After my widowed grandmother lost her only son in the second world war, she often asked to take care of her neighbours’ children. Although she often refused, her neighbours often provided groceries such as milk and rice and even a little money for taking care of their children when they were working. Children soon became a regular feature in the large panggung house that her husband had left her; there were so many of them that she could not keep count, or even remember which child belonged to which neighbour.
One night, when all the children had left with their parents and the house fell silent again, my grandmother went to the kitchen for some water. She found a fair-skinned little girl, no older than two or three years old, clutching a small pillow by herself in a corner. My grandmother thought she was not likely to be any of the neighbours’ children and since she had big eyes, she thought it was unlikely that the girl was Chinese.
My grandmother allowed the little girl to stay for the night, thinking that her parents might have been delayed and it would be too late to take her home. In those days, kampongs were not very well lit at night, and everyone returned home before dark, or they had to risk a long, dark and treacherous dirt path from the main road, fraught with potholes, ghosts and the prospect of angry elders.
But a day passed, and another. Children and their parents came and went, but no one claimed the little girl. This girl was my aunt, the eldest in the family. My grandmother had started to adopt a few other girls: first my stepmother, and then two others. Much later she discovered that my aunt was half Japanese and her mother, a comfort woman during the second world war had left her at my grandmother’s house before committing suicide at a nearby river. My stepmother was Chinese. She did not tell me very much about her family except that they were probably massacred by the Japanese when she was a child.
My eldest aunt worked very hard to support the family. By now she was 16 and working as a helper in a school office in the day. At night, she had to take care of my step mother and my two other aunts, one Indian Muslim and the youngest, a Javanese girl who was still in primary school. My aunt was overstretched and exhausted even when my stepmother was helping her with her household chores.
One day, a couple came to see my grandmother looking very distraught. The lady had a two or three year old boy with her who sat on her lap. My aunt, who was eavesdropping on their conversation, discovered that they were no relatives of my grandmother, but who had heard of her kindness to children, and intended to leave the little boy with her.
My grandmother looked up to see my eldest aunt behind the curtain, who shook her head vehemently even when she was retreating into the room, hoping my grandmother would not adopt the boy. But it was too late, his parents soon left without him. He did not cry when his parents left. Perhaps he thought they were coming back for him.
My eldest aunt was used to bathing, feeding and dressing girls. So when it was time for the latest addition to shower, she grimaced at the thought of having to wash the boy’s delicate member and would rather not touch him at all. My grandmother bathed the boy for a few days but soon insisted that she took over.
My eldest aunt dragged the boy to the latrine by the hand and made him squat over the hole, pouring water over him and scrubbing him hard with a bar of soap. Suddenly there was the first soft waft of the smell of rotting kangkong to which the boy grinned, then two soft plops into the latrine.
In exasperation, my aunt grabbed hold of a coconut husk brush and started scraping his bottom lightly to ease it of faecal stains at first, thinking that he was done. But the smell intensified, and a soft brown dollop landed on the brush. The little boy grinned once more at her. This made her angry.
My aunt rolled up her sleeves and grabbed a towel soaked with water and rubbed him there so hard that he began to scream. His tender young member and testicles were chafed raw for a few days afterwards.
It was a story that my aunt often reminded my uncle of when he stepped out of line.