With the Jakarta Good Food Guide, Laksmi Pamuntjak proved that a restaurant
guide can become a bestseller when it is entertainingly written. An author and
food critic, Laksmi is regular contributor to Tempo magazine with columns and
articles on politics, literature and music. She has also written for The Jakarta
Post, the socio-economic journal Prisma, Djakarta! lifestyle magazine and Forum
Keadilan news magazine, and was formerly the movie and the restaurant reviewer
for The Jakarta Post and the resident food columist for Djakarta! magazine. She
edited, translated and launched Goenawan Mohamad: Selected Poems and is a co-
founder of the bilingual bookstore Aksara, in Jakarta. Her first collection of poetry,
Ellipsis, has just been published. Laksmi is also an accomplished classical pianist.
Has nothing changed?
Oil lamps and torch lights catching
ellipsis in mid-flight,
preventing her from reaching the
moon: zinged, already, by birds on heat.
Baked now, in the sun.
Flayed to pith
but hiding nothing.
Certainty makes fools of us.
She doesn't know her crime,
only that she enjoys the increments
of the four seasons,
and the folds of unswept beaches -
No one telling you whether to sink
And now the first waves of shadow
roll across the square. The fire-folks are gone
and the moon is the white of Pierrot.
In the morning there will be a sentence;
a full sentence at last -
as if things were any different spelt out
from what is more or less known.
A wise woman once wrote that there are some smells that have the power to summon intact a whole period of one's life, in the same way that people talk about houses having a distinct smell, particularly the house of one's childhood. The house I grew up in, the one to which I was always made to return, curiously didn't have that: that familiar odor, that evocative link with things past.
What it had was a sigh, exhaled a million times over, by things seen, heard, but not acknowledged; tiny, tiny things that worked their dust through my diaphragm, up the rib cage into my lungs, making it difficult to breathe. People, movements, things placed a certain way. Traipsing next to the reclining chair, hoping to find my father asleep, my mother in a sea of cushions and homemade snacks in jars. The huge television set, witness of our prime time lives.
The servants, tightlipped, stock-still, faces warped in time, like props in a lifetime play. Bent on all fours, on the wings, standing by, waiting, always waiting, for the right time. And their tragic gazes, always turned away from me, from them. I'd like to think them sad, suffering creatures, yearning to be free. But they stayed. And stayed. And made me wonder why I didn't. Didn't want to.
What it also had was a taste, of refried rendang, caramel-crusted and fussy; of pink roast beef with honeyed vegetables and parboiled potatoes sauteed in butter until golden brown. The taste of sweet, delayed payoffs.
The dinner table - a sight, exact and unchanging. Its configuration, its accoutrements, its primness: to the left of the head, the red plastic pitcher; to the left of each chair the water bowl. The dog, that inevitable affirmation of life: the black one, the only one, lapping my crummy breakfast down beneath.
It had contours, faces.
And yet no smell.
Upstairs, the "new" room by the laundry: how many times have I watched the lance of sunlight forcing itself in, felt the sweltering outside blowing its zeal into the room? How many times have I watched that tennis court: different faces, the same postcard picture - my parents' friends, adults, strangers, they are all adults, maybe all adults are strangers - a bunch of people playing ball, and then, then, their tails at the rear of their sad, stupid lives, lumbering away in fancy cars into trophy homes into cold rooms onto parched beds. How many times? Yet it was part of the whole thing, these tiny, oblivious efforts, part of the harried stasis, the perpetual running on the spot. I could never see any clear break from one phase to another, until I broke it, broke it well and good.
Often I would be gone, but never just gone, because I would be back eventually, back upstairs, in the "new" room by the laundry. I would go over the same things, the rain stains, the sag beneath an immaculate mattress, the whitecaps of peeled paint on the window jambs, the paintings, sketches, dart targets I did not choose canted at an odd angle, imparting nothing. The slouch of entropy everywhere.
And still no smell.
The Love Motel
The following night, they went back to the love motel on the farthest side of town from where they lived to order the bubur ayam. Fucking came second on the agenda, because technically they could do it everywhere now that they were so nowhere yet everywhere, if you get the drift; besides, it had been, after all, five years.
The bubur ayam was 14,000 rupiah a portion, relatively cheap for indoor rates, and it was so deep-tasting and serious it knocked them silly the first time that they had forgotten all about the first desire. The broth reeked of garlic and oil so fragrant, could it be some sort of sesame, or coconut, or with Chinese wine thrown in, whatever it was it wasn't the sort of show of goodwill they were used to in this part of town. The chicken was of the Hainanese kind, boiled to perfect moist tenderness with just a hint of ginger, the fried peanuts a sybarite of salt and spice. And there, wedged between the parsley, the spring onions and the fried shallots was the omelet, rolled and sugared like tamago. Though they were suckers for Chinese food, they were both Javanese and quick to appreciate sweetness in unexpected places.
Such so that they did not sleep, preferring to get their fill and refill in the six times two witching hours between sundown and sunrise, matched lust for lust. And for the first time, she did not, at the end of it all, stare into the bed-length mirrors, her breath not yet dried up, to be told something other than what she saw and believed to be the truth.
For the first time, she saw a woman sated, and that between the self and the mirror there was no alternative story.
Back to Front.