Leila S.Chudori


Today is the best day to meet You

Jakarta doesn’t have chrysanthemums. But I will search for them to the ends of the earth, so that Mother can close her eyes in peace.

Mother always used to say that she knew what would happen when she died. My older sister Nina would sob uncontrollably (maybe even howl); my older brother Arya would chant the Surah Yasin from the Qur’an with a calm voice while trying to hold back his tears. I would be doing all the pragmatic things those busy mourning don’t think about: reporting to the local authorities, organizing the burial plot, finding the prayer robes, organizing the food and bottles of mineral water for the guests, and finding pieces of batik cloth. And last but not least, the most important of all – something Mother never failed to mention—for sure I would be out scratching around for Mother’s favorite flowers, which are difficult to find in Indonesia: white chrysanthemums. She never mentioned jasmine, or roses, red or white. It had to be white chrysanthemums.

‘Why chrysanthemums? And why do they have to be white?’

Mother would never answer. And I never pressed her on it.

And Mother’s prediction was right. This is exactly what happened.

When we found Mother she was already turning blue. Her face was blue, and her lips were bluish-violet with white foam coming out. As she lay there on the slippery floor, I could not be sure whether Mother was relieved because she could close her eyes at last, or because she was cold. We found a body sprawled there not because she was sick or had fallen, but because she herself had decided: today, I can die.

Maybe Mother had never been happy.

Or maybe she felt that her life was over at this point. Arya was silently hugging her cold body. I just kept my mouth shut, my heart raging. My hands were busy. I blocked out all my questions with pragmatism: how were we going to lift Mother’s body from the floor so that Father would not see her in this state, all blue? And we had to make sure that Father would not see this as a statement from Mother. Apart from that, we had to lift Mother quickly, as she was obviously cold. You could see that the blue was gradually turning a kind of yellowish violet. Faintly, I could hear Mother’s voice: today I want to die.

Right then, I could feel a heaving wave pressing my chest. But I have an extraordinary power to shut off tears. I have the ability to repress pain however heavy, so that a day of hurt can be over quickly. While I was busy asking myself why my mother would decide to leave us, I suddenly saw Nina push her way through the throng. She pushed aside all the hands that tried to restrain her. Amazing that Nina, little Nina, could push away the arms of all the uncles and aunts who had started to gather. She rushed at Mother’s sprawled body. Mother’s body that was still and blue. Nina howled… yet no sound came. But I can still hear Nina’s howling to this day.

Amsterdam, December 1963

Nadira rejected my body. Nadira rejected my breast. This made me feel bad. She just closed her eyes and made little whimpering noises. I could hear the sound of the sharp wind stabbing the windows. The December winds in Amsterdam are so sad. ‘Wat een melancholische dag is het vandaag…’

I put Nadira down on our bed (which was actually no more than two trunksput together with a second-hand mattress on top). Nadira rejected everything. The breast. My body. Her father’s voice. The teasing of her older brother and sister –Nina with the shrill voice and Arya, the tidy, trusting one.

Out the window, I could imagine Bram holding the collar of his jacket close in the midst of the bustle on Kalverstraat. Winter brings not only illnesses, but also loneliness.

Summer, on the other hand, brings a sense of optimism, even though Amsterdam is always flooded with tourists doing the rounds of Europe. Kalverstraat throngs like a market, but Bram and I like to walk along the street for one thing alone: to smell the aroma of beef rendang cooking in the yard outside the Indonesian Padang restaurant on the corner; and the smell of kretek cigarettes sold at Andries’s shop.

Amsterdam is a city of contradictions. It is always neat and preening itself, yet its inhabitants are lazy about hygiene. Bram Suwandi – like other Indonesians living here – is among the cleanest, neatest, and most disciplined when it comes to regular appointments with the shower. Amsterdam is full of contradictions. When I was studying, for instance, my two neighbors were total opposites, both in the way their apartments were positioned, and in their place on the spectrum. Johanna is a strict Protestant, a regular churchgoer with bookshelves full of books on spiritual matters. Bea, on the other hand, is a young Dutch woman who, on my first day in Amsterdam, asked me—this Indonesian girl she thought rather shy—to walk through the red light district, just to make me squirm. She was hoping for a laugh to see an Asian girl shriek in horror at the red light scene.

But it turned out I disappointed her. I walked along quite happily, and even asked lots of questions as I sat chatting with Anneke, Carla and Elsje, offering them cigarettes while listening to their stories about their clients.

I smiled to myself remembering all this. Johanna and Bea have remained my closest friends in this apartment building. Even though they have different worldviews, they were the ones who helped me with my simple wedding in Amsterdam – far from my parents, and far from the comforting hubbub of family and the aroma of spices from Indonesian food bubbling away.

The street lights were now fully illuminating the streets. And at that moment, there was Bram with his bicycle, cutting through the night. After battling with the cold wind out chasing news all day, he would come home briefly, and then go out again to De Groene Bar until the wee hours.

The creaking door meant that Bram had entered the apartment. I knew his cold cheeks would feel full and soft, and would be a bluish black from his whiskers that seem to grow back the minute his razor grazes them each day. Bram shut the door. He looked tired. But his eyes were still bright.

‘What’s the matter?’ Bram looked at me, without smiling.

‘Nadira is a bit strange.’

‘In what way?’

‘She won’t take my breast….’

Bram slowly took off his shoes and socks. Then he quickly washed his hands, lathering with soap as though getting rid of all the bacteria of Amsterdam. When he was finally convinced that his whole body was clean, he touched Nadira’s forehead.

‘She doesn’t have a fever…’ he mumbled, ‘ so why… what did you eat earlier? Schatj … wat scheelt jou…’

I tried to remember. There was nothing unusual, just eggs, some potatoes and vegetables. At the end of the month our fridge is usually rather bare, down to just a few vegetables and fruit. Our meat rations are almost gone, and what there is I give to Bram and the children. Bram touched Nadira’s cheeks and forehead.

‘Definitely no fever….’

Suddenly Bram held his nose. I could also smell a sort of scorched smell. I quickly unwrapped Nadira’s blanket. There was poo everywhere. The dull-colored sheet was brown. Without saying much, we hurriedly washed Nadira, whose whole body was soiled. Bram skillfully took off the sheet and soaked it in a bucket. My cheeks were damp, but I managed to hide it. We can’t afford to be sentimental.

‘I’m going to telephone Jan….’

‘No, don’t’!’ Bram said. ‘We owe him so much already. Hoeft niet.’

I sat down and put clean pants on Nadira. Her breathing was fast, and she was weak. She still refused my breast. I was still trying to think what I could have eaten that had caused this.

The clock on the wall struck eight. Every chime beat with my heart.

‘I’ll put Nina and Arya to bed’, Bram said, not offering any other solution. He sounded dejected, and I knew he was hiding his worry.

I cuddled Nadira. She lay her beautiful round head crowned with thick black hair on my shoulder. My little Nadira…. I so wished any sickness she had would pass to me. Just a few minutes later I heard the sound of Bram’s typewriter in the dining room. The sound of those flying fingers alternated with the gusts of the December wind.

‘If she’s fallen asleep, that means there’s nothing to worry about…’ I heard Bram say between the clicks of the typewriter.

And Nadira was now sound asleep. But she had not had anything to drink. I put her down on the bed, without a sheet. I put her down, without a single drop of milk in her body. I stroked her cheeks, chasing away my tears that were determined to flow.

* * *

Jakarta, December 1991

The hum of the reading of Surah Yasin, which sounded like the buzzing of bees, was soothing to the heart. People were gathering around Mother where she was laid out, and greeting one another. From the kitchen window, I could see a sea of black fez hats and veils sitting in neat rows, like lines of black ants. Father and Arya were near Mother’s head, as though guarding her. I could see a set of old brown prayer beads between my father’s fingers, beads I had never seen before. Behind Father, I saw Grandmother and Grandfather Suwandi reading the Surah Yasin, their voices low. Mother’s own parents had died a few years’ back.

9999--1 seruni fix

I could still hear Nina sobbing in Mother’s room. Then I heard some of the aunts trying to calm her hysteria.

If only I had Nina’s expressive ability– how relieved I would be. How happy to deflect whatever was weighing down on me. Where did she learn to shriek, cry and sob so long like this? Mother once said that Nina had water factories for tear ducts ever since her birth. Whenever she didn’t get what she wanted, her tear ducts would start to work furiously. How nice that must be. Perhaps because I was born last, Mother’s tear duct supply had run out by the time I came along.

Some of the women from the complex where my parents lived were shouting back and forth as they made drinks, and every now and then they asked my approval for something, as though— heavens know why —I had been appointed ‘MC’ of this funeral. A four-wheel-drive car tooted to come in. Winda, one of my cousins who is obsessed about being some big shot, got out of the car and yelled for people to help her. Immediately, three or four servants came to greet her. It turned out she was bringing some baskets of jasmine flowers. Suddenly, for the first time, I felt a deep burning in my heart. Who had ordered jasmine on the day of my mother’s death?

Translated by: Jennifer Lindsay

(Excerpt from anthology of stories The Longest Kiss, Lontar Foundation, 2013)