Dutch East Indies
World War II
“Eat it, or I will.”
I look down at a lump of boiled corn in front of that doesn’t look appetizing at all. It is one of those days when we have to eat plain foods—corn or ration rice that’s so bad that there is no nutrition left. Ibu—Mother—talks all the time about being grateful that we still have food on our table, “Paiman’s family next door doesn’t even have salt in their home” that’s what she always says in low voice, glancing at the shack a few meters from our house. Atik, their daughter, plays with me a few times. She looks too small for our age and only has 2 clothes. Ibu doesn’t like it if I play in the front yard with her, “we don’t want the Indo (Indonesian-European) to see, for the sake of your Bapak’s—Father—job”, but in my opinion, she’s just scared. I mean, who doesn’t?
I grab the corn and bite it.
“When it starts to dark, can you close all the windows and light the candles?”
I nod and she smiles a little before leaving me alone.
After I make sure she’s gone, I grab the knife on the table and cut my corn into two. I know Atik will be very happy to be able to eat the corn again.
I jump off of my chair and slide out the door, sprinting to her shack. I know her father isn’t home—Heerendiensten in Dutch, which means state compulsory labor. Netherlanders make Indonesian build civil and military infrastructure for the benefit of the Netherlands themselves with little or no payment at all. So many people die of forced labor but no one can do anything. It happens to Atik’s father who looks much smaller than his daughter. Our family, even though we’re Pribumi (Indonesian native people) and not as lucky as the Indo who have a mixture of Dutch blood, can have a better life because my father is a violinist and sometimes the Totok (Netherlanders) and the Indo ask him to play for them at their big houses in the city. Besides a little money, the Indo also give him a few foods after the performance and one of the kindest, Sinyo (unmarried boy, European or European crossbreed) Wijnen, gave my father a violin—made in Netherland. It’s beautiful and sounds much better than his old one.
I don’t bother to knock when I arrive at Atik’s shack. I push it open and the girl is sitting in the middle of the room, playing with a stick.
“Eat it fast.” I throw the corn to her lap.
She looks surprised but catches the food on time.
“Where’s your mother?”
“Out, asking food to the other poor families.”
The sadness fills my body in a way that I always hate. What does she expect from knocking one door to another? Getting food? We all are poor and we barely have enough for ourselves—let alone giving it away to other people.
“Take care, will you?”
She nods, busy eating her food.
I turn around and sprint my way back home. I don’t see Ibu anywhere so I close all windows and light the candles before doing my homework.
A few hours later Bapak comes home and with enthusiasm, I run to greet him. He smiles at me with his tired eyes and Ibu shows up behind me, handing him a glass of water.
I bring my book to the living room so I can be with them. Bapak usually tells stories about his day or weird things that he saw. It’s always fun to listen to because I often stay home when I’m not at school.
“So?” that’s the world Ibu always use to start the conversation when Bapak is home. Then he will start talking about many things like a beautiful house he saw or a cake he ate at the Indo’s house.
But he just shakes his head slowly.
Lately, he always does that.
It means he didn’t perform anywhere—no money earned.
Ibu looks like she’s about to cry so she leaves for her room. Bapak looks at me and I look back, and we both smile.
“Play something,” I say.
He opens the box and takes out his violin given by Sinyo Wijnen. It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, and maybe, the most valuable thing in our house. Bapak loves it endlessly—no particle of dust can lay on his violin. He lets me touch it sometimes but forbids me to play with it; “Later, I will teach you” he always says.
Bapak leans his cheek to the pretty thing, closes his eyes, and starts playing a song. It’s a Netherland’s song that becomes my favorite since the first time I heard it. I can never remember or pronounce the title because it’s in Dutch but I recognize the melody from the first note. The song is cheerful and soft in some parts.
I stand on my feet and start dancing to the song. I can’t dance, never been a member of the dance class like the Indo, but I’ve seen them on their way out of the class, running and dancing happily along the sidewalk.
Bapak promises me if the economy gets better, he will put me in that dance class. The cost probably so high that it will make Ibu refuses to talk to Bapak for a few days, but Bapak always convinces me that I need to be happy in a world like this. He wants to see me becoming a dancer and performs with him.
When the song is over, I’m all sweaty and tired but very happy. Bapak claps for me and I bend down, giggling.
“Do you want to come with me tomorrow?” he asks as he puts his violin carefully back to its box.
I love coming with him when he performs because I get to see the stunned faces of the Netherlanders watching him—that’s my father! You see that?!—and usually we are given delicious food to taste.
I immediately nod with a very big smile.
The next day after the common school ends, I basically sprinting and dancing my way home. I feel like those Indos, in their nice clothes, dancing out of their dance class to their nice houses in the city. I might come from a very small common school with our ugly clothes but I don’t mind because today I will go with my father to perform!
I arrive at home and push the door opens. I see Ibu sits in our poor living room, crying. My heart sinks and I run to her.
Ibu looks up and hugs me tight, crying louder. “Bapak was picked up by the officer. From now on he has to join the forced labor.”
The excitement flies away from me, leaving me empty in this small room. My eyes catch a glimpse of the beautiful box on the table—Sinyo Wijnen’s violin—Bapak’s most precious thing in the world, just sits there, lost its chance to play again because the owner has been sent to the deadly place without a way out.