Sun, 28 Dec 2003

Sweet Granny

Hawa Arofah

"Sweet Granny" was the name I gave her for her sweet smile. Toothless, with a wrinkled face and silvery gray hair, she would still smile sweetly whenever she tapped on our door.

I had known her since first grade. She begged door to door in my village. I never knew her origins or where she lived, and they were a mystery to everybody else, too.

At lunchtime, Sweet Granny would appear at my home. My mother would invite her to have lunch together in the dining room, but she preferred to have it alone on the veranda.

"No lectures, jeng?" she asked, when she came one morning. It was drizzling. She knew I was a student. I had once told her that, as a student of psychology, I was interested in listening to the stories of old women, including herself.

"I'm on vacation for a month, gran," I answered amiably. "How about taking a rest for a while here. It's drizzling. You'd better relax and chat with me."

Sweet Granny sat with me on the porch. I served a cup of warm coffee to her. She said she'd had lunch next door.

"I want to hear your story as a young woman, gran. Come on, tell me, particularly your story during the Japanese occupation."

Her face fell abruptly. Her tearful eyes stared into space, delving into dark memories.

"Sweet Granny must have been witness to how the occupying soldiers behaved while in this country. Please describe it to me, gran."

We all knew the stories of how many suffered and died of starvation when the troops occupied Indonesia and plundered storehouses. Of course, the greatest indignity befell some unfortunate women, forced to service the soldiers' sexual needs.

But comfort women, the term that people used, was a euphemism for what they really were: Sex slaves.

She started to sob, with tears running down her shriveled cheeks.

I tried to remain calm and let her weep.

Sweet Granny wiped her tears from her cheeks.

"I was among the jugun ianfu, jeng," she said, using the Japanese name for the women.

She told me she was a beautiful 17 year old who would help her mother in their paddy field. One day, Japanese forces invaded her village. Lots of farmers lost their livestock and crops.

The soldiers' actions forced most villagers to eat rice bran or dried cassava, even the bitter shoots of papaya leaves.

They dragged some of the village girls to military headquarters. At the Japanese base, the virgins were raped one after another by the soldiers who claimed to be "elder brothers".

She, too, was taken to the base. And her pretty face and firm body made her a favorite of the Japanese troop commandant.

Despite her fears, she had to serve the commandant, who was known for walking through the town brandishing a sword.

One night, she cried in pain at being harshly treated. He pulled her hair and flung her onto the bed. Then the commandant snapped at her while pointing his sword: "If you keep crying, I'm going to slash your body to pieces."

She suppressed her sobs although bruises covered her body after submitting to the commandant's brutality on the bed. But she was seeking ways of escaping from the confinement. She wished to return to the village and live with her parents again.

After raping her one night, the commandant fell into a drunken stupor. She crouched down to pick up the sword. Without thinking, she sliced into his neck with the blade. The sturdy and strong soldier died instantly.

She immediately climbed out of the window and got away through the back fence. But the alarm was sounded and many Japanese guards shouted: "The commandant's dead! The commandant's killed! Seize the young girl, she's running away!"

She raced to another village, but a group of Japanese soldiers chased after her.

"I had to act like an insane woman so none of them would recognize me," she murmured in panic. She plunged into a muddy field and emerged with a sludge-covered body.

"With me looking like this, the Japanese won't be able to tell who I am," she muttered to herself, stooping like an aged woman.

On her way, she came across five Japanese soldiers, who asked her: "Hey, old woman! Have you seen a pretty girl from the neighboring village fleeing our base?"

She was tight-lipped and kept her head down, angering the men.

"Darn old woman!"

"Crazy bitch!"

She was amused and relieved to have escaped them. She stayed in her new "role", fearful of returning to her family home and putting them in danger. She slept under bridges, scavenging food from garbage dumps when there nobody would give her any.

All the while, she had something else preying on her mind: Her period had stopped. Her belly grew larger, and she knew she could no longer pass as an old woman.

"I'll just live in a forest. I want to have my baby born there," she whispered. She went into a secluded teak forest and six months later gave birth to a baby girl.

"I can't afford to take care of my baby," she mumbled sorrowfully. So she carried the infant to a nearby settlement one evening and left it in front of a house.

"That's my story during the Japanese occupation, jeng," she said.

"Do you miss the baby?" I asked.

"Always," she said. "There were three birthmarks the size of pieces of corn on her back."

I broke out in a cold sweat, my heart beating fast. I remembered the trio of freckles forming a small circle on the small of her back.

I clutched Sweet Granny's hand and ran into the house, shouting for my mother. She was, after all, my granny. Note: Jeng = Javanese term of address for a young woman

Translated by Aris Prawira