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Imagining Modern Indonesia via Autobiography
Personal narratives have deep public resonance in twentieth-century Indonesia, where the process of growing to adulthood and traversing a life is often recalled in terms similar to those used to think about society and the past in a more general sense. In the cosmopolitan, city-based national culture and in many Indonesian ethnic minority societies (the country has over three hundred of these, based in rural, village regions), telling a life unavoidably also involves telling history in terms of passages through ages of time and transitions between levels of consciousness and social awareness. Indonesian narrators of both public and private histories tend to draw on the same lode of symbols about eras, times of darkness and light, maturation, and growth toward greater intellectual awareness from an earlier age of social obtuseness and ignorance. In other words, Indonesian historical memory and personal memory are both animated by certain closely related key scenarios and social images, and societal histories and personal narratives interpenetrate. They also draw on each other’s storehouses of aesthetic richness and emerge as deeper, more meaningful social texts because of that. Put another way, art animates the telling of history at both the public and personal levels in unusually thoroughgoing ways in this uncommonly time-conscious country.
This interpenetration of autobiographical memory and public history seems to be particularly acute for Indonesians who were born during the first two and three decades of this century. These men and women often attended Dutch-administered elementary and secondary schools in the 1920s or 1930s—a bittersweet experience that gave them their first personal taste of life in the European-dominated, colonial Indies. As young
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adults these men and women saw the archipelago abruptly seized by the Japanese forces in 1942; this extraordinary generation then went on to help the Indonesian national revolutionary effort in the late 1940s in their individual ways, in their diverse ethnic societies, or in more cross-culturally mixed cities. If they enjoyed a long life, they then went on to suffer or savor other major eras of Indonesian time: the Sukarno years of prideful nationalism and political chaos, and since 1965, the more stable, Jakarta-focused, fervid economic developmentalism of the Soeharto regime. Indonesians born early in the century know well that their individual lives and their family memories hold these larger eras’ historical imprints deep within them in vibrant ways.
Taking advantage of this situation, this book presents the first English translations of two modestly phrased yet superbly insightful childhood memoirs from Sumatra, both published soon after the Indonesian Revolution (1945–49), which liberated the island chain from Dutch control. The memoirs, which are both written in the national language, Indonesian, are P. Pospos’s Aku dan Toba: Tjatatan dari Masa Kanak-Kanak (Me and Toba: Notes from Childhood Times ) and Muhamad Radjab’s Semasa Kecil di Kampung (Village Childhood ). Both published in 1950 and written outside Sumatra, in Java, during the Revolution, the autobiographies recall childhoods spent in late colonial times, from roughly 1915 through the 1930s. The Pospos book is set in Toba (one of the rural home regions of the Batak peoples in North Sumatra) while the Radjab memoir is set in Minangkabau, in West Sumatra. In reconstructing their boyhood selves and in writing about their remembered passage from childhood to maturity in the colonial Indies’ final, unsettled decades, the authors of these two small books were also writing about much larger issues, such as national Indonesian society’s own journey toward revolution and independence from an age of colonial subjugation and what these memoirists portray as an era of pervasive intellectual naïveté clouding the lives and social perspectives of Indonesian villagers and townspeople. Recalling the personal past, for these memoirists, becomes a witty but bitter effort of actively creating the public future, and trying to imagine an Indonesian national society of deep self-consciousness, social awareness, and religious sophistication. The extent to which the nascent Indonesian national society surrounding them in 1950 actually conformed to these ideals the authors leave as an open topic.
Writing of themselves, though, the two writers chronicle Sumatran childhood worlds and states of Toba and Minangkabau village consciousness which lead (by the time the remembered children reach the threshold of adulthood) to mature selves who hold strikingly cosmopolitan, self-critical, and socially critical views of their village ethnic universes. By the time they are seventeen or so, the boys have almost become ethnographers of their
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home ethnic realms and also of those Sumatran worlds’ senses of time, place, language, society, and person. By the end of each narrative, the stories’ new almost-adults look toward the rantau (the social and moral precincts outside the Sumatran rural ethnic home regions) with a sense that these polyglot areas contain a future that will bring personal and public liberation from the shackles of “unthinking traditionalism.” Modern Indonesia lies out there, the memoirists aver, in the hearts and minds of young people. That is, among sophisticated school graduates like the two authors and their implied readers, all of whom live away from a village home and the past, in Indonesia and the future. One of the great strengths of these autobiographies, in fact, is their catalysis of very common twentieth-century Sumatran assumptions about history and place (about the past and the future, about an ethnic village home counterposed to a cosmopolitan, distant rantau) into the publically accessible aesthetic form of the printed boyhood memoir about personal, seemingly modest journeys to adulthood.[1]
At the same time they are chronicling these changes in their remembered childhood selves (and advocating, although, they know, hardly guaranteeing similar changes for Indonesian society as a whole), the memoirists also write by implication about the challenging linguistic task of recording personal memories and larger social portraits in print and prose. The authors do this in a knowing way, against a background of Sumatra’s long-established, eloquent traditions for orally evoking the past. For centuries, Sumatran ethnic societies (see maps) have employed such genres as sung or droned chronicles, oral epics, and chanted clan genealogies to recreate a supernaturally powerful past. Some of these histories are recited in association with magically charged script texts, barkbooks, bone reliquaries, funerary obelisks, or sacred clan heirlooms. Pospos and Radjab are quite self-conscious about writing printed personal narratives in a modernist key, against this sometimes oral, sometimes sacred-text-oriented and certainly much more communal background. They invite their readers to share in their linguistic “maturity” in this effort. The memoirists’ consistently self-deprecatory and often ironic tone is central to their vision of writing in general, and to their understanding of Indonesian historical writing in particular. The authors know they are writing “minor lives,” not chronicles of prominent nationalist figures; propagandistic prose and hortatory history become impossible in this prose climate.
Beyond presenting my translations of these books in part 2, I also offer an interpretive reading of them in this introductory essay. As an anthropologist concerned with issues of modernity and tradition as these ideas have been constructed in twentieth-century Sumatran social thought (and particularly via popular media forms such as printed leisure-time literature),[2] I am convinced that these memoirs should be appreciated as gentle but nonetheless quite profound texts about revolutionary ways of thinking
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about Indonesian history. These small books can be read, I think, as building blocks in the country’s effort to invent Indonesia, as an imagined community, as Benedict Anderson has set out that idea in his book Imagined Communities (1983).
Anderson asserts that modern printed popular literary forms such as novels and newspapers can foster new ways of thinking about social community in societies fragmented into separate ethnic worlds, in colonial empires. Modern literature allows readers and writers to imagine new national communities, with greatly expanded social horizons and more secular time frameworks than those available in oral media forms such as clan genealogies, or in written, script texts such as court chronicles, which themselves have heavy oral residues. Newspapers and novels encourage readers (Anderson asserts) to imagine a complex but interactive social world surrounding them, full of diverse planes of discourse and their correspondingly diverse moral worlds. These publication forms also lead readers to think of themselves as existing in so-called real, secular time, from which vantage point they can ‘look back’ to their society’s earlier ‘more mythic’ modes of apprehending and telling history. The latter mythic forms emerge as entertaining (or sometimes, ethnographically diverting) forms of older “oral literature,” in this new, ‘more knowing’ perspective. The self-consciously sophisticated reader of newspapers or novels, Anderson goes on, is also able to stand back from the flow of simultaneous events occurring at different spots in the world and work to integrate this variegated timescape into a single consistent realm, in relation to his or her own perspective, as reader. Finally, the imagined time and place of novels and newspapers makes the imagined community of the nation thinkable (1983, 31). Both worlds (the one in leisure-time print literature and the one imagined in a nascent national society) are essentially fictional ones, being composed of persons the reader or citizen will never be able to actually meet in person.
Popular literature forms such as the childhood autobiographies at issue here seem to me to promote the same variety of innovative social thought, and a special, almost seditious critical perspective (cloaked inside innocuous-looking boyhood memories) in cultures such as Revolutionary-era ethnic worlds like Toba and Minangkabau, and in their overseas diaspora communities in cities in Java. Pospos and Radjab seemed to have intuitively grasped the fact that childhood memoirs about the 1920s and 1930s were perfect vehicles for imagining a nation through print literature.
I assert all this, well aware of the fact that some deconstructionist critics of Indonesian literature might prefer to see texts such as the two translated here as bereft of larger social meanings, and as examples of the play of language per se, independent of hidden social semantics of the sort I perceive.[3] I also make my admittedly ambitious claim that these memoirs
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are “about history” and about the Indonesian national enterprise despite the fact that previous commentators on these two particular autobiographies (such as G. W. J. Drewes, in his 1951 essay “Autobiografieen van Indonesiers”) have considered these books to be well written but fairly limited, minor portraits of recollected childhoods. In other words, most other researchers have seen these books as being more in the nature of reminiscences of childhood per se than important historical statements. In my reading (and I would speculate that this would also be true for the books’ authors and for some of their more thoughtful readers), these tales of 1920s and 1930s childhood days spent in out-of-the-way Sumatran villages and school towns point beyond the surface meanings of their texts toward wider arenas of Indonesian social thought. The autobiographies seem to me to be about large issues of language, meaning, religious speech and action, public memory, private lives, “ethnic tradition,” and “Indonesian modernity”—although on the surface the books are indeed simple chronicles of childhood experiences.
These autobiographies are also deeply political, despite the fact that the narratives do not mention major national figures such as Sukarno or Mohammad Hatta (Indonesia’s first president and vice president, the latter a Minangkabau man), nor do they dwell on the nationalist movements of the 1920s and 1930s (which had Sumatra as a major regional base),[4] nor do they deal to any extent with Holland/Indies political relations in the late colonial decades. This period, which of course provided the time frame for the authors’ stories, was the time when student political clubs, Islamic unions, merchants’ groups, and loose-knit communities of intellectuals were attempting to lay the organizational groundwork for the Indies’ eventual independence from the Dutch. Much nationalist activity along these lines took place in Toba and Minangkabau during this period. But, most of the action in the two memoirs is concerned with the minor emotional dramas of two village boys’ lives as they navigate successively larger and larger realms of familial, religious, and schoolroom experience. Nevertheless, by describing such minor journeys, the books are about the very heart of Indonesia’s effort to create itself as a modern nation. That is, these memoirs are records of individual passages toward states of consciousness in which people can question the ideological givens of village life, the received truths of organized religion, and village notions of time and society, and then go on to “migrate toward” (a major image for Sumatran writers) the new imagined community of Indonesia, as a multiethnic nation created by the conscious cooperative work of patriots drawn from these two authors’ own exact generation. Note how this vision of “growing up toward Indonesia” and toward the rantau and toward critical forms of consciousness goes far beyond some simple political or military resistance to Dutch oppression. Revolution for these authors means a revolution of the spirit, an
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invention of modern Indonesia—and resistance to and overthrow of the Dutch colonial state is only one constituent part of this larger, deeper transformation of thought and “revolution of eras.” It is also important to note that this action takes place not in mythic time but in secular time, with people actively intervening in history to channel its course and control its pace—and to astutely record its passage, in print. Few artists’ efforts could be more revolutionary than this; few could be more deeply Indonesian.
It seems to me that much important Indonesian thought about nationhood and about the critical late colonial decades in places like North and West Sumatra is often phrased in just such personalized terms as these. My own life history interviews with elderly rajas (ceremonial chiefs) and refired schoolteachers in the Angkola Batak area near Sipirok, for instance, often include a similar evocation of revolutionary national history through personal recollections of life journeys very similar to those Pospos and Radjab write about. Public evocations of certain poignant, painful emotional states relating to individual lives as they were lived during these pivotal decades may work, I suspect, as a sort of coded language for talking about the larger and more overtly political transformation of the colonial Indies into an independent Indonesia. This convergence of personal and public memory is of course what makes the study of twentieth-century autobiography in the country so important. (And what makes oral history work so crucial today, before this older generation of men and women born between 1910 and 1920 dies without telling their stories. Few of these people had access to print publication, as Pospos and Radjab did.)
It is intriguing, also, to see that there are striking parallels between the emotional worlds of childhood created in these two autobiographies and the childhood lives described in other personal memoirs of late colonial and early nationalist times. Moreover, there are marked similarities between the emotional terrain of our two childhood biographies and the fictional world of Indonesia’s finest modern writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. This is particularly true of his short stories about the Japanese occupation and the national revolution in his collection Tjerita dari Blora (Stories from Blora, 1952). A reading of the social, personal, and temporal imagery of the Pospos and Radjab memoirs will provide a means to begin to suggest reasons for these concordances across the literary scene of 1930s–1950s fiction and nonfiction in the country, although a deep consideration of the parallels between Indonesian fiction and these two memoirs is much beyond the scope of this essay. But first, some background to my reading of the memoirs’ imagery: a short discussion of the texts and their authors, and the ethnic societies surrounding them, and then a consideration of autobiographical writing within Indonesian and Malay historical traditions. This is already a well-researched topic (see, for instance, Sweeney
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1980a, 1980b, 1990; Reid 1972; Watson 1989. Drewes’s 1961 Hikayat Nakhoda Muda, De Biografie van een Minangkabausen Peperhandelaar [The biography of a Minangkabau pepper trader] offers a useful comparative text, although the piece is a biography, not an autobiography).
The Texts and Their Authors
P. Pospos’s Me and Toba: Notes from Childhood Times was published by the government printing house Balai Pustaka in 1950. Muhamad Radjab’s Village Childhood appeared, as noted, in the same year, again under Balai Pustaka auspices. The very existence of this publishing house was itself part and parcel of the political and artistic creation of Indonesia (Teeuw 1967:13–15; Drewes 1981). Begun in 1908 by the Dutch colonial administration as an organ for publishing high-quality works of fiction and folklore in refined, grammatically elegant Indonesian, by the 1920s Balai Pustaka had developed into a major venue for popular literature, particularly “journey novels” turning on love-story themes. In their Indonesian-language book list, the house published works that directly engaged issues of Indies modernity: the strains and pressures of life in big multiethnic cities; love marriages versus arranged matches, based on family alliance considerations; and the emotional turmoil of educated young people caught between village tradition and cosmopolitan school experiences and careers in the more Europeanized sectors of society. A number of Balai Pustaka novels (most of them by Minangkabau authors) enjoyed wide circulation among the educated classes in both Java and Sumatra. These novels included Abdul Muis’s Salah Asuhan (Wrong upbringing), 1928; Marah Rusli’s Sitti Nurbaya (S. Nurbaya is a girl’s name), 1922; and Nur Sutan Iskandar’s Salah Pilih (Wrong choice), 1928. The boys in Pospos’s and Radjab’s childhood memoirs were presented as avid readers of such Balai Pustaka novels; these love-story books, in fact, form a constant backdrop to much later Sumatran fiction and nonfiction writing.
Both of the boyhood memoirs, as noted, were written in the rantau, outside Sumatra, during the revolution years. The volumes were published in Jakarta in Indonesia’s first year of independent existence. The early 1950s saw the publication of two other similar childhood recollections, set in the same time as that of our two autobiographies. These works were the prominent Minangkabau novelist Nur Sutan Iskandar’s Pengalaman Masa Kecil (Childhood experiences), 1948, and the Muslim religious essayist Hamka’s Kenang-Kenangan Hidup (Life memories), 1951–52. The first volume of this latter memoir deals largely with Hamka’s younger years, although the set is rarely labeled a childhood memoir per se. After this early 1950s period, childhood memoirs receded from view as an impor-
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tant genre of modern Indonesian letters. Why this was so is a puzzle to which I hope students of later Indonesian literary periods will address themselves. This present essay will, at least, shed some light on the fact that childhood memoir publishing emerged with special force right after the Revolution. A related topic is the remarkable similarity of all these memoirs to Indonesia’s first full-blown modern autobiography, the nationalist leader Dr. Soetomo’s Kenang-Kenangan (Memories, 1934).
This is a similarity to which we can turn momentarily. But what of the two men who wrote the two extraordinary books translated here? Pospos recently retired from a career as an editor in a Christian publishing house in Jakarta. Radjab died in 1970, after long service as a newspaperman, essayist, social commentator, and university lecturer in Jakarta. Neither man is nor was an especially prominent public figure, at least in the sense that neither was a major politician, nor is either writer seen today as an important professional historian (although Radjab did publish several popular histories and folklore books on Sumatra and Sulawesi). In 1950, each man was just launching his career in the world of print. Pospos was thirty-one years old and working in Jakarta as a high school teacher; Radjab, at age thirty-seven, was employed as a newspaper editor for Indonesia Raya , also in the capital.
Each of the writers had already led an extraordinarily literate and even text-obsessed life by the early 1950s. After the publication of their childhood reminiscences, each author continued this trajectory into Indonesia’s print culture. In a pattern typical of many Sumatrans of their generation who were educated in colonial-era schools and who came from ethnic societies, like Toba and Minangkabau, fascinated with the printed word, Pospos and Radjab spent their careers using books and newspapers to expand literacy’s scope into public intellectual discourse for the new nation. And, in a poignant way, both men succeeded in having just the sort of literate, secular career that (as we shall soon see) they were struggling toward as children.
P. Pospos, whose real name is P.S. Naipospos (Paian Sihar Naipospos) was born to a family of modest means and social standing on October 9, 1919, in Tapanuli (in the subprovince now known as North Tapanuli). His only published work is Me and Toba . In July 15, 1987, and August 22, 1987, letters to me, Pospos writes that after attending Schakelschool (a private, proprietary elementary school that did not use Dutch) and H.I.S. (a Dutch-language primary school) in the Balige area (a heardand Toba region) he went on to the Christian MULO school in Tarutung. This market town was an administrative and church center located on the road between Toba and the port town of Sibolga. MULO, Meer Uitgebreide Lagere Onderwijs, was a prestigious secondary school employing Dutch-language instruction; MULO worked as one of the gateway schools for further edu-
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cation in the colonial school system. Upon graduation from this secondary school Pospos moved to Bogor, West Java, where he enrolled in M.L.S. (Middelbare Landbouw School, a sort of high school), where he studied for two years. He moved to Jakarta and enrolled in A.M.S. (Algemeen Middelbare School, also a high school). After two years the school was closed because of the Japanese Occupation. Pospos then continued his study in S.M.T. (Sekolah Menegah Tinggi, a level of high school), graduating from this school after two years. He taught in a public high school during the first few years of national independence. During this time, he also enrolled in Faculty of Letters of University of Indonesia for three years and earned the M.O. degree (Middelbare Onderwys, a degree similar to the bachelor’s). From 1952 to 1964 he was employed at the Balai Alkitab (Biblical Studies Publishing House) in Jakarta. From 1965 until his retirement in 1989, Pospos worked at the Badan Penerbit Kristen (Christian Publishing Concern), also in Jakarta. Much of his work consisted of preparing translations of exegetical and theological works for a general Indonesian audience of readers. Pospos and his wife have four children: the eldest daughter is a physician; the eldest son is a civil engineer; the second daughter is a veterinarian; and the younger son is studying political science.
Muhamad Radjab was born June 21, 1913, in the Minangkabau rural homeland in West Sumatra, in the village of Sumpur, Padang Pandjang. He spent most of his adult life and career abroad, that is, in the rantau’s outlying lands in Java. He died August 16, 1970, back in West Sumatra once more, in Sumpur. At the time he had been attending a conference in Padang on Minangkabau ethnic culture. For the last two years of his life, in fact, Radjab had been concentrating his writing and research on Minangkabau literature and ethnic traditions and had planned a book on these topics. His numerous obituaries in Padang and Jakarta newspapers noted that his widow was left to raise eight children, most still at home.
Radjab’s family was not among the high hereditary Minangkabau nobility. However, they had endeavored for several generations to garner social prestige of another sort: the family lines on both his father’s and his mother’s sides boasted many Islamic religious teachers and several haji pilgrims. Radjab made this Muslim family milieu a major focus of tension in Village Childhood .
He attended village elementary school and also local Koranic recitation schools (suraus ), finally progressing to the Sumatra Thawalib school in Padang Pandjang (this was an Islamic middle school). In his late teens and early twenties (“escaping” from country Muslim schools, in the view put forward in his memoir) Radjab attended the teacher training institute, Sekolah Normal Islam, in Padang, from 1932 to 1934. He then migrated to Jakarta and soon after that to Bandung, where he sped headlong into a
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newswriting career. After brief service as a junior reporter on the Padang paper Persamaan , he worked on the Jakarta paper Pembangunan from 1934 to 1935. Radjab followed this with a job as an assistant editor on the magazine Persatuan Hidup in Bandung during the Japanese Occupation years 1942–45. The next two years, during the Indonesian Revolution, he worked as an editor for the news service Berita Antara in Jogyakarta, Solo, Malang, and Jakarta. In the years 1947–49 he was an editor on the daily paper Detik back in West Sumatra, in the small city of Bukittinggi; the next year he was an editor for the same paper in Sulawesi. The latter is a large, ethnically diverse island northeast of Java. Radjab’s experiences there resulted in two books about the island’s folklore and about one of its prominent ethnic societies, the Sa’dan Toraja. Balai Pustaka published his journalistic, enjoyable ethnographic volume Toraja Sa’dan in 1952, and his Dongeng-Dongeng Sulawesi Selatan (South Sulawesian folktales) in 1950.
In 1950 and the following year Radjab was an editor for the daily newspaper Indonesia Raya . Until 1955 he again worked as an editor for the news service Berita Antara in Jakarta. Following this, from 1955 to 1963, he served as a bureau chief for the feature wire service Antara Features. Then and until his death he headed the research section of LKBN Antara. Drawing on his extensive reporting background and supplementing this with some graduate-level coursework in the law school and the faculty of social sciences at the University of Indonesia (1959–1963), Radjab also lectured on social issues at that university, at Mahaputra University, and at Trisakti University.
Village Childhood was Radjab’s second book, appearing a year after his Tjatatan di Sumatra (Notes on Sumatra, Balai Pustaka, 1949). This volume was a journalist’s account of Sumatra during the Revolution; Radjab did the research for this somewhat meandering study while part of the team of reporters sent to the island by the Nationalist government’s Ministry of Information. Notes on Sumatra , briefly discussed below, presents a view of the island’s journey to modernity and Indonesian nationhood supplemental and complementary to that set out in Village Childhood .
The same year that Village Childhood appeared, Radjab had another book published by Balai Pustaka, the previously mentioned South Sulawesian Folktales . In rapid succession his Toraja Sa’dan and Perang Paderi (The Padri wars), 1954, were published. This last book was a rather heated narration of the history of the 1820s Padri wars in Minangkabau. The last book of Radjab’s career marked a return to the ethnographic perspective essayed in his early works on Sulawesi societies. This work was his 1969 Sistem Kekerabatan di Minangkabau (The kinship system of Minangkabau).
Radjab was also a prolific translator of fiction, social science works, and law texts from English into Indonesian. His eleven major published trans-
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lations include three works by Dostoyevsky (all translated from 1948 to 1949) and various volumes on law and legal history.
Pospos’s and Radjab’s careers show both of them to have been fascinated with issues of religion, holy texts, language, the translatability of languages, ethnic literatures, social history, and the vexing matter of how authors might best describe complex social worlds, whether they be the nineteenth-century Russian landscapes of Radjab’s fiction translations or the Sumatran scenes from these authors’ own lives. These same large preoccupations are found again in Pospos’s and Radjab’s boyhood memoirs.
Pospos and Radjab address their memoirs to a broad Indonesian-speaking audience that includes members of their home ethnic societies and residents of other ethnic locales in the country: Java, Bali, Sunda, Toraja, and so on. Both authors know that Toba and Minangkabau[5] have strong ethnic profiles in Indonesian thought: Toba as a rather rough-mannered society of smart, aggressive go-getters who assiduously maintain patrilineal clan ties in the most distant precincts of their diaspora as well as “back home” in Tapanuli rice-farming villages, and Minangkabau as a simultaneously Muslim and matrilineal society with a striking record of success in business enterprises both in Sumatra and more far-flung parts of the island chain. Though neither memoirist takes especial care to set out Toba or Minangkabau social structural arrangements in great detail, in the course of each book readers do learn certain background facts. Toba’s patrilineal clans, or margas , for instance, trace back many generations and are fractured into quarrelsome, rivalrous lineages. The latter are linked to similar lineages of other clans through ranked marriage alliances; wife-giver lineages, or hula-hula , bestow their daughters as brides on their indebted, subservient, lower-ranked anakboru (“girl-children”), their wife-receivers. The hula-hula in turn are subservient to their own wife-givers, while anakboru will play the wife-bestowing role to yet another lineage. Ideally at least, these marriage alliances are asymmetrical (wife-givers should never receive a bride from their anakboru ) and endure over many generations. In practice, strict upkeep of this ideal vision is mostly confined to the wealthy, “core ancestral” lineages of a region; smaller, commoner lineages such as Pospos’s own have much less traffic in the exalted myths of Toba “ancient marriage alliances,” although regular village families do at least try to encourage their sons to marry a daughter of the mother’s brother (the perfect arrangement, within adat ). Toba in the 1920s and 1930s had circles of rajas or chiefs claiming hereditary positions of leadership within “sacrificial communities,” village settlements loosely united into ceremonial leagues and cooperative irrigation societies. However, these chiefs were already much-beholden to the Dutch administration; Toba adat chieftaincies, in fact, were weak and faction-ridden even before the colonial state
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penetrated Tapanuli in the 1850 and 1860s and finally established full control by the turn of the century.
A renegade, self-styled “priest king,” Si Singamangaraja XII, led a guerrilla resistance to the Dutch takeover for thirty years but was finally shot to death in 1907, effectively ending organized Toba combat against the “Kompeni,” the Company (a then-popular Toba way of referring to the Dutch colonial state as well as its predecessor, the Dutch East Indies Trading Company). Protestant Christianity flooded through Toba in this same era, following its expansion northward starting in 1861 from its initial mission field in Sipirok. Under the charismatic pioneer missionary Ingwar Nommensen, who converted a few Angkola and many Toba to Christianity under the German Rhenisch Mission Society auspices, Tapanuli towns like Balige and Tarutung became Protestant strongholds by the time of Pospos’s birth.
Minangkabau stood in great contrast to this. West Sumatra’s several distinct subsocieties (in the Tanah Datar valley near Batusangkar, the Agam valley, around the mountain town of Bukittinggi, and the Limapuluh Kota valley centering on Payakumbuh) had histories of hierarchical, statelike organization tracing back to at least the fourteenth century, in contrast to Toba’s decentralized, fragile chieftaincy leagues. An important peppergrowing region and a major gold-mining area until the mines were depleted by the 1780s, the Minangkabau kingdoms had forged a series of shifting trade alliances with Aceh in the sixteenth century; over the next one hundred years West Sumatran pepper acted as a magnet for traders from India, China, and Portugal. In 1663, the Dutch established control of Padang and built a fortified trading post nearby on the Batang Aran River. Throughout the late 1600s, the Minangkabau courts, especially that at Pagaruyung, extended their influence northward into the Angkola and Mandailing Batak regions and southward into Rejang. During the Anglo-Dutch war, 1781–84, the West Sumatran coast came under British control; British administration of Padang and environs was reestablished from 1795 to 1819, during the Napoleonic Wars. After that period, Dutch control remained firm; Padang developed into an important trade city, newspaper center, and school town (as did Bukittinggi); and Minangkabau merchants became fixtures in distant Sumatran towns and cities.
Conversion to Islam had begun early, in the late fourteenth century, and by the time the Dutch established political control of West Sumatra, Islam was universally accepted. In fact, Minangkabau had become a center of Sumatran piety and Muslim learning. Powerful Muslim traders began to compete with the old royal houses for political and economic preeminence by the late 1700s, the period when the mines were depleted (the economic base of the traditional nobility). Islamic reformers, led by the puritanical Padris, condemned cockfighting, gambling, opium use, allegiance to feudal models of kingship, adat ceremonialism, and strict matrilineal
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inheritance of wealth and village rifles. During the 1820s, the Padris had acquired military forces and pushed northward into Mandailing and Angkola, converting the population to Islam. The 1820s and early 1830s saw continued military action in heartland areas of Minangkabau, as the Dutch attempted to co-opt local leadership and defeat the Padri forces. This they eventually did in 1837, when the town of Bonjol, under the Padri leader Tuanku Imam Bonjol, fell to Dutch forces.
West Sumatra continued its role as a hotbed of religious and political dispute throughout the rest of the colonial period. The Modernist Muslim movement hit the area with full force by the 1920s, and advocates called for school reform, expanded educational opportunities for women, and a deeper knowledge of scriptural theology, shorn of the accretions of local adat (in Radjab’s memoir, the boy is positioned between such a modernist faction and some adat traditionalists, and he consciously refuses to fully take sides. However, the autobiography as a whole is enlivened by the sort of social critique and commitment to a search for meaning found in the modernist Islam of 1920s Sumatra).
Many Minangkabau secondary school graduates found themselves without jobs during this period, and social dislocations of this sort spurred a communist-incited armed insurrection. This revolt failed and many participants were jailed. West Sumatra remained, however, a center for nationalist thought throughout the 1930s and the Japanese Occupation years from 1942 to 1945.
Each memoir assumes a general knowledge of this ethnographic and historical background, for Toba and Minangkabau. At the most basic level, however, each memoir has a much more intimate focus, with its action structured around the growing child’s progression through a series of successively higher levels of school (secular schools for Pospos, Muslim ones for Radjab). As the remembered child graduates from one type of schooling to the next (and manages in both books to muddle his way through entrance exams and exit exams, by cramming his brain full of facts) each boy discovers larger realms of the social world outside his immediate parental household. In Radjab’s case the home is quite complex, for his mother had died when he was an infant and the baby was forthwith shutfled between his father’s niece, his assorted aunts, and his father’s additional wives (Minangkabau Islam and adat allow multiple wives). By age six Radjab was living in the Muslim surau, or recitation school community for boys; there he was learning how to puzzle out and recite the Arabic verses of the Koran. A similar movement away from his natal household also took place at a young age in Pospos’s recollected life. By age eight or nine, he had begun to board with relatives in little Toba market towns such as Balige so that he could have easy access to more prestigious schools than those available to him back home near Narumonda. Other similarities of
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storytelling structure will become evident in brief summaries of the action and chapter topics of each book.
Me and Toba , which is eighty-two pages long in its 1950 edition, comprises twenty-four chapters, each untitled, headed simply with a Roman numeral. The prose is spare and the tone fairly intimate. To accomplish this Pospos uses such linguistic devices as the familiar first-person pronoun aku instead of the more formal saya . In parts of Tapanuli aku is the sort of pronoun that family members and close friends will use to refer to themselves in comfortable, close conversations (aku is also a common literary usage, but the Batak oral usage of the word is an important factor here). Pospos also consistently uses additional markers of intimacy such as the word Ayah (Dad) for Bapak , father. (This is another Batak usage; in standard literary Indonesian, Ayah is often simply the word used in printed prose for “Father,” but Toba and Angkola oral conversation employs Ayah as “Dad.”) Such terms of address and reference immediately establish a climate of easy social closeness, which persists throughout the book. This tone is reinforced by such additional devices as Pospos’s penchant for starting many chapters with a casual frame beginning with the formula, “Another time, an interesting incident occurred . . .” This gives the prose a sense of being rather like a conversation between friends, or a product of an interaction between a storyteller and his or her audience.
The memoir shows numerous other influences from Toba oral culture, although Pospos never goes so far as to employ formulaic opening and closing statements to his paragraphs or chapters (the latter are devices used in many printed Batak texts about adat matters). The writer exploits the sound quality possibilities of Indonesian to the hilt, for instance. He does this by emphasizing the repetition of syllables and playful, alliterative rushes of phrases. He adds to this certain grammatical constructions that make many of his Indonesian sentences “sound like” Batak utterances. For instance, kubuka for saya buka , “I open” something, such as a door (kubuka more closely resembles certain Toba Batak subject-verb constructions than does the more formal saya buka ). He also often employs Batak-sounding possessives such as rumahku , for rumah saya , “my house.” The -ku suffix is often employed in self-consciously courtly, old-fashioned Indonesian prose, but in the hands of Batak writers it often evokes a sense of the home village ethnic language, since the Batak languages employ so similar a possessive. Taken all together, these tips of the hat to a Batak oral heritage frequently result in engaging paragraphs such as the following (discussed at greater length in Rodgers 1988):
Rumahku hanja 1 km djauhnja dari sekolah, tapi sering pula aku tidur disekolah itu, karena aku takut pulang sendirian kerumah. Meskipun guruku mengatakan padaku, bahwa tidak ada jin dan setan, tapi perkataannja itu
― 17 ―
kurang kupercayai. Malam-malam dikampung kami (kampung itu dikelilingi rumpun bambu dan hampir semua kampung ditanah Batak demikian) sering terdengar suara orok menangis dari arah rumpun bambu itu. Itulah katanya suara homang (semacam jin), yang dapat melompat-lompat dengan tidak kelihatan. Pada suatu malam terdengar suara demikian dibelakang rumah kami. Ibuku dengan beberapa gadis (biasanya selalu ada beberapa gadis kampung itu tidur dirumah kami, sejak rumah kami sebuah emper) pergi menghalau homang itu. Aku ditinggalkan mereka seorang diri menjaffa rumah. Hari gelap waktu itu. Karena ditinggal sendirian itu, aku menjadi takut, gemetar sekujur badanku. Aku berpikir: “Baiklah rumah kututup rapat-rapat, supaya jin itu jangan masuk,” tapi aku teringat, bahwa homang dapat berpindah-pindah dengan tidak kelihatan, jadi dapat juga masuk rumah dengan tidak ketahuan dari mana jalannya. Sebab itu kubuka saja pintu lebar-lebar dan aku berdiri bersandar ketiang pintu menanti mereka pulang, sambil mataku kupasang benar-benar melihat kekiri dan kekanan, kebelakang dan kemuka, kalau-kalau jin itu melompat kedekatku. Badanku menggigil dan aku telah bersedia berteriak sekuat-kuatnya. Mujurlah tidak ada terjadi apa-apa. Ibuku dan gadis-gadis lain kudengar berteriak-teriak mengusir homang itu. Kudengar juga homang itu diam. Kepadaku diceritakan mereka, bahwa mereka mendengar bambu berderes-deres. Barangkali homang itu melompat-lompat lari, tapi sesuatu machluk tidak kelihatan oleh mereka, mungkin karena hari gelap. Didekat mereka aku telah biasa kembali dan pura-pura kuperlihatkan, bahwa aku tidak takut sama sekali. Aku malu menceritakan pengalamanku selama mereka menghalau homang itu.
[My house was only one kilometer away from school, but often I slept there too, since I was afraid to walk home by myself. Even though my teacher had told me that there is no such thing as jins and devils, I did not believe him.
Like almost all Batak villages, ours was surrounded by clumps of bamboo, and at night something that sounded like the voice of a baby crying could often be heard from the direction of the bamboo thicket. This was said to be the voice of the homang, a kind of spirit which could jump about without being seen. One night such a voice was heard behind our house. My mother and several girls (girls from the village always made a habit of sleeping at our house, since it had a porch) went off to chase the homang away. They left me behind, all by myself, to guard the house. It was very dark and, all alone, I became frightened and started to tremble. I thought it would be best to close up the house tight so the spirit couldn’t get in, but then I remembered that the homang could move about without being seen and so could enter the house without anyone knowing how it got in. So I opened the door very wide and stood leaning against the door post waiting for everyone to return, peering left and right, up and down, and back to front, in case the spirit tried to leap out at me. I was shaking all over and was all ready to scream as loudly as I could, but luckily nothing happened. I heard my mother and the girls shouting to chase the homang away; I also heard the homang being quiet. They told me they had heard the bamboo canes creaking and rubbing against one another. Perhaps the homang had just
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hopped away, but in any case they had not seen the creature; maybe it had been too dark. With my mother and the girls close by once again, I returned to normal and pretended I had not been at all frightened. I was ashamed to tell them what had happened while they were off chasing the homang.] (Pospos 1950, 26)
The book’s oral features are indeed strong, but they should not be understood to work to the exclusion of the text’s deep print character. In this paragraph just quoted (one that undeniably cries out to be read aloud) a deep print character is also evident: the passage has parenthetical inserts, to add detail, rather than the Toba oratorical style tending more toward aggregative accumulations of phrases and epithets. Pospos’s focus on his own personal experiences and his socially critical tone would also have been largely unthinkable in an older, more thoroughly oral Toba world. As noted in my 1988 essay, the memoir’s mixture of oral and print characteristics is particularly deft and self-conscious. Pospos’s basic idea of writing a childhood life is a deeply literate notion, largely unthinkable in a fully oral village world, which tended to celebrate only exemplary, noble personages, such as lineage founders (whose memory is evoked in clan genealogies, tarombo ); Pospos’s memoir includes much commentary on oral speech routines, as viewed from the perspective of print and the colonial-era schoolroom. Finally, the writer has a fine sense for the poetic sound quality of the Indonesian language itself, which he uses quite astutely with a fine writerly flair to lend a seductive oral flavor to many of his paragraphs, making the book fun to read.
Me and Toba’s plot is straightforward and simple, although Pospos pursues it in a desultory and meandering fashion. This is particularly true of the first several chapters. At the beginning of the book the remembered child is about six or seven years old and not yet in school. One day, the local schoolmaster (a Toba Batak man) shows up in the house yard and informs the child’s mother (Ibu, the formal term for “Mother”) that it is time to put the boy in grammar school. The youngster looks forward to the first day of school with excitement mixed with fear. School does indeed turn out to validate that mix of emotions, as the boy discovers the genuine delights of book learning and mathematics but also finds that he must suffer through frightening exams and put up with ignorant, pedantic, and overly strict Batak teachers. They hit him and verbally berate him for his persistent haughtiness. Nevertheless, his various teachers do recognize him as an apt pupil and a basically smart boy. However, schoolteachers decidedly do not aim to be the children’s friends, the narrator finds.[6] Some Batak instructors thoughtlessly accept the dictates of the Dutch school administrators, who run the most prestigious elementary and secondary schools in Tapanuli (that is, the Dutch-language H.I.S. and MULO schools).
As the child grows older he moves through successively higher levels of
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village and town schools, going from a Batak-language environment to one mixed with Malay to, finally, the Dutch-language MULO school in far-off Tarutung (a place of no little excitement to the schoolchildren, since the town is so up-to-date as to have electricity). There, the Toba Batak language is stigmatized as a quaint ethnic dialect and Malay is defined as one of the pupils’ “foreign language” choices. (All this was taking place when the early nationalists were working to establish bahasa Indonesia [basically, the same language as Malay] as the language of Indonesian unity. The narrator does not belabor this point nor indeed even mention it.) As the child and his family scrape together the school fees that allow him to pursue this scholastic trajectory, the boy also encounters new realms of experience.
Moving beyond the constricted family world of his home village, the boy discovers the social character of larger and larger areas of Tapanuli as he moves toward MULO school in the big town to the south. In the process, he also discovers more and more sectors of European knowledge through his school textbooks, maps, and atlases. He learns about the Dutch, and about what they think of Bataks. He discovers girls; he discovers how the Dutch schoolmasters and German “susters” (missionary nurses) try to control the young people’s courtship fun. He begins to chart a future to follow his graduation from MULO school, which will carry him deeper into the print world (to postsecondary education) and beyond Sumatra entirely, to a school in Java. Soon after an account of the harrowing final exams at MULO school, the book ends as the seventeen-year-old narrator says good-bye to his father at the dock in Belawan, Medan’s port and the gateway to schools in distant Java.
As noted, though, this fairly strong trajectory from village to city, from Batak language environment to Dutch schoolroom, from family dependency to growing sexual independence, and from oral experience to print literacy should not be taken to imply that the book’s narrative moves rapidly or in lockstep from one side of the dichotomy to the other. Far from it. The story jumps from point to point in a near-conversational way at times; sometimes the author deviates momentarily from his main storyline to insert short disquisitions on Toba kin-term usage, or Toba clan history, or colonial Indies school bureaucratic structure, or poverty in Tapanuli. These side trips are rarely if ever pedantic, fusty, or folkloric. Rather, the scenes and situations reported are sharply observed and crisply presented. These descriptive, almost sociological interludes are clearly offered to readers from the point of view of the adult Pospos writing at the conclusion of the Revolution, looking back at a troubled Tapanuli of the 1920s and early 1930s. Other parts of the book present scenes from the perspective of the remembered child, as he was experiencing them at that particular point in his life in the narrative. Throughout, without explanation, Pospos refers to his younger self as Djohanis, although his own first name
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is otherwise. We shall see this same device in Radjab’s book, where the hero is called Ridjal, not Muhamad.
Readers learn a great deal about Tapanuli schools, teachers, the typically oppressive and highly competitive atmosphere in classrooms, and punishment strategies used by the teachers to get children like the narrator’s Djohanis into line. The ‘I’ of the story, for instance, was forever skipping church on Sundays. This would stand him in bad stead with Schoolteacher on Mondays, when the children were interrogated about church attendance. We learn about the boy’s career as a “Red Devil” in class, as a result of this church truancy and other offenses. Then, in a casual narrative turn that is quite typical, we are told about a short trip the family made to visit relatives in Sibolga, the large town on the Indian Ocean coastline down from the Toba highlands. The family goes on this journey in style, in Dad’s new rented car (by this time he had changed jobs and was no longer a peddler but a chauffeur). After the family’s return from this trip the child has lost his place as one of the most highly ranked children in class, a position calculated according to test scores. He bursts into tears when the other children taunt him about this fall from favor. This emphasis on the child’s turbulent emotional life is also typical of the entire narrative.
The teacher too is deathly afraid of being graded, ranked, evaluated, and “marked down.” He and his Toba colleagues wait fearfully for the periodic visits of the district school inspector, whom Pospos mordantly calls the School Police. A bitingly worded scene ends the chapter: the inspection visit of Tuan Preacher, one of the German Lutheran missionaries. “Tuan” is the term of address Batak would use to male Europeans. The narrator’s childhood self tries desperately to catch Tuan Preacher’s attention by thrusting his hand up very high, but he fails at this. The Europeans remain literally out of reach. By this early date the boy is already very much caught up in the game of trying to secure the Europeans’ favor and trying to best his fellow Batak in this endeavor.
These initial chapters strike the major themes used later in the book and demonstrate the main features of the author’s style. Children come from hardworking, strict, rather cold, impoverished village families; schoolhouses are places of testing and failure, with an occasional bright child who manages to squeak through the final exams and pass on to the next level of schooling. Toba is both an ethnic world and a setting for a mysterious Dutch colonial bureaucracy; most children and their parents participate wholeheartedly in the colonial world’s systems of status and rank. Lying beyond Toba are other ethnic realms, with other, more highly ranked, Dutch-run schools. Toba children hunger to go there. Most fail. “Our diplomas = us,” Pospos writes late in the memoir, in this same vein. School success or failure defines the youngsters’ social worth. Traditional social class rankings are largely omitted from mention.
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Throughout the narrative the story proceeds episodically by relating some twist or turn in the boy’s school fortunes, his play experiences with other children, or his family life, and then elaborating on these core, centered events by providing further detail on the general situation that the incident suggests (e.g., poverty in Tapanuli). Often he provides further detail via a mass of similar anecdotes. This storytelling style may owe a debt to oral narrative forms in the Malay world in general.
Radjab’s Village Childhood has basically the same narrative frame and the same wandering, comfortably paced storyline. The latter is structured once again around the child’s penetration of new and successively less intimate and less village-bound types of schools as he grows older. However, with Village Childhood the setting has switched from Christian Toba with its patrilineal clans, hardscrabble farm villages, and modest market towns to Muslim Minangkabau, with its grander sense of traditional social class, its more prosperous mercantile ties to cities, and its matrilineality. As with Toba society, Minangkabau society stresses family alliance ties (in the West Sumatran case, between matrilineal households, their daughters’ households, and the homes of origin of the men who have married into the first residential unit). However, as a society with a long history of traditional statelevel political organization, Minangkabau social life involves more complex extra-village structures than is the case with Toba, which, as noted, was basically a collection of fragile chiefdoms at the time of first Dutch control in the 1850s–1900 period. Minangkabau Great Houses (long, peak-roofed affairs) contain multiple, matrilineally related, female-focused hearths or households; these houses are linked together into noble lineages. Groups of matrilineally related men make up aristocratic counsels. Young men retain their basic membership in their mothers’ and aunts’ houses after they grow up and marry into other houses (the latter are their wives’ domains, and husbands remain social and moral outsiders). Children’s mother’s brothers have major financial responsibilities for raising them, at least as the situation is portrayed in the ideal adat. However, as we shall see, in Radjab’s case his main emotional ties and financial connections were to his father. In fact, Village Childhood ‘s overwhelming preoccupation with the father-son relationship belies any easy assumption that Minangkabau family life de-emphasizes this parental tie in favor of the avuncular one. Both memoirs, from stereotypically patrilineal Toba but also from “matrilineal Minangkabau,” are overwhelmingly about boys and their fathers.
Village Childhood evokes many of the conflict-filled fundamental ideas of Minangkabau life through a growing child’s eyes as he discovers his social structural world and his religious universe, bit by bit. He does this as his own life makes what are often unhappy contacts with Islamic schools, the Fasting Month (Ramadan), his village-ified kinfolk, and various social factions in rural West Sumatra. The memoir is dominated by Islam in a much
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more thoroughgoing way than Me and Toba is colored by Protestant Christianity. In fact, it is not too much to say that Radjab’s autobiography is a memoir of a Sumatran native son’s early brushes with Minangkabau Islam, and his eventual critical disaffection from some of the major public forms of that religion. The growing child comes to be particularly aware of what the memoirist portrays as Islam’s artificiality and rote nature. Most centrally, in a religion whose adherents are normally asked only to mouth powerful sacred prayers and Koranic verses, the boy begins to wonder about what theological significance might possibly lie behind the holy phrases. His instructors in the surau discourage him in this sort of inquiry and ask him to keep to his memorization tasks. He refuses to comply, and his search for more meaning and significance beyond the level of the surface sounds of Islam’s Arabic language routines constitute the main portion of his journey of maturation. Anger, pain, and frustration accompany his growing up along this linguistic trajectory, and the author’s recollections of these feelings make Radjab’s memoir a much darker account than Pospos’s book.
The flow of events from chapter to chapter in Village Childhood recalls the gently composed pastiche of incidents, impressions, and school scenes used by Pospos. Radjab’s book (whose chapters have actual titles, such as “A Lake Singkarak Boy”) opens with a paragraph that signals that this is an author who is not going to take himself or his ethnic society too seriously:
Why I was born into this world, I do not know. Why I was born in Minangkabau puzzles me even more. These two things have surprised me very much and have bothered me since I was little. But I will not bother with things I do not know here; I will simply relate some of my experiences that are surprising and just itching to come out. (Radjab 1974, 5)
He was born, he goes on to write, in the year 1913—”they say.” A cholera epidemic raged near Lake Singkarak at the time and the boy’s mother died as a consequence, when he was only a few days old. His father departs for Mecca on the haj almost immediately, telling relatives that if Ridjal (as noted, the name given to the child) happens to die in infancy, he will take up permanent residence in the holy city. If the baby lives, the father will come back home to West Sumatra and continue his career as a village religion teacher there, which is what actually happens, we find.
The boy is bright and also his father’s firstborn son, so the family decides that the child should be put in the most demanding Muslim schools so that he will eventually become a religion teacher like his parent. Ridjal spends several happy months in a lakeside village, playing with friends, exploring the natural world in a hesitant way, and feeling quite at home in his tiny familial universe. Then one day Ridjal’s father comes on a visit
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from one of his other households and suddenly announces, “It is time for you to enroll in school.”
Ridjal enjoys public school. Most welcome of all is the fact that the children can believe what they are taught, Radjab tells his readers. This instructional situation contrasts greatly, he goes on, with the one he soon finds in Muslim school. There, the boy and his circle of young friends are taught to recite totally meaningless strings of sounds. Close friendships among the children help to make up for this puzzling situation. A tight-knit group of sixteen little boys play ball together, study together, get in trouble together, and continually harass adult travelers just returned from the rantau. The boys ask these adults to tell them stories about their foreign adventures. These tales and the public school lessons become the boys’ real education, Radjab writes. The children dream of a future when they too will be old enough to leave home for distant lands. Eventually they will become merchants, get married, and move to the rantau.
After a few years of Arabic study, the boys celebrate their circumcision ritual together. They experience the Fasting Month and its moral challenges. The boys dress up as little Arabs for an early Muslim school graduation. The village women ooh and aah at this spectacle. The boys also get to know some of the strange men who loll about the surau, without jobs, wives, or much sympathy from their matrilineal kin.
From Ridjal’s father the boys learn the martial arts and some of the magic lore associated with it. Ridjal and his friends also participate in rice harvests and village feasts; they hear about such exciting things as tigers in the deep forest and ghosts who carry lighted torches. As they progress in their surau studies, they begin to lose contact with this wider world of normal village life; daily existence becomes a constant round of rote memorization and Koranic chants. This far into their religious studies the boys still have absolutely no idea what they are reciting in their Arabic language lessons. They do know, however, that less-educated villagers seek their special ritual expertise. Families begin to invite the youngsters out to funerals and near-death scenes, to chant Arabic verses to help ease the corpse’s transition to the next world. Sometimes the boys get into mischief on these ritual missions. Other times they get terribly scared.
A cousin falls in love with a village girl and her family marries her off to a rich merchant. This was after the boy enlisted Ridjal’s aid in writing love letters to the girl. The families find out about this and cut short the love match and the heated exchange of letters. In general, in such marriage situations, Ridjal finds, the girl turns out to be happy enough. This stands in contrast to his expectations, which he had based on the unhappy love story themes he had gleaned from Balai Pustaka novels such as Sitti Nurbaya . That famous Minangkabau book had painted a tragic portrait of forced
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marriages for young women and argued instead for personal choice in matters of passion. The heroine of Sitti Nurbaya is victimized by a stultified adat order and avaricious parents (Sitti Nurbaya is also one of the novels Pospos’s remembered child had consumed in an intense period of Balai Pustaka reading). In real life, Ridjal finds, teenage girls who are forced into arranged marriages discover quickly enough the pleasures of good food, nice clothes, and big houses. Ridjal decides he only knows about love in books.
Various Lebaran feasts (ending the Fasting Month) come and go. Ridjal covets impressive new clothes for these events, although he is sometimes disappointed with the meager financial help his father “deigns” to give him to buy such finery. (Ridjal is forever complaining about how ungenerous his father is.) A massive earthquake shakes the region and everyone is terrified. Many prayers are mumbled. It turns out that the world does not come to an end, after all, although many of Ridjal’s elders had feared that it would. Everyone sleeps out in the rice fields to avoid being killed by falling buildings. Things eventually get back to normal. Prayers taper off.
Exhilarating Fasting Months enliven the boys’ yearly round of Arabic lessons. The boys become increasingly aware of girls, who coyly watch them play ball or recite their prayers. Lebaran days become sweeter with pretty girls around. Ridjal and his father go on interesting trips to unusual mountain villages, which have exceedingly strange adat customs. In one village, for instance, men dress up as women during one festival. The boy eventually agrees to learn more mystical lore about the martial arts, at his father’s urging (the older man is a martial arts instructor himself and wishes to pass on his secret knowledge to his son, who resists him in this). Ridjal eventually gives up hope that such mysticism might have any real efficacy, after he tries to work several spells and they all fail in embarrassing ways.
The boy’s much-beloved cousin Asyiah gets married, leaving him without a close emotional companion. The moral of Sitti Nurbaya is lost on Asyiah, too, and she settles comfortably into married life with a forty-five-year-old man who already has several wives. Ridjal goes to visit her several days after her wedding; he finds she is off in a back bedroom of her mother’s house, giggling and joking around with her husband. Asyiah soon moves to the distant market center of Bangkahulu, and everyone goes down to the train station to see her off. Ridjal decides not to go to the station and wonders, Will she miss seeing me? Probably not, he answers his own question: She has-probably already forgotten me anyway.
Out of sorts and now also feeling out of place in his home village what with so many of his childhood friends either married or off pursuing fortunes in the rantau, Ridjal desperately asks his father for permission to leave home. After resisting much pressure to continue his religious education and become a Muslim schoolteacher, the boy finally sets off for teacher
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training college in Padang. His conflicted feelings on the eve of his departure provide the final scene in the memoir:
Hearing the wall clock strike two times, my thoughts came back to Sumpur and the surau. I found that I was just daydreaming, and sorrow flowed through me when I thought of being separated from the village. I could feel how deep my love for Father was and for the surau, the place where I’d lived both happily and sadly for fifteen years—and for Mount Four Houses, and the Sumpur River and Lake Singkarak, where I’d splashed about. But I was going to leave all of it behind because I was now an adult and such were my life’s pursuits and aspirations. How very sad I was that all I had loved all this time must be left behind. Life in the rantau was calling to me.
It was as if my heart was being torn to pieces by an internal struggle: the struggle between love for Father and village, and love for my aspirations.
But I knew that these ties to the village were just the bonds of feeling, and that sooner or later these would be snapped by my relentless, heedless life desires. And I simply could not base my character and life outlook on feelings alone, if I did not wish to become a mere ball in a game between nature and the world around me.
Life in the wide world was beginning to call to me; its voice was blurred, like softly rumbling thunder, audible from afar.
Tomorrow I would begin, and attack this life. (Radjab 1974, 210)
This ending of course also recalls Pospos’s final scene at the Belawan port, as the youth is preparing to leave Sumatra for the rantau.
The two memoirs have obvious similarities. Both autobiographies chart their diminutive heroes’ growth from an early state of juvenile ignorance and moral gullibility toward acute, critical levels of self-awareness and social consciousness (in the Indonesian language, toward a state of kesadaran , or intellectual awareness, alertness, and consciousness, from an earlier state of kebodohan , or clueless ignorance). As the boys age and the decade of the twenties moves on, they acquire an ability to identify and skewer social falsehoods. They come to see their local social orders and their home linguistic worlds as human constructions, open to questioning and change. They come to discover print as a tool for intellectual liberation. They move from the sound-dominated world of early childhood to a knowing understanding of the world of Indonesian- and European-language print, newspapers and books. They come to feel cut off from adults who seek solace in predictable, magical ritual speech formulas. They grow up into a world of texts and conflicting meanings.
Both Pospos and Radjab told their life stories to a wide public audience that was quite explicitly a national one. Both authors elected to write their memoirs in the Indonesian language, the national tongue, rather than in the ethnic languages they undoubtedly knew. That is, they avoided using Toba Batak or Minangkabau, which are both languages of more limited
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geographical scope than bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian). Toba Batak is the rural home region language of North Tapanuli, North Sumatra, while the Minangkabau language is spoken primarily in the Minangkabau area in West Sumatra, and in Minangkabau diaspora communities in large cities such as Jakarta. Minangkabau is grammatically and lexically quite similar to Indonesian (although the two languages are not fully mutually intelligible by any means), while the five Batak languages (Toba, Angkola-Mandailing, Dairi-Pakpak, Karo, and Simelungun) are quite distinct from either of these two tongues. As noted, Indonesian is basically the same language as Malay, and it was selected by the early nationalists in 1928 as the common national language of the Indonesian Republic, which they hoped would grow out of the colonial Indies. In the 1920s and 1930s in Sumatran village areas, Indonesian was still something of an outsider’s language, accessible largely to travelers, advanced schoolchildren, and deeply literate adults. It was also the language of interethnic discourse, and the language for young people who hoped to successfully negotiate life in the cosmopolitan Indies. Both Toba and Minangkabau had extensive print literatures and newspaper publishing activities in the ethnic languages by the 1920s, but communication with members of other ethnic societies was possible only in Indonesian or Dutch.
The memoirs are similar too in that each chronicles the author’s journey toward personal discovery of the colonial Indies’ structures of oppression and power (a much stronger theme for Pospos, since Radjab stressed organized Islam’s oppressiveness). The books also strike similar notes in describing the Toba and Minangkabau peoples’ unfortunate (in the memoirists’ view) penchant for self-delusion, self-importance, and empty talk. Indeed, the two childhood autobiographies are unusual among Indonesian historical texts of either the personal or the public sort in their writers’ consistent critique of omong kosong (empty, inane talk). The writers are also distinctive in their refusal to take themselves too seriously; each memoir has many funny passages and several forthrightly hilarious ones about formal religion. The writers, too, are similar in their subtle presentation of linguistic issues relating to social thought and print literacy. In other words, these childhood recollections are very modern histories indeed.
A short discussion of autobiographical writing in the Malay and Indonesian region will make this claim more understandable and the authors’ accomplishments more striking. After that, we can go on to investigate the memoirs’ temporal and social imagery in more detail.
Autobiography in Indonesian and Malay Historical Traditions
The small genre of 1950s childhood autobiography considered here participates in larger patterns of Southeast Asian print literature that extend
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far beyond modern popular memoirs written in the Indonesian language. Me and Toba and Village Childhood also have hidden masses of tangled roots connecting them to Malay world script literature and court histories, and to oral genres relating to the past, such as village clan genealogy narratives (prominent in the Batak cultures) and epic histories (well developed in Minangkabau court literature). The two 1950 autobiographies also tap into broad realms of Southeast Asian regional thought about the past (if only to reject many of these notions) and into very general Southeast Asian propositions about how societies should best remember and record history. Some of these broader issues can be addressed first before going on to consider the somewhat narrower and more recent history of autobiographical writing in the region.
Rhetorical form and local historiographic claims have intersected in complex ways in different periods of Southeast Asia’s communications history. Indigenous, Islamic, and Western imageries of the past have jostled one another for prominence since Islam entered the region in the 1400s and since the European colonial age began in the 1500s. These diverse imageries of history have mutually shaped one another’s strategies for asserting truth and for claiming aesthetic excellence. The situation is admittedly confusing, especially given that these historical philosophies have been interacting and recombining for some six hundred years in a field of quite diverse local ethnic cultures—and given that Indian models of history and polity had already been influencing local historical philosophies since at least the seventh and eighth centuries.
Throughout this area of the world, though, several recurrent ideas about history and about the oral recitation and written recording of the past are common—ideas that can be provisionally identified here at the outset.
These ideas include a sense that there is a cyclical revolution of eras and an alternation of apocalypse and renewal; a hope for heroic figures who will hasten the turn of ages and will defeat foreign intruders; a sense that ancient creator beings are linked to living people and may be beseeched via ceremonial feasts, the sacrifice of animals such as water buffalo, and ritual speeches; a near-mythological expectation of times of chaos alternating with times of fragile social order; and a pervasive respect and aesthetic fondness for eloquent, often forthrightly poetic modes of history telling. There also seems to be an area-wide fascination with heirloom objects (old ceramic jars, gold jewels, frayed textiles). These sacred treasures (along with stone obelisks and stone funeral structures) serve as power-filled contact points between the dead and the living and the past and the present. In other words, history often has a physical, tactile form in Southeast Asia. These “things of history” also often work to unlock elaborate worlds of ritual oratory, in communal feasts in which past ages and
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ancestors are commemorated and contacted through pyrotechnic feats of speech making. The treasure objects often work as touchstones of such rituals.
In new national societies such as Indonesia, printed histories of various sorts have drawn extensively on these older philosophical assumptions and narrative styles. However, twentieth-century print versions of the past also sometimes go beyond these older forms to portray human times and “times” (eras) in terms of various “scientific histories”: in relation to Marxist frameworks, for instance, or in terms of the purportedly objective histories so often sought by conservative Western scholars.
In Indonesia, all of these several modes of history telling were present on the public stage by the 1920s and 1930s, along with Muslim and Christian historical visions as well. This complex communications system (and its resultant narrative and conceptual intricacy) was especially evident in colonial era Sumatra in the period when our authors were going to school and then later writing their memoirs. So the dense intertextual nature of historical thought was particularly complex. In the Toba Batak region, for instance, where the young Pospos was going to Dutch-language school and reading his European history textbooks in MULO school, prominent features of the social landscape were the tugu stone funerary monuments erected over the graves of important lineage ancestors. Village elders in Pospos’s little home settlement, moreover, were still reciting verse-form tarombo , clan genealogical narratives that purportedly linked the living to Si Raja Batak, “the first human.” What Pospos made of such mythic claims we shall soon see; in brief, he writes that such myths were “stories people used to tell.”
One additional, possibly pan-Southeast Asian idea about time and history is also worth mentioning immediately. This one seems to animate both childhood memoirs at a deep level. This is the assumption that the past is not intrinsically interesting, in terms of its details, dates, and series of concrete events, but is significant only as a source of wisdom and guidance for living in the present. Indigenous Southeast Asian historical thought, that is, is imbued with what historian O. W. Wolters has called a strong “forward-lookingness” (Gungwu 1979, 40), with a moral perspective about the past which charts a course for contemporary lives. This moral appreciation of history is found in both oral and written works.
Two examples can be mentioned to illustrate the logic here. In Toba Batak clan genealogy narratives, the often-troubled relationships of one distant ancestral figure with another are recalled to contemporary audiences (through oral genealogical recitations) as cautionary tales about how the living descendants should deal with one another, in everyday political terms. The “eternal” experiences of the ancestors offer practical as well
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as transcendent models for living lives in the here and now. Batak written texts can work in the same way. For instance, the new, ethnically based denominations of the original Batak mission church (the HKBP: Huria Kristen Batak Protestant) are currently publishing separate church histories for themselves. In this way, break-away denominations such as the HKBP-Angkola are publishing their own histories. These are often quite combative texts, which critique the “parent church” in the north, in Toba. The books work as devices for proclaiming and then negotiating difference, among the many fissiparous Batak Protestant communities. As we shall shortly see in Me and Toba , ethnic insults fly thick and fast among the six Batak societies. Little boys like Pospos’s remembered younger self exulted in such verbal combat, especially since the Toba Bataks could claim to be the “most ancient,” aboriginal Batak society, which was ancestral to all the other Batak peoples.
Constructions of such socially charged pasts occur with particular intensity and creativity in times of crisis, such as the national revolution era immediately preceding the publication of our two childhood memoirs. Historians Anthony Reid and David Marr remark on this association between crisis times and the production of moral histories in their preface to Perceptions of the Past in Southeast Asia :
We have seen time and again [in the essays collected in that anthology, which deal with cultures located throughout mainland and island Southeast Asia] that societies faced with fundamental and inescapable choices look at their pasts with particular urgency and insight, as a key to charting the future. This is as true of the eighteenth century Balambangan chronicles as of the nationalists of the 19th century Philippines or 20th century Vietnam. (1979, viii)
It might be added that this fundamentally hopeful perspective on the past as a template for future action (and this practice of rethinking history in light of current political challenges) also apparently inspired the writing of Me and Toba and Village Childhood during the national revolution. Remembered childhoods cast back into the 1920s and 1930s from that vantage point could hardly be politically innocent documents.
Fully modern, self-reflective, witty, even self-deprecating autobiographies such as Me and Toba and Village Childhood are a relatively rare and recent sort of literary work in Indonesia and Malaysia. These memoirs’ innovative position within Indonesian and Malay world historical writing and popular literature is important to specify carefully, as are these works’ ties to European genres and to European ideas of authorship and reading audiences. To begin locating the memoirs in that way we can start by exploring some of the epistemological assumptions and rhetorical styles used in telling
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history in oral ritual speech forms, and then in court-based script literatures in Indonesia and Malaysia. Printed memoirs of nonprominent individuals came very late in this magnificent language history.
Village cultures in Indonesia’s three hundred or so ethnic minority societies tend to have deep stockpiles of oral knowledge about the past. They typically present such knowledge in public ritual speech performances at such events as the dedication of new villages, funerals, stone monument dedications, and bone-reburial ceremonies. Such occasions call for poetic evocations of a transcendent past, recalled via such spoken genres as rhymed couplet speeches. During these special ritual times, which often go on for several hours, orators sometimes are said to speak “with the voice of the ancestors,” and the living world of contemporary humans momentarily touches the shadow world of dead forebears. Ancestors are intensely concerned with the lives of their descendants, according to the folk epistemologies that underlie such speech performances.
Ritual oratory provides a crucial venue for the living and the dead (and the present and the past) to intersect for a moment of exceptionally portentous and pleasurable aesthetic congress. Such speech-making occasions often have extensive “invisible audiences” of spirit beings in imaginary attendance, surrounding the world of humans and their imagined forebears. Located even more distant in time and space are the actual deities of such cultures. These gods are often ancient creator figures, with ambiguous male and female gender characteristics (Father Sky/Mother Earth pairs are common). Today, Outer Island Indonesian ethnic minority societies have seen their oral heritages reshaped in significant ways through interaction with the print culture of the national society and the holy texts, sacred scripts, and theological claims of the world religions. Even so, though, social place, a “rightful claim” to recite a lineage or clan genealogy, and poetic elegance still work together to lend authenticity to oral historical narratives, many in ethnic cultures in Timor, Sumba, Flores, Roti, and highland Sulawesi. The most highly valued talk is often phrased in rhymed couplets (a form of parallel speech involving linked couplets, found in many eastern Indonesian cultures). Special orations in many eastern Indonesian and highland Sumatra cultures are traded between marriage alliance partners (for instance, verbal duels, praise speeches, and blessing routines). The well-modulated exchange of eulogistic speeches between wife-givers and wife-receivers serves, in the local view, to keep the society and cosmos in order and in good condition. The exchange of human prayers for divine blessings, moreover, serves to keep the generation of the living in fruitful contact with the past and its ancestral inhabitants. References to sacred sites encode large amounts of affectively powerful knowledge about founding ancestors and their exploits in “early creation
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times.” Important places names often undergo a constant process of terminological change, however. Thus, crucial historical knowledge becomes hidden and must be ferreted out by lineage descendants. This entails elaborate, arcane efforts at argumentation. This combative arena of public memory allows local history experts to continually adjust the remembered past to contemporary political circumstances.
Many of these exquisitely adjustable, present-focused oral historical traditions have experienced grinding encounters with script literacy and, starting in the late 1800s, print literacy. This situation has naturally worked to reshape local ideas of history.
The prosperous mercantile trade sultanates such as those in the Bugis areas of southwestern Sulawesi and in Sumatra’s Minangkabau, Aceh, and Deli coast regions had extensive court literary traditions based on the Arabic script introduced as these societies adopted Islam, starting in the 1500s. Some of these mercantile societies and others such as the Batak societies (with smaller-scale polities and relatively fewer long-distance trade contacts with outsiders) also had their own script traditions. These writing systems probably derived from Sanskrit-based scripts once used in Hindu-Buddhist courts, such as Srivijaya in South Sumatra’s Palembang area. Script literacy supported a number of genres of historical writing in the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay peninsula: hikayat (epics), silsilah (pedigree, genealogy), tarich (record, chronicle), and sejarah (history). These genres were not freestanding, fully literate ones but had continued strong ties to oral modes of telling history. Case studies of Malay, Bagis, and Acehnese script histories by literary specialist A. H. Johns and anthropologists Shelly Errington and James Siegel offer detailed accounts of the sorts of historical vision one typically finds in these script traditions, with their persistently heavy oral residues. In all three cases, oral, ritual speech ways of narrating history continued to thrive alongside the script texts, and the latter themselves were generally meant to be chanted aloud in public recitation performances, rather than read silently by solitary readers in the style of deep print literacy. Oral history and script-based history continually reshaped each other conceptually and rhetorically.
In the Malay sultanates, the oral base to historical thought was exceptionally resilient, far into the age of script literacy, and oral notions of causation and author-audience relations persisted in sturdy form throughout the nineteenth century. Sweeney writes (1987), in fact, that a heavy oral residue continues to shape Malaysian rhetorical expectations and social thought today.
In his essay “The Turning Image: Myth and Reality in Malay Perceptions of the Past” (1979), A. H. Johns asserts that the court chronicles set down in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries (chronicles such as the
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Malay Annals) had especially close ties to the narrative conventions and implicit worldviews of Malay oral folk stories and myths. In both these palace annals and in village folktales, narrators would tell strange, exhilarating stories about supernatural heroes, prodigies of nature, and odd coincidences that served to advance the action. In separate retellings of the same oral tale, discrete events would sometimes be inserted at different junctures of the story. The events of the court chronicles sometimes have much this same sort of “displaceability.” Both the court chronicles and the oral stories had a folksy, peasant-society flavor. This did not come, Johns writes, from any direct borrowing of motifs from one genre to another. Rather,
court scribe and peasant, sharing a common perception of the world, shared also a predisposition to tell a story, any story, in a similar way. So a folk hero’s ancestry, the auguries that attend his mother’s pregnancy, the events occurring at this birth and episodes of his childhood would all be known to the court chronicler and be grist to his mill as he sets about telling the story of the court, the dynasty and the ruler he serves. (1979, 52)
Common to both oral tales and Malay court writings were such tropes as trade prosperity, full harvests, overflowing granaries, kings with many children, and fields stocked with innumerable plump water buffalo. These were all put forward as signs of a realm’s power (1979, 53). These storytelling devices were animated by a common set of epistemological assumptions: that time was cyclic and the human world existed within it in a kind of steady state (1979, 55); that cataclysmic battles would occur and wreck havoc but sometimes worked to hold “dangers” and social and cosmic chaos at bay (1979, 55); that benevolent heroes would protect and nurture their indebted bondsmen, poor relations, and virtuous naifs.
In a provocative related essay called “Some Comments on Style in the Meanings of the Past” (1979), Shelly Errington makes the large claim that Malay hikayats (epics) such as the Hikayat Hang Tuah remained deeply oral in their conceptual base, although they were certainly written down in Arabic script. Errington identifies several narrative features of the Hikayat Hang Tuah which indicate a heavy oral residue. The narrative is composed, for instance, of a loose constellation of rather folksy events, such as adventures of heroes, consultations with astrologers, and interactions the human protagonists have with supernaturals. Glorious noblemen and beautiful princesses flit in and out of the story, in a style reminiscent of oral epics. The hikayat’s various events are related sequentially in the script version, but Errington asserts that this does not necessarily imply that the epic’s writer or readers or hearers (for like many Malay hikayats this story was meant to be savored in a public recital) assumed a sequential chronological framework for the story. Rather, without firm temporal markers,
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the hikayat’s incidents were each essentially detachable from the others. The history “of old times” related in the Hikayat Hang Tuah was not a set linear sequence of events but a collection of small times and incidents that could have occurred in other sequences, or could have been understood to have taken place in a kind of eternal simultaneity with the present, accessible through the event of the recitation performance itself.
In other words (in Errington’s view), the Hikayat Hang Tuah’s author had no sense of history in the linear, secular sense. For him, a hikayat recitation was essentially a heavily ritualized dramatic performance, done for the pleasure of storytelling and the world of sound such a recitation could temporarily create. Errington compares this mode of history to the production of gamelan or Javanese or Balinese gong orchestra music:
The form-giving elements in the life of traditional Malay courts were intimately linked to ordered sounds. We have on the other hand events which happen in the world. Hikayat and other such forms convert the impermanent and transitory events of this world into something which endures, at least as it is spoken. Or rather, they do not so much convert transitory events as perpetuate them, carry them into the present of their telling . Hikayat do not create monuments of either stone or of literature, but only perpetuate in a form which must be continually renewed to endure. I have come to think of the relation as rather analogous to that of noise and gamelan music. Individual sounds, like individual events, are merely noise. Gamelan takes these and gives them a form which itself transforms human states, has an effect in the world. Like gamelan music, it is not a content but an arrangement and performance; like gamelan music, its end does not grow out of its beginning. The past is just like noise; for traditional Malays it did not have an objective existence which had to be investigated in itself, but it stood, rather, as the material, the raw substance, which could be converted into sensible form. (1979, 40; emphasis added)
Or, put another way, the past was important primarily as the disjointed raw substance that could be converted into concrete moral form, as a guide to action in the present. Hikayats do seem to have been moral histories in this sense, although Errington’s thoroughgoing dismissal of the semantic content of the epics in favor of emphasizing their sound qualities and aurally tantalizing aspects seems to be a considerable overstatement.
Anthropologist James Siegel examines a complex Malay world historical manuscript situation similar to the one Errington tackles in his book Shadow and Sound: The Historical Thought of a Sumatran People (1979). Siegel is dealing with a hikayat tradition in a deeply Muslim society, and he attends to the historical ideas of both the epics and the world religion. He focuses on the Arabic script historical narratives of the Acehnese, the pepper-trading people organized into small states, located across the Strait of Malacca from the Malay sultanates. Siegel offers a close examination of
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the text of the Hikayat Pitjoet Maehamat, which was written down in court circles in the mid-1700s. He extends this analysis by drawing additionally on ethnographic information about how contemporary Acehnese think of and use written texts. Using these sources, Siegel offers a speculative account of this one Malay world culture’s construction of time and language (which he insists must be studied together).
In an approach to texts reminiscent of Errington’s, Siegel finds that many Acehnese historical texts written in Arabic script aim at establishing certain magical effects more than they aspire to record factual events in a linear, irreversible sequential order. In this still-resilient and deeply oral tradition, the arrangement of words on a page (often a quite artistic arrangement) and the play of sound in a chanted epic are given a privileged place over the actual semantic content of the narratives at issue. Lists of the names and rifles of former rulers, for instance, have a certain talismanic power in themselves, as masses of power emblems, even though the dynasties or political elites at issue in the list may have little objective historical connection to one another. Siegel states further that Acehnese histories often have the implied aim of negating the “real history” of Aceh in its often unhappy relations with outside states (with other sultanates, the Dutch colonial state, the Japanese during World War II, the Indonesian national government centered in Jakarta).
This difficult point warrants clarification. Seen from a Western historiographical perspective, Aceh has an unflattering history of successive takeovers by these foreign states. Aceh exists today as a beleaguered “special province” of the Republic of Indonesia, largely (though uneasily) under the military and bureaucratic control of the Indonesian nation. Acehnese folk history, however, argues otherwise, by organizing the world of power relations among societies in an imagined map where Aceh lies at the center and various outside states are located at the less powerful edges of this realm. Speakers in this tradition delight in unintelligible mantras, veiled allusions, and aural or scriptural loveliness. These conventions have played a pivotal role in allowing Acehnese epic chanters and writers the luxury of “forgetting” Aceh’s many defeats at the hands of outsiders and turning this political decline into majestic self-eulogy. Loveliness of exposition and the chanting of “power words” work to negate the countervening power of secular defeat and misfortune at the hands of foreign forces. The Acehnese epic tradition had essentially died out by the late 1800s, but many of the same “history-stopping” motives that were present in the hikayats continued to be pursued later on, in other literary forms. These included folk-tales (1979, 213–228) and popular literature versions of the holy war against the Dutch (1979, 229–266).
Print literacy stands to introduce an added dimension of secularity to
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these oral and script versions of history, although it must immediately be noted that print communication hardly replaces these historically older media in any totalistic way. Rather, print versions of the past add to an already complex communication system relating to memory and the past. Government-owned printing press technology and commercial publishing became major forces in outer-island Indonesian societies and particularly in Sumatra after the mid-1800s, as Dutch control was consolidated in these regions. This was also the period when a thin network of public schools was being established in the Batak areas and in Minangkabau. In Toba and Minangkabau, the earliest print publications with a public impact were elementary school primers, Christian and Muslim teaching aids such as guides to the holy texts, government circulars, and bureaucratic handbooks such as post office manuals. Also of great importance by the mid-1800s were official letters and political appointment notices given by the Dutch to local chiefs and noblemen, from the offices of the colonial government. In Toba and Angkola such rifles of office were sometimes kept as part of an aristocratic family’s power-laden heirloom treasures. By 1900, the southern Batak societies and Minangkabau had elementary schools in major population centers; by 1920 both regions and Toba as well had ethnic-language village primary schools, a few vocational secondary schools, and several of the highly prestigious, sought-after H.I.S. and MULO schools—the Dutch-language elementary and secondary schools so important in Pospos’s early experience.
By the same decade, print publications were beginning to build a wide public readership. Sumatran commercial cities such as Medan and Padang and even smaller administrative centers and school cities such as Sibolga, Padangsidimpuan, and Bukittinggi had biweekly and weekly newspapers by 1925. Most of these papers were in the Indonesian language, with some use of local ethnic tongues and Dutch (many highly educated readers were fluent in this language). Newspapers printed trade news such as rubber and coffee prices and local political items about the activities of the Dutch administrators in Padang, Sibolga, and Medan. Advertisements were sometimes international in scope: urging readers to buy Chevrolet cars; soap, powder, and cookies from Singapore; and home remedies and potions from Java.
The newspapers also published literary works, in profusion. These included verse narratives about star-crossed lovers, prose novels (which also tended to dwell on love-story themes), print renditions of old oral folktales, and printed versions of various ritual speech genres. Newspaper readers of modest means could also gain an almost ethnographic sense of what went on in the adat feasts of their social betters, for editors dispatched stringers and special correspondents to attend particularly lavish ceremonies and
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then write detailed, descriptive accounts of them (the Angkola Batak-language Sibolga newspaper Poestaha had many of these accounts).
In the Indies world as a whole, popular literature was experiencing explosive growth in this period. Both verse and prose narratives were being composed in large numbers, for publication in newspapers and as pulp paperbacks. The Chinese-Indonesian (peranakan ) community in Surabaya, Jakarta, and Medan was particularly active in this regard; their love stories, crime tales, and stories of business intrigue were read by a wide peranakan and general audience (Salmon 1981). These prewar decades (1920–1942) were also the floodtide era for Balai Pustaka’s modern novels. Taken together as a body of work, these novels charted out an emotional terrain of conflict, passion, and unhappiness, via love stories and tales of growing up centered on young adults from educated circles in West Sumatra. Many of these novels are basically stories of modernization gone awry.
By this 1920s and 1930s period, oral and script-based visions of history in Sumatran societies were already beginning to engage the print world in a long negotiation for status and authoritativeness. This is a negotiation process that continues to the present. Some of John Bowen’s recent work on historical thought in Gayo society over the last ninety years pinpoints the major social and rhetorical processes at work here (Bowen 1991). In Gayo, entry into world Islam, the Dutch colonial state, and the postrevolution Indonesian nation have led to a complex political world and a rhetorical universe with many voices. The latter claim different bases of authoritativeness, some citing scripture, others citing sacred persons, others invoking the military power of states. These bases of authoritativeness are often competitive with one another. Gayo orators and writers have constructed viable historical pasts for themselves within this panoply of possible texts and voices.
An additional, supremely important process was also at work in this period in Sumatran historical thought and writing. With print technology, a large reading public, and the schoolbookish view of culture gaining credence in educated circles, Sumatra’s old oral histories and their script-version repositories could emerge on the printed page as literature . In this process, older oral and script-based claims for the authoritativeness of their visions of the past could become trivialized to a degree. Writing of a similar situation in Roti, James Fox identifies the fundamental conceptual shift at issue here (1979, 25). In Roti, manek are local rulers or lords, and their histories were once recounted to listening publics in lengthy poetic, parallel speech performances. Fox foresees a time when print will redact Rotinese traditions significantly:
In the words of the fabulist Borges—whose life’s work forms a profound reflection on perceptions of the past—time, place and action compose the
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‘dramatic unities’ not just of history but of literature as well. It is possible that, once detached from specific genealogies and domains, the succession of the narratives that chronicle the history of a domain will cease to be significant. The tales, with time and place consigned to an indefinite past—when the manek ruled on Roti—may merge with other related tales. Those that continue to be told will be told for the telling itself. And those who gather these tales will consider them as folk literature rather than folk history. (1979, 25)
Toba Batak and Minangkabau were already putting into print their tarombo clan genealogies and Kaba (chronicles) in this way before the Second World War. With history emerging as a form of literature, a crucial, related development was also occurring: the emergence of the individualized, critical, reflective writer’s self in Indonesian letters.
Indonesian autobiography developed in the heady atmosphere of early nationalist thought and deepening print literacy in the immediate prewar decades. The country’s first modern autobiography is often said to be the nationalist leader Dr. Soetomo’s Kenang-Kenangan (Memories, which is a better translation for the word than “memoirs,” since Kenang-Kenangan conveys a sense of loosely arranged remembrances). The founder of the nationalist organization Budi Utomo when he was a medical student at STOVIA (School tot Opleiding yon Inlandsche Artsen), Dr. Soetomo produced a restrained and powerful account of his younger years in his East Javanese village of Ngepeh. The memoir focuses largely on his life up to adulthood, although Dr. Soetomo’s nationalist career for which he is famous came after this period. Most importantly, the work is a personalized account of a self-identified Indonesian author. However, Memories also has continued strong ties to Javanese cultural assumptions about time, society, and person. Benedict Anderson’s “A Time of Darkness and a Time of Light’. Transposition in Early Nationalist Thought” (1979) provides an extremely insightful assay of the various cultural legacies at work in Dr. Soetomo’s autobiography. Several other earlier and equally transitional autobiographies from colonial-era Malaya are also well worth exploring here briefly. Luckily, two of these works (Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munsyi’s Hikayat Abdullah and Mohamed Salleh bin Perang’s Tarikh Datuk Bentara Luar Johor ) have been the subject of literature scholar Amin Sweeney’s careful exegesis for their imageries of author, audience, self, and society. Taken together, Anderson’s article on Dr. Soetomo’s memoir and Sweeney’s extensive research on colonial-era Malay autobiography offer a rewarding introduction to the writing climate out of which our two 1950s childhood memoirs developed.
The themes found in all of this research on Indonesian and Malaysian
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autobiography are that the genre developed rather late in the history of Southeast Asian print literacy; that personal memoirs with their focus on the flawed, struggling individual had to establish their legitimacy in a literary climate more attuned to hagiography; that early autobiographies main-mined close rhetorical and conceptual ties to the oral cultures of village society; and that in pre-independence days the memoir form provided writers with an arena for thinking out large issues of colonial politics and nationalism. In addition, childhood days figure importantly in the telling of life histories in print.
Malay autobiography was undeniably a product of the colonial encounter with British literary forms and ideas about authorship and audience. However, it was also a local growth attuned to Malay concepts of self and public language. Nineteenth-century Malay autobiography also partook of writing patterns developed in court circles throughout the area’s Muslim mercantile world. These writing styles had been used for recording the great deeds of famous sultans (as some court leaders styled themselves) and of prominent military figures. Some of this eulogistic literature had parallels in Javanese court writing of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Autobiographical writing in colonial Malaya took a more personalistic turn, as Malay officials began to write self-portraits, at British urging, for audiences of Europeanized readers. Some of these memoirs were nonetheless deeply Malay. This was the case with Mohamed Salleh bin Perang’s memoir of his life in service to Abu Bakar, the Sultan of Johor, described in Sweeney’s Reputations Live On .[7] The memoir strikes the present-day Western reader as a somewhat dispassionate compilation of dates and events rather than a fully formed modern autobiography with rounded characters of the sort Western readers expect. The book also seems to lack a step-wise trajectory of personal development for its remembered protagonist. Amin Sweeney, however, cautions us against too easy a use of such Western categories of evaluation in reading Malay works such as this. Sweeney sees Mohamed Salleh’s Tarikh Datuk Bentaro Luar Johor as a pivotal piece of writing in Malay letters. The Tarikh is also a quite self-consciously modern work as well, Sweeney advises:
The distinctive feature of Salleh’s writing is that he was the first Malay author to prepare his audience for the novel idea of autobiography, so that the postulated reader is one that a Malay is willing to become. In short, although Abdullah’s Hikayat is the first work containing autobiographical material in Malay, Salleh’s writing is the first Malay autobiography. (1980, 18)
Salleh’s memoir (as compiled and translated as a single volume by Sweeney) has three parts, written respectively in 1915, 1894, and 1883. Part 1 begins forthrightly enough with the statement, “I, Mohamed Salleh
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bin Perang, was born on the island of Singapore at Teluk Belanga village in A.H. 1257 (A.D. 1841).” This section of the memoir is indeed a life story. Its first part details (in order) Mohamed Salleh’s early services as a court clerk to various officials, his study of the Chinese language (there is only a brief mention of this), his appointment as chief of police in Johor, his education and service as a land surveyor, and his dutiful work in support of Seri Maharaja Keryku Abu Bakar, the Raja of Johor. Mohamed Salleh uses just such honorific titles whenever he mentions his employer and patron, and also refers to him as “His Highness.” Much of the rest of part 1 chronicles Mohamed Salleh’s administrative and land surveying work done for Abu Bakar, who appears in the narrative as a high personage who issues commands for the economic development of Johor, to which the narrator reports himself answering, “I obey.”
The chronicle emerges as a carefully dated account of willing royal service and ends on a decidedly conservative, traditionalist note. This follows mention of a particularly upsetting incident and the sad denouement of the author’s career, a situation that must have sorely tested his loyalty to his patron. The passage, translated by Amin Sweeney, is worth quoting at some length, for it gives the flavor of Mohamed Salleh’s hoary style. This will stand in marked contrast to the irony and easy conversational style used in the two 1950 childhood memoirs, and to their much more reflective presentation of a writer’s self.
After that, I was plagued by all kinds of slanders which arose as a result of my giving land to some Japanese and allowing them to open up a plantation on the Semberung River in Batu Pahat. I declared, “The land that the Japanese were given I would not even describe as ‘land’; rather it was a swamp, permanently under water, and it was only due to the effort of the Japanese that it became such a profit for the government.” The lives of my children and myself were in a sorry state of confusion in Batu Pahat.
On 2nd May, 1912, I was pensioned off on $300 a month. My post as “Government Commissioner” administering Batu Pahat was taken over by the Hon. Engku Ahmad bin Mohamed Khalid. My son Haji Ya’kub also had his employment terminated and was granted a pension of $33 per month. Thus was the situation of my children and myself.
Though I was the victim of slander, as mentioned above, that is a matter of this world, and my heart never wavered in the slightest from the truth: the recent developments have impressed upon me that everything is from Almighty God, who has such great love for His servants: I express my thanks to Him more and more and ask forgiveness for my sins each time I pray. I most solemnly enjoin upon my children and my descendants down through the generations that they should never allow even to cross their minds the idea of wishing ill upon their own raja, or of leaving the state of Johor and its territories, for in the end their lives will not know peace. (Sweeney 1980a, 69–70)
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The form of this last section is obviously indebted to family genealogies, and to larger Malay orally based ideas about public reputation. So is the writer’s exalted, stilted style.
Part 2 is another life story account, written in a letter format to the author’s friend Na Tian Pier, a Chinese-Indonesian reporter for the Javanese newspaper Pemberita Betawi . The narrative again includes genealogical detail but adds more information about Mohamed Salleh’s youth and schooling and some early service he did as a schoolteacher. This section’s account of the opening up of Johor is also rendered in a more personalized style, with frequent invocations of Mohamed Salleh’s emotional states. Part 3 is a diary account of Mohamed Salleh’s trip to China and Japan in 1883, as Abu Bakar’s clerk. This section is fairly fast-paced travelogue enlivened by small amounts of ethnographic detail about Japanese temples, village dances, and diverting Chinese scenery. The account is not formally set into a life history framework. The narrator matter-of-factly uses a first-person-style narrative, as he has in his letter-based part 2.
This memoir as a whole (disjointed though it may appear to today’s Western reader) is indeed a decidedly individualized life account written at a time in Malay culture when autobiography of this sort was an unfamiliar genre. Sweeney astutely notes that the major innovative aspect of the Tarikh was not its attention to a personal life (for that was well acknowledged in Malay oral culture) but its author’s decision to use a fairly serious and self-consciously modern form of public discourse (prose) to relate his experiences to an imagined audience of Malays, who were construed to be caught up very much like the author himself in the drama of quick social change in a modernizing social landscape.
In his review essay “Some Observations on the Nature of Malay Autobiography” (1990), Sweeney makes the additional useful point that Malaysians have not typically been averse to self-aggrandizement, although their formal written traditions of autobiography are recent, starting at the earliest in the early 1800s. What seems to be most at issue is the relatively late development of public literary forms of personal narrative, not some mystical lack of personal selfhood in Malay culture. Sweeney writes (1990, 21–22) that a concern with “name,” with a strong reputation, has been a perennial preoccupation of Malaysians and their colonial-era forebears for many years. He cites the many court biographies of sultans as evidence of this. He goes on to note that a man’s public reputation was thought to derive largely from the approval and evaluation of others, rather than the opinion of the subject of the biography itself. Sweeney also writes that Malay oral culture easily accommodates personal narrative, but that such recollected lives have generally been thought to be best confined to the less exalted genres of speech, such as nonstylized conversational talk (1990, 22). Modern autobiographies of the sort that Mohamed Salleh is obvi-
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ously striving toward go beyond oral personal histories to try to publicly recollect a past life in a self-critical mode, and to make this written text open to community scrutiny. And the imagined audience for such works is conceived of as including people engaged in some of the same social transitions and personal tensions as the author.
Dr. Soetomo’s Memories is more pronouncedly modern yet than this Malay work, although the book is also deeply attuned to the Javanese ethnic world. The autobiography’s modernity lies in its simultaneous participation in Javanese concepts of time and morality and its use of a style of narration which presents the author as someone who can stand back from these patterns of ethnic thought and comment on them, as a watching self. Allied to this is Dr. Soetomo’s presentation of this childhood self as someone who came to acquire an almost ethnographic distance from the Javanese standards of behavior and cultural expectations that surrounded him as a boy.
The narrator finds certain old, well-accepted Javanese modes of behavior “strange”—a situation that gives him a perfect vantage point from which to communicate these “customs” to a group of readers (Indonesian language readers) whom he does not know (Anderson 1979, 235). The author participates in an additional kind of strangeness as well: “The strangeness” Anderson writes, “felt by the new ‘watching self’ in recording the long-past experience of the inner self (bathin )” (1979, 235). This puts a deeply literate frame, and a quite cosmopolitan one, around the core Javanese idea of bathin . In this way, Memories has a double cultural focus. On the one hand, the narrative presents a Javanese life, while on the other, the book is about the larger issues of writing a life in a time of social change and nascent nationalist awareness.
As Anderson points out, Dr. Soetomo’s choice of life events to include in his memoir is strongly inspired by Javanese assumptions about family heritage, fate, and personal development. The objective features of the writer’s life included his birth in a village in 1888, his upbringing by his maternal grandparents, his Dutch-language primary school experiences, and his matriculation in 1903 at STOVIA, the medical school for indigenous people. After graduation he worked as a government doctor. But Memories ‘ narrative thrust has little to do with any straight linear narrative about this sequence of events, or even with Dr. Soetomo’s prominence as an early nationalist leader. Rather, Memories relates a loose collection of episodes that occurred in the remembered boy’s home village and it provides fleeting sketches of the writer’s family forebears. School times in Dutch-run institutions are detailed at some length. The narration ends when the protagonist is nineteen years old. Discrete events from boyhood days and memories of ancestors are recorded in a rather disjointed way,
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making the memoir an altogether odd one for Western readers uninitiated in the pace and structure of 1930s Indonesian literature. “Memories ,” Anderson notes, “is not a biography in any ordinary sense. And even when he writes at length about his forebears, we are not given their biographies, but simply ‘excerpts’ or ‘pluckings’ from their ‘stories.’ Soetomo makes no attempt to place these ancestral figures in a maturing personal or historical context. They loom up in episodes to which no clear time can be assigned, except . . . for the significant markers jaman dahulu (the past era) and masa sekarang (the present age)” (1979, 225–226). These two temporal designations, Anderson notes, are indelibly Javanese. Each refers to an “age,” which is often seen as an era in a cosmic cycle of times. Dr. Soetomo also presents his early life as a time when he came to discover “the natural bent of his fate”—another core Javanese assumption.
However, Dr. Soetomo does not halt his portrayal of time and his life at this level of Javanese assumptions. He recollects how he learned of different apprehensions of time in the Dutch colonial schoolroom; how he continuously rebelled as a child against what was expected of him (he was a notably nakal , or naughty, boy); how he discovered frameworks of social justice which pushed him toward criticizing the colonial order; how he grew a bit apart from the village life of his forebears. For Dr. Soetomo, growing up became a time of active intervention in history, not just a thoroughly Javanese time for conformity to fated patterns.
Beyond this, recollecting his life became an effort of recording a change in consciousness in himself, not simply an essay in documenting a personal revolution of eras from “the past time” to “the present age.” Anderson expertly spotlights what this change of consciousness involves:
It is clear that Soetomo understood and accepted an idea of time which could be either fleeting or eternal, an idea in which, indeed, that distinction overrode all others. In this sense he was a traditional Javanese. But he was also a man who had been educated in a Western-style medical school, of which Darwinism was the cosmological underpinning, and for which death was defeat. In this mode of consciousness, the cosmos no longer turned, but moved on, up, ahead, and death was not “return” but the real end of a man. Soetomo was thus fully exposed to the fundamental disjuncture of progressive Western thought—history as species development and life as individual decay. “Memories” shows that he was not only influenced by the “new current” (with all the ironies sprung fight within the phrase), but saw it within two quite different conceptions of time—and thereby found a recording self within . (1979, 232, emphasis added)
This crucial discovery of this very modern sort of writer’s self is repeated in even more pronounced form in our two Sumatran childhood memoirs, as we shall see. Moreover, the acute social consciousness of Pospos’s and Radjab’s narrations are also prefigured in Dr. Soetomo’s book. The latter
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has numerous veiled references to Dutch oppression and to the remembered child’s growing armament of perceptual and rhetorical weapons of resistance.
Anderson details a telling incident illustrating this pattern:
Following his account of his clashes with Dutch schoolchildren, Soetomo describes his holidays back at Ngepeh. Returning to his grandfather’s home was “living in freedom with respect to naughtiness and pleasure. There I was spoiled and praised till I felt myself a truly extraordinary child.” Yet the very next thing he records is his very ordinary fear of lightning and thunder. When storms came he would run and hide his head in his grandmother’s lap. But then his grandfather would take him by the hand and say to him “sweetly and gently”: Ki Ageng Selo, mengko bledeg rak wedi dewe. Soetomo translates this for his non-Javanese readers thus: “Child, do not fear the lightning. Are you not the descendant of Ki Ageng Selo? Surely the lightning will come to be afraid of you.” Soetomo concludes: “And because of the conviction in his world, gradually I lost my fear of thunder and lightning, however terrible their voice.”
It is difficult not to see in this passage, coming directly after Soetomo’s defeats at the hands of the Dutch children, a veiled allusion to the struggle of Indonesians generally against the Dutch, “however terrible their voice.” But in addition, we may note that courage here comes from memory—memory of one’s origins. One grows up by growing back. (1979, 236–237)
And, it might be added, one grows up by learning to apply the social and perceptual insights gained from a journey back into childhood to present-day events, and to larger social horizons such as the notion of an Indonesian national community whose era “will come” not simply through some cosmic revolution of eras but through the active intervention of knowing, historically grounded actors.
Dr. Soetomo’s memoirs presage a number of other images of person, society, learning, and time found in Me and Toba and Village Childhood . These concordances are too numerous to be accidental. This is almost certainly not an instance of direct borrowing from Dr. Soetomo’s autobiography but rather a case of the sort of literary similarities in theme which derive from larger Indonesian patterns of thought about history, remembrance, and writing, and which animate twentieth-century Indonesian literature. An examination of the imagery of person, society, knowledge, religion, time, and narration in Me and Toba and Village Childhood will begin to show how self-reflective as well as how socially ambitious this one sector of Indonesian autobiographical writing had become by the 1950s.
Images of Self and Society
Much the same image of an emotionally conflicted, increasingly reflective self navigating a hesitant course through a dangerous transition to
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adulthood is consistently found in both Me and Toba and Village Childhood . Counterposed to this presentation of the author’s remembered youthful self is a similarly structured vision of society, one that stresses tensions between some groups bound to tradition and others enamored of change and modernization. The school system and the culture of print in Toba and Minangkabau serve as the small protagonists’ grand highway for moving from one of these poles to the other, and for embarking on late Indies adulthoods unfettered by the “superstitions” of Toba or Minangkabau adat, or the “false lessons” of village Christianity or Islam, as these bodies of knowledge are taught to the boys by their elders. The children’s main weapon in their fight to attain this sort of modern self is their open-eyed view of the traditional givens of village society. Also crucial here is the boys’ equally sharp and critical stance toward formal religion. In gaining this extra measure of insight on their old Sumatran social worlds, they become revolutionaries of the spirit. In gaining a modern self, they gain a modern vision of the world, and vice versa. Selfhood becomes permeated with political meaning.
By age seventeen, when Pospos and Radjab were leaving their home villages for the rantau, they had begun to construct their own lives in line with an imagined pluralistic future. They were going on to further schooling, to become teachers and interpreters of texts, in the multiethnic precincts of Java. All of this opened them to the possibility of imagining an Indonesian nation. Moreover, for thoughtful readers, the effort of progressing through these memoirs and witnessing these children’s small journeys also laid important aesthetic and emotional groundwork for thinking about more general issues of the new postcolonial period, and about Indonesian society itself, as a bold national experiment.
This twin approach to constructing a modern self and imagining a modern society is manifested in a variety of ways in Me and Toba and Village Childhood . It can be seen in the manner in which the authors describe village life and adat custom and the Batak and Minangkabau social worlds into which village life and adat are set. It can also be seen in the authors’ portrayals of the parade of characters who surround the children in rural Toba and Minangkabau. The memoirists’ approach to self and society can also be seen in their portrayals of the social prestige system of late colonial Sumatra (a world where Batak and Minangkabau interacted intermittently with Dutch schoolmasters, clerks, and soldiers, but more frequently with class-conscious Batak and Minangkabau). Also important are the memoirists’ presentations of the developmental journeys their earlier selves traversed on their way from birth to late adolescence. The autobiographies are remarkably similar in their treatment of all these themes, so we can look at the two books in concert. There are multiple textual examples of all the points made here, but I concentrate only on particularly telling illustrations.
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In their very early childhoods both small boys live in physically cramped and emotionally constricted households. This, at least, is the way the adult Pospos and Radjab want readers to believe they remember matters, whether or not that was actually the case. Much at issue with each author is the didactic point that parents should deal warmly and openly with their young children. The writers’ early family experiences are recalled in important part to show readers how close kinship worlds can go awry, to the detriment of children’s emotional lives.
Pospos’s father, for instance, shows affection toward his son only when the boy contracts a serious infection and lapses into a coma, causing the family to think he will die during the night. In overall terms, the cool climate in the home is recalled in terms of tightly regulated speech behavior and once-warm gift-giving practices suddenly withdrawn. Unexplained taboos also unsettle the child:
Unless there was something I really needed, I did not speak very much with my father. He did not question me about my work at school or what I did every day. He believed he was fulfilling his duties if he just made a living for us and kept us in food. I still remember when I was very small (exactly how old I don’t remember), my father would often bring little cakes for me when he came home from the marketplace; I would rush up and welcome him every evening. But suddenly, for some unknown reason, he stopped bringing me things. Perhaps he thought I had gotten too old for such treatment, that it was no longer appropriate for me to be brought little cakes.
Not once did my Dad clearly show his love for me. Not because he did not love me, but probably because that was just his way. If we were eating a meal together, he always gave me advice not to eat too much curry: “Later on, no one will want you as a son-in-law,” he said. If a jengkol fruit or a petai bean was still left he would joke, “Don’t eat too many jengkol , Djohanis, or your hair will turn red,” and I would believe him.
There were lots of food taboos for us children. For instance, we were not allowed to eat oranges at night. Eating the head of a chicken also was not permitted; people said that your hair would turn white. But no one told us that eating oranges at night might give you a bellyache or that chicken heads were the special parts reserved for grownups. (Pospos 1950, 18)
The boy’s relationship with his father was one of distant teacher and respected elder to small, dependent, usually obedient child. Djohanis resents his father’s consistent stinginess (this is also a recurrent theme for Radjab):
Often, when I was quite small my Dad would teach me how to sing songs after dinner. These were not church hymns but songs in the Malay language; even now I do not know what they meant. Maybe they were in old-fashioned Malay, I don’t know.
I realized that we were not rich and that my father worked hard to find us a handful of rice each morning and evening. So I did not ask him for money very often, unless it was for something I really needed. I realized that if I
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asked for some clothes, for instance, he wouldn’t give them to me right away. (1950, 18)
Pospos goes on in this same passage to describe his relationship with his mother. Sometimes the pair actually came to blows, he relates:
I was not even particularly close to my mother, especially once I got into middle school. She was satisfied if I helped her out by collecting firewood, boiling the rice, washing my clothes, watching the livestock, and so on. These duties I often forgot because I was so busy playing, and Mother often got angry at me, especially when she came home in the evening from the market and found that the rice was still not cooked. Often she grabbed a cane to beat me with, but I was really too big to be hit like this and I fought back. I tried to dodge her swipes and if it hurt too much I grabbed the cane and hit her back. Then Mother would go complain to my father. He was not particularly concerned—he knew my mother was always exaggerating—so sometimes he just laughed. My mother, of course, would be put out by this and say, “You’re the one who’s always spoiling Djohanis. Now he’s just incorrigible.” (1950, 19)
The boy’s family world was one which virtually excluded his small sister from serious consideration, a circumstance that Pospos recalls without any rancor. In other words, Me and Toba does not take a feminist slant on remembered childhood worlds, to say the least. After noting that girls were not counted as part of a family’s complement of “real children” Pospos goes on to recall:
I rarely played with my little sister, especially after I went to middle school and she entered girls’ school. It was customary for a boy not to be too close to his sister; they were supposed to stay apart from each other. You could not address your sister as engkau , it had to be kamu . [Batak use kamu as the formal second-person pronoun.] Other little girls were closer to us than our own sisters. (1950, 19)
Pospos summarizes the overall family situation:
Perhaps because none of them was a close friend to whom I could pour my heart out, I was not particularly close to my parents or sister. Yes, it was true that my parents fed me, bought me clothes, paid my school fees—in short, gave me everything I needed—and in return for their hard work and struggle they hoped I would keep progressing in school. My father and mother were my parents, but they were not friends or close companions. (1950, 19)
Closeness with other people would have to come in the outside world, among school friends (common victims of the school’s structures of hierarchy).
Radjab’s Ridjal is born into an apparently happy, boisterous, and certainly crowded Minangkabau compound household composed of multiple female-centered hearths. As the author describes it,
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My mother occupied one of the cramped rooms, and there I was born. I would say it was like being born in a barracks, since there were more than forty people living in that house at the time. The seven girls all had children, half of them themselves had children, and every night seven unfamiliar men came to the house, that is, the husbands of the seven women. One can imagine how noisy the place was, what with all these individual needs, dispositions, and behaviors colliding. Morning, noon, and night it was one big hullabaloo. I was born at five in the morning, when the house was quiet and everyone else was sound asleep, except for two or three of my aunts and a midwife. (Radjab 1974, 7)
Immediately Radjab recalls the feeling of deep longing this early scene always evoked in him:
That house and its surroundings always made me feel extremely nostalgic every time I visited it after I was five years old. I do not know why, and have never been able to explain it. The sense of yearning was vague, but it penetrated to my very soul. There were various flowers of different colors and some croton plants around the house, and in the backyard some aloe plants. The crotons were large, with wide varicolored leaves of red, yellow, green, and white. They always caught my attention and heightened my sensation of longing for some unknown thing. Maybe I felt this way because I planted two crotons on my mother’s grave; every time I see the plant the feeling envelopes me. (1974, 7)
The early environment of fun and emotional denseness soon dissipates for the infant, after his mother dies of cholera while he is still nursing. As mentioned, the baby then gets passed among a bewildering succession of female relatives, ending up finally in the hands of several notably unsympathetic stepmothers (as the author terms his late mother’s co-wives). These women lend a chill to his familial experiences, but the very young boy is quite fond of his father, and in this case, the man reciprocates. Typically, for Radjab, he remembers this situation in terms of speech use:
I lived with my father until I was five. I was never far from him, and I considered him a playmate who just happened to be rather large. I called him engkau , the familiar “you.” I only discovered later that this was wrong. All this time I lived with my stepmother, too, so there were three of us altogether. Father really did love me, first because I was his only male child, and second because I had no mother. I always played in the mosque where father taught, or on the grounds around it. (1974, 11–12)
As each remembered child attains the age of six or seven, he begins to discover several “outside” worlds located beyond his natal household and his tiny village realm of neighbor houses and mostly female kin. First, there are other villages “out there,” which the boys sometimes visit with their parents, or where thir fathers work. Second, there are exciting subsocieties in the home village or right nearby: the coffee shop scene, for instance,
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where adult males lounge about, read newspapers, and discuss grown-up matters, and the village schools and their fight communities of students and their mentor-teachers. Located far beyond these local communities are the far more exciting regions of the rantau. The boys hope their futures lie out there, in exotic Java or at the very least (in Radjab’s case) in the commercial coastal city of Padang, where the boy and his buddies hope to become merchants. Each of these realms is remembered as having its own emotional tone and ethos. Radjab’s recollections are illustrative of the approach taken in both books.
As an infant, Ridjal (Radjab’s remembered child) was totally enveloped in female care, with first his mother and then his more distant kinswomen bathing him, fussing over him, and as he grew a bit larger, disciplining him. He lived near his father until age five, as we have seen (although clearly his father was periodically moving among the houses of his several wives). One memory, of a long sojourn Ridjal spent in a lakeside village, is a particularly happy one. Ridjal and some young friends swam “in the cool, clear water of Lake Singkarak. We raced and splashed each other for an hour at a time. We did not yet dare to swim very far out, since we were still little, and we stayed near the shore, where plants grew in the shallows” (p. 14). The boy’s world was a small one, where jungle foliage played a large part. And the realm of foreigners started just a few houses over:
Our world was very small, about three hundred square meters that comprised the edge of the lake, the house, and the yard. I was afraid to go outside this area. The house that was about a half a kilometer down the road from my stepmother’s might as well have been in another world as far as I was concerned. When there was a wedding there, I did not dare go. I just watched from afar, hiding behind a row of castor plants. The people who lived in that house were like foreigners to me, not the same sorts of people as my father, my stepmother, and the others who lived in the two long houses and the hut. (1974, 15)
During the same period and later, too, when they got older, the boys would feel drawn to explore the deep forest that surrounded the small habitations. They would also climb up a mysterious mountain peak called The Four Houses, look out over the surrounding countryside, and dream of life in the distant rantau. The latter was full of wonders:
When danger threatened, especially some kind of epidemic, the people of Sumpur burned incense and slaughtered a goat for a ritual meal at The Four Houses. They asked that Sumpur be spared from the catastrophe. Old people said that in times of disaster you could sometimes see a winged horse running wild through the hills, ridden by a heroic figure.
From the top of the hill you could see all of Sumpur, the rice fields around it, and to the south Lake Singkarak. When I was older and had the urge to
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wander or go to the rantau, I often climbed up to The Four Houses and daydreamed, communing silently with nature, confirming the presence of a wide and rolling world that stretched from the slopes of Mount Merapi and Mount Singgalang in the north to the foot of Mount Talang in the south. But when you turned to the west, the land looked like a deep and steep-walled ravine of nothing but wild grass, through which flowed the Sumpur River, its current barely audible as it rushed downstream. I do not know whether anyone ever fell into that ravine, but I am certain that no one ever dared climb down into it. (1974, 8)
The boy’s thoughts of the distant, as yet unobtainable realms (the forest world, the rantau) were shot through with feelings of longing, or kerinduan .
After age six Radjab’s boyhood self entered two new communities. This move caused an irreparable break with his early family life, the one located close to lakeside scenes and forest groves. He was sent to school. First there was public school, which Ridjal liked very much (a subject to be discussed shortly). Then there was the formidable surau, the Muslim recitation community centered on a small mosque. Here, a close-knit group of sixteen boys learned to recite their Arabic prayers. This school group quickly developed into Ridjal’s everyday intimate community. As the memoirist writes later in the book, in chapter 13, life in the surau eventually led the boy and a few of his friends to sever most of their ties to the “regular” outside world. As the boys penetrated more and more deeply into Islamic studies, they took up the white robes of Arabic dress and lived at a severe monastic remove from the hurly-burly of normal Minangkabau village life. Early on, however, when the boys were still surau initiates, they were much more themselves (Radjab remembers) and much truer to their normal feelings.
The sixteen boys had entered the surau at about the same age, which made them a natural community set apart a bit from the other, older boys, and from the much younger ones (the entire student body numbered over forty). Radjab remembers his closest circle of friends in finely observed detail. He paints an individualized portrait of each friend, remembering some as suspicious, some as good-hearted, some as sports mad, and so on (p. 22).
Certain adults also peopled the boys’ world. There were their Muslim instructors, of course, but also visitors staying at the surau on brief visits home from the rantau. These men would regale the youngsters with exhilarating stories of adult life in distant lands. Also present in the surau community were some flagrantly strange village characters, such as Lebai Saman, an odd old bachelor full of divination lore and funny stories. Radjab recalls him in entertaining, fond detail. A similar but more ribald treatment is paid to the “Village Privates,” a ragtag group of unemployed, overage bachelors who loll about the coffee stalls and empty houses, getting
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into devilment. For Ridjal and his friends, the Village Privates constitute examples of the maturation process gone zanily awry.
Radjab’s technique of describing an individuated social world peopled by emotionally deep children, several vaguely sketched in and rather oppressive teachers, and a small number of spectacularly interesting odd characters like Lebai Saman is reflected also in his more general approach to “writing society,” in the sense of his technique of reporting a social world.
For Radjab, and for Pospos too, the human world as a whole is made up of a multiplicity of “societies,” each of which has “customs.” Sometimes these traditions are quirky and unusual; this circumstance renders them worthy of mention and description in the memoirs. In almost all of these instances, the small boys look out at an ethnographic world with sympathy and balanced interest. Many of their elders, however, are so old-fashioned as to actually believe in these old customs naively and fully. The boys stand off to the side of these communities of belief, wondering about Sumatra’s parade of customs, and coming up with their own, distanced perspective on particular practices.
Radjab’s chapter 20, about a trip the boy and his father take out to an “odd” little mountain village called Sulit Air, shows the writer in this ethnographic mode. He portrays the remembered child as sharing this same perspective. The boy relishes the parade of customs on display for him during this visit: lavish village games, fancy costumes, special Fasting Month celebrations. Later in the chapter Radjab describes the peculiar goings on associated with badunie (a special ritual time when villages would show off wealth by lavishing it on entertainment): men would cross-dress as women, two village factions would hold mock battles, and special processions and dances would go on till all hours.
Pospos turns much the same ethnographic lens on Toba speech patterns, marriage customs, and inheritance rules. He details, for instance, the ethnic stereotypes held by his own and various other Batak societies about one another with reportorial flair (p. 47). Pospos also reports Toba-area poverty with similar clearsightedness:
Anyone who has ever gone by car through Tapanuli from Pematang Siantar surely has noticed that there is nothing whatever along the roadsides except the rice fields and, way out in the middle of them, villages surrounded by clusters of bamboo; they look like green islets in a green sea. Farming is, in fact, the sole means of livelihood for people there. Over toward Silindung there are a few other activities, such as rubber farming and harvesting gum benzoin for making incense, but there is not even much of that. The area’s poverty is what has kept railroads out. But farming alone eventually falls short of satisfying people’s needs. If a person has many sons he surely cannot divide his rice land into enough parcels for each one of them, so Toba
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people search for other means of support. People flock to Sidikalang and Kota Cane to open new farms and new villages. And that’s not all. Children with schooling migrate out beyond their home region to find jobs as clerks on plantations or to become ambtenaars in the big city.
People in other communities often got jealous of the Toba because of this. In the Simelungun area, for instance, the Toba had come to be hated because they are the ones who look prosperous and who hold positions in offices. In East Sumatra people had begun to resent them, and indeed by that time Medan had become “Tapanuli City,” Tapanuli’s capital. The genuine Malays and the Simelunguns and the Karos (who are also Batak) get short shrift there and count for nothing. Disputes also break out frequently with Padang people. This is not surprising. Once there was a big dispute between West Sumatrans and Tapanuli people in East Sumatra, and no cars from West Sumatra were allowed to go through Tapanuli.
People say Lake Toba is a lovely lake, but the idea never really occurred to us. Maybe this was because we were so used to lovely scenery or because we were so thoroughly accustomed to playing in the lake. But there was another reason we paid no attention to the natural beauty of our land: we had no time for that sort of thing. After we got out of school, for instance, we were not allowed to go play but were told to fetch firewood or do some other task. “Now, don’t go thinking you can be like What’s-his-name. He’s a rich kid.” That’s what we’d always hear.
True enough: the fear of having an empty belly was what pushed people to work their hardest. (1950, 47–48)
It is obvious that Pospos sees blunt ethnic stereotypes and such conditions of poverty as existing outside of his own personal self, a situation that makes these idea systems open to his critical appraisal. Radjab adopts exactly the same notion of a watching self for his protagonist: Ridjal experiences a world of old Minangkabau marriage customs, inheritance patterns, divination beliefs, and village taboos. He learns of their existence as a student would, and then he treats them with a touch of skepticism. Ridjal’s approach to Minangkabau marriage customs is illustrative here. He reports that many families seek to secure rich merchants as sons-in-law; that Balai Pustaka novels would lead us to believe that young women forced into such financially astute marriages would inevitably be unhappy and would pine for their true loves; but that, finally, when we observe real marriages involving people we actually know, most young women who get married off to old shopkeepers and cloth brokers end up being quite content with their lot and pleased, too, that they have fared better in the marriage market than have their girlfriends.
Both authors also take a similar critical approach to the all-important Sumatran matters of social location and a family’s position within prestige hierarchies. And again, the remembered boys position themselves at a distance from the givens of their traditional village cultures, and at a distance
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too from the status systems promoted by the colonial school system (a particular preoccupation of Pospos’s) and from those promoted by Islam (Radjab’s focus). Both boys’ close brushes with family instability seem to have fostered this particularly distanced view of social life. Radjab’s “normal life course” was upset early on by his mother’s death and he was launched upon his career of household moves from one relative to the next. In Pospos’s case, his natal family remains intact but his father careens from one job to another. The family is never far from poverty and Djohanis never knows when or if he may be withdrawn from school for lack of funds.
From such experiences of watching their parents lead unpredictable lives that clash with adat models, both boys gain the insight that social stability is a cruel chimera. Pospos shows an extra measure of bitterness here, derived from his family’s poverty and from that of Toba society in general.
In Me and Toba traditional villages are organized into contesting factions. These have greater or lesser degrees of power. It is the individual’s task, in most cases, to accommodate himself or herself to this circumstance. For instance, the lowly status of Pospos’s clan (marga ) in the family’s home village necessitates a certain jaundiced realism on the part of the growing boy, so that he is not destroyed by scions of more prestigious clans. Djohanis quickly learns that he has few older-lineage-brother protectors in his village, so he must avoid fistfights or he will have to fight them alone.
When Pospos’s remembered self looks beyond his intimate social world outward into the Indies (that is, into such outposts of Dutch colonial control as the government school system in Tapanuli) he sees rigidly structured status hierarchies peopled by Toba children and adults caught up in rapacious games of one-upmanship. Cutthroat competition among families to have the children with “the best degrees” from “the most prestigious schools” is the motif of this Indies world. Many Toba youngsters fail to get into the supposedly right schools, and their parents’ social standing suffers in consequence. Pospos himself is an apt and cagey pupil and he does manage to keep passing his final exams at each level of this status-crazed school system. In contrast to most of the other children, though, the boy doubts the moral worth of the entire colonial school enterprise. He well recognizes that the H.I.S. schools, MULO schools, and so on serve the practical purpose of giving impoverished village children an escape route out of the farm villages into a (he thinks) stable, salaried world in the colonial bureaucracies and the plantations along Sumatra’s east coast. However, Djohanis is the sort of boy who asks, What moral cost does such economic progress and prosperity exact? His fellow pupils seem to him to be enslaved to an empty competitiveness, no different in basic aim or strategy from the destructive family rivalries of premodern Toba villages, where disputes flared into flame over access to new farm land or irrigation water.
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The clear implication of Pospos’s characterization of the school-based competitiveness he sees around him is that there must be a more defensible avenue toward the future.
Radjab’s younger self is remembered in much the same way. He notices how important differences of wealth are for his fellow Minangkabau and how social status shapes marriage choices. Prestige-conscious parents, he finds, want high-status young men as sons-in-law (one of the reasons his own family wants him to train as a Muslim schoolteacher).
Very importantly, too, the child develops a cautiously neutral mental stance toward some of the most vituperative disputes his elders engage in. Ridjal watches the Traditionalists versus Modernists (kaum tua, kaum muda ) conflict, for instance, from a measured distance, as a prematurely wise onlooker. He notes (1974, 155) that he did not take sides in this bitter rift that split Minangkabau village society during the twenties and thirties. He simply stood off to the side of the philosophical debate, watching his elders, remembering the scenes.
How does the boy gain this special measure of insight which has vaulted him beyond the level of consciousness characteristic (he writes) of most adults in his home society? The answer is the same for both Radjab and Pospos: through the schoolroom and the school text, and via the liberating world of books to which the children thereby gain access.
Book Learning, Schools, Language, and Knowledge
How readers should best interpret texts and how audiences should best understand speech are matters that lie at the heart of these memoirs and the social and historical vision they propose. Pospos and Radjab denigrate surface acoustical sound and physical letter shapes on a page in favor of the semantic meanings that they feel lies beneath utterance and writing. They also recognize the rootbed of ties linking language use and political power; additionally, they fear the misuse of such associations. Both writers’ small protagonists suffered from such linkages in their everyday classroom experiences. Pospos and Radjab doubt, further, that one language can be smoothly translated into another, on a word-for-word or thought-by-thought basis. Finally, they find the entire notion of teaching texts by a process of rote memorization ridiculous, and also deeply insulting to young students.
These four positions regarding language put both authors’ remembered childhood selves in direct conflict with their parents, schoolteachers, religious instructors, and in fact with much of the adult social hierarchy surrounding them as colonial-era youngsters. Djohanis and Ridjal are presented to readers as linguistic revolutionaries, albeit somewhat hapless ones, since their efforts to privilege content over linguistic or textual form
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often meet with overwhelming resistance while they are still young. Much the same fate results from the boys’ childlike efforts to renegotiate the politics of speech in their rural lives and in their schools. The implication of both books is that a full social revolution overthrowing both Dutch control and traditional Toba and Minangkabau social hierarchy would be necessary if the boys’ hopes for a liberated and specifically modern linguistic world are to be realized. Colonial Sumatran society has a good deal of growing up to do on this score, the memoirists infer.
Many incidents scattered throughout the two autobiographies deal with language, knowledge, and textual interpretation pursuant to these themes. One of the most recurrent types of narrative event along these lines contrasts a magical approach to language with what these authors take to be a modern reader’s stance toward texts. The latter is clearly something Pospos and Radjab approve of. This stance is one in which the reader peruses books and other printed works for their publicly accessible messages and for their personal, interpretive significance; readers are not to remain fixated on letter shape or acoustical sounds or words and chant phrases. Radjab and Pospos pursue large issues like these through the concrete, minor event or scene, minutely observed, as usual.
There are numerous, sometimes poignant, sometimes funny scenes in which the memoirists pursue the idea that semantic content should be of greater social moment than sheer sound or textual letter shape. Radjab is particularly insistent on this point, and his chapter 8, “Finishing the Koran,” and his chapter 13, “Reciting Koranic Verses at the Pesantran,” dwell on issues of language, sense, and semantics in detail. These chapters provide the two memoirs’ strongest and certainly most heartfelt statements in this area. Here, for instance, is Radjab commenting about sense versus sound in the opening passages of chapter 8:
When I was twelve years old, I came to the end of the Koran, which I’d been learning to read and recite in the surau for three years.
At the time I was learning how to read and recite the Koran, I did not know that the sentences had any meaning at all. I only knew that the Koran was in the Arabic language and had to be read by singing it, so that the reader would store up merit and later on would get into heaven. I did not know that if it was translated into our own language we would understand what God meant with all of these verses. However, though I had completed the reading of the Koran seven times, God had not said a single thing that I could understand, because it hadn’t been interpreted for me.
The Koran must be read, recited, and sung, said the teachers. Each night for three years I wrestled with the manner in which it was to be read: a line over A, a line in front of U, a line under I; if there was a sloping line half a centimeter long, you’d read it in lengthened form, with three letter A’s, AAA, III, UUU; if there was no such mark, you’d shorten a letter, A, I, U; and if you had the letter ‘AIU, you’d have to drone out ‘A, ‘I, ‘U. And if there was
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a mark looking like a backward brush, called a tasjdid , the letter underneath the brush would be read double.
We had to be very careful and cautious in reading the Koran, as if we were penetrating a road strewn with thorn bushes. For, the teacher said, if we read and recited it wrong (for instance, if Islaaam was read Islam ), we would have committed a great sin and would be tormented in hell, whose fires were a thousand times as hot as those on earth. Or, if the voice was supposed to come out the nose and if it was supposed to be droned, but we read it with our voice coming out of our mouth (for instance, if we read ‘A as A), our chances of getting into heaven were slim indeed. (1974, 52)
Chapter 13 begins with a narrative that is even more bitter in its condemnation of the Muslim teachers’ inane teaching methods (inane according to Ridjal and his friends). Apparently the boys were taught two sorts of magical knowledge: the ritual sounds of their Arabic prayers and the arcane rules of Arabic grammar. They understood not a single thing. Their exalted teacher was mouthing gibberish, they found, and chastising them whenever the boys would press him to tell them what the holy texts might possibly mean.
The boys entered a period of bafflement and frustration:
We had been reading and reciting for four years, night and day, but we could not make sense of a single word of it. We couldn’t take a single word of it to heart and retain it. (1974, 82)
Ridjal’s uncle, his teacher here, glories in a kind of sacred inanity:
He asked God that our verse recitation studies might be lengthy and that all of us might become pious, learned persons and enter into heaven.
Then Uncle read: “Alkalamu hual lafzu murakkabu mufidu bil wadhi.”
He translated this as: “As a beginning, there was the word and what was this beginning like? What was called the word was lafaz , which was composed, which provided a salutary benefit and a wadahak .”
“Will of God!” I said to myself. “What does all this mean? Even though it has been translated, it still is pitch black.”
What did he mean by “the word”? I only knew that that word was an instrument for writing the Arabic letters, made of a palm tree (rib) and sharpened at the end.
He continued further: “According to the Nahu people, those folks, a word is whatever, it lafaz , which isn’t like the sound of the mosque drum, which provides some salutary benefit but has no letters to it nor is it like the wadhak .”
This didn’t make it any clearer at all, just murkier. When he mentioned the nahu , I remembered a certain woman in Seberang Air whose name was Nahu. Her house was along the Sumpur River out in back of the surau of the honorable Imam Muda. Perhaps she was an Arab grammarian. And why did the Indonesian passages used for the translation here have to twist and turn so much and be so repetitive, with half of the words in Indonesian and
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half in Arabic but the sentence structure absolutely, totally in Arabic? Only later on, three years afterward (once I’d studied Indonesian and Dutch grammar), did I come to understand that the meaning of the holy text was the following:
“A sentence is a composition of words which can be coherently understood and purposefully pronounced.” If he had only said that, we would have understood!
Or if he had gone on to say: “According to grammarians, lafaz are the voiced sounds that can be written out with words and whose meanings can be understood,” we could also have understood.
But after reciting for some two hours, listening to his murky explanations, which repeated themselves and twisted and turned like a snake’s armpit, half in Arabic, half in Indonesian, I was still totally confused. So were my friends.
Moreover, I was surprised: Why didn’t we understand a single word of Arabic? Why didn’t we know the words for things around us, like house, surau, school, door, window, kitchen, to eat, to drink, me, you, and him or her, in Arabic? We’d been taught the grammar and we’d been taught explanations of it in an unspeakably exalted form of Arabic—which we’d have to keep mulling over again and again and asking, does each letter have to be read with an A or a U or an I? Grammar was the science of the types of words there were and the ways to join them together into compositions—but as yet we didn’t even know the words themselves which those types and compositional rules would apply to. So what then were we supposed to be joining together into sentences?
We barely had any acquaintance at all with the Arabic language when our heads started to spin with its grammar and all these rules that we had to memorize and know by heart. (1974, 82–84)
Ridjal finally despairs of making any sense of his lessons and simply capitulates to the prevailing standard of grading at work in his recitation classes: he memorizes the sound sequences and spits them out on command. His personal, emotional life shifts over to his sports activities with his friends and to his hopes for a possible future life in the rantau when he grows up. Eventually his father allows him to leave his uncle’s recitation school and (as Ridjal sees it) to return to regular human existence. Pospos strikes similar themes: his remembered child and the boy’s small pals laugh at a local crazy man who walks about the village roads spouting important-sounding but silly Christian sermons, in grand church pulpit style (chapter 4, P- 15). The children also mock a variety of adults who have learned a smattering of Dutch and strut about mouthing pretentious phrases from that language (one man, for instance, was particularly enamored of the military command, “Left, march!” [p. 15]).
Both remembered children know that something serious is wrong with the way language is used in their rural home regions, but it takes the boys a considerable process of maturation for them to discover the underlying
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reasons for their dissatisfaction. When they are small, they are quite befuddled by the world of language. Pospos’s Djohanis, for instance, looks at the telegraph poles the Dutch have built along the main Tapanuli highway and wonders what sorts of words dwell inside:
Sometimes we stopped and put our ears against a pole. Friends told us that if we listened really close we could find out what people were saying on the telephone, or what they were wiring in their telegraphs. Indeed, there was a sort of “ngiung-ngiung” sound that you could hear through the poles. Friends told us it was the telegrams being tapped out! (1950, 37)
Ridjal, for his part, has a hugely difficult time figuring out the whole affair of newspapers, as these strange texts relate to village speech. One time, when he was about four years old, he encounters his father and some of his father’s friends at the coffee stall:
If I was not in the mosque yard, I could always be found playing in front of the coffee stall nearby. There I once saw a person reading a large sheet of paper while other people sat around a table listening attentively, occasionally sipping their coffee or nibbling on fried bananas. I asked the oldest of my playmates what they were doing. “Just reading newspapers,” he replied.
Usually I saw people talking together; one said something and then the other answered. That is how it went, they took turns. But this newspaper reading was different. It was the first time I had ever seen it. One person talked for a long time while he held a big piece of paper, and the other ten people listened without responding. Why? I was surprised, and did not understand it at all.
After that I too listened to the newspaper being read, though I did not understand because the language was Indonesian rather than Minangkabau. I often heard the words “war,” “English,” and “German,” but did not yet know what they meant.
One day Father was talking with his friend Sutan Sianok. I was playing trains, crawling near him and pushing the boxes that served as cars. I listened to Father talk for a long time. Sutan Sianok listened silently and nodded his head. I was surprised because my father was not holding that big piece of paper in his hands, yet the words kept on tumbling out of his mouth.
So I asked, “Are you reading the newspaper?”
Father was surprised that I should ask such a thing. “No,” he replied.
“But you were talking for such a long time, and Mr. Sutan was listening so long too.”
“That’s because there was a lot I wanted to tell him, and he hasn’t answered yet.”
I did not understand; I was quite sure that when people talked on and on like that, they must be reading a newspaper. If not, then where on earth did the words come from?
“Then you memorized yesterday’s newspaper, didn’t you?”
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“No, I didn’t memorize yesterday’s newspaper. I was expressing my own ideas.”
“Expressing your own ideas? I don’t understand.”
“Of course not, son. You only know how to push your toy train around. Now run along!”
Father started talking again, and I continued playing with my train. I have never quite understood why Father talked so long without holding that big sheet of paper they called a newspaper in his hands. (1974, 13–14)
As the boys grow older they discover that speech and texts can be used by one group of people to assert political control over others. An element of fear enters their consciousness of language. Pospos provides literally dozens of examples of this political edge to language. For one thing, Toba families rank each other according to how many esoteric European languages their children know (this is knowledge gained in the more prestigious schools such as the H.I.S and MULO schools). Families with many children who have graduated from such schools are said to martua, to glow with supernatural luck powers (chapter 9). Parents who have children studying in far off Java have even more luck powers. Pospos’s parents and their circle of market-seller, shopkeeper families (and also even the village farm households) raced each other to see which family could turn out the most graduates of the most glittering academy.
Pospos writes that this competitiveness represented a capitulation of the Toba Batak to the worst aspects of Dutch colonial social hierarchy. It also resulted in a penchant for kids who could put on good public performances, by showing off their language skills.
The Dutch language was held in unbelievably high regard by people in our area. There were several H.I.S. schools: one in Sigumpulon, one in Balige, and one in Narumonda that was run by the Nommensen Schoolvereniging. Of course, people preferred the mission’s H.I.S. to the others, since we were all Christians. Sometimes there were children from the huria pagaran [church congregations] who got into those schools; they were usually the children of mission school teachers or of the district head. On Christmas Eve these H.I.S. kids were often asked to recite Bible verses in Dutch, even though there were only one or two people in the whole church who could understand them. I suppose it had to be demonstrated publicly that the H.I.S. fourth graders were skilled at Dutch.
Sometimes this tendency to show off got rather silly. If an H.I.S. student was walking with his parents to the market and they happened to run into a Dutch person—it did not matter who—the parents often told the child to speak Dutch with the Dutch person. If the child, perhaps only a second or third grader and naturally still very shy, did not want to do this, the father would grumble, “Well, don’t continue in that school, let’s just ask for your tuition money back. It’s wasting money to support you there.” Or if two H.I.S. kids happened to meet, the father would tell them to speak Dutch to
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each other: “Okay, friends, we want to hear you two speak Dutch.” What delight there was in heating other people speaking Dutch I cannot imagine, especially if the listeners themselves did not know a single word of the language. The two children—little kids in the first or second grade!—of course felt shy and embarrassed. (1950, 34)
Pospos goes on to comment that Toba people were like sheep in this herd mentality of theirs, trying to learn the Dutch language and show it off. Djohanis and his clique of young boys, however, see through this sham, and laugh at the foibles of their elders. They also laugh at some of their teachers, who cannot pronounce the Dutch phrases very well.
Once Djohanis gets into MULO school in Tarutung (in his mid-teens), he and his friends discover another political dimension of language use.
We did not usually speak Dutch at school. Wherever we were, we always used our mother tongue, even during class. So Dutch was used only when speaking to teachers. When we did try to speak Dutch among ourselves, we got teased. Someone would say something like, “You might as well toss your Dutch over there into the sewer.” Our teachers knew this, so they made a rule that whoever was reported to be speaking Batak would be fined 2 1/2 cents. But this policy failed, since none of us wanted to squeal on a friend. Indeed, we felt undeniably calmer and more confident using our mother tongue when we conversed.
After three months in MULO we received our first report card. This report also noted how many foreign languages we were allowed to choose. Malay was counted as a foreign language. I chose German and Malay, because I had heard from my friends that there was not much demand for French speakers. German seemed to be the right language for us to take. After all, wasn’t all scientific literature written in German? That is what we thought then, anyway. But maybe we also chose it because our preachers were Germans, and so we were already a bit pro-German. (Radjab 1950, 51)
The Toba boys mount a subtle linguistic campaign of their own, however, against their Dutch teachers. Pospos reports an excruciating instance of miscommunication between an earnest Dutch instructor and his willful pupils:
That first year I heard an “anecdote” at school. Not long ago there had been a Dutch teacher (he had since left the school) who had read a “funny” story to his class. Much to his surprise he noticed that when he finished reading none of the students laughed. So he angrily asked one of them, “Why aren’t any of you laughing after hearing such a funny story?”
“Well, um. . . ,” answered the pupil, “we didn’t feel your story was very funny, actually.”
“What do you mean, not funny? You just don’t have a sense of humor.” But the student said that the story really was not funny. Finally the teacher said, “Well, in that case, you tell a story. Then I’ll be able to see what kind of sense of humor you have.”
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So the pupil related a story—actually, he just shouted it—as follows: “Manase, Manase ditinkgir ho lubang ni hirik, hape lubang ni te” (Manase, Manase, you dug out a cricket hole, but unfortunately it was really a wasp hole in a dung heap). There is a type of wasp that adores water buffalo or cow manure (in Dutch it is called a mestkever ). Normally it digs its hole in a pile of dry dung, and when you go to pick up the dung to use as fertilizer, you sometimes cannot tell whether this hole has been made by a cricket (which also likes to burrow in dung) or by a wasp. The story the student told is a kind of taunt in verse form commonly used to torment kids named Manase.
When the class heard the verse they burst into paroxysms of laughter. The Dutch teacher, who did not speak Batak, was dumbfounded. He asked for a translation of the verse, but the mischievous student replied, “It really can’t be translated, Tuan [Master]. It wouldn’t be funny anymore in another language.” But the teacher kept insisting, and finally the boy said, “Manase, Manase (the stress now falling on the na, not on the se as it had above), waar ben je?” (Where are you). The class burst into laughter once again.
His face reddening, the teacher said, “What’s so funny about the sentence, ‘Manase, where are you?’ I don’t understand you people at all.” Maybe the Dutch really did not understand us. (1950, 52)
The boys struggle with another aspect of language and its stockpiles of knowledge: they attempt to understand Malay, which as we have seen, the Dutch have presented to the schoolchildren as a foreign language elective. Some of Djohanis’s school friends hit upon a translation strategy of their own devising: Since Toba Batak has many “o” sounds where Malay uses “e”, they zip through their Batak-to-Malay translation practice drills by simply pronouncing Batak sentences with lots of “e”s. This results in many nonsensical homework sentences.
As both boys grow into adolescence they amass larger and larger stores of schoolbook knowledge, which they use as a touchstone for evaluating the truth claims of comments by their elders in the village or the surau. Occasionally they delve into magical lore (as when Radjab’s Ridjal experiments with mystical prayer formulas that he hopes will bring him great riches). In each such excursion, though, the narrators find that mystical knowledge has no real efficacy in the world. What holds ultimate sway for them is the secular book learning of the public schoolroom.
Portrayals of Religion
Given Radjab’s unflattering view of the sorts of religious language promoted in the Muslim surau and Pospos’s accounts of language in the Protestant church (where hymn singing and listening to sermons are largely social occasions), it is no surprise that the two authors figuratively raise
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their eyebrows at their pious acquaintances’ explanations for their religious devotion. Why do Minangkabau villagers and townspeople go to the mosque on Fridays, keep the Fasting Month, and recite their Arabic prayers with such assiduousness? Why do Toba Batak rural people flock to their white clapboard, tall-steepled churches every Sunday? Why are Toba such enthusiastic supporters of the church choir? (Or, the church choirs, since Toba congregations inevitably have a women’s choir, a men’s choir, a children’s choir, and a young-unmarried-adults’ choir?) The memoirs’ two small boys uncover the real reasons for such devotionalism: the perennial Minangkabau and Toba search for social status and magical stores of power. Needless to say, the memoirists regard this negatively.
Radjab’s Ridjal and his young male friends, in one instance, celebrate the end of one phase of their Koranic lessons with a lavish ceremony, and discover that the associated village festivities, parades, and fancy dress displays are the preeminent components of this sector of Islam for their rural compatriots. The boys are drawn inexorably into such celebrations, and come to believe that Islam is a matter of personal finery and village ritualism. It takes them a few more years of experience to learn differently; some of their fellow villagers never learn that lesson, the narrators report. Chapter 8, “Graduating from the Koranic Lessons.” describes the boys’ enthusiastic entry into this particular rung of Muslim maturity.
Later in the book Padjab discourses at length about how wrongheaded it is for Minangkabau Islam to focus so obsessively on securing such prestigious social positions. His Ridjal rejects a future career as a village religion teacher in part because the boy suspects that his large extended family is only pushing him into this job so that they may have yet one more berifled offspring to add luster to the family line.
Puasa , the Fasting Month, proved to have some of the same extratheological dimensions. The boys discover that people seem to love the fast as much for the nighttime feasting and conviviality as for its theological rationale. The boys enjoy puasa immensely, with its big spreads of food after sunset, its lazy daytime stupors, and its rapid trajectory toward the great holiday ending the fast, Hari Raya . The boy and his friends observe religious devotionalism in their elders during Ramadan, and mordanfly criticize the inconsistencies they find there.
Pospos’s remembered child is an iconoclast in much the same mode. Why do Toba Batak love Christmas services? To get free candles.
It was the custom for us Christians to celebrate the night before December 25. At that time a lighted tree would be put up (a gaba-gaba in Batak, a kerstboom in Dutch), all decorated with strips of paper, lighted candles, and so on. Often, too, a few children would recite verses from the Bible near the gabagaba, a practice we called liturgi . We were given these verses to memorize
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three months before Christmas. The children who said their verses well were praised, while the others were criticized and made fun of. That didn’t make things easier for the child who was reciting. After the ceremony on December 25 was finished, lots of folks—grown-ups as well as children—milled around in front of the tree to see if they could get a candle. Immediately the church elders would form a circle around the gaba-gaba to guard against anyone taking candles, but no matter how firm the protection was, someone would succeed in getting one. The next morning, the church elders’ children could be seen playing with candles. (1950, 20–21)
New Year’s Day had a similar attraction for the children: that was the time they were allowed to set off whole fistfuls of firecrackers. Children could also convince their parents to buy them new clothes for New Year’s, so the family could make a suitable presentation of itself in church that day.
Experiences like these led the boys to realize that Islam and Christianity have very different manifest communal forms than the official theologies assert. Sacred life began to exist for the children at two levels: what the formal religious texts said, and how Muslim and Christian lives were actually experienced. The boys observe this puzzling situation, and thereby gain a certain ethnographic distance from their religious communities even as they participate enthusiastically in the yearly Muslim or Christian rounds of ritual activities.
The boys also gain insight into the oppressive character of some religious personnel, by being punished or berated for some minor infraction of sacred etiquette. The boys emerge from this as still more convinced skeptics. Pospos, for instance, recalls how unreasonably strict some German missionary sisters were toward Toba teenage girls, when the adolescents were caught talking with boys (1950, 70–71). One sister ordered the girls to stay away from Djohanis and his pals, after an innocent bicycle excursion. “This sister was a German,” Pospos recalls drily. “Maybe boys and girls were allowed to see each other only in Germany” (71).
Radjab’s childhood self comes under even more withering fire, as we have already seen, when he dares to ask his surau instructors what some of the Arabic passages he is memorizing actually mean . In one instance, Ridjal found he could not believe in the literal truth of a religious tale of which his uncle (his teacher in this case) was fond. Ridjal got called an infidel—and several other epithets—for his obstreperousness:
One day, while he was teaching about the sky and the earth, my uncle explained that the first sky was made of copper, the second sky was made of silver, the third of gold, and the fourth of diamonds. And that atop these diamonds the sun revolved, pulled by thousands of holy angels on a golden chain. According to what he said, the sun went around the earth, not the earth around the sun as they taught us in school. Each of the skies was as thick as a foot trip taking five hundred years.
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“Please give me leave to inquire, Your Honor,” I said to Uncle, for there was something that I didn’t understand yet. “Your Honor said the first sky is made of copper, which is as thick as a foot trip of five hundred years. All right, for now let’s just discuss this first sky and put the second, third, and fourth ones off to the side for a moment. What I don’t understand is how can copper as thick as all that be penetrated by the sunlight, whereas the sunlight doesn’t shine through roof tiles of just one centimeter thickness?”
“Because God intends that the copper sky as thick as all that will be penetrated by the sunlight, while he does not intend the same for the roof tiles,” answered my uncle.
“Oh, so the difference doesn’t depend on the quality of the things at hand but rather upon the will of God? All right, then! Let me go on to ask, why does God’s will differ in that he wants the sunlight to come through in one case but he doesn’t want the sunlight to come through in the other case, although the rays that pour out of the sun are exactly the same in both instances?”
“That is God’s own will and we are not allowed to question it.” (1974, 93–94)
The dialogue continues in this heated vein for several ripostes more. The uncle winds up by labeling Ridjal a lost cause.
If teachers, elders, and older relatives have a false view of the world and stubbornly refuse, further, to relinquish it in the face of rational arguments, boys like Ridjal must learn to keep their own counsel. They become hidden critics of the religious status quo; they find they must go through life second-guessing everyday events and objects and their popular interpretations. And they must hide their stance from their fellow villagers—or leave their rural homes.
Finally, religion comes down to a matter of language, custom, and interpretation for the boys of each autobiography. Radjab offers the fullest treatment of this theme. When Ridjal and his surau-mates were about eleven or twelve years old, they had begun to be sent out to little mountain villages, to provide suitably mysterious chants for the funerals or death watches of local families. These bereaved people feel that the young recitalists’ chants will ease the passage of their loved ones on to the next world. Radjab’s description of one such scene (a horrific one for the boys) strikes all the main notes in his general understanding of Islam as a matter of socially created speech acts and strange customs, which first the young boy and then the adult author observe and record for their own ethnographic contemplation and for a wider, critical public reading audience. Village Islam emerges as a realm of magic and fearful acts: the boys witness old women moaning out scary laments for the dead; the boys’ own Islamic chants, droned in the presence of an invalid, succeed largely in scaring the entire company; the time of death opens up a ghostly passageway
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to the other world. The latter awful vision has more immediacy for Ridjal than do his formal Koranic lessons:
(At that time, old folks said, a person who was about to die would see the Angel of Death descending the stairs that extended from the doorway of the sky to the soles of the feet of the person who was going to die.) I trembled even more. In a few minutes more would the Angel of Death stand in the midst of this gathering of Koranic reciters and pluck away the soul of the person who was going to die? Would I get touched on the shirt by the Angel of Death, who’d be standing just three meters from me? Or might he look toward me after pulling out the soul of the sick person? Oh, maybe he’s already standing right in front of me and he’s just invisible! (1974, 99–100)
Organized religion and such ritualized times as the Fasting Month do have one supremely important part to play in the growing boys’ conceptual lives. Islam and its calendrical rituals pull the youngsters out of their everyday states of existence and give them the opportunity to dream of a future quite different from the present. In this way, paradoxically, Minangkabau Islam (“old-fashioned” as it is) has a transformative effect on Ridjal and his friends: the religion leads them to imagine a less restrictive life. In a crucially important passage in chapter 18, “The Fasting Month,” Ridjal laments the leaden atmosphere Islam fostered in terms of the youths’ sexual longings. The Fasting Month fostered a great deal of daydreaming about sex and girls, but left the boys with no acceptable way to pursue their sensual desires, in real life. Surely there must be a better way to organize social life, Ridjal cries:
We young fellows—who had gotten such a strict education based on purity of body and moral decency, who were shackled by adat and religion, who were not ever given an opportunity by society to lighten the natural urges coming from inside us by having an appropriate romantic life—we would become extremely confused when we were beset by such romantic daydreams. We hadn’t conjured them up on purpose; they were just gifts from the natural world and our physical existence. During the fast our appetite for food was indeed reined in. However, in reaction to that, romantic daydreams and youthful desires ran wild, unrestrainable. Oftentimes we felt as if we were deep inside a cave that had no hole from which we might climb back out. I asked myself, wasn’t there a way or a mode of life in this land which would be in closer accord with human character? So that perhaps these natural desires that were so much in motion inside us wouldn’t be suppressed forever—something that could ruin our entire souls?
This question was still blurred in my mind and its answer was darker and more obscure still (Radjab 1974, 144).
It would take his entire journey to maturity for Ridjal to fully formulate this question. Its answer, he found, lay in imagining a future time and place outside the past, and outside Minangkabau.
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Images of Time and Historical Narration
Both Pospos and Radjab offer beguiling fictive worlds for their protagonist younger selves to inhabit and comment upon. The remembered boys grow older within rich social worlds that are peopled by casts of characters which could only have been assembled in twentieth-century Sumatra. An earlier time, readers are led to believe, would have yielded only Toba traditionalist villagers, or Minangkabau Muslim devouts, or merchant families, or adat aristocrats (the latter, according to the several eras of past Minangkabau time, Radjab tells his readers about late in his book). The present day of the remembered boyhood selves offers readers a more complex social world: one with all these old factions still amply represented, but now with the addition of school-trained children like the narrators’ own younger selves. These 1920s and 1930s social landscapes also have Dutch school principals, soldiers, road inspectors, and hospital personnel. Newspapers and books provide the characters with windows on other social vistas (Java, Aceh, Batavia, Holland itself). The boys experience all these different facets of their Sumatran worlds and provide the reader with a point of integrated perspective for viewing the entire scene. The boys look back toward an outmoded, somewhat benighted past; they live in a socially insecure, morally misguided, emotionally painful present; they look forward to adult lives in a more sophisticated, literate, happy, cosmopolitan future. That future time exists in their future careers (they hope), and in the geographical precincts outside their home ethnic rural regions. In other words, the future is an imagined Indonesia of personal, intellectual, and moral liberation, and an Indonesia where narrow ethnic prejudices and religious biases have been left behind. Clearly, though, the narrators are not certain that such an Indonesia can ever exist for the full population of rural characters they met as children. Readers are left to worry about incomplete journeys of maturation for the persons they have encountered in the memoirs. And after all is said and done, the protagonists of both autobiographies are left suspended in transit toward their new adult worlds in the rantau at the end of each book. Will such an Indonesian future actually come about? No one knows.
A number of implied messages about time, history, and the best ways to narrate the past are embedded in these texts. Timescapes inevitably evoke certain social landscapes as well in these books, so I shall discuss time and space together.
Time in both narratives inches forward at a desultory but inexorable pace, as the boys grow from very young childhood into late adolescence. Neither text allows for any possibility of backward movement through time; the notion that moments in the present might make temporary contact with past times is also disallowed by the logic of the text. The boys grow older according to school times: they are elementary school age, then
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middle school age, and so on. The narrators’ own vantage points as adult writers looking back on earlier childhood days in rural Toba and Minangkabau provide the logical coherence for the texts, in terms of a time sense and a moral, evaluative gyroscope.
Both authors confidently assume that it is entirely appropriate to be writing a personal memoir, although neither man is a prominent public figure. In this way, writing a personal past is also validated. Such minor lives, though, are clearly meant to capture certain typical, common experiences of late colonial Tapanuli and Minangkabau life (oppressive school days; youthful experiences with reading the Balai Pustaka novels; the experience of discovering how different village factions deal with Indies modernity). As the narrators relate these common experiences to their readers, however, they are decidedly not asserting that their remembered selves are maturing according to some preset, ancient pattern fated from before. These boys are living minutely individualized lives whose defining leitmotif is social change and popular social discomfort in villages and rural towns because of the rapid pace of that change.
The boys exist in “real time,” though they are aware of mythical eras that village people say predated them by many centuries. These eras, they find, can be learned about today through legends (dongeng ). The two authors also aver that it is possible to record historically real eras, such as the Padri era, which Radjab discusses at length in his final chapter. Such historical material should be set down for a public audience with factual accuracy; details should be organized into broad sociological themes. In reporting such large trends, writers should be clear-sighted, skeptical, critical, and rather pessimistic in tone. Just as turning the clock back for personal convenience is wrong (Radjab’s Ridjal does this one time, in order to get to the market early), writing factually or thematically inaccurate history would be self-indulgent.
An important aspect of this historiographic stance is each author’s careful avoidance of anachronistic uses of the word “Indonesia” (Radjab employs the term sparingly in chapter 13, but neither book tries to convince readers that the memoir’s young protagonists think of themselves as living “in Indonesia” rather than in an ethnic enclave, in their childhood years). The remembered children are decidedly not portrayed as persons who think of themselves as Indonesian. They are colonial-era Toba Batak or Minangkabau. In this way each writer avoids a nationalistic, propagandistic approach to remembering the prewar decades.
Finally, as each boy grows older he becomes better able to critically evaluate the plausibility of the many histories that surround him in the village. One of Pospos’s narratives will illustrate how this pattern works. In all such instances, the child or the adult narrator emerges as the better historian
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than his elders. Here for example is Pospos commenting on Toba clan origin myths:
Legend has it that the Batak people are the descendants of Si Raja Batak. He was born from his mother, Si Boru Beak Parujar, and was the child of gods. In fact, the child of the highest god, Debata Mula Jadi Nabolon, whose purpose was to create the world. Once the world was created, he lived in Sian-jurmulamula. This village also became the residence of Si Raja Batak and was located near the slopes of Mount Pusukbuhit, which is said to be the land of origin of the Batak and Karo peoples. The legend also held that Si Raja Batak had two sons, and from them sprang the Sumba marga [clan] and the Lontung marga . These two marga groups later broke apart to become other margas, and even today new margas are still being formed. (1950, 29)
Such passages obviously relativize the validity of the old legends in light of the presumed less naive historical consciousness of the writer. Pospos forces his readers to look at the old Toba origin myths as stories , as narratives that past ages of villagers may have believed but ones which we modems can appreciate as mere legends.
What of the future, and the new society each young protagonist hopes to find there? Both of the memoirists’ moral histories of the self imply at least the possibility of a liberated time and place free of Dutch control and unfettered by the shortsightedness and superstition of “old Toba” and “old Minangkabau.” We can turn to this critical and painful but fundamentally optimistic kind of history writing next. We can also consider several promising possibilities for future research on Indonesian autobiography.
Sumatran Childhood Autobiography as History
Each memoir has a strong “forward-lookingness” to it (to use Wolters’s term again) in the way it urges the reader to imagine a society and time free from the conceptual and social restraints that hobble the remembered child protagonists. This will be an Indonesia liberated from Dutch colonial control, but more than that, it will be an Indonesian time and place unfettered by the stultifying aspects of a Toba and Minangkabau village past. Rote ritualism will have been replaced by critical theological inquiry; book learning and substantive intellectual debate will have taken over from adat traditionalism; individuals will have gained the ability to distance themselves from the sort of fierce internecine competition found in rural villages and the colonial-era school system. But neither memoir is utopian in tone: each writer knows the journey toward such an Indonesia will be an uncertain, unpredictable one. Radjab drove home this message with particular force in his collection of Revolutionary era observations
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from his Ministry of Information-sponsored trip through Sumatra, published in his 1949 book Tjatatan di Sumatra (Notes on Sumatra ). This informally written series of newspaperman’s jottings about social conditions in Deli, Tapanuli, and Minangkabau during the 1945–49 period is intensely critical of the chaotic social conditions of the time. The author also wonders at frequent junctures in his journal whether the Indonesian populace can ever possibly overcome their local rivalries to any significant degree and join together as a single, national people. Radjab condemns what he sees as “backward thinking” on the part of Sumatran villagers throughout his trip; he leaves his reader to worry that the weight of the past may well be too heavy to make a modern Indonesia a viable possibility.
In their simultaneous “forward-lookingness” and their critical and literate vision of the village past, these two autobiographies are linked to several other publications that appeared in the same period, during the late Revolution years and the early years of Indonesian independence. Remarkably similar in tone and outlook to our two memoirs are Hamka’s Kenang-Kenangan Hidup (1951–52), the novelist and editor Nur Sutan Iskandar’s Pengalaman Masa Kecil (1948), and, as noted, even Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Tjerita dari Blora (Stories from Blora, 1952). The latter is not formally a childhood memoir but has clear autobiographical roots. It is not my intention here to provide any detailed analysis of these texts but rather to point out how similar they are to the Pospos and Radjab texts.
Volume 1 of Hamka’s Kenang-Kenangan Hidup and the entirety of Nur Sutan Iskandar’s Pengalaman Masa Kecil offer portraits of Minangkabau boyhood worlds structured largely around each author’s educational experiences at different levels of schooling. Both volumes of reminiscences are episodic and anecdotal (proceeding via detailed descriptions of telling scenes and poignant, remembered childhood events, which often focus on Minangkabau Muslim ritual practice). Hamka’s book is set in the years between his birth in 1908 and his marriage in 1929 after a 1926 pilgrimage to Mecca. Nur Sutan Iskandar’s childhood memoirs refer to a somewhat earlier period, as he was born in 1893. Both books portray these times, in general, as eras of Minangkabau traditionalism, which the remembered child “grows out of” (Hamka toward a more universalistic form of scholarly Islamic consciousness, Nur Sutan Iskandar toward life as a novelist and editor in the rantau). Both books, further, have a clear “stock-taking” tone to them, as their authors look back to colonial-era childhoods from the vantage point of Revolutionary-era Indonesia. Both writers see themselves as teachers and public intellectuals; both implicitly advocate a sharing of maturation experiences across Indonesian ethnic minority borders, via Indonesian-language prose stories grounded in specific ethnic, regional contexts.
Nur Sutan Iskandar’s book has a somewhat didactic flavor that some-
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times turns preachy. More mannered and much more obviously bookish and structured than Radjab’s memoir (in fact, Nur Sutan Iskandar’s autobiography turns precious and overwritten in spots), Pengalaman Masa Kecil includes many of the same sorts of incidents as the ones Radjab used to tell his life story. Readers learn, for instance, of schoolroom incidents, children’s games, experiences in the surau, village adat festivals, and village magical beliefs that the growing child comes to distrust. The author seems to have based some of his narrative on Dutch pedagogical texts, which may help explain some of the book’s fusty tone.[8] Even with this European base to some of its passages, though, the memoir has many similarities to the Radjab and Pospos works.
Pramoedya’s masterful Stories from Blora include what are clearly the finest literary evocations of childhood village worlds during late colonial times, the Japanese occupation, and the Revolution. A full-scale comparison of Pramoedya’s short stories with the Sumatran childhood autobiographies would be very rewarding though beyond this essay’s scope, so let me simply point to several parallels in the texts. In his stories concerning young children, Pramoedya often portrays the protagonist’s mother, father, or other older relatives as distant, unknowable, unpredictable, inconstant, and emotionally restrained. The remembered child often looks out on his changing social world with befuddlement mixed with fear; repeatedly, new regimes sweep across the social scene outside the child’s control. Issues of language, surface sound, and semantic meaning also of course figure heavily in Pramoedya’s stories, as do recollections of Muslim rituals such as a boy’s circumcision. The two Sumatran memoirs’ preoccupation with school systems is certainly not found to such an extent in Stories from Blora , but on most other important counts Pramoedya’s fictionalized childhood landscapes closely resemble the terrain in the Radjab and Pospos works.
Toba culture and worldviews and those of Minangkabau are normally thought to be quite dissimilar, but our two childhood autobiographies show many thematic and rhetorical concordances. And these similarities extend beyond these two books to link this pair of memoirs to the larger range of Indonesian literature, just mentioned, dealing with the late colonial-era social change issues. Why are there such pervasive similarities across this broad range of autobiographical literature? Answering that question is beyond the scope of this essay, but a partial answer, at least, can be framed by going beyond literary scholarship to draw on an insightful essay by anthropologist Robert McKinley called “Zaman dan Masa, Eras and Periods: Religious Evolution and the Permanence of Epistemological Ages in Malay Culture” (1979). In his fieldwork in Malaysia, McKinley found that biographical memory and historical narration coalesced for many of the individuals to whom he talked.
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McKinley sees Malaysians’ talk about and written invocations of ages or periods (Masa ) and eras (his translation of Zaman ) to be centrally important ways of indexing much larger ways of knowing the world in that society. That is, Malay historical ideology (as basic worldview and as social vision) is given immediacy and concreteness for individuals by being condensed into coded form in such phrases as “the period of the white people,” or “the period of the Japanese” (1979, 309). An individual sees himself or herself in biographical relation to these more general periods of time, and their underlying epistemologies. In other words, in Malay thought, biography and history necessarily intersect. Additionally, older adults see themselves as resilient survivors of the various periods of time that have intersected their lives. But as McKinley points out in an important aside, these “past” periods remain accessible to the individual.
McKinley recalls a recurrent incident from his fieldwork that illustrated this mode of historical recollection:
During fieldwork in Kampong Baharu, I often received a very standardized response to my routine questions about people’s ages and about the lengths of time they had lived in various places. People in the age brackets above forty-five years would give a brief recitation of the major political events which had touched their lives. They would make a counting gesture by placing the thumb of the right hand against the little finger and then begin counting off by moving the thumb against each other finger in succession. The enumeration always stopped at the index finger, as only four times or events were named. A strict counting cadence was maintained as the verbal accompaniment to this gesture. The four period names went as follows:
 masa orang puteh
 “period of the white people” (before 1941)
 masa Jepang
 “period of the Japanese” (1941–45)
 “independence” (1957)
 tigabelas Mei
 “May thirteenth” (1969) (This was the date of a serious outbreak of violence between Malays and Chinese.)
This gesture, in fact, is a slight modification of the standard Malay counting gesture. Usually the sequence “one to five” goes from the thumb to the little finger and not from the little finger to the thumb. Apparently this reversal is regarded as kinesthetically more appropriate to chronological reckoning. Accordingly, the time most distant from the present is given to the finger most distant from the thumb. Each step marked in time comes closer to the thumb. The thumb itself, which could conceivably represent a fifth period, or the present, is kept busy doing the actual counting. In a teleological sense, it supplies the movement toward itself. If the thumb in this gesture does represent the present, then I might suggest, in keeping with the main argument offered here, that it is a very nimble present. Like Malay attitudes towards past ages, it can move quickly to recontact its past. (1979, 309)
McKinley asserts that this assumption, that past ages can be invoked by speakers and writers in the present, is also a guiding idea in Malaysian
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thought about past “religious eras,” such as “the Hindu era,” or “the Islamic era,” or “the early era” of spirit worship before the world religions arrived. Contemporary Malaysians (who exist very much in the Islamic era) may still access past religious eras by appropriate ritual gestures or terminological references. These older eras then break into the present momentarily, carrying along with them temporary access to their epistemological assumptions. For instance, a self-consciously modern Muslim Malay may visit a folk healer for a family medical emergency and pay the specialist to say certain mantras and manipulate appropriate ceremonial offerings. During the short course of the healing ritual, the time before Islam (when spirit worship reigned) opens up momentarily into the present. In this way all past ages are continually accessible to the present, and the richness of historical thought that this assumption fosters enlivens any talk or writing about religion.
It seems to me that Me and Toba, Village Childhood , and the larger circle of childhood memoirs surrounding them participate in these regional patterns of telling history while telling lives, while recounting the passage of individuals through their youthful social and religious worlds. The childhood memoirs extend the core assumption about memory which McKinley identifies in relation to religion into popular literature, which in Indonesia (when such literature is written in the national language) is accessible across ethnic boundaries. There is also an additional important feature of these texts’ historiographic weightiness, so to speak. This is a feature linked to the fact that they are accounts of childhood .
In many Indonesian ethnic societies and in the national culture, the passage to adulthood obviously has several layers of meaning. The time of growing up marks an individual’s transformation into full personhood, for infants are not yet full human beings. The passage through childhood also brings the individual into full awareness of his or her membership in the local ethnic society. That is, in growing up, a boy or girl “becomes a Toba Batak” or a Javanese or whatever the case may be. The child achieves this new “more complete” social identity primarily by learning to conform to the local adat practices and by learning to speak the local ethnic language with style and precision. As the growing child becomes more adept at using local kinship terms of address in appropriate ways, for instance, he or she is “becoming Javanese” or Toba Batak or whatever in a deep psychic and social sense.
A final layer of meaning commonly associated with Indonesian childhood has to do with the boy or girl’s acquisition of a sense of self as an Indonesian , beyond his or her identity as a Javanese, Toba Batak, or Minangkabau. Historian William Frederick provides an excellent example of this crucial linkage in his English translation of the boyhood memoirs of Dr. Roeslan Abdoelgani, Indonesia’s former minister of information and minister of foreign affairs (1974).
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In an early portion of the autobiography (a work in progress in 1974), Abdoelgani recalled his very early years as a boy in Plampitan, a kampung (neighborhood, on the model of a village) in the east Javanese city of Surabaya. Abdoelgani recalled his circumscribed world of Javanese family talk and family relationships surrounding him as a child, in about the year 1918:
All through my childhood, and even later, when as an adult I held various positions in the government, Mother reminded me of three duties: when you meet someone or come to a crossroads, don’t forget to say “Peace be with you” (Assalam alaikum), even if you just murmur it to yourself; don’t look up to the powerful and rich without at the same time looking down at the ordinary folk (rakyat) and considering their needs; and always remember God. Once I asked my mother where God was. She smiled at me and whispered, “In your heart! That is why you must never forget Him.”
Mother also asked that, after we were grown up and independent, we children remember to be sing Jowo , which translates roughly as “Javanese in thought” or simply “truly Javanese.” By giving us a number of examples, Mother made clear that “sing Jowo” meant being polite, friendly and open toward others, cooperative, helpful, and so forth. All this was especially important when it came to the relationship between children and their parents, and in this regard “sing Jowo” also meant to be helpful to parents, to support them when they were no longer able to do so themselves, and give them tender loving care. I often heard my mother discussing with some of her friends the sad stories of certain children they knew who, although they had risen in society and were doing well, paid no attention to their parents. They were called ndak Jowo , which literally meant “not Javanese.” (The same term was also used by kampung people in a somewhat different sense, meaning “crazy” [gila ] or “cracked” [sinting ].)
It may be a little confusing to someone who didn’t grow up with it, but I should explain that similar words were used to describe something rather different. Small children who weren’t yet old enough to understand the danger of fire, sharp knives, broken glass, and the like, were considered durung Jowo , literally “not yet Javanese.” Children who were a bit older but were still ill-behaved, who picked on their brothers and sisters for example, were also said to be “durung Jowo.” On the other hand, the child who got along well with his family, did good deeds for his grandparents, and helped his mother, was described as being wis Jowo , which means that he understood how to behave properly as a member of a Javanese family. (Frederick 1974, 119)
As Abdoelgani got a bit older, he recalled, he began to discover social worlds beyond his Javanese neighborhood: other ethnic societies in the archipelago, and an indigenous pan-Indies community united through their common oppression by the Dutch. In other words, he began to discover himself as an Indonesian. Where his mother had thought of some eventual resistance effort against the Dutch in terms of near-mythic Javanese cycles of cataclysms (in which a revolution of eras would inevitably
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bring about the European occupiers’ downfall), Abdoelgani himself came to hope and plan for an Indonesian revolution that would take place very much on the human social plane, as the outcome of concrete resistance activities.
This same idea that colonial-era children are most accurately remembered as individuals who are “growing toward Indonesia” also animates the Sumatran boyhood memoirs, Pramoedya’s work, and the childhood recollections of important nationalists and writers such as Dr. Soetomo and Hamka. Within this very large context the genius of Pospos’s and Radjab’s books lies in their successful use of an unpretentious popular literature form focused on two “minor Sumatran boyhoods” to convey these profound themes about the invention of a revolutionary consciousness and the invention of Indonesia itself. Both memoirs imply that growing toward Indonesia is at least possible for any serious-minded and contemplative young person, living anywhere in the archipelago. Again, though, the journey is not a guaranteed success, by any means.
Seen as texts that say something about Indonesian historical memory as well as about their protagonists’ own experiences, Me and Toba and Village Childhood suggest several new topics for research in Indonesian literature by anthropologists, historians, and literature scholars. For instance, do writers in other ethnic societies elsewhere in the archipelago publish childhood memoirs about youthful years spent in the 1920s and 1930s? One other Outer Island childhood autobiography that I know of (Minggus Manafe’s Aneka Kehidupan di Pulau Roti ) was published in 1967 and does not exhibit the strong evocations of journeys from a colonial past to a new society that are seen in our two memoirs. Manafe’s small, effective book recounts the author’s childhood in the eastern Indonesian island of Roti, and focuses primarily on the transition from animism to Christianity, as the remembered child observed religious life and religious change around him in his own family and village. Manafe’s book is somewhat pedantic in tone, especially when he is describing “Rotinese traditional customs.” These are sometimes presented to readers in a schoolbookish way, from the adult writer’s perspective.
The Manafe book may well be an isolated case. However, after other watershed dates in Indonesian history besides the Revolution (for instance, the social unrest of 1965 that ushered in the Soeharto regime) did certain forms of autobiographical writing become unusually popular? If so, were they used to make sense of the transition from Sukarno times to the New Order period under President Soeharto? Another important question is how childhood reminiscences might relate to the more obvious genres of historical writing, in different political circumstances of the nation’s history. Do childhood memoirs of the unusually perspicacious sort examined
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here tend to occur only in societies, like these two in Sumatra, which have traditions of ethnographic writing about their own “village ways”?
The examination of ideas about gender in relation to historical writing in an autobiographical key could also be illuminating. Several of Indonesia’s most powerful literary evocations of passages to adulthood are by women: the Javanese noblewoman Raden Adjeng Kartini’s letter chronicle (Letters of a Javanese Princess ) written to a Dutch friend, on growing up in colonial times, and the Sundanese novelist Soewarsih Djojopoespito’s Dutch-language, autobiography-like novel Buiten Het Gareel . How do Indonesian women’s personal memories relate to nationalist discourse? Is the linkage between autobiographical memory and public historical memory different for Indonesian women writers than it is for men writers? How is historical prose refracted differently by women in contrast to male writers like Pospos and Radjab? These topics remain opaque and unexplored, although Mary Steedley’s recent work (1993) on Karo women’s oral life-history narratives certainly points to significant gender-based differences in personal memory. Steedley finds that various marginalized Karo individuals (for instance, women who work as ritual healers, invoking ancestor spirits in a rather hostile age of monotheistic belief) tell personal life-history narratives of great aesthetic power and political insight. Their current-day political standing as outsiders in an outlying ethnic minority society far from Jakarta shapes their memories of past ages of personal time and Indonesian historical experience. Might the spoken recollections of other Batak and Minangkabau individuals today demonstrate some of the same themes and social and linguistic critiques found in the two published memoirs explored here? I would suspect that thematic concordances would be there, but unless such oral history research is done very soon, this older generation of Indonesians will pass away without telling their histories to wide audiences.
A Note on Translation
Both of the childhood memoirs translated here were written in unpretentious, clean-lined but mellifluous Indonesian. This is a style that I have tried to maintain here in my English versions of these modestly phrased but deeply evocative recollections of colonial Sumatran childhood days. Both P. Pospos and Muhamad Radjab are expert and unaffected writers and their Indonesian prose is pleasurable to read for speakers of bahasa Indonesia. Reading through their sentences and paragraphs, Indonesian speakers get a sense of reading good Indonesian. In the southern Batak areas where I do most of my fieldwork, this appreciation of the national language means that its “proper” form is largely “unadulterated” by city slang, that its word structure evokes some of the playful alliteration of spo-
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ken Indonesian, and that its vocabulary is extensive and poetic. Sumatrans in Toba, the southern Batak regions, and Minangkabau often say that they speak “the best Indonesian” in the country. Some of this pride in firmly controlling the national language is implicit in both childhood autobiographies. Pospos and Radjab were perhaps concerned to help establish a robust national language literature published in the early 1950s that would go beyond the somewhat more flowery types of Indonesian literature written in the 1920s and 1930s under earlier Balai Pustaka auspices, when the publishing house was still under colonial control.
However, despite casting their lot with unadorned and relatively “high form” Sumatran Indonesian, neither author is at all averse to having his child characters use comfortable, conversational phrases or exclamations of surprise, nor does either writer hesitate to mix Dutch or Arabic words, or Toba Batak or Minangkabau words, into his sentences. Sumatran speech often has this harlequin linguistic character to it. Both Pospos and Radjab, however, generally take pains to alert their readers whenever ethnic language phrases are used in their Indonesian sentences. For instance, Pospos has his Toba words printed in boldface type, and often follows such passages with an Indonesian translation for those of his readers who may not be Batak. He leaves many of his Dutch terms untranslated (for instance, the names of colonial-era schools). Radjab tends to do the same thing for the many Arabic words connected to the Muslim prayer conventions or ritual practices that figure so importantly in Village Childhood .
To help my English-language readers navigate some of these Sumatran linguistic shoals, I have used the following strategy. Whenever the memoirist himself explains a word or a phrase with the aid of a passage in parentheses, I have retained that format in my own English sentence. When Pospos or Radjab does not explain something that I feel my readers may need immediate help with, I provide a brief definition or explanation right in the sentence at issue, in brackets. Each author very occasionally uses an asterisk and an accompanying footnote on the same page. Whenever that format occurs in my translation I am following the author’s original text. As a translator I prefer to work as much of the meaning of an Indonesian word or phrase into my English sentence as possible, but occasionally that approach proves unwieldy, or I feel that a reader might like to know more about a puzzling passage. In those cases, I have written endnotes for many chapters, flagged by superscript numbers in the text. I hope that this has not given these childhood autobiographies too much of a scholarly appearance, for in their original form these memoirs were clearly meant as books of popular, leisure-time literature.
As a translator, I have also tended to aim for a popular literature pace and stylistic flair here in working with these particular two books, over a strict adherence to the original Indonesian-language sentence
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structure. Concerned to have the quality of my English prose represent the emotional tone of the original texts to the greatest extent possible, I have avoided a translation strategy which would slavishly follow the word order of each Indonesian sentence. I wanted my translation to have a sense of “good English” that would do justice to the memoirists’ evident loyalty to “good Indonesian,” as they imagined that language to be when they wrote their books. So, for instance, I have avoided using passive verb constructions to quite the extent that the writers themselves do. What I have generally done is to make sure that some of the original syntactic structure of Indonesian shows through my English wording but not to the extent that this would prove off-putting to my readers. Occasionally I have rearranged paragraph breaks, particularly in Radjab’s memoir, since his tendency to use very short paragraphs in some sections of his book looked distinctly odd to me as an English reader. I have kept such changes to a minimum; the most typical change in paragraph structure decision I have made has been where Radjab places each new bit of quoted dialogue in a new paragraph. Somewhat more frequently I have deviated a bit from the author’s original sentence structure, to combine two sentences into one or to insert a dash followed by a phrase. Once again, I was aiming for English readability and fidelity to the overall aesthetic of the Indonesian text.
Decisions on verb tense are always a challenge for European-language translators who work with Indonesian texts, as that language has no obligatory marking of tense in some instances and much time-orientation interpretation is left to contextual clues in Indonesian sentences. Since each of these memoirs was clearly written in a secular mode as opposed to some sort of “timeless, mythic” sort of Indonesian, I have made rather elaborate use of English verb tense structure here, by incorporating the contextual clues of the original text’s sentences into my decisions about English verb tense. I have followed the same strategy in writing my way along other fissures of Indonesian-to-English linguistic difference. Indonesian does not have an obligatory way to mark plural versus singular nouns, for instance. In Indonesian it is possible to mark the plural by saying a noun twice, but usually contextual information suffices to make matters clear. I obviously had to mark the plural in English. Indonesian also uses one form, unspecified for gender, for the third-person-singular pronoun. Where I could determine from context that one of the authors meant to refer to a boy or man when he uses this pronoun, I have simply written he in my English version. The currently popular “he or she” convention familiar from American academic usage seemed to me to miss the mark in many of these cases.
Sumatran authors writing about colonial times often pepper their prose with references to denominations of Dutch colonial-era money, such as guilders, benggols, cents, and rupiah. I have retained those original words here, along with the authors’ ways of writing numbers, usually in the form
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of numerals (for instance, “Rp. 2 a month,” from Pospos’s book, although in this case I have switched his original “R.2” to “Rp. 2” for the sake of intelligibility). Pospos is fond of using numerals throughout his text` in fact, and I have followed this usage, although standard English written style would demand that small numbers be written in the form of words. Throughout the translation, if any usage of this sort looks awkward to an English-language reader, a conscious translation decision always underlies the passage.
As to spelling, I have used the old, circa 1950 spelling conventions for personal names and place names but have switched all other Indonesian words over to the new spelling employed in all Indonesian texts today. In the new spelling system the old dj becomes j , the old j becomes y , and the old tj comes c . Keeping these few proper nouns in the old spelling system seems to me to help anchor my translation in its original time framework, and I hope that this does not overtax the patience of readers.

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