(1) Todong Anecdotes
Just as I opened my eyes, I heard the clack, clack of the wooden kentongan clock striking four in the entryway. As I listened for a time, the wooden clock at the crossroads answered with a dull resonance, toward the village where the night wind whistled. A little light hanging on the wall glowed mellowly. I pulled on a robe over my nightclothes and left the room, pushing open the big broken door to the entrance. When I came into the entryway, a shivery dawn wind was blowing in. The various Japanese-text posters on the walls were fluttering in the wind.
The Penanggungan mountains in front of the entrance were still obscured. I sat down on the broken hard chair in the entryway. From the entry to the office (kantor), a step down, someone greeted me with “tabik!”. Peering through the dimness, I saw Todong the postman kneeling forlornly on the goza mat.
It seemed to be his turn to strike the wooden clock until dawn came at six. The dawn wind here in the mountains could freeze you to the bone. The faint glimmer of the stars seemed somehow chilly as well. And yet, when I listened I could hear the frogs croaking in the fields (sawah). The night’s darkness was just beginning to hold a faint light like the shimmer on water, presaging the coming of the god of morning from behind the mountains any time now.
From inside, I could hear Village Chief Supeno coughing. His only daughter, Diana, who had just turned three, seemed to be grizzling about something too. Growing cold, I pulled my batik robe up over my head.
The outline of Mt. Penanggungan, like a miniature Mt. Fuji, was growing just a little brighter. In the darkness, Todong was lighting a palmleaf cigarette. Matches were scarce, so he was striking something like rocks together to make a light.
Todong seemed to be just seventeen or eighteen, but he already had an adult’s build and height.
Our surroundings grew gradually brighter. First, the pink oleander flowers became clearly visible. Warsih the maid (babu) must have awoken, as I could hear the kitchen latch being opened. Last night the gentle sound of the gamelan had lasted for hours, at a festival or something in Tamiajeng village.
“Todong, did you go to the festival?” I asked.
“Ya, nyonya” (Yes, ma’am), he answered, taking his cigarette out of his mouth and bowing respectfully. These good manners seemed to be peculiar to the Javanese, sometimes giving me a sense of melancholy. Todong was wearing a batik hat with the knot crisply tied at the back, and had pulled his sarong up around his shoulders (he must have been cold, too) as he knelt like a Daruma doll. I was warmed by the sincerity of these people, who were never careless with their modest courtesies. The kentongan clock was a simple thing, just a long, dry wooden pendulum which the timekeeper struck with a wooden mallet, but there was one in every village. When the time was struck at the village chief’s kantor, there was always someone on duty for the day waiting under the wooden clocks at each village crossroads, taking up their mallets when they heard the chief’s clock strike. In Bali, they called these wooden kentongan clocks kulkul.
The sun god Surya came riding over the crest of Mt. Penanggungan on his golden horse. Todong pressed his forehead to the ground for his dawn prayer. The native people were all devout, making everything in nature into gods and receiving the abundant blessings of nature with the innocence of children.
“Would you like to go to Tamiajeng today, ma’am? You can use a basket-chair (tanoru),”
Exactly two weeks had passed since I came to this mountain village of Trawas. I enjoyed going out into the sawah every day to watch the native people at their fieldwork, and going to the elementary school (sekolah) to teach Japanese to the teachers.
On the outskirts of Trawas was a giant banyan tree (beringin). Everyone passing this unlucky tree hurried as they passed by. On my way home from school, I liked to pause under the beringin to cool off for a while. The native villagers called it an unlucky tree. They said that if you stayed under the tree for too long, the beringin spirit would possess your body and bring various misfortunes. But I liked it, finding it the most beautiful view in the area.
The sun god Surya began to scatter morning light all around. The wooden clock struck six. Women herding goats (kambing) began to stream down the road below the hill, saying “tabik” as they passed by. Today was Sunday, the day of the market (pasar) in the square in the basin.
Mt. Penanggungan showed itself in glorious eggplant color, and the sawah layered in a beautiful circle atop the mountain began to shine gold with the morning light. Todong set the mallet against the wall with some relief and returned to his own home. One thousand six hundred meters high, Mt. Penanggungan was shaped just like Mt. Fuji. It was directly in front of the entryway to the village chief’s house, making me feel as if I were looking at a Hiroshige painting. Here and there the roosters were crowing. A man with a laden horse arrived at the front market. After him, local merchants poured in one after the other, bringing various goods to market. The wide empty market with its simple roof eventually began the draw for places.
Warsih the babu, barefoot, brought hot coffee. She was a girl of fourteen or fifteen, still small, with a dull expression like an old woman. The sight of the hot coffee made me suddenly hungry. Sitting upright on the earthen floor at my feet, Warsih seemed to be waiting for me to give her something to do.
I asked her to turn out the lamps, hang out the blankets, and do some laundry. After pressing her forehead to the dirt floor, she slipped silently away into the house. In the sawah beyond the market, rice planting had just begun. In the mainland it was March, but here on this mountain in South Java rice planting was beginning.
Soft clouds floated over the sawah. Four or five native people walked down the path to the rice fields with a white ox pulling a plow. For some reason, they never spoke loudly. The fertile rice fields seemed full of happiness. Kapok trees lined each side of the sawah path, with its gentle ups and downs. Here and there fountain trees’ red flowers shone out.
Diana got out of bed. She was holding the Rising Sun flag I had made for her. With little Diana on her hip, Warsih went down to the lively market. The two clerks appeared at the kantor. Chief Supeno and his wife Aisyah seemed to be awake as well. I went into my room and got my towel to go to the washing area in the back. The servant (jongos) was already there at the back door, energetically splitting logs.
The jongos did not live in, apparently, but came on his bicycle in the morning to begin work with wood-chopping. In the dark kitchen, a fire burned under the woodstove. From the sooty ceiling hung bunches and bunches of corn. It was just like country life in Japan. Yellow allamanda flowers bloomed in the narrow courtyard, wet with dew, looking just like evening primroses. The sound of wood-chopping seemed to draw one in. The widow Teragia, who ran an eatery in a hut next to the elementary school, came over to the jongos with a box of green tangerines. Cicadas were beginning to sing all around. The air was gradually growing hotter.
When I entered the washing (mandi) area, the water from the open pipe was chilly on my skin. The stone bathtub overflowed with pure cold water. An empty oatmeal can served as a substitute wash basin. I hung my clothes from the cord and bathed all over in tingling-cold water.
My thoughts blurred so that it was hard to recall what happened the day before. After the mandi bath, I felt a little refreshed. When I went out to the entryway, there were already villagers with bottles in hand lined up for petroleum rations from the kantor’s stone steps down to the path, sitting quietly on the dirt. No one was making conversation. They sat flat on the dirt in a line, waiting their turn. The two clerks used a pitcher to pour petroleum from the big oil drum into the bottles, receiving money in return. The copper coins piled up like fallen leaves on the goza mat where Todong had been sitting the night before. The villagers touched their foreheads politely as they received their petroleum, and walked half-bowed through the line to the road.
Warsih the babu liked Todong the postman, but was so shy that she hid whenever he appeared. When his sister Nangka came to buy petroleum, however, she would run back fondly and grin at her from the entryway.
In the dark dining room through the entryway, breakfast was beginning.
Chief Supeno, seated at the right, told me that it was an honor for his modest house to have me stay for all of two weeks. This young village chief, just past thirty, had graduated from medical school in Batavia or some such and could speak German and French.
His village hall was a meager building with rooms made by erecting four posts on the muddy ground and adding boards. On moonlit nights, the moonlight would shine through the cracks in the walls, falling in stripes on my bed.
The floor was hard earth, making chairs wobble on its uneven surface. The chief’s wife, Aisyah, was twenty-two, a beautiful woman with the face of a Buddha statue. Both of them were fascinated by Japan and said they would like to go there somehow. At the village chief council held in Surabaya this February, many chiefs said they would like to go to Japan; Chief Supeno’s expression was straightforward. When it came to visiting Japan, Todong was eager to learn Japanese, too; the chief’s wife had asked if I could teach him just a little Japanese conversation. Todong was from Prigen, where his parents had run a little grocery store for Westerners at their country houses, until the white people took all the food without paying a thing. Todong’s parents had brought their grown children back to Trawas, and now rented a little rice paddy and lived as farmers. Todong was eager to enter a medical school in Japan that he had apparently learned about somewhere.
Breakfast—a soft porridge of corn boiled with salt, fried eggs, and coffee—was delicious. The people here seemed to live mainly on corn. The chief’s wife brought an armful of dried and bundled corn to show me.
By ten or so, the marketplace was full of customers. I went down to see it myself. The fruit in season seemed to be green tangerines, piled up in soft, oily-skinned piles.
The stalls set up on the ground included a tofu seller, a butcher, a brown sugar seller, a chewing tobacco seller, farming tools and so on. On the main road, the food stalls sold grilled meat (sate) and big lumpy nangka fruits in slices. In Trawas village, lunch was at three o’clock. Today I was to go and teach Japanese to the elementary school teachers from twelve o’clock. Because I was the only Japanese in this mountainous region, my presence in Chief Supeno’s house seemed to be quite an event in the small village; when I passed people on the street, they would already be half-bowing, greeting me quietly as they passed.
I met Todong at the carriage stop outside the market. He bowed politely and seemed to want to say something.
“Apa?” (What is it?)
With a bright look on his face, he brought out a Japanese book and said “Kyo wa, yoi, o-tenki desu” (The weather is nice today). I felt my eyes sting. The fragrance of the yellow champak flowers filled the air.
A woman in dark blue Western pants came into the market, smoking a cigarette. Her bright red nails looked old-fashioned in this mountain village.
She went over to the cotton (kain) merchant at the back of the market and bought some cloth, talking loudly. No one seemed to be paying attention to these rude women. I walked through the fields with Todong. He was wearing an old black velvet hat and a white undershirt, with a pale green sarong tied around his waist. The soft, clay-like path was hard to walk in shoes. I took off my white rubber shoes and went barefoot. Todong was surprised. “I’m going barefoot like the women around here do,” I said, and he smiled.
“Dimana kantor pos?” (Where is the post office?), I asked.
Todong said I would have to go to Prigen for the post office.
Dragonflies darted over the fields. Small waves rose and fell in the sawah water. The water flowing from field to field formed ribbon-like streams along the ridges, pouring sweetly down into the basin. Along the riverbank, the grass looked like parsley and smelled sweet. Walking barefoot felt good. Todong was barefoot too, naturally.
I asked him if he liked Warsih the babu, and he blushed and said softly
Warsih was the daughter of a poor farmer, without even the money for her bangs-cutting ceremony, although she was already sixteen. Todong said that they were both young, and as long as they worked hard, God would grant them happiness. Having done business with Westerners, Todong could speak a little English as well as a little French. Our conversation was strangely well aligned. The way it worked was truly mysterious. When a frustrating topic came up between us, we would stop on the ridge path and use both hands to gesture our meaning.
Todong led me silently into the mountains. Where could he be taking me? The grass clearings here and there along the mountain path were the sites of Westerners’ villas. They now seemed uninhabited, with gardens overrun with weeds.
Partway through, two familiar boys from the village came up behind us. Todong carried my shoes for me. The boys picked some wildflowers and brought them to me.
“Nyanyi nyanyi” (Sing something!)
When I urged them to sing, they broke into song: “Miyo tokai no sora akete…” (Look at the dawn sky over the eastern sea…) Here I was in the mountains of South Java, listening to Indonesian children sing a song of my homeland. As far away as it was, its songs had flown all the way here.
We walked some three kilometers into the deep forest. Yellow water snakes dashed across the path.
“Further on, there is a Buddha who fell from the sky.”
I didn’t understand Todong’s explanation very well. A Buddha who fell from the sky?
I panted my way up the steep mountain slope, slipping on the moss. Even with a loose jacket on, it wasn’t hot at all.
There was a round pillbox from the Dutch era. It was uncanny, like an overturned pot amid the grass. I didn’t expect to find a military pillbox in this mountainous area. We went further and saw a cluster of colossal stones in a clearing of about ten tatami (16.5 square meters) amid the trees.
Todong quietly put his hands to his forehead in prayer.
The mountains loomed behind the stones, and in a little dip there was a bust of the Buddha, lying face up as if staring at the sky. Coming closer, its great stone face looked like a hill. The softly open face was the more disturbing for the dimness of the mountainside. Moss-colored puddles had gathered in the soft hollows of its chest, reflecting the blue sky.
For some time I gazed at the Buddha’s face, thinking that surely it could never have fallen this way
if not from the sky. Todong put his lips to the Buddha’s ear, shaped like a lotus flower, and prayed. I walked around the mountain’s edge and prayed to the left ear. Todong wrapped both his hands around the massive Buddha’s neck. This seemed to give him some comfort for the sorrows of youth. As if regaining his vitality, he began to tease the children.
Two or three days later, Todong came to take his leave of Chief Supeno and me. He said he’d been hired as a laborer at the Surabaya shipyard.
Japanese ships were being built one after the next at Surabaya Port. Todong had a dream of his own. Going where Japanese ships were built, he surely hoped for a breath of the air of faraway Japan.
Warsih the babu didn’t seem at all depressed to see Todong leave the village; she got up every morning at five, just as usual, to mind Diana. Sometimes she hummed pantun to herself. She had a lovely voice.
In the evening, Teragia’s pub was lit with palm oil and full of noisy village youths. Drinking sandy coffee and eating mutton sate, the youths were talking of Japan. How big a country Japan must be, they said, and how strong!
I had grown more and more used to life in Trawas. I even borrowed a pony from the village chief and rode over the mountains to visit Prigen.
The mountain town of Prigen, a sort of countryside refuge for Westerners, was wrapped in quiet. There were rice paddies (sawah) being planted everywhere. Only the Westerners’ villas, surrounded by fountain trees and bougainvillea, were dead quiet; regardless, the farmers went briskly about their work in the fields, believing in the wondrous blessings of God.
Chief Supeno had told me that this year the weather was good and, if it continued like this, it would surely be a good harvest.
The sun sank into the mountains around nine o’clock. The twilight was brief, but the light stayed until full darkness. Before the twilight, there was invariably a terrible squall. Torrential rain fell, like rice-washing water being poured away, while lightning flashed and thunder roared. Mt. Penanggungan hid behind the waves of rain. Only the pink oleander flowers in the garden remained vivid amid the splashing water.
Warsih sat in the entryway, absorbed in watching the rain.
Chief Supeno and his wife went to their room. I crawled into bed to flee the thunder. In the kitchen, the older maid was wringing a chicken’s neck. Within an hour, the shimmering green of Mt. Penanggungan came back into view as if a curtain had been lifted, and the evening cicadas began to sing.
In two or three days, a postcard written in Japanese characters came for me from Todong. The writing was peculiar, like a fortune-teller’s glyphs. The card said that he was studying Japanese while working in Surabaya.
Every evening, late in the night, the wooden clocks of Trawas struck the time. When I heard the dull strikes, I kept feeling that Todong was there squatting on the goza mat, just as he had been that dawn.
Every day I went to the elementary school (sekolah) to teach Japanese to the teachers. On my way home, it became a daily habit to cool down under the unlucky beringin tree. The only pleasure I had was daydreaming there in the cool air, thinking of my friends and acquaintances in Japan.
No one else in the village went there to cool down. The light would remain in the village for another five or six hours until the god of night arrived, bringing Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross.
The postman who had replaced Todong here was much older, a little man who wore shorts and a helmet and walked around distributing the mail in bare feet. I did not know his name or where he came from. He nodded to me under my beringin tree from a distance, and then went jogging back toward Prigen.
(2) The Rice Paddy Festival
Riding bareback on a pony, I made my way down the gravel road. Mythical cumulonimbus clouds puffed up in the burnished blue sky over the fields (sawah) on the heights. Mauve bougainvilleas bloomed alluringly over the stone walls of native houses. The road from Trawas village to the town of Prigen was just wide enough for two people to walk abreast. The pony’s reins were held by the good-natured, slightly hard-of-hearing Kihoi. All the native houses we passed on the way were full of children, some of them playing naked. Sometimes my pony came close to stumbling on the stones underfoot. Its chestnut hair gleamed, damp with sweat. The pony must be hot too. No matter how far we went, we could hear the streams running through the sawah, bringing a refreshing breeze in little gusts.
Workers in the sawah straightened up to wave as I rode by. Their peaceful expressions were as refined as those in a tableau vivant. While these native people might know the points of the compass, they seemed to have absolutely no idea what faraway countries lay in those four directions. Centered on Mt. Penanggungan, they worshipped the sun in the morning and prayed to the moon in the evening, celebrating their family’s health by the light of the Southern Cross. The beautiful moon rose, unblemished by a single cloud, growing fuller by the day as a symbol of a good harvest. The weather, dry as it should be, made the villagers bright and cheerful. When we arrived at Tamiajeng village along the river, we could hear a teacher’s voice counting off “ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi…” (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…). Stretching exercises were beginning. Hearing them count in Japanese made me smile. Bougainvilleas bloomed in front of the elementary school (sekolah) as well. I got off the pony, left it with Kihoi, and went into the square, where the young principal emerged with a smile. Inside, the building was dark and cool as a barn. A chicken had wandered into the classroom, where it was being chased by the smaller children. All the boys wore brimless black hats.
When I walked through the classroom into the back yard, I found two chairs set out in the cool shade under the trees. I checked the schedule with the principal, and then mentioned that I was on my way to Prigen. Someone brought us coffee, lightly fragrant with herbs. From next Wednesday, I was to teach Japanese to the female teachers as well. The young village teachers were quite enthusiastic about learning Japanese. The principal wore glasses and a white jacket, with a gaudy sarong tied around his waist and sandals worn with bare feet. The Tamiajeng sekolah was a primitive shack built in the dimness of the treed basin.
The stretching exercises were still going on.
Eventually I took my leave of the principal and went back to the corner where Kihoi awaited me. The young principal gave Kihoi five or six rambutan fruits to eat on the way to Prigen. Kihoi put them into the basket holding our lunches and gripped the pony’s reins. There was another road to Prigen, wide enough for automobiles, but Village Chief Supeno had told me that for this side-road shortcut it was best to ride a horse. Riding bareback was no easy task, and unaccustomed to riding as I was, I could feel myself growing gradually gloomy as my whole nervous system seemed to tire.
Various birds were singing all around. I could even hear turtledoves further off. We still had to go all the way down this hill and then travel another four kilometers. Increasingly dispirited, I gazed vaguely at Kihoi’s back. Kihoi was barefoot, wearing a ragged, well-washed sarong rolled up with a band. His right hand held my pony’s reins, and the strap of our lunch basket was wrapped around his left hand, which held wildflowers and a whip. He walked in silence.
Every time Kihoi moved to avoid a puddle, the white wildflowers gave off a cool scent like mint. Blessed with the heat of the tropics, Kihoi’s skin was a healthy brown, damp with sweat as the horse was.
The sawah were connected in steps, cultivated beyond the mountain path on one side. The little streams along the ridges made a delightful sound, like flowing silk. As noon drew closer, the sun overhead burned with scorching white fire. And yet here and there around the sawah, there were inconspicuous pools of shade under the trees, unexpected and beautiful. Huge bees kept on chasing us, sometimes leading us and sometimes following. They really were huge. Far away, mountains layered the sky like flat hills. Along the white embankment, the village women had spread their laundry to dry on the ground. Perhaps this bucolic scene was inclined to arouse melancholy? For some time, Kihoi and I had both been in a daze, neither speaking a word. Only the pony sometimes stopped to shiver and whinny, shaking its head.
Kihoi was a local farmer who supported his many children by going out to work in the surrounding fields and sometimes acting as a guide. He seemed to be at the peak of his physical strength, with robust, visibly powerful shoulders. Being hard of hearing, he had come to speak little himself and always wore a shy, childlike expression when looking at others. He walked along glancing occasionally up at the high sky, making me wonder what he was thinking. When we came to a little stream, the rice plants, grown to full size over four and a half months, were glowing like a golden rug, keeping a whole family busy with the harvest. Kihoi said something to a man sitting on the ridge. The sticky, damp earth of the ridge seemed to be sweating itself. Pure water flowed in little waves along the dip between the ridge and the field. The man on the ridge had his feet in the stream, cooling off. Tired myself, I dismounted from the pony. Stretching out, I soon felt better.
Gesturing with both hands, Kihoi explained to me that tonight, at the rise of the moon, the village would hold a rice festival. I decided I’d like to see it. A child of seven or eight ran up, catching dragonflies and putting them in a bag. The dragonflies were apparently snacks; I had seen children doing the same in Trawas. Still holding the pony’s reins, Kihoi was talking quietly with the man on the ridge, putting his own feet in the stream. Released from my weight, the pony walked around to nibble on the grass at the road’s edge with glossy white teeth.
I decided to eat my lunch here at the cool water’s edge. Taking the lunch basket from Kihoi, I took out eggs and fried rice wrapped in banana leaves and gave Kihoi his share. He took the food reluctantly, but, smiling, refused to eat no matter how much I urged him to. Perhaps he felt that man and master should not eat together; with perfect politeness, he simply turned quietly away from me to smoke a palm cigarette.
The sawah were finely divided, running up the mountain like stone steps. The tangerine trees, heavy with green fruit, grew in clumps in the sunny basin. The western sky was darkening slightly. There was a sudden, ineffably cool breeze. The child catching dragonflies wobbled along the ridge like a rope-walker, toward the road going into the valley. I ate my fried rice with my hands, the way the native people did.
The scenery all around was hypnotic. A black, glistening animal like a slug was moving quietly over the grass where I sat. The large clouds had blown into shreds at some point, trailing along in the wind. Kihoi turned to me and said “hujan” (rain). As if pushed by a rod, everything in the sky was fleeing to the east. I hurriedly finished my meal and had Kihoi bring the pony back so that we could make our way in a rush. These were the first signs of a big squall. When we came to the fork in the road at the entrance to a little village, rain was pouring down from the cloudy sky. I got off the pony and fled under the awning of the Chinese-run variety store on the corner. The rain pounded down, stirring up mist like smoke. While Kihoi and I were taking shelter, the native people walked untroubled through the rain. We were one kilometer from Prigen. The wide, level road made it seem as if we had suddenly reached the world of civilization. The rain showed no signs of stopping. The storekeeper, in a crepe shirt and black pants, brought a chair from the dark entryway. The shelves in the store held white sugar, flour, dried fish and so on, heaped in wooden boxes, all black with flies. Among the goods in the entryway there were a few celluloid toys from Japan. Sunglasses, safety pins, handkerchiefs and more were mingled in a disorderly array.
In a half hour or so, the rain eased a little. I made a few purchases at the store, mounted the soaking pony and entered Prigen. It was a beautiful mountain town. Most of the buildings facing the mountains were the villas of white people and overseas Chinese, but now hardly anyone seemed to live there. Four or five farmers, carrying the harvested rice plants on poles across their shoulders, made haste to climb the gentle slope.
The walls and red roofs of the mountain town, cold after the rain, shone with water. Outside a store I caught sight of a rain-soaked Rising Sun flag. For a time I stood in a daze, lost in the sight of my homeland’s beautiful flag.
The cement-lined gutter on one side of the road was a waterfall of rain. We walked around the mountain town of Prigen and returned to the road on which we had come, taking a shortcut from a path through the bamboo grove to the fields. Bamboo grew in clumps everywhere I looked. I asked Kihoi what it was, pointing, and he said “bambu.” Is that what it was called in Malayan, I wondered. This pastoral scenery, so fantastic as to be unimaginable back in Japan, gave me courage for my long trip. The atmosphere of these fields brought out strong emotions. In the native people, struggling and suffering, working day after day in the fields, I saw a deep commitment to the earth. This was the meaning of the philosophy “who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.” I felt far more power in the sawah fields than in the town of Prigen.
Kihoi had four children. He said they were all boys, and the oldest was already running errands everywhere. I had visited their house once, where they and their lambs shared the dark interior. Kihoi’s tiny wife spent the day working in the sawah with her husband, always with a child on her hip. We had to get back soon enough for Kihoi to show me the rice festival. The sky was washed clear, and I looked forward to the beauty of the moonrise. A month went past with each moon. I had seen five moonrises since coming to the South. Once in Malaya, twice in Borneo, twice in Surabaya, and now once in this Mojokerto mountain village… When we entered the village, an old man with a bag of siri at his waist greeted Kihoi as he passed us. The women coming in from the fields went by straight-backed, carrying burdens on their heads. The rhythmical motion made even the ugliest of women look beautiful.
That night, Kihoi guided me to the Tamiajeng village (kampong) rice festival. The moon rose stunningly large. Women ran stalls lit by dimly burning palm oil in bottles. The oily smoke of grilled sate filled the air. Other stalls sold durian, rambutan, duku, and other fruits. The dull thud of the drums and the sorrowful sound of the gamelan tugged at our hearts. Kihoi had a child by the hand. He was wearing a new, vivid crimson sarong and a batik hat. Huge fireflies skimmed over the sawah, and frogs croaked like guitars. Sometimes the fireflies came into the crowd of people. The mountain breeze was clear and cool. Mt. Penanggungan hovered clean-lined in the moonlit sky like a shadow painting. The smells of the women’s hair oil and of the champak flowers seemed just right for a festival in a mountain village. There was the smell of the fertile soil as well. The joy of an abundant harvest was enough to keep the farming villagers rejoicing, offering up their festival to the heavens. I was glad to have this rare chance to observe this simple rice festival and its market. In the square, barefoot women and men were beginning the ronggeng dance. The gamelan’s tempo began to rise. At some point, Village Chief Supeno and his wife had come to join me. Night birds flew across the sky, singing as they went. The village women crowded around the stall selling flat grilled bananas (pisang), children at their sides, chatting away. The minor-key music of the gamelan went on and on. I slipped on the jacket I had with me. At night, everywhere was suddenly cooler, with a sense of autumn coming. Insects were singing and the dew sparkled on the trees and grasses.
Jika tidak karena bulan
Masakan bintang timur tinggi
Jika tidak karena tuan
Masakan kami datang kemari
The crowd of ronggeng dancers were singing a four-line pantun. As if the moon itself had deigned to smile on this simple festival, a blue light without a single cloud made the heavens a lake. According to Chief Supeno’s explanation, the pantun meant “If there was no moon in the world, the star of the east would shine so brightly; if there was no you in the world, we would never have met.” I was delighted by this sweet song, typical of the southern lands.
Tall palm trees clustered everywhere, like pinewoods in Japanese mountains, creating an elegant atmosphere in the moonlit night. For a while I rested in the home of the Tamiajeng district chief. The palm-oil lamp shone dimly on people’s faces. The moonlight above was brighter than the lamp. Lizards chirped in the ceiling. In this remote village, with no remains of white people’s houses as in Prigen, life was untainted by civilization, an innocent acceptance of the joys of nature. The so-called civilization of the days of the Dutch had brought a hotel to this village, too. It was nothing but a ruin now, with just a few Germans recuperating there. Their big borzoi dog was often found barking urgently here and there in the village. A few white women with painted nails were apparently staying at some villa or other too, but the villagers disregarded them.
The entryway to the district chief’s house was as crowded as a countryside train station, everyone murmuring together. Eventually, lukewarm coffee was brought out. A basket-chair with a palm-leaf curtain overhead was being prepared to see me home on the nighttime road, but I had Chief Supeno tell them I didn’t need it. I wanted to walk home along with the villagers through the night sawah.
The festival was still going on. It would last until two o’clock or so. The district chief and his wife, already verging on old age, were kind and seemed like a happy family. Fireflies flew around the entryway awning.
The villagers dancing the ronggeng darted in and out.
As if to shine more light on this human beauty, dedicating the dance to the celebration of a good harvest, the night-time nature came together like a backcloth of brocade.
In time, the maid (babu) came out with a plate of fried bananas. I had eaten batter-fried banana in Borneo as well, finding that the soft texture of the fried snack was delicious.
The bamboo walls of the entryway bore a Japanese poster. Next to the poster was a large map of the world, in which only the bright red of Japan caught my eye.
The district chief brought a new Japanese textbook to show me.
The moonlight scattered over the fields, the ridge paths standing out soft and firm. Gradually, the sound of the gamelan trailed further and further away. We passed by the sekolah. The flat building was eerily silent.
Palm-oil lamps shone in the village houses. Some families crouched in the darkened doorways to converse.
Next to one house, domestic ducks were quacking noisily. I had read somewhere that ducks were watchmen against burglars.
Their loud quacking made us giggle together.
Chief Supeno went first, followed by me and Aisyah, then Kihoi and his son and four or five villagers.
When we reached home, the moon was high in the sky and Warsih the babu had come out to the stone fence to greet us. For a while we sat on chairs in the kantor entryway to talk a little more.
The village chief’s desk was in one corner. At the back of the desk, between papers and books, was a wide roll of white cotton on a narrow stand. When someone in the village died, they would be given a length of this cotton as a shroud. I still knew nothing at all about the taboos of Indonesian life, but when I thought of my own country’s custom of wrapping the deceased in katabira shrouds, the practice here of wrapping the dead in white cotton seemed familiar.
They said that because cotton was scarce, it was no longer possible to use long pieces of it for shrouds.
I spoke with the village chief about the fertile soil of Java. It was hard to believe that all the farming villages in Java could feed its population of over forty million. Due to the lack of yearly seasonal changes, Javanese rice fields could be planted as needed without waiting for a specific period.
The soil of Java, with its many volcanoes, combined with the plentiful sunlight and the moist atmosphere to create enviably fertile land, so that cutting the rice stalks come harvest was just like plucking them. The natural volcanic ash grew delicious rice without much need for fertilizer. Once rice had come from Borneo as well, but now, with its large population, the island was apparently busy feeding itself.
Farming villagers had led appalling lives under the Dutch. The white people who came to this village on business were only interested in choosing good places for their villas, and not a single one stopped to watch the farmers at their work or speak to them with interest. The officials in Surabaya sent only reminders of tax due. The farmers worked from morning to night, lived in poor, dark houses, and hardly ever got to eat rice.
They lived in dark little shacks roofed with mangrove palm leaves. But I didn’t think much of the life of civilization, walking on marble floors, sleeping in snow-white sheets under a fan. I had no envy. Even with nothing, living on the land with your beloved family seemed like happiness to me.
The moonlight over Penanggungan was brighter than ever, and the night wind was cold enough to make me shiver. I said my good nights and withdrew to my room. Chief Supeno and his wife took the lamp to their own room. The night was so quiet that my ears felt numb. I pulled my pillow and bolster under the little lamp on the wall and began to study my Malayan dictionary.
Makan angin. Eating the wind. It meant going for a walk. This fitting phrase made me smile to myself, wondering where it had come from. The next day I was to go and teach Japanese from ten o’clock. When I closed my eyes, I saw the faces of the four young female teachers I would be teaching on Wednesday.
They did not have bold expressions, nor did they try to wear men’s pants in the mountains like white women did. They owned no powder compacts and wore not a trace of lipstick. They wore white jackets and sarongs soft as silk, with leather sandals on their bare feet. Some wore flowers in their hair. The dress of Indonesian women, unpolluted by white civilization, must be the most comfortable in the world… Suddenly the wooden kentongan clock struck twelve beyond the wall. Listening closely, I heard the dull echoes of the other wooden clocks. I had so much to think about.
(Fujin Koron, Chuo Koronsha, September/October 1943)
Editor’s notes on the Japanese text
・Prewar characters have been replaced with postwar characters as needed.
・Prewar phonetic characters have been replaced with postwar phonetic characters as needed.
・Some pronunciation characters have been omitted.
・Grammatical characters have been left as in the original.
・The text contains some expressions which are now considered inappropriate; they have been left unchanged in consideration of the text’s historicity.