A Pre-War “Mixed” Marriage

Feb 15th, 2011, in History, by

I have translated part of a story entitled “The Clan” in which Willem Walraven tells us about his Indonesian in-laws. In the part I have translated we are told how he met his Sundanese wife Itih.

Willem Walraven came to the Indies around the time of the First World War. He had signed up for the colonial army and spent his first few years in Cimahi, which had a garrison at that time. His work there, some low level clerical job, was not demanding and he had plenty of time for reading and dreaming. Though he didn’t stay long in the army he later came to realise that the years spent there were among the happiest of his time in the Indies. This is rather amazing for such a rebellious character who called himself a Marxist.

It was, in fact, partly this claim that had driven him from home. He came from a strictly Calvinistic village environment where his father was a fairly prosperous grocer who believed in hard work and not upsetting the apple cart. Walraven, who regarded the socialist foremen in Holland, such as Troelstra and Domela Nieuwenhuis, as his prophets, did not fit in. At first he tried his luck in Canada where he had all kinds of jobs but also experienced semi-starvation. He returned to Holland but was soon at odds with his family again and found his way out by joining the colonial army.

In Cimahi he was called a ‘santri’ because he wasn’t a whoremonger and often visited the Christian Military Home, mainly to make use of the library there. But, as his wife Itih later said, he might have been a santri but when he visited the warong I worked in he tried to sometimes grab my arm all the same. In fact it was a bit more than her arm.

We know about Walraven because he had a talent for writing. After a few years in the army he had various administrative jobs but also wrote bits and pieces for newspapers. When the depression started he lost his job and tried various other things. But, alas, he was not a practical man with an eye for the main chance. He bought, happily in hire-purchase, a hotel in Pasuruan. But nobody was particularly interested in staying in Pasuruan. Then he tried cultivating orchids. But those flowers that looked so nice in Dinoyo which was high up wilted in the heat of Surabaya where they had to be sold. The last ten years of his life he worked full time and exclusively, but still as a “free lance” (as he proudly said), for ‘De Indische Courant’ in Surabaya. His copy had to be fetched from Blimbing because he didn’t want to live in Surabaya and even in Blimbing he sorely suffered from the heat. In a way he never got acclimatised, neither physically nor culturally. He liked to quote Goethe’s saying that he who walks beneath palms has to incur penalties. In 1942 he was, together with other Europeans, interned in a Japanese camp and died there of malaria and dysentery. He was then in his fifties.

Willem Walraven & Family in Indonesia

His nephew, to whom some of his more interesting letters were addressed, published his correspondence. I find it endlessly fascinating because together with a life size person it evokes an era that, in actual fact, has irrevocably gone. Unfortunately his letters to Du Perron are lost because DP burned his correspondence at the German invasion of Holland just before his death.

One of his more formal literary products is a story he wrote about his Indonesian family called ‘The Clan’. It is in this story that he talks about his wife, Itih, and how he met her. I have here translated fragments of this:

Itih, the girl with the little name and the big heart, was born in the desa Cigugur, near Cimahi in Priangan. Though the exact time of her birth cannot be established it must have been before the turn of the century, because Itih can remember the feasts in the Indies at the occasion of the marriage of Queen Wilhelmina. She was then a little girl of perhaps four or five years old. Itih remembers from her infancy especially feasts and catastrophes, violent emotions. She can remember the trains that came hurtling along the edge of the desa and today still likes looking at a passing train. The many removals that she apparently went through and which were caused by the trade of her father who was a carpenter and who didn’t belong to the desa dynasty on her mother’s side are engraved in her memory.

I saw Itih for the first time around 1916, in the soldiers’ warong of her uncle in Cimahi. This bamboo hut stood on the unpaved, narrow yard of a decrepit toko in which an African was living with many children. In this toko there were cupboards with empty shelves and behind the windows one saw military hats from the time of Van Heutsz, the model that was in use in the French colonial army. Old lamps and all kinds of other rubbish, to which nobody attached value any longer filled this shabby place. The occupants seemed to have other sources of income.
Itih sold coffee made of extract and tinned milk at a low price. It was good coffee such as a soldier could get nowhere else. There was also a small stand with glass jars filled with cookies and even cigars. When it was raining, and that happened often, the water leaked through the roof of this hut on these glass jars, also on those with the cigars, which made me feel sore at heart, but gave Itih no reason to do something about it. This amazed me. I would in later years be often amazed about this trait in her character.
Perhaps we came a bit nearer to each other because I moved the cigars. Perhaps it was something else. I came there almost every day and Itih was nearly always there. I couldn’t talk with her because I knew little Malay and even less Sundanese. But I had no need for conversation. I was sitting there and thought about things. I was waiting for a specific date, because on that date I would depart from Cimahi, where I had to stay for altogether two and a half years. My life was, especially in the second half of this period, quite tolerable. I spent my days in a military office, outside the usual military routine. I had a lot of work and worked at all times of the day. When work was finished I went to the street called Passer Antri and ate something in a warong of a Chinese or a native, after which I drank coffee at Itih’s. It was actually a good life because during the whole of this period I didn’t get angry once. There was nothing that could make me angry because I wasn’t living. I was waiting for the time that I could resume my life. I was not in love, so everything was passing me by, in a tranquil and monotonous fashion. Only later, much later, I understood the happiness of those days, which I had let pass by to do what I thought I should do: finding a fitting job in civil society.

All that I have thus far told about Itih I only heard much later. At that time I didn’t even know her name. She was there small, frail, thin. Her head seemed to be too big for her thin neck, when she was standing straight behind the row of glass jars on the small stand. She liked to hide behind this and could smile about things happening on the street, with downwards curving corners of the mouth, as in mockery. On the side was a small fireplace on which she sometimes baked ‘peujem’, a Sundanese cake of damp grated cassava, which is lightly fermented and has therefore an alcohol aroma. Sometimes she toasted, unasked, some bread for me on the lightly glowing charcoal and smeared that with butter from a small tin originating from Australia. I noticed then that she knew the English word ‘toast’ and heard later that, as a small girl in Padalarang, she had assisted with the children of an officer who had to buy horses for the army in Australia and had also brought a wife from there. With her quick understanding she remembered some English words of this lady.

At other times she would offer me quietly a candy with my coffee and when I touched the part of her breast that was left uncovered by her kabaya of white cotton she said “Tidak boleh”. This was the miracle in her that in this fairly depraved world of a Priangan garrison town, she had remained totally inviolate. Sometimes the roughest customers were coming there sitting there until late. They took women with them, and were blathering there and using the filthy language of the barracks and the kampong. It didn’t seem to touch Itih. Early in the morning she went to the pasar and bought the things needed for that day. The baker came to resupply the cookies. The selling started and the money went to her uncle and aunt, but mostly to the uncle. She had no wages, only a little present from time to time or a treat in the cinema, or at one of the many feasts with tandak and wayang, in the kampong. On the other side of the street there was a gigantic cinema of bamboo. It was in the earliest days of the movies. When new posters were put up I saw Itih shuffling there on her small, weakly developed feet that suggested that she had suffered from rachitis in her youth. She admired ‘Zigomar’, ’Eddy Polo’ and ‘Maciste’, the predecessor of the ‘strong man’ of Italy. She left the coffee tent to its fate. I see her clambering with her poor feet up the hill of fat Priangan clay on which the cinema was placed, engrossed in the starkly colored prints which always showed scenes of violent fighting. This was the literature of Itih, who would, much later, read Kartini and Szekely Lulofs and Pearl Buck after she had started with Ot and Sien (a classic Dutch children’s tale and language primer A.B.). Itih who would enjoy Daum and who would personally know Du Perron to babble endlessly with him in the Sundanese language they both loved …

My military service was over in June 1918 and I could find work everywhere. I left for Banyuwangi where I became bookkeeper for a factory producing spice oil. I got a house there and I bought the few really necessary bits of furniture at an auctioneer. I had enough money to live on and had Javanese servants, but I worked the whole day, Sundays included, and it was strange living there in that new, almost empty house. Even the servants felt the strangeness of it. I could not get myself to join other European citizens, because I had already been too long in the Indies without them and outside their company. I distrusted them and wanted to be alone and totally free. I was planning to work and to read in the evenings. But I also wanted to go back to Europe when the war was over and nothing has ever come of that.
I wrote an acquaintance in Cimahi about my circumstances, and I asked of course also about Itih. Apparently Itih had also asked about me and people had given her information. A vague kind of correspondence about Itih came about, until I got one day a letter with the words ‘Barkis is willin’!’. The famous phrase from David Copperfield. With a shrug of the shoulders and the smile of a gambler who puts a certain sum of money on a card and counts on losing it, I took twenty-five guilders from my rich supply and sent this to my correspondent in Cimahi. A telegram arrived: ‘Departed today’. They had literally abducted Itih from the house of her uncle and aunt in the darkness of the early morning and put her on a train that had a connection with the express to Surabaya. Itih, who had never been outside the region where she was born, stayed in a Chinese hotel where the driver of a dogcart had taken her. Somebody threw a blanket over the wall of her bedroom that didn’t reach the ceiling. She departed next day from Surabaya-kota to Banyuwangi. I heard later that she had sobbed a bit in the train off Kalibaru. But that day, it was a Sunday, I was waiting at half past three at the station. I saw her walking among the many travellers, small and inconspicuous, but yet different, Sundanese. She seemed happy to see me after all these adventures and that long, long trip.
She has never been able to tell me what went on in her heart then. Neither have I ever heard from her how she, the incorruptible, wont to protest violently against any wrong, managed to decide to make this long journey into the unknown. The miracle she had been waiting for had come. But how this wonder came about she didn’t reveal to any one, including me. And, indeed, at that time she could only answer the question ‘how?’. Never the question ‘why?’. In her world people didn’t ask about the ‘why’ of things.
She probably felt somewhat guilty towards her family, but at the same time she was convinced that she could not have acted otherwise. She had lived there in a form of servitude, of semi-slavery which oppressed her and seemed to her without dignity, and to which she wanted to make an end. She did this with the gesture of despair with which the aggravated amuck-runner grabs a knife. She destroyed her life as it was without knowing what a following life would bring. She knew only me, but knew nothing beside.
They had given her money that I had sent, and a large part of this remained. She handed this back to me immediately after her arrival, but I let her keep it. She told me something about the regent and the wedana in the way desa people do when they are visiting a different place. Then she went to have a bath and borrowed a toothbrush. After she had bathed she told me that she would return next day. I gave her some more money and said that I would have to go to the factory next day so that I might not see her again. In the morning, before my departure, I shook her hand, kissed her and told her at what time the train would depart for Surabaya. I was entirely calm in leaving her. But when I returned that evening she was still there. She had bought pots and pans and a kabaya. She had also cooked rice together with the things going with it. At the pasar she had met a man who had seen her sobbing in the train and who had cheered her up. He was a dealer in kains and cloth. For important decisions she still today prefers the advice of strangers above that of mine.
So she stayed with me and so it has remained until today. But the Itih of yore has disappeared and it is as if I am talking about a different person.

We lived for two years in Banyuwangi and our first child, a girl, was born there. There were many happy moments, but also deeply unhappy ones. I was already beyond thirty and I preferred a lifelong comrade who would not hinder me in my personal life above a wife who wanted to control it. Itih was twenty at most and of a love life, as Westerners know it she had, as Kartini also writes of herself and those who shared her fate, little notion. She only knew love as it is in a Priangan desa, love with a sting in it that is never sure of itself or of the other party. She only seemed to expect that men would be unfaithful to their wives at every opportunity, and whatever I did to convince her of my affection, and above all of my esteem for her, however often I pointed out to her, that I would spoil my quiet existence by infidelity, so that it would not be ‘in my interest’ to be heading for other coasts, she didn’t seem able to believe me. For a long time I did not understand whence came her brooding and gloomy days until finally, during an insane outburst of jealousy, I discovered the unsuspected cause. This misery has lasted for years and embittered our life. Later when she started, at the same time as the children, to read novels and other books, and when I was amazed about her intelligence and will to understand, and especially after she had met some Dutch friends in whom she had great confidence this has disappeared. But the tragedy of the first few years has never gone away.

Continued in Part II.

19 Comments on “A Pre-War “Mixed” Marriage”

  1. madrotter says:

    wow. thank you arie, would love, love,love to read more!

  2. Oigal says:

    Yes, that is an impressive slice of history…

  3. madrotter says:

    reminds me of country of origin in a way, still one of the very best books about the colonial period for me

  4. Arie Brand says:

    Yes for me too. The meeting with Du Perron was for Walraven and his wife one of the highlights of their life. Du Perron had a great talent for friendship and Walraven came to love him almost as a son. It must have been a great blow to them when Du Perron decided to leave the Indies again; and it was also a blow to the nascent literary life there – among his Indonesian friends as well.

    Walraven and DP had also some literary friendships in common. They shared an almost blind love for Multatuli about whom Du Perron was writing in that period (‘De Man van Lebak’). DP’s French literary friendships were beyond W.s ken. He had little formal education and his literary taste was formed by his reading of mainly Dutch and English literature. At one of Itih’s last visits to him in that Japanese camp (she was of course not detained) he asked her to bring him his Shakespeare.

  5. realest says:

    Cinderella complex meets Knight in Shining Armor syndrome. I like the penmanship though, keep us informed on your next book ^o^

  6. Arie Brand says:

    The story is not finished yet. I am translating the rest.

  7. David says:

    There was a Dutch lady on the Facebook version of this post who said

    Triest, maar o zo mooi…en beeldend verteld. Het lijkt alsof de tijd stilstaat. De warungs in Cimahi bestaan nog. Doet me denken aan mijn veldwerk in 1977 in een West-Javaans dorp Sukaambit in Sumedang. De cake van ‘peyeum’ dat is ‘tape singkong’ of ‘tape teloh’ roept een ‘kangen’ gevoel op.

    Sad, but oh so beautiful and expressive … told. It seems as if time stands still. The warungs in Cimahi still exist. Reminds me of my fieldwork in 1977 in a West Javanese village in Sumedang Sukaambit. The cake ‘peyeum’that is ‘tape sing kong’ or ‘tape teloh’ calls a ‘Kang ‘ feeling.

  8. Arie Brand says:

    A brother of mine who was there in 1949 (as a draftee in the Dutch army, yes – and like Walraven in an innocuous administrative position) wrote a propos of this story:

    “I seem to recognise that environment. I had to get the driving licence for my motor bike in Tjimahi and it seems as if the trip there is still on my retina. Along the narrow road to the Puncak buffaloes grazing under kinatrees that had a haze hanging between them – the graceful Sundanese women, delicate yet stately and reacting in a dignified fashion when asked where a coffeeshop could be found. You could sit there and look blissfully at Priangan as if you were in Nirwana. I can well imagine that one says in retrospect to have spent the happiest years of his life there.”

  9. timdog says:

    That’s lovely – and I get the sense that it’s probably an excellent translation.
    Is there more? Are you planning on translating the whole thing? Doing something with it.

    I love the sparse, restrained style. It seems to me – in the very limited selection of translated Dutch literature on the Indies that I’ve read, that this kind of pared-back style somehow dominates – and what a successful approach! It would be so obvious to attempt to tackle the sheer colour of it all in god-awful purple ornateness – but it would almost always fail. This way works.

  10. Arie Brand says:


    You are right – it is a sparse style. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that a few of these early raconteurs were also newspapermen. Not that journalese cannot degenerate into “god-awful purple ornateness” as you put it – but reporters also had to report things after all. I have quoted below Walraven’s own explanation of his sober style.

    I am translating the other half of the story which gives more information on his in-laws, ”the clan” as he calls it.

    To avoid misunderstanding: this story is not from the “Brieven” (letters). I merely gave the picture of that book because it contained the portrait of Itih and him and their three oldest children (there were five more to follow). This particular story was originally published in an “Indisch” literary magazine, I think, and picked up for an anthology by the indefatigable Rob Nieuwenhuys who has been the main historian of this type of literature (he also wrote, under the pen name E.Breton de Nijs, a very good novel himself called “Vergeelde Portretten uit een Indisch familie album” and translated under the title “Faded Portraits: a Novel of the Indies”).

    As to the factual “reporting” character of Walraven’s story, he himself wrote: ” The story is totally factual, nothing has been made up. Perhaps it is even too true because even the names are not fictional … It seems a sober account, but it is very personal to me and partly tells what my life has been with these people. Much that was sweet and good, but also an enormous amount of trouble. I could of course have expanded it with a variety of beautiful, detailed chapters containing descriptions of places and persons, but I no longer have that calmness of mind and I also am not sufficiently interested in all these things and people. I can only describe what has touched me personally and is still doing so everyday and will continue to do so. It is after all the story of someone who has finished up with a grievance and a deficit, even though he tries to hide it.”

    Walraven had an ambivalent attitude towards his family . He loved them (he was a rather passionate man) but he also felt that they kept him trapped in the Indies, and he didn’t feel at home there. As he said in his story : he had been planning to return to Europe and nothing ever came of that.

  11. ET says:

    Walraven had an ambivalent attitude towards his family . He loved them (he was a rather passionate man) but he also felt that they kept him trapped in the Indies, and he didn’t feel at home there. As he said in his story : he had been planning to return to Europe and nothing ever came of that.

    Many contemporary expats in Indonesia probably share that feeling. Unfortunately for Walraven in his time there were no cheap flights to Singapore to take a break.

  12. Patrick says:

    Mmmmmmm? Reminds me of a “mismatched pair of sox”! Yikes! where did I hear that expression before? Oh ya, it was from reading someone’s comments here on IM a few years back. I think it was also in response to a fictional love story between a westerner and his beautiful kampung girl? There are certain topics in life that we never tire about writing or reading about do we?

  13. Neil of Newcastle says:

    Top stuff, indeed. More of this rather than the faux vitriol of some other offerings. Graag.

  14. manchuriancandidate says:

    At other times she would offer me quietly a candy with my coffee and when I touched the part of her breast that was left uncovered by her kabaya of white cotton she said “Tidak boleh”.

    I usually get nice little biscuits with my coffee – luckily for the baristas, none of ’em wear kebayas. 😀

  15. P.Schobben says:

    Dear Arie,
    As a longtime Walraven-fan, I was surprised to find your translation of The Clan. Did you know that this story (and: Op de grens/Borderline) was already translated in English? The book Fugitive Dreams by E.M. Beekman (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988) has a wellwritten essay about W. and the translation of the two storries.
    Are you Dutch or Indonesian? Were is your site based. And how did you get to know about Walraven? What is the intention of your site?
    I could tell you a lot more about W. and all his works/ his biografy/relatives etc.
    In short, I made the initiative in 1993 (W. 50th dying day) to a remembrance day
    in his home village Dirksland on the(former) island of Goeree-Overflakkee. Rob Nieuwenhuys was present, a very succesfull exhibition was opened and the booklet Levenslijnen published under my responsebillety.

    Kind regards, Peter Schobben

  16. teny says:

    Dear Mr Brand,

    I would love to read more the translation. Very interested, as part of the mix culture of my country.

    Thank you

  17. Arie Brand says:

    Dear Peter,

    I didn’t see your letter until today.

    I was unaware that the story has already been translated. So I could have saved myself the trouble then. I am pleased that you told me that “Op de Grens” has been translated as well – I had plans in that direction.

    As to your questions: I am of Dutch origin but presently have Australian citizenship.. I think I first got acquainted with Walraven around 1975 when I belonged to the work group Indonesia (or rather: Netherlands Indies) that functioned for a while at the Erasmus University. I find his letters endlessly fascinating – because of the (often indirect) information about the Indies but also because of the powerful suggestion they contain of his personality.

    I don’t have my own website and whatever I have to say about Indonesia (or the Netherlands Indies) I am saying here.

    With best wishes,

    Arie Brand

  18. Corena says:

    Ms. Brand, (you are a ‘Ms,’ right?)

    I am the great-grand-daughter of Willem Walraven. As you know, my grand-opa died in the prison camp. My dad told me, ‘his three sons witnessed the event: Opa, Willem Jr, my Oom Maart, and my Oom Maarten. They wouldn’t give him any medicine when he was sick; they said, ‘He’s old; let him die.’ My Dad is a good-hearted person, and it was quite sad to hear, and imagine. After what remained of my family were released from the Japanese camp, my grandparents were re-interned in an Indonesian prison camp, where my Opa, Wim. Jr, almost died from Malaria. But he and my Oma survived, and upon their second release they returned to Holland, and promptly left for the United States not long after. My Uncle and Father were both born in Holland, but were very young when they immigrated to the U.S. There’s much more to the story of course, but I will stop there for now.
    I am really grateful for your translation above, as neither me, nor my father, are able to fluently speak or read Dutch. So although my Dad has many copies of both my Grand-Opa’s, and my Opa’s, published works, etc, we are unable to read them, which is rather heartbreaking. And so, in my refusal to accept such remedial limitations in our age of grand technology, I am on a mission of translation, and therefore understanding. My Dad even took a trip to Holland a few years ago, but was unable to find very much information while he was there. Perhaps he wasn’t looking in the right places?
    If you would like to or are able to contact me through email, I would like that very much. I would be very interested to know of anything at all you could possibly provide, as far as information about my relatives, my grand-opa. I am of course willing to cooperate with you also, if I might be of any help. Thanks again for the story above, it’s much appreciated by our family. May God Bless you.


  19. Joost Hoekstra says:

    There is indeed an Englsh translation, published in a collection of translations published by the UNESCO.

    I found it around 1988, in ‘Cultural Center’in Paramaribo town.

    Yours ,


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