In this fourth installment of A World with a Thousand Doors, our collaboration with the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Indonesian writer Ugoran Prasad takes us into a kitchen where an unsavory secret is on the boil. The festival starts tomorrow, so if you’ve just decided on the spur of the moment that you’ll be heading to Bali, you’re in luck! Asymptote readers can save a 20% on a 4-day pass by entering the promo code MPAS at the online checkout.
Shortly before his death, Wak Haji Mail grew delirious. At first, no one caught what he was saying. I don’t think it’s because no one could. It’s just that no one would. Once I was allowed to hear, I myself immediately digested, not words, but fragments of a name repeated between gasps for breath. Saodah.
Two weeks after the hospital gave up and returned Wak Haji Mail to his home, he had yet to be met by Izrail, the angel of death. The fourteen children from his three marriages found it more and more difficult to muffle their anxiety. They took turns keeping vigil outside the room, ready to rebel at an unjust distribution of inheritance. But the distribution couldn’t possibly be just.
After maghrib, Haji Mail opened his eyes and mouth again to speak. An hour later everyone scrambled in until Wak Misnah, Haji Mail’s first wife, grew angry. Fourteen children, together with grandkids, would quickly turn the room into a night market. Wak Misnah drove everyone out and called me in.
“Do you hear?” My aunt asked, half-shouting. I stayed silent for a moment. In front of me, Wak Haji lay like a block of wood. Amidst his heavy breaths, I could only just make out his voice, low and in pain. I nodded in response to Wak Misnah.
“Call her.” My aunt’s voice was quite shaky, to my surprise. What was she worried about?
On the road, I made up for myself a tale of Wak Haji Mail’s unrequited love for Mak Saodah. Just like my love for Aminah.
For a few minutes after I put forth our family request, Mak Saodah remained motionless. I had imagined that she’d quickly tidy herself up and then hop on the back of my motorbike. Even though Wak Haji Mail wielded a machete when it came to requests for alms, all the villagers knew that it was as if Mak Saodah had a magic ingredient to win over misers in the meat and vegetable dishes that she cooked. Not content with setting up a latrine with a septic tank for Mak Saodah, Wak Haji Mail had sent workers to build her a semi-permanent stall, paved the front section of her house in cement, installed electricity, and paid for the education of her five kids all the way up to high school. Last but not least, he donated his second wife’s old refrigerator so that Mak Saodah could make her own ice cubes and ice pops.
Mak Saodah had yet to budge. Her eyes misted and I thought she was moved. Aminah, her eldest daughter, approached. She’d been listening silently in the corner. Now she stroked her mother’s back, soothing her. For a moment Mak Saodah seemed to be grinding her teeth—I wasn’t sure.
Aminah looked at me sharply. I was growing uneasy. Even long before this, her gaze had always made me feel like I was committing a sin. Maybe because impure thoughts are easy to read. This was the first time I’d seen her since arriving back from overseas last week. She was even more beautiful than I remembered.
“Mother refuses. It’s best if you go home,” Aminah said quietly, earnestly.
Her words pierced my heart. I felt a burning in my gut. She’d once said similar words to me. Her language, her phrasing, her tone—they were almost identical. There was only one difference. Previously she’d put forth these words for herself rather than her mother.
I steeled myself and looked into her eyes, trying hard not to succumb to her beauty. In the past, I’d failed, then lowered my head, and dragged my steps home, feeling shattered. I ended up in an arranged marriage with a cousin to whom I had been betrothed so long that I’d forgotten about it. But I found instead, throughout the marriage, that Aminah’s face haunted me. Now I swore, in my heart, Nevermore.
I firmed my resolve. This time I wouldn’t go home empty-handed. At least, I needed to be given a reason. Aminah smiled, rather strangely, as if mocking me. Yes, she was mocking me. Had she mocked me before as well?
“A reason, Minah. At least give me a reason.” I wasn’t sure which situation I was, in fact, referring to.
She looked down, who knows why. She seemed to be pondering the matter briefly before she chose to help her mother to her feet and lead her toward the back, to the kitchen. A moment later, from the kitchen, I heard a roar. Mak Saodah’s voice.
I tried to conjure explanations in my head. Mak Saodah didn’t want to come because she couldn’t accept that her benefactor was near death. She didn’t want everyone to see her this sad. She didn’t want to add to the grief of Haji Mail’s family.
These were strange thoughts, actually. Everyone knew how tough Mak Saodah was. Tough with her customers, tough with the secrets of her kitchen—years of running a food stall in the village hadn’t given her a gift for warmth. The customers called her Mad Mammy and kept going back to her stall simply because her cooking couldn’t be beat. I’d known her almost my whole life and not once had I seen her smile, neither at Haji Mail nor at any other respected people in this village. The local boys nicknamed her The Wicked Witch of the Woods, because when night fell she’d loosen her long hair, and this made her look even more terrifying.
My mind had yet to settle when Aminah came out. Her eyes were red and swollen. I’m sure she’d been crying too. She sat in front of me, but turned around upon hearing shouts from the kitchen. The shouts were followed by a crash of plates. Or perhaps plates being sent crashing.
Aminah looked back again at me, but this time calmly, as calm as her voice as she granted my request. Fragments of a reason, fragments of a story. I wouldn’t understand even long after she had finished. I have no idea whether it was because the story was so difficult and terrible, or because it was accompanied throughout by the sound of smashing plates, while her voice remained as still as a pond.
When I was called in, Wak Misnah was sitting to the left of Haji Mail, on the side with the good ear. I sat down yet couldn’t help but feel anxious.
Haji Mail mumbled for a long while, all strength sapped. Wak Misnah tilted her head down close to his mouth. Then, uncertainly, she leaned in tight to the miser’s ear and asked a question in response. He again muttered unintelligibly, but my aunt seemed to understand. She cleared her throat and nodded.
“What did Saodah say?” she asked me, almost hollering. Even though she’d received the answer half an hour ago, her question didn’t seem at all out of place.
I knew that again I would stutter my response, or worse. Panicking, I babbled out jumbled, chaotic sentences, like a kid learning to talk. Luckily, Wak Misnah took pains to straighten out the confusion I’d created. She repeated what I was trying to convey in the miser’s ear aloud, as she’d done for the last 10 years.
“Anything else?” my aunt snapped.
I tried to choke out an answer but then simply shook my head. In between that sputtering and head shake, I thought of revealing the secret Aminah had shared with me. A secret that was not entirely clear because she’d only sketched it in outline. Haji Mail had sinned against Mak Saodah. Her husband, Aminah’s father, had been slandered as an apostate, an infidel, a heathen. A heretic, ostracised by the villagers like a leper, and left to die in shame.
I thought about this as I heard Haji Mail’s moan—moans that were long, pained and painful. I was sure that I’d made the right decision. There was no need to say anything. Haji Mail remembered.
Fifteen minutes later, after conveying a message that only his wife could hear, Haji Mail departed, together with the fragments of his memories. I saw him draw his last breath, a protracted, slow exhalation that seemed to release a tiresome life. Goosebumps rose on my skin. I had just been in the same room with Izrail. Wak Misnah was still working to confirm her husband’s last wish, bellowing questions into the ear of someone who had just passed on.
Early in the morning, after dawn prayers, I returned to Mak Saodah’s house, my emotions in a tangle. Dealing with Mak Saodah terrified me, but going home without making an effort to face Wak Misnah was no less frightening. Stammering, I forced myself to deliver Haji Mail’s last wish.
Mak Saodah listened to my request calmly. I can’t describe my sense of relief at her nod. She rose from her seat. Gone was the old woman who needed support last night as she went to the kitchen. Instead, Mak Saodah was full of vigour. Once in the kitchen, she drew the curtain behind her to cover the doorway. Her shadow loomed large against the cloth.
Aminah stayed with me. From what I could tell, Mak Saodah had yet to allow her to set foot in the kitchen. Working alone to fulfil the late Wak Haji’s request, Mak Saodah hurried to prepare food for the hundreds who would attend the memorial service later that night.
The half-full glass of tea in front of me beckoned me to sit and stay. Besides, I didn’t know where to go. The service would take place after sunset. Returning to my aunt’s house would pollute my thoughts, not cleanse them. My fourteen cousins had become uncontrollable. Fighting could not be put off any longer.
Aminah’s mood seemed a little brighter. I considered asking if she had indeed worked as a cook overseas, and if it was true, as people said, that she didn’t want to return to this village to live.
Clearing my throat awkwardly, I made a gambit for conversation. “I heard you told Mak to stop running the stall, Minah.”
Aminah looked at me, seemingly pleased with my question, and nodded. “Yes, but she refused.”
Aminah’s smile disappeared, but her eyes remained wide. She seemed to pause in thought for a moment. “Mak said that running the stall gives her a reason to live.”
“Running the stall?”
Aminah reconsidered her answer. A moment later she appeared to find more appropriate words. “No, not running the stall. Cooking for the villagers. Yes, that’s what saved her.” Aminah’s voice trailed off briefly. She stared off into the distance as she muttered, “That’s what saved me.”
Her statement confused me. If the story Aminah told yesterday was true, wasn’t the entire village a hell for Mak Saodah?
I sat in silence for a long while and tried to resolve my confusion. Ten minutes later, it seemed that pity was growing in Aminah for my obvious bafflement. She called me closer. I bounded over, but she quickly put an index finger to her lips, her eyes widening with provocative mischief. I softened my steps and approached without a word, as she hunched near the kitchen curtain. A memory flashed of us both, eight-year-old kids, tiptoeing to peek at Mak Saodah two decades ago. Back then, Mak Saodah had yelled at us before we’d even reached the curtain. This time the shout did not come. I bent down behind Aminah. We were close, so close to each other. I could see the nape of her neck under the coil of her locks, inhale the scent of her body, her hair. Her throat, ready to drown me within its hollows. I felt intoxicated, in disbelief. Excitement surged. My heart pounded. Aminah’s beautiful fingers drew back the kitchen curtain.
Out of the corner of my eye I spied Mak Saodah at work, chopping ingredients, preparing the fire, putting spices into a pan. It took me a few seconds to realize exactly what was so peculiar. Mak Saodah kept spitting on the food as she worked. Then my attention was diverted by Aminah turning toward me, seeming to sense my breath too close and warm on her cheek. I was dumbstruck and at that moment let out my question in a whisper. The old question I’d long buried and thought I’d never ask again.
“Minah, why did you reject my proposal?”
I don’t remember if Aminah answered, because what I then saw in the kitchen stunned me.
Mak Saodah was lifting her sarong high over her knees and, half-squatting, straddled a pot whose contents were on the boil. Her face, a bizarre combination of exertion and hatred, was bloodcurdling. A second later, from where she stood came a familiar sound, a whiz of liquid plashing into a pot. Mak Saodah spat into it for good measure.
The hiss and gurgle had yet to finish when Mak Saodah’s eyes pierced me with a sharp stare.
After the memorial service dispersed, I sat next to Wak Misnah. I had to listen to her pious admonitions as I helped her distribute the bamboo containers of food. Her advice had become absurd, but my aunt seemed eager to ramble incoherently to stave off distress. Two of her children had been on the verge of murdering each other that very afternoon.
Even though I know these two teachings like the back of my hand, I realized that I’d never understood them as fully as I did now. First, as she reminded me: there are 42 types of madness among humans. “If you want to understand everything, just think of your elder, the late Haji Ismail, and what he did.” Second: human madness has long been segregated. Madmen in the streets, madwomen in the kitchen. “That’s why none of you have ever understood. Don’t go thinking you’re smarter than this old auntie of yours, or I’ll poison you to death.”
As far as I’m concerned, though, being poisoned alive is much more gruesome.
Ugoran Prasad is a cross-medium fictionist and performance researcher. He is a resident dramaturg of an experimental theatre collective, Teater Garasi and a founding member and performing-lyricist for an independent rock band, Melancholic Bitch. He is currently completing his doctorate in Theatre and Performance at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
Stephen J. Epstein is the Director of the Asian Languages and Cultures Programme at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and served as the 2013–14 President of the New Zealand Asian Studies Society. He has published widely on contemporary Korean society, literature and popular culture and translated numerous pieces of Korean and Indonesian fiction.
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