‘The Clan’, by Willem Walraven, Part II

Feb 22nd, 2011, in History, by

The second part of a translation of a story entitled “The Clan” in which pre-war Dutch journalist Willem Walraven tells about his Sundanese wife Itih, and her family. Read the first part – A Pre-War “Mixed” Marriage.

She the ever loyal, who will never waver, was it only because of her pride and deeply rooted chastity, was not able to gain the benefit of these beautiful characteristics that are such a credit to her and make her superior to so many others. I have to take issue with Du Perron’s characterisation, in ‘The Land of Origin’, of the Sundanese woman as a cool type. Her coolness is only appearance; she forces herself to this because of her inborn distrust, going back many generations, of the man, whom she always deems to be unreliable as a lover unless she, in special cases and after years, comes to a complete understanding of the character of the innocent partner, which in actual practice probably rarely happens.

In Banyuwangi we often walked at night, especially when there was moonlight. One could see in those days in the middle of Strait Bali an impounded German freighter that, when the moon broke through the clouds, seemed to be an enchanted ship with only a single guard on board. Itih had never seen the sea before but her father descends from Bugis, a seafaring people, and Itih is delighted with the sea and with ships. The sea is always the goal of all her excursions. We saw the life of the fishermen with their small sailing prows, who late in the afternoon were fleeing for the coming storm, while their wives were anxiously watching on shore. We often walked through the quiet quarters of town. She was shaking from fear near a cemetery, but it gave me great joy when I could finally convince her of the fact that dead people are far less dangerous than the living. I will never forget certain amusing misunderstandings and how these were straightened out. An ‘orang bagus’ appeared to be a beautifully dressed person to her, but my idea that it referred to a good person made her happy as soon as she understood me.

She always forbade me to write to her relatives. She seemed to be afraid of ‘reprisals’. But when in Banyuwangi two years had passed by I got, on the occasion of me being placed in Middle Java, fourteen days leave and we spent those with our baby in Priangan. Then the ice was broken and the old woman, her mother, who was really not all that old but only worn-out before her time, often came to stay with us for long periods. I wanted her to stay with us permanently because I wished to prolong her life as long as I could. But her longing for home, for the children there, for the land and the language always became too powerful and made her suddenly depart and once she went away and returned no longer.

When the telegram came with the news of her death Itih was standing beside me in the bedroom. I read the few words with the hard meaning. Itih gave one scream, sank down on her knees before the bed and wept passionately for some minutes. Then she got up, said no more about it and went about her work. But I, a Westerner, can still cry after months, sometimes years, for my dead.

A few years after the death of the old woman Itih and I were in Priangan. I had arrived a few days before and one evening Itih arrived with the express train in Bandung. We had our evening meal at a hotel and then walked along Braga road to the Great Postal Road. We then went to a dancing and enjoyed ourselves until late. But the morning after we got up early and I took her first to Dago, to the small tableland there with the high spars, from where one has such a beautiful view over the plain of Bandung. And while I was already stirring my coffee Itih was still standing at the edge of the tableland and suddenly I heard her sobbing.

“Why are you crying” I asked hard and matter-of-fact like a man.

“I am so glad to be here” Itih snivelled.

I put my arm around her shoulder and took her to our table, praising my luck to have a wife who had an eye for scenic beauty, and who loved the place of her birth. I talked about the plans for the day and we decided to go to her real birthplace, the desa Cigugur. This desa is just outside the border of kota Cimahi. The family on her mother’s side has shared in the possession of the land there for at least four generations, possibly much longer. One has to go on foot for the final stretch there because no vehicle can reach these small tracks in the mountains. The path is bad and uneven, and it is as if it has been kept this way to ward off intruders. This makes one feel very safe and restful. When one is sitting in the house of Atim, who is my oldest and most solid brother in law, one doesn’t hear a sound. Atim has traded in building materials and what is more, he has lost a thousand guilders in this. He who can lose a thousand guilders on lime, sand, stone and cement is a great businessman. Atim, whom I have known as a little boy with a wise little face, has not changed much at all. His voice is calm and he speaks in a low key, as did his late mother. The whole family recognizes him as the indisputable head of the clan, also Uncle Hassan and Aunty Eneh, whose house of bamboo, resting on piers in the old style, is also placed on the family’s land. But Atim’s house has a cement floor and he has got good beds and furniture, and even a mirror-fronted wardrobe in the modern fashion. He has no children, but he has an ‘anak mas’, a foster-daughter, because one needs something to care for.

Atim’s wife is from Cirebon and she speaks Sundanese with an accent different from that of the people around Bandung – more rapid, sharper, less slow and melodious. In the low-lying plain life is quicker and more vehement, and the language shows traces of that. She from Cirebon, childless, and therefore perhaps somewhat pessimistic, is visibly no member of the clan. My wife’s father too whose grandfather was a Buginese has never been able to become one. The land, possession of the family, comes from mother’s side, and now father is a widower he stays with each of the children in turn, but he is and remains an outsider. Mother too did not recognize him as a member of the clan; he was and remained somebody of a lower order, an ‘orang menumpang’. But in his old age he is neat and clean, almost venerable. He doesn’t lack anything, but he is never present during family consultations, because these are postponed until he is gone. He could perhaps have come to stay in the clan, if he had always made the interest of the clan his own, but he hasn’t done so. He has shown a Buginese roving spirit and a lust for adventure that is a horror in the eyes of a genuine occupant of the desa. Yes, I believe I can say that I, a complete stranger, who can hardly speak a few words of the language, is regarded as more of a member of the clan than this old man, because I have from time to time sacrificed my money in the interest of the community and have even defended that interest in a court of law.

To what extent this rather large compound, with attached sawah, is regarded as inalienable domain, is apparent from the grave. The grave is right in the middle of it and overshadowed by a clump of bamboo trees. These bamboos do not grow straight but are slanting when they come out of the ground, and the wind plays softly through the small leaves and makes the stalks sway creakingly. At the side of the middle path is the grave placed in an oblique direction to the path, seemingly without any sense for symmetry. But the top end of it points very precisely in the direction of the Holy City of Islam.

The old woman died, ill and worn-out, in the house of Atim, on this family land. Only the two brothers and she from Cheribon were at her deathbed. She remained conscious and said farewell to everybody, also to those who were absent, but for me and Itih and our children she has prayed with texts from the Koran, over and over, always with appeals to the Supreme Being, because we are missing the light of the true faith and therefore we have much to be forgiven for. Now she is lying there in that oblique grave on this compound, her own land. Nobody can walk here or he has to pass by this grave. There are stones there and stones from the kali, cement and other materials. Because this grave will be at the centre of a great mausoleum in which there will be place for all members of the family, also me as I was assured in full earnestness. I have been for more than twenty years faithful to this clan from a distance and in their eyes I completely belong.

I was very amazed about this grave. I knew that I had to go there to honour it and I had imagined an excursion to an indigenous cemetery, on a little hill, demarcated by two wooden or stone poles, without any further marks. I had thought to go there with some flowers, roses, cempaka and melati, as is the custom. But this grave was something quite different! It spoke of a sense of family and family pride, which I knew, to be sure, but that I saw here tangibly demonstrated for the first time since years. At this worship of the dead, that had something grand and aristocratic to it, I had to speedily suppress my own sober views that come from Calvinism, in which little value is given to the earthly dust. The grave bound us all even more together and made the compound to a sacred place, to a thing of ‘pusaka’ of which I sensed that it could not be touched by profane hands for evermore. And I understood that Itih has only one ideal, after almost a quarter century in the diaspora, after having been Europeanized in language, dress, habits, marriage, offspring and mental development, namely to once return to this ancestral place amidst her own people.

She from Cirebon had invited us for a meal. She wore a sky-blue kabaya with yellow and red flowers. Her bosom was adorned with pins of yellow gold and she had bracelets around her wrists. She and her whole house were neat and almost anxiously orderly, and she had completely the manners of a hostess, of an oriental hostess who does not impose herself. But when we four were seated around the table and every one had been served, she from Cirebon started to talk of the death of Mama and everything around it, and all she had performed. Of the wakes, the cares, the fears, the costs even. Of the treatment that she (as a stranger) had had to undergo from the close relatives. Of the coolness (oh she didn’t say it literally but she suggested it all the same) from the side of the dead one herself. It visibly did her well to talk out her thoughts to us, especially also me, who knew everything and who knew the family much longer didn’t I and who was also a stranger after all. She was speaking with animation and vigour, with wide gestures of her arms, and with lowering and rising inflections of her voice. She poured out her heart in even the smallest details. Her husband, Atim, sat there silently and spoke from time to time a few words to further clarify things or exchanged a look of mutual understanding. I had also known the dead woman after all and this seeming ‘ingratitude’ I could bear with relative ease, because it could be completely understood from her character and the laceration of her inner feelings over the last few years, now all the children were dispersed and she wasn’t able to oversee everything and all. And with this the daughter in law had hardly been considered, but she had felt excluded, outside the clan, and she appeared to be chock-full of grievances.

In the middle of her story the door was opened and Uncle Hassan, the oldest brother of Mama, came in. Perhaps he had guessed something from his own house, about a hundred meters distance. He sat down silently and my sister in law got up immediately, took a plate, filled it and offered it to the old man. Her story had suddenly ended. Also Auntie, Uncle Hassan’s sister, came shortly after and the conversation took a general turn. The usual inquiries started and became almost an interrogation. Aunt was darkly dressed and lightly coloured. In her refined old lady’s face her eyes were clear and searching. Time and again she came up with a question, that had mainly to do with material things, but Amin dampened her curiosity with a lot of tact.

There was much talk after this, also about the other members of the family and about those who were related by marriage, among whom there are many who would like a separation of property. But in the future the dead will protect this compound and not one little bit, not one inch will be given up as long as a direct descendant of the dead woman is living there and guards the grave. Care will be taken as much as possible of those who are needy. Children of needy brothers and sisters will be fed there, if need be. But as soon as it comes to the land there is nothing to talk about. The authority and the supreme power of Atim, the future patriarch is tacitly recognised by all. Just before we departed I stood at the grave and knew with certainty that this ‘pusaka’ would not be touched. I could go with peace of mind as far as that was concerned. Any splitting up of the land, any desecration will be resisted by the pride and perhaps even a little by the loving heart. The heart of the clan.

10 Comments on “‘The Clan’, by Willem Walraven, Part II”

  1. Arie Brand says:

    Walraven never made it to the family grave. He died in a Japanese camp and was presumably buried there – perhaps in a mass grave.

    Itih didn’t make it to the family grave either. She died in Holland in 1964. On her grave is a stone provided by Walraven readers with the inscription (in Dutch); “Itih, with the little name and the big heart”.

  2. David says:

    When the telegram came with the news of her death Itih was standing beside me in the bedroom. I read the few words with the hard meaning. Itih gave one scream, sank down on her knees before the bed and wept passionately for some minutes. Then she got up, said no more about it and went about her work. But I, a Westerner, can still cry after months, sometimes years, for my dead.

    That rings some bells, I wonder whether that is something typical of the culture here, the way that people can so sharply change from great emotional distress to business as usual again in an instant.

  3. Arie Brand says:

    I have seen it in Thailand, not in the case of bereavement but when a dear servant left.

    After some bitter crying that servant was never mentioned again.

  4. ET says:

    What a wonderful capacity to be able to switch of memories in the blink of an eye.

  5. john says:

    nice translation, i really enjoyed both parts. thank you.

  6. Arie Brand says:

    You are welcome.

  7. Achmad Sudarsono says:

    Beautiful post, Arie. Congratulations. IMHO, this is an all-time Indonesia Matters classic.

  8. wazwallaby says:

    wonderful story, well written, translated with style…. brings back a real sense of Priangan

  9. Hannah says:

    I read about him in De Njai by Reggie Baay. Thank you for the article.

  10. itinerantman says:

    very touching and i can vouch for the quick and brief sorrow-saw it when my wife’s mother died-she is balinese

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