yourself, but here, we are working for the common good.”
Mrs. Waluyo appeared thoughtful, and then said firmly, “That’s a shame Mrs. Scholar.” She looked at her watch, small like a beetle, and continued what she was saying, “At six sharp I’ve arranged to meet the chicken seller. To exchange for some tatty clothes.”
Mrs. Waluyo bowed her head respectfully to Mrs. Scholar, and to the other members, then departed. As soon as she was outside, she said between clenched teeth, “For the first and the last time.” Then contemptuously, “Huh… the common good.”
The other members appeared most uncomfortable, as if they had come face to face with someone just widowed.
Mrs. Scholar went back to what she was saying. She continued to talk about events that had been reported in the newspapers recently. She thanked the Japanese Navy which had won a great victory in the waters east of Taiwan. She expressed admiration for the dashing Japanese soldiers who had fallen in action on Peleliu Island. She thanked the Empire of Greater Japan for Indonesia’s forthcoming independence, and she was grateful that the military government had managed the smooth distribution of rice so that everyone was receiving a fifth of a liter of rice each day.
Then another member stood up. Obviously a real village person, her Indonesian was stilted and sounded like a very old woman’s. Her blouse was faded and tattered. Her chest was as flat as the waters of Lake Toba, waveless. Every now and again she coughed.
Very gently she said, “Mrs. Scholar, it isn’t even as much as a fifth of a liter. And you can’t find any extra anywhere. My husband can’t work anymore. The Japanese cut off his hands, because…”
Her heavy heart stopped her finishing the sentence. But she was desperate to make Mrs. Scholar feel sorry for her. Just maybe, Mrs. Scholar would be able to help her. She gathered her strength, and between her coughs, she continued, “…because he took a liter of rice from his employer’s house. Because he had no choice, you see. Salim is really an honest man, but he was desperate. Please help me, madam. I have two children, they have big appetites.”
All the members felt sorry for her.
But sternly Mrs. Scholar said, “Mrs. Salim, I can not help you. It has already been decided. We have to do what we are told. It is different now compared to before.”
“Before we could argue with decisions from higher up, but the present era is a time of obedience. This has great benefits because in previous times everything took such a long time. Imperial Japan is different. Everything is fast. In only two years, we have obtained our soon-to-arrive independence. We have to work, Mrs. Salim.”
Looking as if she was about to start to cry, Mrs. Salim said, “So we get a fifth of a liter? Down again from a quarter? Well, in that case, please excuse me, but I’m just going home. There’s a lot to do at home.”
As slowly as the announcement of a defeat by Imperial Headquarters, Mrs. Salim moved towards the door. When she arrived at her house, she cried.
Mrs. Scholar laughed. Mocking Mrs. Salim she said, “That’s what happens when a village person gets involved in a meeting. They talk about inappropriate things. They ask the wrong questions. Ha ha ha!”
Sitting some distance from Mrs. Scholar, Mrs. Djoko and Mrs. Surya were deep in conversation.
Mrs. Djoko said, “My husband Djoko now looks quite pale. I feel terrible when I look at him. Every day he works hard, but when he gets home, all there is to eat is rice porridge. I’m a little better off. Whichever food sellers passes the front of the house, whether it’s peanut salad or fried soybean cakes, I buy some to help keep the hunger away. Sometimes we spend as much as one rupiah per day. Poor Djoko.”
Mrs. Surya, on the other hand, wasn’t having so much trouble paying for things. Her husband was a member of the regional advisory council. Rather proudly she said, “For us, our life is just the same, not much has changed from before. My husband Surya has a permit to travel anywhere. When he comes home from Banten he brings coffee. When he comes home from Cirebon, he brings home rice and Kooa cigarettes. Usually, the rice he brings is more than the two of us need. Well, what else can we do, we sell the left over. Sometimes it sells for as much as two rupiahs seventy-five cents per liter. Yes, it even covers the cost of going sightseeing at Warnasari.”
Mrs. Djoko stood and said to Mrs. Scholar, “Mrs. Scholar, is that all that’s going to be discussed at this meeting? I just want to say that I am very grateful. Excuse me, I have to go home.”
Mrs. Scholar was surprised, from her leather bag she removed a piece of paper and in a chilly quiet voice said, “Just a moment, Mrs. Djoko. That was only the introduction. The real reason for this meeting is…”
Mrs. Scholar opened the folded sheet of paper. She continued her address.
“This. The 8th December will mark the third anniversary of Japan declaring war on America by attacking Hawaii. This has to be commemorated. It has been decided that the Women’s Association has a responsibility. Together with the Women’s Associations from other villages, we are to go and visit Japanese soldiers who are sick. For this, we are going to make them cakes. And to make the cakes will incur a cost. We are to show our thanks to those who have fought for our interests. Ladies, allow me to abbreviate my address, and to say that the reason for this meeting is to ask for your generosity to volunteer, if you could, a financial contribution for the making of these cakes.
“At least two and a half rupiah from each family. I feel that this is not too much for you all. Two and a half rupiah is not much. Just look at it like you are giving a liter of rice. I’m sure it won’t feel like too heavy a burden. About when we will begin to work, I shall provide further details in the near future.”
The members of the Women’s Association of a nondescript village whispered to each other. One of them said, “And about the two and a half rupiah. That’s not the main thing. Why did you deliver such a long-winded introduction just to tell us that we are going to have to dig deeper into our pockets yet again? Just cross my name off the membership list of the Women’s Association. I don’t even care if everyone talks about me not having the right spirit.”
Now frightened and trembling, Mrs. Scholar said, “Mrs. Samiun, please don’t become angry so quickly. We have to be patient in the present age. You really are jumping to the wrong conclusion. I feel obliged to advise you then, even if it is a secret, that everything I have been saying, I was ordered to say by my superiors, which all arrived along together with the order to hold this meeting. I went to a great deal of trouble yesterday, memorizing all of this by heart, word for word, Mrs. Samiun.”
Mrs. Scholar wiped the perspiration from her brow. The meeting dispersed successfully.
Published in Pantja Raja, No. 16 Vol. II, 1 July 1947, p. 551.
(Use was also made of a translation published in Indonesia, No. 2 (Oct., 1966), pp. 125-134, Southeast Asia Program Publications, Cornell University, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3350757)