Short Story by Aris Kurniawan (The Jakarta Post, February 20, 2017)|
As a singer, Asnah’s stage performance is definitely something else. No one has ever been able to outdo her. Accompanied by an organ, her performance has always been the sort that leaves many trembling with excitement, as if she is a superstar. And that is exactly what Asnah is good at: imitating real superstars with her star-like quality and malleable voice.
For example, when she performs a number by Elvy Sukaesih, the Queen of Dangdut, Asnah channels the superstar by twirling her eyes, letting out a characteristic moan and shaking her shoulders just so. And when she performs a number by Rita Sugiarto, Nur Halimah or Ikke Nurjanah, she channels them, too. The stage is her acting chamber and everyone is enthralled by her performance.
It’s only natural, then, for Asnah to receive the sort of attention reserved for some of the country’s most loved crooners. She travels from one village to another, belting out one cover song after another, while members of her audience gleefully slip money under her belt. Tips, they call it. And as more and more villages ask to be entertained by Asnah, her little band soon becomes the talk of many towns. Yet for all the attention she receives, Asnah realizes she hasn’t got much to give. She isn’t a particularly beautiful or sexy woman. And many criticize her for wearing too much makeup. To be quite honest, there are plenty of other crooners in the villages who are far more beautiful than Asnah and with bodies to die for.
However, the villagers want her, and as a result Asnah is also wanted by numerous local bands. Still, she doesn’t let it go to her head. Unable to disappoint her audience, Asnah makes it a priority to divide her time equally among the bands that want to hire her for a performance or two. Her days are largely spent on a stage somewhere in front of dozens of people. She doesn’t take sick leave and few people have heard her complain of feeling tired. Unfortunately, this little fact leads to a rumor — that Asnah has sold her soul to the devil for the sake of fame. No wonder, the voices would say, considering her mother’s a shaman.
“When she sings, it’s not really her,” says one villager. “It’s the devil inside her.”
“That’s how she manages to perform in two or three villages at once.”
“Don’t you recall how she refuses to perform on certain Fridays? That’s because she spends that evening singing to the devil.”
These rumors spread as quickly as fire from one envious mouth to another. But nobody cares. Most people believe Asnah is an angel sent to Earth to entertain them, to liberate them from their monotonous lives.
Although, to be fair, to a lot of women — especially housewives — Asnah represents everything they despise. Her voice has lured their men out of their deep slumber, always comparing them to Asnah, and saying how perfect she is as a woman. Not only is she (sort of ) beautiful, she is also able to provide for her family. There are stories of Asnah buying her mother gold jewelry and paying her nieces’ and nephews’ tuitions. Some of these women, if not all, rejoice when one day the wife of the neighborhood chief approaches Asnah and scolds her for luring her husband out of the house when he should be caring for their sick child at home.
The woman barges into Asnah’s home and bares her claws at her. She pulls Asnah’s hair while scolding her endlessly for her immoral deeds.
“You rotten whore!” says the wife, looking defeated and desperate. “Don’t even think for a second that you can steal my husband!”
In tears, Asnah’s aging parents quickly come to their daughter’s rescue. Even their neighbors, upon hearing the noisy exchange, immediately run to the scene with the express purpose of separating the arguing parties, or at least pretending to do so. As you know, these things can be quite entertaining.
Following the incident, Asnah spends most of her days locked inside her bedroom crying. She doesn’t want to see anyone. She becomes a loner. It seems as though she is depressed. She refuses to perform for weeks. Until one day, someone in charge of the local bands decides to pay her a visit and play the hero, hoping to save the lives of many. It takes more than one try, but he finally gets to see her.
“It’s not your fault, Asnah,” says the head of the local bands. “Don’t be afraid. They’re the ones who should apologize to you.” He is tall and thin, sporting long hair that he has dyed the color of hay, and dressed in an oversized shirt.
The visits pay off. Soon, Asnah is back to her old self. She considers the incident as nothing more than bad luck; besides, she misses her audience. They always know how to make her feel special. She was born to be a crooner and she will sing her heart out to those who will lend her an ear.
Asnah returns to the stage, where she belongs. And, just like that, the hatred toward her is set aflame once more. One evening, returning from a neighboring village after a successful performance, the wife of a greengrocer walks up to her, accompanied by a group of thugs and men. They accuse Asnah of having kidnapped the woman’s husband. The wife, standing with arms akimbo, points at Asnah’s face as if pointing at a dog.
“You watch your step, Asnah,” she says. “If I ever find out you have seduced my husband, I will burn your house to the ground.”
On another occasion, Asnah is ambushed at home by a group of women who complain to her that their husbands and sons no longer feel comfortable staying at home because they want to watch her performances. They throw rocks at Asnah’s house, sometimes they throw excrement at the windows. This particular incident is the last straw for Asnah. She quits her career as a crooner. Then she decides to move out of the village, leaving her parents, before finally settling into our village.
“I’m not a crooner, I’m just a snack seller,” says Asnah to those who ask about her true identity.
“But the rumors about her selling her soul to the devil have never been proven,” somebody says to Blarat, a fan of dangdut music who has just arrived in the village. Blarat is curious about the true identity of the snack seller whom many claim to have once been quite a popular singer.
Unfortunately, Blarat has neither the courage nor the urgency to introduce himself to Asnah. Each time he calls out to her and pretends he wants to buy her snacks, he holds back the desire to look into her eyes. He finds himself completely speechless in her presence. Nothing comes out of his mouth. Blarat can only watch her back disappear at the end of the street after each visit. And then he would turn and step back inside the house, enjoying the snacks while thinking of what it would feel like to kiss Asnah on the lips.
The village is only a few hundred kilometers from Jakarta, yet the noisy development of the sleepless city doesn’t reach this place. It’s as good as an abandoned village, with living conditions only slightly better than artificial villages out in remote areas of the country. Don’t even ask how many potholes there are in the streets. And the villagers have long accepted the fact that the government doesn’t care whether they live or die. Just a few months ago, the village got electricity for the first time, and even then the quality is rather poor. Blarat has only been living in this coastal village for the past three months, working as a substitute teacher on meager pay.
Most of the villagers live in bamboo houses with spacious yards where mango and guava trees stand tall amid the thick bushes. The only form of entertainment the villagers have is television or, occasionally, a dangdut performance by a local band. Usually this would happen during the month of Ruwah. For months Blarat tries to gather his courage to visit Asnah at her house and ask for her hand in marriage.
The moon shines bright on the eve Blarat arrives at Asnah’s house. He stands on the stoop of the verandah. In the distance, a beautiful voice is heard coming from a stage, and it is assumed that someone’s hosting a wedding ceremony. Suddenly, Blarat hears the tap-tap-tap of light footsteps coming from inside the house. He wonders whose they are. His heart is beating fast, and he tries hard to decipher the sounds. But then there’s nothing. He stands at the door in complete silence. Through the window he sees the lights inside the house are turned on, but the color of the curtain is too dark for him to make out what’s behind it.
How long has he been waiting for this moment? Blarat doesn’t want to count the months, he can’t face the facts. It seems he has been waiting for it his entire life. He’s prepared what he will say, pages of conversation starters, and he’s mustered the courage to arrive at this defining moment. But what if …? His heart sinks. Perhaps I should turn around and leave, he thinks. The road behind him is quiet and barely lit. Moonlight falls upon tree leaves and green grass. His heart is full of doubt now. He swallows his own spit. Thick and bitter. He doesn’t move.
Hours before he arrived at Asnah’s house, Blarat spent a full hour staring at his reflection in the mirror. He looked at his face from various sides, making sure he had everything covered. He wanted to look good for her. He put on his best batik shirt, which he bought months ago at a market dozens of kilometers from the village. He had also memorized a series of sentences to open a conversation, choosing his words carefully, hoping his host would understand his intention. And in making the time to prepare, he didn’t mind missing his favorite band’s performance.
“My heart is certain,” Blarat practiced before the mirror. “I want you to be my wife, Asnah. We’re meant for each other. We’ll live together, to love and to hold forever.” Nevertheless, Blarat did not know there was someone else living in the house with Asnah. Whoever that person may be. What if she was married? What if she was seeing somebody? Nah, he consoles himself. She’s too good to lie. But then whose footsteps had he heard earlier?
Blarat is about to turn around when, all of a sudden, the door is opened from the inside. He looks up at the face that appears from behind the door. A woman calls out to him.
“Is that you, Blarat? Come on in, we’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”
Blarat raises his eyebrows. The woman calls to him again.
“Come,” she says. “I’ve prepared hot tea for you. I’m Asnah’s mother. She’s inside.”
“Have you been waiting for me, really?” Blarat takes another step toward the house.
“Sit down,” says the woman, who doesn’t seem as old as she should be.
Blarat sits on a wooden chair facing an oblong box. In the corner is a small cabinet where plates and cups are stored. On top of it is Asnah’s framed picture. In another corner is a bed, covered with a mosquito net. Asnah lays on the bed.
“Is she asleep? Is she ill?” asks Blarat, concerned.
“No, Blarat,” says the woman. “She’s singing at a party in a faraway village. When she’s done, she’ll come awake.”
Aris Kurniawan is an Indonesian writer, reporter, and essayist. His books, A Love Song for God and Away from Hiding, were published in 2005 and 2007 respectively.