Grandma started to give me a back massage, relieving the pain caused by carrying a backpack too often. She applied telon oil and her callused hands made me sleepy. I tried to stay awake, waiting for her to tell stories like she always did. Stories about her lasting youth, about Bung Tomo, about Kang Yoesoef—her idol—who was not my grandpa. My grandpa’s name was Tjipto. Yes, I remember my grandpa’s name correctly. It was Tjipto Soesanto, not Yoesoef.
However, Grandma preferred to tell stories about Yoesoef rather than about my grandpa. She still remembered the man whose whereabouts were unknown even after the war ended. I never knew my grandpa. I was born five years after he died.
“Why don’t you get married soon, Tin?” Grandma asked. Her thumb pressed on a spot in my neck and massaged it to loosen the tight muscles.
“You carry heavy backpacks too often.”
I grinned and moaned quietly, burying my face in the pillow that smelled of telon oil. Damn. Grandma’s massage made part of my back hurt even more. Thank God she quickly rubbed more oil on my back. Its warmth made me sleepier. But she had yet to say anything about Yoesoef, about whistling bullets fired from all directions, and about Bung Tomo.
“Why, Tin? Hah? You should marry while you are still young,” Grandma continued.
“I still like to travel, Grandma.”
“You think you can’t travel after marriage?”
“Seems like it. Look at you: you stay at home, taking care of kids and a sick husband.”
Grandma laughed. “That’s because my family was poor and could not afford a higher education for me, Tin. You shouldn’t compare yourself with me.”
I saw in the mirror that Grandma started to smile. Soon the story about the days of war would flow from her lips. About Bung Tomo, who was always on fire as he delivered speeches on Radio Pemberontakan; about Yoesoef, who killed Brigadier General Aubertin Mallaby; and a little about my grandpa.
I knew these stories well. Grandma never missed the chance to tell them while giving her grandchildren a massage. For her, history was always a current event.
Radio Pemberontakan aired. The opening song was Peter Hodykinson’s “Tiger Shark,” sung by the Hawaiian Islanders. This was not a government broadcast and I didn’t know why it was named Radio Pemberontakan.
Bung Tomo established the radio station three days after his return to Surabaya. In the beginning, its range was only thirty-four kilometers. Almost every day, I went to Yoesoef’s house so I could listen to Bung Tomo. We usually gathered in the living room. Yoesoef’s sister, Siti, and I sat up front because we were little kids.
Radios were a rare commodity. Only activists and high-class people owned them. I didn’t have a radio in my home. We were poor, my father was just a laborer and my mother did not work. Mother always told me I had to become an office clerk’s wife so I would have a radio and other things we didn’t have. But I didn’t want to be the wife of a pencil pusher. I wanted to be the wife of a revolutionist like Kang Yoesoef.
Japan had lost the war and Indonesia gained its independence. As common citizens, we wanted to live peacefully after surviving those hard times. But it was not that easy to get our independence acknowledged.
Soon after Radio Pemberontakan began to air, the white people returned. Their excuse was disarming the Japanese. This led to the incident where they tore down the Merah Putih flag at the top of Yamato Hotel and replaced it with the tricolor flag of red, white, and blue. Indonesians were angry, including Yoesoef, who carried a gun on that day. Hope faded immediately for most people. But the young revolutionists, including Yoesoef, were never afraid of anything. They were willing to die for the independence.
I went to Yoesoef’s house to meet Siti.
“Where is Siti, Kang?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Pik. Try looking inside.”
I stared at Yoesoef, who was about to leave, as Bung Tomo’s voice bellowed on the radio. The voice that set fire to young men whose blood still surged to hear the word “independent.”
Yoesoef turned off the radio and said good-bye. I looked for Siti in the back of house. She was delousing her mother’s head.
“Pik?” Siti turned. Pik was my nickname, short for Warpiah.
“You girls better stay home or you might get in trouble,” Wak Maryam warned us.
I kneeled next to her, and massaged her bare back. Wak Maryam’s eyes slowly closed because of my massage and the breeze. We heard a gunshot and ran for a hiding place near the well. Wak Maryam tightly held Siti and me.
In the following silence, Wak Maryam warned us not to move while she went to the house. After a while Siti and I followed her.
The living room was a mess. The radio was destroyed. Wak Maryam picked up the pieces scattered on the ground.
“Yoesoef will be mad,” she murmured. “Crazy Dutch.”
I peeked through a crack of a window to look at my house.
“Don’t go now, Pik. You might get shot.” Wak Maryam pulled my arm. Siti and I were herded from the back of the house through the grove of sugar cane.
Gunshots were heard again. I was startled and stumbled over a rock on the dike. I almost fell. Luckily, Siti caught me. Wak Maryam turned.
“Hurry,” she said.
During the clash between the revolutionists and the British army, Wak Maryam, Siti, and I lived in a soup kitchen in Pregolan.
Wak Maryam volunteered to cook while Siti and me and other little girls helped with serving the activists.
I never saw Yoesoef at the refugee camp. Neither Siti nor Wak Maryam knew his whereabouts. In the camp, we followed the news through the radio. Radio Pemberontakan kept broadcasting about the situation in the center of Surabaya.
Mallaby died. No one knew who the killer was, other than that he must be Indonesian. British troops were wrathful and waged war. I heard Bung Tomo deliver enthusiastic speeches to arouse the people’s spirit.
“Fellow Indonesian young men throughout the country, especially those who are now on the battlefield in Surabaya: Many of our friends have died. Blood has flowed in this city. Many of your friends will never come home. They died in the recent battles. Comrades, we have suffered a lot of casualties. But, believe me, the flesh, blood, and bones of those who died will one day fertilize an independent country, where their children will enjoy equal prosperity and justice. So, comrades, let’s continue this struggle. While we might die and vanish from this world, the future will be filled with prosperity and justice. Comrades, let us continue this struggle, the ultimate victory will be ours. Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Merdeka!”
I left the room where people gathered to visit my mother in the soup kitchen. Two days before, we received news that the British had killed my father. Terribly sad, I roamed the yard. I was more scared that my mother would also be killed. Living alone is not easy.
“Pik, Pik,” a hushed voice said from behind the trees.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m alright, Kang,” I nodded.
“I am sorry about your father. But I took your revenge, Pik. I shot Mallaby.”
“What?” I stared at him. “You have to hide.”
“I’m going to Kedung Cowek, Pik.”
Soon after, Robert Mansergh replaced Mallaby. I heard on Radio Pemberontakan that every armed citizen had to surrender. I kept Yoesoef’s visit a secret from everyone including Wak Maryam, Siti, and my mother. No one should know that Yoesoef had killed the brigadier general.
War broke out a few days later. Bombs were dropped on government buildings. Surabaya was a sea of smoke and fire. We moved from one hiding place to another. Many of us were injured and died, including my mother. Fortunately, there was Wak Maryam, who promised to take care of me. It really was a long and tiring day.
Every day I followed the war on Radio Pemberontakan. Sometimes, the illegal broadcast brought harm to the pribumi. The young natives were enchanted by Bung Tomo’s voice, but the British often intercepted the broadcast to move one step ahead of the revolutionists. Like on the morning Bung Tomo alerted the revolutionists in Undaan, word spread that the British had smashed the artillery there.
“I’m wondering where Kang Yoesoef is, Mom,” murmured Siti.
I almost choked and glanced at Wak Maryam as she stirred the rice.
“Your brother is on the battlefield, alive or dead. All we can do is wait for him until this war ends.”
I wanted to tell Siti, but I didn’t. I couldn’t let down my guard; Yoesoef’s life could be in danger. There were many spies. Motivated by greed, even pribumi became the enemy of their own country.
“Both of you, go help wrap the rice,” Wak Maryam waved us away.
Siti and I left in a hurry. In my heart, I worried about Yoesoef. But Wak Maryam was right; I should wait for this war to end. There were three possibilities: he would come back alive, dead, or never return.
“I worry about Kang Yoesoef, Pik,” Siti said with sadness.
Again, I was quiet. I put my arm around her shoulder. She cried while thinking about her only brother whose whereabouts were unknown.
“Kang Yoesoef will be back,” I whispered to soothe her and calm myself, too.
The young men came. Some brought guns; some brought the injured. I helped Wak Maryam to distribute the rice to them. Near a tree I saw one of Yoesoef’s friends sitting in a group. My feet headed for them and I handed out the rice.
“Did you see Kang Yoesoef, Kang?” I asked.
“No I didn’t, Pik. I haven’t seen Yoesoef for two days.”
My heart stopped beating for a moment. I forced a wry smile and left the men with the rice. I helped Siti as she poured drinks. The soup kitchen was crowded with starved and exhausted young men. I watched Wak Maryam joking with a woman dressed in burlap. They were busy wrapping rice.
“Kang, did you see Kang Yoesoef?” Siti asked one of her brother’s friends.
The man shook his head because his mouth was full. Siti asked another man, but no one knew where he was. She ran crying to Wak Maryam, who patted her head and said Yoesoef would come back.
I ran to the room where people were listening to the news that Kedung Cowek was destroyed by artillery. The armory was smashed two hours after Bung Tomo gave a command through Radio Pemberontakan to distribute all weapons to the people.
Ah, Bung Tomo was reckless. I suddenly remembered that Yoesoef went to Kedung Cowek to get weapons with a group that had come with a truck.
The number of casualties kept increasing. The hospital was on twenty-four-hour alert because the wounded kept coming. The soup kitchen was always open although the food supply started to diminish. Merchants evacuated to border areas to evade the bombs that could drop at anytime. The markets closed. Everyone was scared.
The next day we luckily got help from Sidoharjo. So much vegetables and rice were sent to the soup kitchen that they piled up in the warehouse. Siti and I helped to bring vegetables from the warehouse to soup kitchen. We were enthusiastic about an uncertain future.
I never saw Yoesoef again. I lived with Wak Maryam and entered into an arranged marriage with a soldier named Tjipto Soesanto. He was fifteen years older than me, well built, and very kind. After our marriage he took me with him to Ambarawa. I left Wak Maryam, who had taken care of me as if she were my own mother. I also left Siti—my best friend.
When Radio Pemberontakan broadcasted the British take over of Kedung Cowek, I was sure that Yoesoef had died with the weapons he was supposed to transport. But I chose to calm my heart. Yoesoef just went to war. In my memories he is still alive.
Grandma’s voice faded, the past reflected in her glassy eyes.
Terjemahan dalam bahasa Inggris dilakukan dengan bantuan dari Dalang Publishing. Sal Glynn, penyunting.