THIS IS my earliest memory: an enormous tree. As I gazed at the tree towering there
in front of me, its branches providing shade, the thing I felt was: awe. Nothing else. I was being carried in a sarong sling at the time, and we had to walk around the massive trunk of the tree in order to get to our path. I can’t remember what happened
next. All I have are fragments of stories.
I’ve put those fragments together as follows:
We set off towards our next hiding place. I was one year old. All there for me to drink was water starch and occasionally cow’s milk, if we could find it in the village. In spite of that I was a big baby, too heavy for my mother to carry. A woman named Rah carried me on her back for the entire journey. For some reason, I always picture Rah as some sort of giantess, my ‘Aunty Bigfoot’ who accompanied us into the jungle, a female Rahwana. That was why she was called Rah. My image of her is bound up with mythology. She wore her hair in long dreadlocks which, when piled up on her head, coiled around like vine tendrils. She had big eyes and protruding teeth. She had strong arms and legs and the physique of an ox, and that was why she was able to carry me, the boy who had grown big on the water used to rinse rice and the occasional treat of cow’s milk. Thanks to Aunty Bigfoot, my mother preserved her good posture and never suffered from back pain during our exile.
Rah was like a servant and my mother was a noblewoman. My mother was tall and slender. To tell the truth she too had strong arms and legs but a city girl like her was unaccustomed to walking for kilometres through the jungle with two small children in tow. She found the journey exhausting, but she never complained.
My mother was very different from other women. For a start, she had short hair. She never let it grow past her shoulders. This was at a time when all the women in the village wore their hair long. And they had head lice. My mother always associated long hair with head lice. Another thing was that my mother wore knee-length skirts and loafers - heavy black ones – while the other women wore the traditional kebaya, or the long Malay dress, with sandals or bare feet. Whenever we went into a village after we’d been in the jungle, she’d cover her short hair with a scarf so she would blend in with the local women. But her clothes – knee-length skirt rather than long sarong – set her apart from the others. And, in addition to the difference in her appearance, my mother was also fluent in Dutch.
My mother could read German and English; she could ride a horse, play polo and tennis; she could type and do shorthand; she played the accordion; she read newspapers and thick books. But now she was living her life in jungles and villages in remote West Sumatra. Picture this: she was an educated young woman who had just given birth to her second child (me). The red-skinned little babe was only one day old when she took him home from the hospital. She then collected her older child from their house in Padang and they set off, heading into the jungle with her husband, a lieutenant in the army (a loyal man but one whose fate was somewhat blighted, at least as far as his career was concerned).
Those circumstances may have been the reason my mother was unable to carry me. Just one day after she gave birth, a military rebellion broke out and her husband the lieutenant decided to join the guerrilla forces (a decision that demonstrated his loyalty to the soldier’s oath but that proved to be a career-limiting move). Before the wounds of childbirth had healed, my mother was on the move as part of a guerrilla family, forging through jungles and valleys on foot. My father could not carry me; he had a weapon on his shoulder. Fortunately we had Rah, my Aunty Bigfoot.
But Rah could not suckle me. And it wasn’t as if my mother never carried me. She would hold me in her arms as she breast-fed me, as she was walking or while she was resting. But there was insufficient nutritious food in the jungle. My mother’s breast milk dried up; it was like trying to get sap out of a pawpaw. And the baby that she cradled to her chest would be trying to suck, cross and frustrated. But no matter how much the poor baby sucked, there was less milk than there is sap in a pawpaw. And maybe it was because of that frantic sucking, or maybe because his teeth had started to come through, the baby bit off and swallowed a piece of his mother’s nipple, the nipple that had failed to provide him with the milk he demanded. And maybe that was when starch water – the water used to rinse the rice - appeared on the menu. Cow’s milk too, whenever we came across a villager with a cow.
I don’t remember how I managed to swallow a piece of my mother’s nipple. And I’m appalled to think that my first solid food was … (I can’t even bear to write it). From all of our wanderings in the jungle as rebel guerrillas, the only clear memory I have is of that tree. The giant tree that we had to circumnavigate in order to get onto the path that led us to safety, before we would then move on to the next safe haven.
It was only later that I found out that my mother was missing a piece of her nipple. From the age of seven until I approached adolescence I would see it every time I cared for her when she was ill. By then my mother had become a chicken farmer, and an exemplary one at that. She was often exhausted from sheer hard work, and I would rub her with Vicks; that was when I would see it, every time: the little piece missing from her left nipple. And then my mother, becoming emotional as she recalled my babyhood, would tell me stories about how hungry I got back then in the jungle…
THIS IS the story of my
life in the context of Indonesian history. I was born on the same day and in the same city as the declaration of the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia, later simply referred to as PRRI: Padang, 15 February 1958.
While Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Hussein, military commander of Central Sumatra, was rehearsing his announcement of the draft ultimatum of the Revolutionary Council, my mother Syrnie Masmirah was in labor in the Military Hospital. My father, Second Lieutenant Muhamad Irsad, was waiting for his wife to give birth to their second child while, heart pounding, he followed news of the revolution on the radio.
They’d been hoping for a boy, as they already a daughter. Second Lieutenant Irsad sat outside the delivery room, rubbing his skinny calves. Nobody knew he had skinny calves, because he always wore long trousers. But he knew, and this was a part of his body that he disliked: those straight skinny, hairless legs that to him looked like chicken legs. Irsad had always liked working out. He had a broad chest and strong arms. And a big neck. But no amount of working out would ever give those skinny calves any shape. Not even if he took up riding a becak. He hoped his son would inherit his father’s good looks but his mother’s legs. (Those strong legs in those kick-ass loafers.)
His wife had chosen a name for the child, which he didn’t approve of. Enrico. Named for Enrico Caruso, a famous Italian tenor who had died long before my mother was born. Second Lieutenant Irsad didn’t like the name because it was too western. But because his wife had been educated in a Dutch missionary school, he found another reason to argue against it. “For goodness sake, darling. He died in 1921. He’s a mummy. He’s hardly contemporary.” Sadly, my father had never heard Enrico Caruso’s thrilling voice.
My mother had listened to his records as a child, when she lived with a European missionary family in Java. But because her husband had no memories of his songs, they conducted their argument without reference to the artistic merits of the virtuoso. “As a boy, Enrico idolised his mother!” was mother’s first point. She had read an article about Enrico, a controversial figure at the time, in Libelle magazine – the only modern women’s magazine available back then, and it was in Dutch. “Enrico loved his mother so much that every time he sang, it was her face that he pictured.” My mother translated this excerpt from the article; she had memorised it. She believed that that was the key to Enrico Caruso’s heavenly voice and dreamy eyes.
My mother Syrnie Masmirah longed for a son who would love her forever. My father retorted that if that was the case they should name the child Sangkuriang. Imagine if my name had been Sangkuriang. My mother shot back, “Sangkuriang loved a woman, not knowing that she was his mother. It was forbidden love! Enrico Caruso loved his mother because she was his mother!” My mother’s debating skills were clearly superior to those of Second Lieutenant Irsad. Eventually he had to confess that he didn’t like the name because it was too western. As it turned out my mother accepted that argument. She regarded it as symptomatic of my father’s birthplace – the remote, rather primitive island of Madura. She accepted his argument on condition that she could still call the child Rico. Father then made up a name for me, one that made sense in a military context: Prasetya Riksa, affectionately known as Rico. Enrico.
I was born at the precise moment that, a mere kilometre way in Gedung Joang 45, Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Husein stepped up to the microphone and read the Revolutionary Council’s ultimatum to President Sukarno.
The nurse came out of the delivery room and told the slightly befuddled Second Lieutenant Irsad that his baby had been born. A boy. Mother and baby were both well. He leapt up and hurried into the room on those skinny legs that he so despised. He stroked the brow of his weary wife and looked at his baby. And the first thing he saw was the legs. He was a little disappointed to see, emerging from his baby’s tiny reddish bottom, a pair of chicken legs that resembled his own. A pity, but he reminded himself that everything else was perfect. A superstitious thought flashed through his mind: “Maybe if I’d agreed to naming the boy Enrico, he would have had better legs.” But his military discipline had trained him to think positive, so he turned that speculation on its head, transforming it into a good omen: “Imagine if I’d agreed to the name Enrico and he still had skinny legs like mine. At least his name’s not Enrico…”
MY PHYSIQUE was a forecast of the shape of the revolution, in my father’s view. A revolution with skinny legs, born in Padang on 15 February 1958. Once the doctor and nurse had left them alone, Irsad broached the topic
with my mother.
“Have you heard the news, Syrnie? They’ve declared the revolution.”
His wife nodded weakly.
They retreated into their own thoughts for a moment, then looked at those scrawny red legs of their baby. They each read it as a different sign.
To tell the truth, Muhamad Irsad felt powerless. He was a lieutenant who worked in the finance division. His superiors knew full well that he was a man more inclined to honesty than to war, although his birthplace of Madura was known for its fondness for the sword. He had entered the military out of some sense of bravery, without really knowing what bravery was. He hated the idea of hurting anything (later I would observe how my mother was much more comfortable about slaughtering an animal than he was). Nor was he a political creature. He was just a loyal soldier. And he knew that the military could only function if orders are abided by. So when his commander ordered him to support the revolution that had been declared in West Sumatra, he had no choice but to support it. Even though, having been born in Madura, his allegiance was more with Java than Sumatra.
Meanwhile, his wife Syrnie Masmirah, born in Kudus in Java, had a stepbrother called Sastrodikoro, who was a district head in Lumajang. As a member of a political party, Sastrodikoro had heard that the revolution that had been declared in Padang was not regarded by President Sukarno as a genuine demand for regional autonomy. Because the USA supported it. In other words: the rebellion had been exploited. America would use the movement to overthrow Sukarno. In those early days of the Cold War Sukarno declared the Western bloc to be his enemy and gave oxygen to the Communist bloc. Sukarno was a loose cannon, a threat to the West. To sum up: Java would eliminate this rebellion, as a part of the war against American interference in Indonesia’s sovereignty.
Sumatra called it a revolution. Java called it a rebellion. But among those rebel troops were many Javanese (and Madurese) soldiers. Including my mother and father. And the leader of the Javanese troops was a general from Sumatra: Abdul Harris Nasution.
Sastrodikoro phoned, on the pretext of asking how Syrnie was after the birth. But he tried to convey his message: The revolution will fail. Be careful. Think about your children.
Irsad gazed at the newborn creature: a revolution on skinny legs.
“But I’m a soldier, Syrnie. I am faithful to my oath. I’m not a politician.”
Syrnie took the hand of her anxious husband. She nodded; she was strong now. For her, love and loyalty were more important than anything else. Telling her husband to break his soldier’s oath was tantamount to violating the very principles by which he lived.
“They’ll send troops from Java to put the revolution down, Syrnie. Huge numbers of them. I must get out of the city and join the guerrillas in the jungle. Even though you’ve just given birth to our child.”
“I’m coming with you, Chat.”
Chat was my mother’s affectionate name for my father. From Irsad. Irchat. Chat …
My mother repeated: “The children and I are coming with you. And Rah too …”
Rah: my Aunty Bigfoot.
The next day father took my mother home from the hospital. They told Rah and Sanda – my sister who had been sickly since birth – what was happening. They packed up as much a they could carry: a few bundles of clothing, the gold my mother had brought with her from Java, the Pfaff sewing machine, removed from its pedestal. And my mother’s shoes: sports shoes and those fantastic black loafers. One of a kind.
And so I was born at the same time as the fragile revolution. And on the second day of my life I became the child of a guerrilla family.
Translated by Pam Allen