Speaking of Wives

THE gentleman in the house next to ours had beaten his wife the night before. He should have known better. He and the lady were both Europeans, with only the faintest trace of Indian blood — not stenga Malayu, as the natives of Java term the half-caste population. Playing bridge on the verandah, we had restrained ourselves with difficulty during the operation, for his house was only just beyond our garden wall. There is no glass in the windows in the tropics, and sound filters through wooden shutters as well as air. We could hear not only the stifled screams and sobbing, but also the blows of the whip and certain unlovely sounds of satisfaction.

Consequently I was still indignant when Sari came in to make the beds, in her eyes a light familiar in another hemisphere when sensational disclosures concerning a neighbor are about to be made.

‘Did you hear it last night, the tuan next door whipping the n’onya?’ she asked with a triumphant smile.

‘ I certainly did. What do you suppose he did it for?’

‘Probably she was naughty.’

‘Naughty! A man shouldn’t beat his wife just because she’s naughty.’

‘Of course, N’onya. Husbands always beat their wives when they deserve it.’

‘Does Hani whip you?’

‘Oh yes, when I am naughty. What should he do?’

This was too much for me, and indeed Sari was so much a child that a good spanking might well suggest itself as a convenient discipline when, as sometimes happened, she became a domestic tyrant.

What would an American n’onya do if her husband should beat her?’ Sari pursued the subject.

She would probably divorce him. At least a good many would.’

Oh yes, divorce. But divorce is costly. A Malayu man must pay five guilders for one, or often more.’

‘It costs lots more than that in America.’

Sari laughed. American lavishness was to her a thing you hear about but can’t imagine, like the distance to the remote stars.

‘ Yes,’ she said, ‘the people of the n’onya’s land are very rich. And yet a tuan has only one wife at a time.’

‘Does a Malayu woman like it when her husband marries a second woman?’

Sari considered this a little.

‘ She does n’t always like it,’ she said, ‘but after a little she grows used to it. When there is much labor four hands or six are better than two. Out in the padi fields the work would kill one wife, but two or three or four can do it with ease. As they work they talk together — that is pleasant. Even in the town it’s easier with two. The young new wife does most of the work. So the old wife usually does n’t mind very much. But my mama had a sudara — ’

Sari was on her knees washing the tile floor with evil-smelling carbol water, prolonging the task as much as possible in order to satisfy her curiosity about the ways of foreigners as well as her feminine taste for gossip. At the memory of her mama’s sudara (a Malay’s sudaras are usually his sisters, but may also be his cousins and his aunts) she wrung out her cloth and settled comfortably on her heels to tell the tale.

‘My mama’s sudara was getting a little old. Her husband was the head man of Masari kampong — a rich man. One day he told her he was going to marry another woman — a young girl from Tanah Abang — on the next Friday. My mama’s sudara was a quiet woman. She never screamed or threw things. She was just quiet, but she was angry. She would n’t speak to her husband and she refused to go to the girl’s kampong to celebrate the marriage.

‘Then came Saturday, the day after the marriage. The husband had not yet brought his new wife home to Masari. My mama’s sudara rose early and walked many miles across the city, to old Batavia where there lived a nenek [old woman — translatable by “granny”] whom she knew to be wise in many things. And she got a little package from the nenek, and tucked it away in her belt.’

‘What was in the package?’

‘Something you can hardly see, but if you put it in a person’s food he dies. Not at once. Later, weeks later. See, N’onya, my mama’s sudara did not wish the new wife to live in the house with her.’ Hitching over a little nearer my chair, she said softly, ‘N’onya, what the nenek put into the little package and gave to my mama’s sudara was whiskers — the whiskers of a tiger, the great matchan of the jungle — chopped fine — so fine you could hardly see them. If you eat chopped tiger’s whiskers, sharp like fine glass, they at last make holes in your stomach and you die.’

‘What a very bad old woman your mama’s sudara was!’

‘No, N’onya. As it turned out, she was n’t wicked at all. When she reached her husband’s house in Masari kampong, no one was there, and she was very tired. She sat in the doorway to rest and to refresh herself with betel nut, waiting for strength to come back into her before going to the river for water and doing the evening tasks.

‘And while my mama’s sudara was sitting there in the doorway, the new wife came up from the river carrying a tempat of water in each hand. She said tabeh to my mama’s sudara, but she got no answer. She went past her into the house and put down the tempats of water. Then she took a brush and swept out the house, and she whisked the mosquitoes out of the bed curtains — for the husband of these two was a rich man and had good beds like a white man’s. Then she went to the charcoal basket and brought fuel and made a fire in the brazier, and she cooked rice and fish. When it was done she brought a plate of it to my mama’s sudara, sitting in the door.

‘It was pleasant to sit in the doorway and eat fresh-cooked food another had made, and to cool her hands in water another had carried up from the river.

‘And when the husband of these two came home the old wife was no longer angry at all. When the new wife went out on the path to greet the husband, she herself went to the brazier, still burning from the rice steaming, and she dropped on the coals the little package of the whiskers of the matchan which she had bought with all her money from the nenek in old Batavia.’

Sari dipped her cloth once more into the carbol water and turned again to the washing of the tiles.

Tida apa,’ she said, shrugging her slender shoulders in their pretty flowered jacket, ‘it’s no matter. One wife or two, beating them or not—it’s just a matter of the custom of the country.’