She looked at the child in her lap with a maternal light in her eyes. Beautiful music can be created, eternally enduring paintings have been based on the theme of the mother with a child in her arms.
Bright weather welcomed the birth of a child. But to Imah none of the beauty was meant for her. Her young life had been shrouded in dark clouds.
Her eyes glistened as she looked into the clear eyes of the sweet baby with its ruddy face. Without a word, I sat down next to her.
We looked at the large yard of this 'hostel'. As far as the eye could see, all around in every direction, walls stood tall separating us from freedom.
'What name have you given the little one, Imah?'
'Prihatin!1 Because she was born in the midst of distress without a father or a family!'
'Tell me about it if you want to unburden your heart a little.'
'Thank you, if you really wish to listen to a bitter tale that will probably bore you.'
She heaved a deep sigh. Her lips trembled as she started.
'As you know, I was born in a village on the slopes of Mount Cerme. My parents were poor peasants. The eldest of seven children, I was going on thirteen at the time. Of course, the little bit of food divided amongst seven mouths meant that we often went to bed with rumbling stomachs.
Mother was very weak from bringing up the children and helping in the fields, so that she pushed me to take work as a servant in the city to add to our earnings so my younger brothers and sisters would not go hungry.
Thus I was taken by a neighbour to the city of Cirebon and worked in a restaurant owned by Mistress Munah. Sure enough there was never an end to the work at the restaurant, washing dishes, shelling coconuts, serving the customers. There was hardly even time to shower or rest. It was midnight before I went to bed to awaken before dawn to boil the water.
I was used to hard work since childhood in the village. At the time of Lebaran I visited my village. This really was a special joy for me. I brought new clothes for my brothers and sisters, kain2 for mother and sarong3 for father. I was so very happy!
Years went by and I was growing up, going on sixteen.
Although I had no time to make myself pretty, yet in the mirror on the wall of our little restaurant I saw the reflection of a girl with a pretty nose, and wide eyes. I began to realise that the skinny dark village girl had changed.
The male customers of the restaurant started to stare at me when I was serving food and drink. Sometimes they'd leave the change on the table, 'That's for you, kid', they said. Not just the customers of the restaurant, but even Master Adi, the Mistress' son who was studying in Jakarta, started to pay attention to me. He was a head-strong youth, spoilt by Mistress Munah, the rich widow who owned the restaurant.
Often Master Adi came home and returned to Jakarta with lots of money. The mistress merely shook her head.
But what could you say - he was a handsome youth, I a teenage girl and we were attracted to each other. He was clever at persuasion, at flattery and I bowed to his wishes, even when he took away my virginity when the mistress was at a party in a different area of the city.
Deep in my heart there were doubts: would the master keep his promise to marry me legally? The distance was so great between the master and the domestic servant , the poor kitchen maid. But I loved him, and all hesitation vanished in the warmth of his embrace. There was no thought for the future, only the present with its beauty of love, even though that love was a secret.
But the holidays ended and Adi had to return to Jakarta. He left me his address, so that I could find him in case of any problem.
Days went by, then months. I had missed my periods for three months and my face was growing pale, I was bilious every morning. So the mistress was suspicious.
When finally one morning I just had to vomit, the mistress confronted me angrily.
'Imah, you are definitely pregnant. You've shamed your family. Who was it? You ungrateful child. What will your father and mother say?'
The lady was terribly angry. Her eyes opened wide as if to swallow me. I could not restrain my tears any longer.
'Come on, who is he . . . I am going to force him to marry you.'
What was there to say? 'Master Adi . . .! ' I faltered between sobs. The mistress' amazement was beyond expression. Her only child, the sole heir of her wealth, a future judge and pride of the whole family. Mistress Munah's arrogant face went red, then it turned pale. She struck my cheek with all her might sending my head crashing against the floor.
'How clever of you to slander my child - that's impossible!', she screamed.
'You filth . . . you whore ... tomorrow you leave ...get that!'
The sky shattered and the earth trembled, all my dreams vanished .. . there was nobody who could protect me.
That night I made up my mind to go toJakarta, although I had not received my pay.
That night the Devil led me to break into the safe with the key which Master Adi often used to steal money from his mother. I put a bunch of thousand and ten-thousand rupiah notes into my purse and went quickly to the bus station which was full of people.
It was quite late in the day when I got to Jakarta. My head throbbed: thief - thief!
After searching for a long time I finally got to the house where Master Adi lived. The lady, the owner of the house, said that Master Adi had gone on a trip with Ningsih, his fiance.
Oh . . . my body felt so weak, it was as if it had lost every ounce of strength, as if had been struck by a stone, I nearly fainted. I was just a scrap of rubbish, thrown away like a dry piece of sugar-cane after all the sweetness had been sucked out.
And so it was that when they got back they found me unconscious in front of the house. Master Adi pretended there was nothing between him and I. 'Yes . .. this is Imah, my mother's house-maid. What is the matter ... ?'
Since that moment it has been like a nightmare. Master Adi had only been playing games with me. There was no love ... only desire. I was like an owl longing for the moon.
The ravine that separated Master Adi from me was too deep.
That night the police arrested me. Apparently Mistress Munah had reported the theft and had guessed that I would go to Jakarta. I confessed everything, but no one believed that I was pregnant to Master Adi. Before the interrogators Master Adi went even so far as to say that I was a bad girl who played around with the customers at his mother's restaurant.
Even in the court there was nothing in my defence. I was a thief . . . two-hundred thousand rupiah ... the gavel came down and I was sentenced to six months in prison.
There's no need to expand on the story of my miserable fate behind these walls. I was still sane enough not to kill the child I was carrying. I have friends here as unfortunate as me who have got two or three year sentences for killing a child unwanted by father or mother.
Imah paused for a moment to kiss the baby in her lap.
'Whatever may have been the cause he has now been born. Doesn't he too have a right to live?'
But soon I am going to be free. But little Adi . . . What am I going to do with him? I suffered so much pain to give birth to him, he is part of my soul. Every bit of my love I have poured on him. But I will not be able to nurture him. I will have to work again as a maid. And no one will take me in with a baby in my arms. Whether in a home or factory or just washing dishes in a restaurant, I will have to give him away to somebody who wants to bring him up.
He did not ask to be born, yet God has given him the spirit of life. I have to be separated from my child ... Not that I don't love him!
Tears rolled down moistening her face. She kissed the little thing passionately.
'I understand, Imah. Let him go to parents who will love him, put him through school until he becomes an adult. Let us pray that he may be better than his irresponsible father, may he become a judge who is just and wise . . .'
We prayed in silence.
1 The Indonesian word 'prihatin' means concerned or apprehensive.
2 The celebrations at the end of the Islamic fasting month.
3 A long piece of material worn by Javanese women as a skirt.
Translated by Krishna Sen