By Hanna Rambe
A plate of small cakes dangled from little Masni’s excited grasp as she clambered into Aunty Ruli’s car. A career woman of impressive years and still single, Ruli was taking Masni with her to visit a friend.
Masni had only recently arrived in Jakarta. Ruli had invited her to come and live with her in the city feeling she was now of sufficient means to help raise Masni. Before coming to live with Aunty Ruli, Masni had been cared for by her grandparents in a tiny village in provincial Sumatra where Masni was destined to become just one more among countless rural peasant women, just as all her forebears had been.
They were about to set off to visit Musa, one of Ruli’s cousins. For some years after Musa’s father had passed away, Ruli paid for Musa’s schooling. Ruli and Masni arrived in, well, the second part of the name of the area was “Indah”(*), but Ruli couldn’t remember exactly what Musa’s house looked like. Fortunately, she had brought the address.
Musa had added another story to his house and the whole place was now a dazzling clean white, right down to the fine wrought-iron laced fence and gate. Expensive plants stood scattered around the modestly-sized yard, casuarinas, areca nut palm trees and a variety of imported flowering shrubs.
Despite the blaze of security lights, the house itself looked quiet. Ruli pushed the bell on the gate several times but no one appeared. Masni began to shift uneasily from foot to foot shrinking before the soaring gates.
“People in Jakarta don’t like guests,” Masni thought to herself. “I’m glad I’m with Aunty Ruli or I’d be standing here by myself.” She thought about how different her own village had been. Nobody had a fence, apart from the village chief. And it certainly was not polite to let visitors stand for ages in the street.
Ruli called out to someone, a builder it seemed, working next door who disappeared to the back and in a few minutes an elderly woman emerged who opened the gate for them. The old woman was wearing a sarong and a fine knee-length traditional lace blouse, indicating to Masni, happy at the sight, that she was from the same district in Sumatra as she was. The woman told Masni to call her “grandma” which also made Masni happy. Although the elderly woman was not her real grandmother she was a grandaunt.
The three women talked away exchanging news. The man of the house was apparently away on annual holidays in Bali with his wife and children. Musa and the family, according to the elderly woman, always spent New Years outside Java. Ruli did not know this, recalling that Musa and the children had always called in to see her at Christmas or New Year to wish her the seasons greetings and leave a present.
The elderly woman continued her news. Last year Musa bought the block of land behind their house and turned it into an orchid garden for his wife. His wife was buying and selling orchids. Just to make a little money.
One of Musa’s four younger brothers and sisters, his name was Kahar, had been completely uncontrollable but had turned over a new leaf and was now working for Musa.
“What is Kahar doing?” asked Ruli rather taken aback.
The elderly woman continued. Musa had a cattle farm outside town. He had bought the land and was raising cattle. Kahar was managing it all, and the cows were producing plenty of milk. She went on and on with the family news, of how, well, to put it simply, Musa had done quite well for himself and had helped his brother to find work. Pleased to hear all the news Ruli was gratified that her help with Musa’s education had not been in vain. She was happy also that it was only because of Musa being so busy with his career that he hadn’t had time to keep up with news of other members of the family.
Ruli gazed around the front parlor, cavernous by land-squeezed Jakarta’s standards. She gazed at the intricately decorated crystal lamp on the wall unit, the video recorder in the corner, the delicately carved teak lounge, electric organ, seawater aquarium in the other corner, lush Middle-Eastern carpet and indescribably modern paintings. It was all there.
“Could open a shop if he wanted to,” she thought. “People become rich so quickly!”
Masni stared in awe as drinks and cakes were served by a maid with short wavy hair wearing long slacks and lipstick. In Masni’s village, there weren’t any women made-up like that, not even the village chief’s wife.
During their visit, Masni sat as quietly as a mouse. She didn’t utter a word. The elderly woman then told them about the family’s pet dogs, one or two of which had indeed been wandering about barking. They were strangely shaped dogs, not like the ones grandpa kept in the village. These dogs had curly hair and a soft bark, one very small and low and without a real snout. The elderly woman described how the family had recently had a terrible experience and Ruli, politely feigning offence at having not being informed, asked what had happened.
“Musa’s youngest child was bitten by one of the large dogs and had to be taken to the doctor. The dog was punished by the trainer and finally it died,” explained the old woman.
Ruli anxiously asked whether it was a serious bite.
“The bite wasn’t the problem. What worried Musa was losing the dog.”
Incredulous at hearing such a story on New Year’s Eve, Ruli listened as the old woman described what happened.
“Two years ago Musa bought a special German Shepherd. I can’t remember how to say its name but I do know it cost more than a million rupiah. They had to give it special meat, take it to the vet from time to time for check-ups and after it was big enough they took it to school.”
Masni’s ears stood up! “Take a dog to school!” she thought. “What sort of dog would it have to be? Is it possible for a dog to go to school? Not even all the children in the village go to school. They can’t afford the monthly fees,” she thought. “It wouldn’t be a bad life being a dog in Musa’s family,” Masni thought to herself still refusing to say a word to anyone.
“The dog became very clever,” continued the elderly woman. “It could play ball with the children. It guarded the house and it could open a closed door, so long as it wasn’t locked, jump over chairs and pounce on dangerous looking strangers. And that wasn’t all.”
“Well, Musa must certainly be rich, aunty,” commented Ruli.
“Ah, I wouldn’t say that. He is also responsible for a lot of people. There’s me, his brothers and sisters, and all his brothers- and sisters-in-law. And then there are some of his friends’ children from nearby,” the old sarong bound woman answered modestly.
“When the dog finished its course it got a certificate too,” added the woman returning to her story.
“A certificate, aunty?” replied Ruli, wide-eyed. “What would be the use of giving a dog a certificate, aunty?”
“The dog’s job was to guard Musa. If someone wanted to hurt Musa, the dog would jump up and bite the person. But if one day Musa wanted to sell the dog the birth certificate, the pedigree and the training certificates would all have to be handed over as well or he wouldn’t get a good price.”
“Oh,” sighed Ruli.
It was late and Ruli could see the elderly woman was getting tired so she decided it was just about time to finish their New Year’s Eve visit. She had really wanted to see Musa’s wife. For the past seven years Musa’s wife had regularly sent a Christmas present and this was the first time Ruli had taken the time to drop in to thank her. Up till now Ruli had felt that as she was the older of the two it was Musa’s responsibility to call on her. In fact she wanted to introduce Masni to Musa and his family.
They were about to leave when the old woman asked them to look through two thick photo albums full of pictures, of the dog and all its certificates. The elderly woman explained that one day Musa had been playing with the dog, telling it how clever it was, when the children arrived home from school and joined in. Something must have happened. Musa must have made some sort of movement that upset his youngest son because the child picked up a walking stick from the corner of the parlor and began pretending to hit his father.
Suddenly the dog snarled angrily and jumped on the child and bit him. At first, everyone thought it was all just wonderful fun, that the dog was showing how clever it was. As blood began to run down the child’s arm and she started screaming, the dog grew angrier and angrier. Then everyone suddenly realized what was happening and Musa sprang into action.
Apparently, what happened, the old woman remembered, was that the child moved exactly like the bad men the dog had been trained to attack at the school. Musa forced the dog out of the way and the house was in an uproar. Someone called Musa’s wife who was next door at a neighborhood function. Someone called the family doctor. Children started howling. And the elderly woman herself began yelling at Musa and the dog.
The whole house was in chaos for a week. The dog was taken straight out of town to the trainer’s but after that the old woman didn’t know what happened to it. Musa never brought it home again and someone said that within a month it died.
The child was not injured seriously but went into shock, unable to accept the fact that the dog she had lavished so much affection on had not returned the affection.
“How could a dog respond the same way? An animal. The word itself is something you use to insult people,” the old woman scorned.
Ruli and Masni finally asked the elderly woman to pass on their regards to Musa and his family and they left for home.
The following day Ruli asked Masni to go with her to visit another friend. “So the rest of the family in Jakarta can get to know you,” Ruli said. “After all, you’re new in Jakarta.”
They set off for Boti’s house in the opposite direction to Musa’s. Also one of Ruli’s cousins, Boti was a senior civil servant with three children, all girls, and Ruli hoped that the girls would invite Masni to meet some of their friends. Boti’s house was always full of young people and the girls did turn out to be friendly to Masni. It was Masni herself who didn’t feel comfortable, preferring not to say a word.
The main topic of conversation between Boti his wife Ida and Ruli was the sad event that had recently happened to the family. And what had happened? There had been a death, the myna from Nias Island had died.
“Ida, you really are too much! I thought that someone in the family had passed away. You shouldn’t be so sad over a bird?” tut-tutted Ruli making fun of her friends.
“The problem isn’t just the death of an animal, Rul. You have to understand the role of the bird in the family.”
“Ah. There are plenty of mynas at the bird market near our house. You really shouldn’t be this sad about a dead bird,” said Ruli again somewhat frustrated.
Ida looked at her husband and then explained. “This myna was a gift from a very poor relative living on Nias Island when Boti was posted there. Boti was able to help the family in a small way and the myna was a present, a token of their thanks for protection from the possibility of some penalty. It had only just been caught in the forest,” said Ida. “After we returned to Jakarta, Boti looked after the bird himself and taught it to talk and whistle. The whole household was happy with the new creature chortling away in the house.
“In the mornings he would whistle and whistle, say ‘good morning’ to Boti and me and the children and in the afternoons he would sing the first lines of the folk song ‘Lisoi’. The children are always singing that song. Whenever a passing vegetable hawker or a rag-and-bone man was about to open the gate, the little myna was taught to call out, ‘Who are you looking for? No one’s asked you to come in!’
“For two years the myna was the sixth person in the family and the maid was the seventh. When I think about it, Boti looked after the little myna, checked its food and water every day when he arrived home from work before saying hello to me or the children. Only after he had seen that the myna was all right would he check on the others in the house.
“I had plenty to do outside, golf, the office wives’ association, dropping the children at school and picking them up in the afternoons, bowling and visiting all the different supermarkets in Jakarta, just for starters.
“Last Sunday I got sick and had to stay home. I felt moody and fussed about as though nothing was how it should have been. I got cranky with everyone in the house and the maid and she even threatened to walk out if I kept becoming angry with her.
“Well, I didn’t want the maid to leave so I bottled things up inside and that was the day I heard Boti come home. I was so furious when the first thing he did was stop outside the kitchen to look in the bird’s cage. Boti played with the bird, joked with it, whistled to it and filled up its water bowl.
“Then he went into the bedroom, put down his case and changed. Well, I exploded. I told him he cared more about the bird than about his sick wife. Boti was worn out and sweaty and, shall I say, responded to my outburst in a way that was more appropriate to an infantryman in the middle of battle. Unkind, not to say, indelicate, words were fired between us mortar-like. The maid was terrified, as was the little myna who had never heard an angry word uttered in its life.
“After a while, Boti said to me, ‘Ida, you shouldn’t be jealous of a bird. The bird has only ever been something for the whole house to enjoy. If it could really talk you would have to apologize to it.’
“I didn’t say anything but in my heart I was sorry. How could I have been jealous of a bird?
“Three days after our fight the myna died in its cage and we weren’t able to find the cause. The whole house is upset, especially Boti, who put so much effort into training it.
“Boti said to me flatly, ‘Now you don’t have to be jealous. Maybe the myna did understand what we were saying and didn’t want to be a bother to you or the rest of us anymore.’
“I knew that Boti was distraught; he just wasn’t saying so for my sake. I was so sorry about my childish behavior that day. True, nothing will bring him back, but everyone still feels his passing away terribly, no more cheery good mornings outside the kitchen.”
For all their money, the myna would not be easy to replace realized Ruli. A new bird would have to be trained patiently from scratch.
Masni nodded politely in agreement when everyone in the house, equally politely, told her she should call in often and even stay over and that they wanted to take her out to Jaya Dream World at Ancol in North Jakarta or on a picnic into the mountains.
Without saying anything, Masni was actually deeply disturbed by the fact Aunty Ida had been jealous of a bird. In the village, mynas lived in the forest.
“The families Aunty Ruli has introduced me to are very odd,” Masni decided, “caring so much for dogs and jealous of birds.”
In the car on the way home, she wondered what marvels awaited her tomorrow.
The next evening Aunty Ruli invited her to visit someone else and off they went to drop in on Grandma Sarintan who lived in Kebayoran in South Jakarta.
Sarintan was a distant relative of Masni’s late father, but Ruli knew her well through work. She now lived by herself in a rented house which, compared to her former twelve bedroom palace which one had to circle on a small bicycle, was cozy and small. It had the feeling of a lonely mountain temple.
She had once been in charge of a small company but it had gone bankrupt and she and her husband had fallen on hard times. Then her husband eventually ran off with another woman. Their only child, pretty and brilliant in school, had won a scholarship to study in Australia where she had married a millionaire Vietnamese refugee immigrant and settled down.
Sarintan lived with no more companionship than that of her driver and two maids. She survived now by teaching English and music. Her income was actually not insubstantial, but with the tastes she had acquired in her days of plenty, she never felt she had enough money. Her daughter understood how her mother felt, sending a little money from Australia from time to time and she had even sent her mother two Angora cats to provide a little companionship.
When Ruli and Masni arrived a large crowd was gathered at the house and all the windows were wide open to the moist tropical air making a joke of the air conditioner still running. Ruli sensed something was wrong.
And she was right. Without her usual corpse pale make-up, Sarintan was sobbing, and Ruli, startled by the scene, wondered what could possibly have happened.
“Oh Ruli, Ruli, it’s so good to see you,” wailed Sarintan on seeing Ruli before bursting into tears.
“There, there. Everything’s going to be all right. What’s happened?”
Through her tears Sarintan sobbed, “Oh, oh. Onassis has been missing since yesterday afternoon. Ohh.”
“Well, where is he? Have you looked for him?”
“Yes,” she explained through her sobs, “all these neighbors have been helping me look for him.”
It was as if someone in the family had died. Ruli thought to herself that if Sarintan became hysterical she would definitely have to take her off to the psychiatric hospital.
Panic and pandemonium had gripped everyone in the house. They were looking everywhere, opening everything that opened, overturning everything that could be searched, but Onassis would not answer, not even to the loving calls of her owner.
On seeing one neighbor climb down from the roof empty-handed, Sarintan again burst into tears and called out repeatedly the name of her beloved puss Onassis.
Whispering into Ruli’s ear Masni asked, “Why is she crying about a lost cat?”
“Ah, the cat came all the way from America and cost a thousand dollars,” answered Ruli.
“Is a thousand dollars a lot of money, Aunty Ruli?”
“It’s a very large amount of money; it’s about one million seven hundred thousand rupiahs, dear.”
Masni didn’t say anything, unable to comprehend that amount of money. But when Ruli told her with that amount of money she could buy a large rice field and enough food and drink to last for one or two months, she began to understand what Sarintan was crying about.
Quietly she began to think, “Maybe the old lady is crazy. Why would she want to pay more than a million rupiah for a cat?”
Masni was shown a picture of the missing cat. Its partner lived in Sarintan’s bedroom and the cat was beautiful, thick fur, colors as soft as watercolors and large bright eyes. In all her life Masni had never seen a cat as beautiful as this, not even while collecting firewood in the forest around her village.
Masni listened open-mouthed as Ruli whispered that the cat’s food had to be bought in Singapore because none of the supermarkets in Jakarta stocked it and that Onassis, along with his partner Atina, had to take vitamins every day to make them strong.
After Ruli and Masni had been there for about two hours, one of Sarintan’s neighbors from the street walked in – Onasis in arms. Wearing a sarong the neighbor refused to come into the house. He had been about to go to bed when he came across Onassis being chased by a group of cats. Even though he was fat and well looked after Onassis was not up to fighting his brother cats.
Sarintan lept to the front door, wrapped her arms around Onassis warmly and carried him off forgetting the man at the door. Tears welled up in her eyes then flowed down her cheeks as she murmured ‘thank you’ over and over. Finally, she carried him into the bedroom for a joyful reunion, all three lost themselves in a joyful embrace. Sarintan was clearing overjoyed, elated, by Onassis’ return. There was no doubt about it, her joy was palpable.
To express her gratitude to all those who had helped her Sarintan handed out five thousand rupiah notes: to those who had climbed onto the roof, to those who had rummaged through the back yard and to those who had roamed up and down the street calling, “Puss… Onassis… puss, puss, puss.”
Sitting silently throughout all her visits Masni could not decide whether she felt amazed, sick in the stomach, sorry for the old lady, or slightly jealous of all the people she had met on her New Year’s visits.
It was almost midnight before Ruli and Masni left for home, almost the end of the third day of the New Year’s holiday. Before leaving, Masni caught sight of Sarintan lovingly pushing Onassis’ pills into his mouth. The old lady hadn’t paid the slightest attention to Masni or Ruli. She was drowning in the grief of losing Onassis when they arrived. By the time they left, she was floating in an ocean of happiness over finding her imported cat again.
During the past week, Ruli and Masni had done a lot together to celebrate the New Year and all sorts of people had dropped in on Ruli. Each had their own particular stories, some unintelligible to Masni, others completely unbelievable. Masni found the city people she had met strange and foreign, totally unlike the people she knew back in her village.
In the village, she had seen images of Jakarta on television, sparkling glitter, dazzling lights, bustling crowds of cheerful chatter. Where was the real Jakarta, the one people did not see on television, full of people making friends of animals, full of endless overflowing rivers of cars flooding past the fronts of houses?
Masni was deeply disturbed. Was this Jakarta, the place she had longed to see so much, the center of learning, the place where people could find a better life? There were other people from her village, other members of her family, here in Jakarta and she had visited some of them together with her late father’s cousin, Aunty Ruli. But not one had asked her to come and live with them. They all knew how her father had passed away, how her widowed mother had remarried and how, as a result, Masni and her sister Misna were being brought up on the edge of the forest by their poor grandparents.
When Aunty Ruli invited her to come to Jakarta she had no idea she would see such things: emptiness, loneliness, coldness, indifference. Life in her village, so hard because of the poverty everyone lived in was nonetheless warm and affectionate.
Masni didn’t have the courage to tell Ruli, busy with work and visitors, what was swimming in her head. Ruli had never tried to discuss with her how she was feeling or what she was thinking. Ruli had just accepted Masni would get used to life in the city quickly. After all didn’t every villager want to live in the big city?
In Aunty Ruli’s house, Masni could use as much fresh water as she liked. She didn’t have to haul buckets or earthenware pitchers from the well. In the evenings she didn’t have to light the lamps. Electricity did make it easier to cook and to find something to do. True. Life was easier in Ruli’s house.
“But, dear Lord!” sighed Masni to herself. “Why do they care so much about animals?” This was what her tiny heart could not accept. Her grandpa had never killed an animal, hadn’t ever eaten meat and had once become angry when a group of children killed an animal that wasn’t threatening anyone. Grandpa taught the village children that animals were made by God to help people and therefore they shouldn’t be killed. But grandpa did get very annoyed every time an animal came into the house, except for skinks or ants. Dogs were not loved and fawned over and people didn’t sleep together with cats!
Finally one day Ruli told Masni to gather all her personal papers together. She was off to enroll in school.
School enrollments had started and Masni, little Masni who hadn’t been able to summon the courage to say a word at any of the gatherings of city people, now mustered all her bravery and said, “Aunty Ruli, I don’t want to go to school in Jakarta. I know we decided. But it doesn’t matter. I…, I would like to go home to my village.”
“Honey, what’s that? Go back to your village? You said you wanted to become a clever girl, that you wanted to send some money back to help grandma and grandpa in the village. How are you going to earn any money if you don’t go to school?”
“Aunty Ruli, please don’t be angry. Jakarta is too busy and crowded. There’s so much noise and dust and so many people, so many people and none of them are friendly. I don’t have any friends here. On television, everything looks wonderful and new but every night I think of grandpa. I want to go home.”
Ruli wasn’t pleased as she watched Masni sob quietly. Young as she was, Masni was immovable. She had made up her mind. She wanted to be taken back to her village. Ruli tried to encourage Masni to change her mind but it didn’t work. A successful career woman, Ruli had forgotten about the thoughts and feelings of a small village girl. She hadn’t taken the time to sit down and talk to Masni heart-to-heart before going to bed. She had felt she was doing something good by helping the poor orphan child. To her mind Masni was being inconsiderate, even rude.
Reluctantly Ruli took Masni back to her village. They flew to Medan, and then went by bus deep into the countryside. Ruli was so sad to lose Masni. She liked her very much, her clear olive skin, her gentle nature. True, Masni didn’t say much, didn’t ask many questions, but she did love reading and she always paid careful attention to any advice given to her.
Quite sometime after Ruli had left the village to return to Jakarta, Masni’s grandpa asked why she wanted to come back to the village. Had Aunty Ruli been angry, or had Masni done something wrong?
Masni answered with the honesty of a nine-year-old village child. “Grandpa, in the city people care more about animals than people. The rich people we visited keep dogs and cats and myna. They pay lots of money for them. They don’t catch them in the forest. They send animals to school and the animals get certificates. They give medicine to cats as if they were babies and hug them and cry over them when they get lost. Even Aunty Ruli has pet fish in a tank and the water has to be pumped with an electric pump. I couldn’t bear to look at all the people, watch them ignore me. I’m poor and I come from a village. I don’t mean anything to them. To them the animals mean more than I do.”
At first, Masni’s grandpa laughed at her story, thinking she was making it all up to impress him now that she had been to the big city. But after a while, her grandpa could see in Masni’s obvious sincerity that she wasn’t making it up.
He put his arms around her, squeezed tightly and whispering, “Silly old Aunty Ruli. She cares more about her fish than about you.”
Without thinking, Masni reached up and touched her grandpa’s cheek and realized it was wet.
The Love of City People (Kasih Sayang Manusia Kota) was published in Horison magazine in June 1990.
(*) Pondok Indah is regarded as an up-market district of Jakarta.
Featured Image: Moord op Chinezen te Batavia, 1740, Jacob van der Schley, after Adolf van der Laan, 1761 – 1763