Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Another great loss in 2014

It is December 23. In the final hours of December 20 Sitor Situmorang, the great Batak poet, passed away in his home in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands. His remains are now at Schiphol Airport; he is returning one last time to Indonesia. Facebook is teeming with tributes, photographs, memories, and discussions about where he should be buried and the role that the government should take.

Sitor was very influential in my life and especially in my research into Batak culture. After he died, his wife Barbara sent me an email. The next day I took the bus to Apeldoorn and had dinner with her and their son, Leonard in their home. I was able to pay my last respects to Sitor, for which I am truly grateful. I had spent the day writing down some memories of Sitor and going through old boxes of photographs. I would like to share here, on my blog, what I contributed to the outpouring about Sitor on Facebook.

Pierced by the arrow of remembrance: Sitor Situmorang 1924 - 2014

Last night Sitor Situmorang took his final leave from us and from this world. A monumental figure in modern Indonesian literature has departed. He had been ebbing away, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Sitor was a man of words but he shared his greatest wealth more easily with the page than with people. His vast interior vault slowly became silent. We had been losing Sitor for a long time. He became pale and so painfully thin, more and more transparent until even his whisper was gone. His dedicated wife, Barbara, sent me the news late last night and I woke up to it this morning.

Sitor was the second Batak that I ever met (the first was B.A. Simanjuntak who was studying in Leiden at the time). The year was 1978. I had come to The Netherlands to do my PhD and Sitor had come to Leiden to explore his culture through colonial writings. Jan AvĂ©, then the S.E. Asia curator at Leiden’s Museum voor Volkenkunde, told me about him and probably introduced us, but my first memory of Sitor is in the KITLV library. He was wearing a jaunty blue French beret and scarf. He was tiny, had a special vigour, a ready laugh, and an equally quick temper.  I quickly learned to be afraid to say the wrong thing. There was always that sense that he was working on something monumental while I was a mere mortal; Sitor guarded his boundaries carefully.

We met at a remarkable crossroads: Sitor had come to The Netherlands from Indonesia. He was trying to come to terms with his own Batak identity by consulting the archives and ethnographic literature. He must have been around 55 years old and was just beginning an exploration that would fill a significant part of the remainder of his life. I was 22, and had just come from Canada. I knew neither Dutch nor Indonesian. I was still a tabula rasa preparing to head out to conduct fieldwork in North Sumatra, which I had not yet laid eyes on. I was also in The Netherlands to research the Batak archives and ethnographic literature.

Sitor had recently been released from a long imprisonment and had obtained a Ford Foundation grant to facilitate his inquiry. He had a new and beautiful blond Dutch wife. He was embarking on a new life and was excited to be in The Netherlands. The Suharto era had been the watershed of his life. Previously he had held diplomatic posts, gained fame as a poet and member of the ‘Generation of ‘45’. His Dutch was perfect, English excellent, French very good. I remember his eagerness to take stock of Dutch culture. I had no knowledge context in which to situate Sitor and he had little patience for my detailed inquiry into the skipping generation principle in Batak kinship terminology. He had other things on his mind. He was impatient with me, but he believed in my anthropological quest and supported it by giving me contacts in North Sumatra and occasionally excitedly sharing his findings from the KITLV library.

I left for North Sumatra in 1979 and Sitor came back to Tano Batak in 1980. He asked me to travel with him. I had a tape recorder and tapes; he had an itinerary and specific people he wanted to meet. He wanted to hear their views about his father (Ompu Babiat, the head of the Situmorang clan) and the Si Singamangaraja (the ‘wife-taking’ clan of the Situmorang in neighbouring Bangkara Valley); he wanted to see Batak history through their eyes. He said that he could use my anthropological perspectives to help him understand his childhood memories, put them in cultural/historical context. Perhaps I had insights, queries or language that were important for Sitor; I hope so. My sense was that he mostly needed a sounding board and that his insights grew from formulating his reactions and questions. I provided an ear and asked questions. I also manned the tape recorder and observed.

I learned the momentousness of Sitor’s exploration. His life straddled eras and cultures. He was the son of a Batak leader and thus eligible for a Dutch education. He left his valley/bay and went to the city: Balige, Tarutung, Jakarta, Yogyakarta. He learned the language of the colonial power. He became a journalist and writer. When his country threw off its colonial shackles, he became a Sukarno diplomat. He traveled the world at a time when few Indonesians enjoyed that privilege. He loved to tell about meeting Marilyn Monroe in New York and life in Paris. He revelled in being a citizen of the world. I imagined that his years in prison gave him the time to reflect on all of this and awakened within him the need to understand the historical forces that had carried him out of Harian Boho and into the world. I traveled with Sitor Situmorang, but it was his journey; I was an observer.

I think this is the only photograph that Sitor took of me. He made sure
to include the great Pusuk Buhit and Lake Toba.
(I treasure to this day that I was able to join him. When I reached the age that Sitor was when we met, it was my turn to explore my own history and culture. His journey served as a beacon for my own, but that is another story….)

The tape recordings I made are still in the box; Sitor never consulted them. He relied on the memories and insights that he gained and gathered as we traveled. He was not a man of notes and personal archives. He was a man from an oral culture, a person who filled his inner chambers, swelling them to untold richness and releasing only in small, precious doses. How many letters I have from Sitor telling me that he will be sharing something important with me, but he never does. That was not his way. He let things out, occasionally, a brief story, an allusion, a poem.

Years later, when we met up at a conference in Switzerland (1991), we had the opportunity to take a boat ride on Lake Zurich. Sitor fell silent, became withdrawn. He said that a poem was brewing. A few days later he shared it with me. Lake Zurich had brought him back like a lightning rod to Lake Toba, tapping into his store of memory and feeling.

The Wind on Lake Zurich

The wind, the sky, the sun: a momentary theme
That echoes in your laughter on the lake.
Nature and remembrance, which for a moment fuse,
Expire in the expanse of the seven seas

in your gaze. Yet here
idle, a listless boat, in a forgotten land
sticks in the craw and resounds
a gaping wound that will not heal

pierced by the arrow of remembrance
a primordial murmur, the water and sky of Lake Toba

Ompu Babiat, Sitor's father.
When we traveled together, he sometimes shared a node in his intellectual universe. He told me how he had worn a gelang as a boy, a large Batak bracelet befitting a person of his high status. Apparently it was one of those things that one never removed in traditional culture, but when Sitor went off to school, it became a millstone. He mentioned his embarrassment to his father. His father quietly fetched a tool and freed Sitor’s arm. And that was that. Sitor told the story without emotion, but it sticks in the craw when I think of the significance of that act for Sitor’s father, and also for Sitor in later life.

A vantage point overlooking Lake Toba. The photograph was
probably taken by Barbara Brouwer
Once we climbed to a high point on the Western edge of Lake Toba. Sitor had shown us paths carved into the hills along which his father had walked. Now, from this lookout, he pointed out the territories belonging to various clans. He stood where his ancestors must have stood, generation upon generation, strategists in politics and war. He explained how marital relations among the clans were ways of consolidating alliances, ensuring safety. The Si Singamangaraja must have stood like that as he planned his resistance against the Dutch. The wind played with our hair. I perceived the succession of eras. Later the geo-political insights that Sitor had shared informed my understanding of how weaving patterns and techniques spread around the lake.

Sitor was very fond of his younger sister. She had never left the valley. They could not communicate by telephone or letters. We met up with her in Harian Boho. She was a betel-chewing, patient woman who spoke only Batak. Standing beside Sitor, I saw a woman steeped in her culture and a man of the wider world. The juxtaposition made me feel some of the loneliness that Sitor must have experienced. “A gaping wound that will not heal.” It was Sitor who told me, when I confessed difficulty in knowing how to combine and make sense of my Canadian roots, my Dutch heritage and my Indonesian life, just to let it be. Uniting it all is an impossible task. They are united in your being; no selections need be forced and no unity need be forged. Acceptance brings peace.

The last time I saw Sitor was a few months ago. We had lunch together and for a moment, when Barbara left the room, I was alone with him. We were both silent. I did not know where to find Sitor in the silence, but I badly wanted his wisdom on the current decline in Batak culture. I sketched the decline as I knew it. What did Sitor make of it all? This man who had known the Batak pre-colonial culture, who had grown up during the colonial era and had become a world-famous poet, this intellectual who had devoted a great part of his life to piecing together Batak history: what did he make of the disappearance of the culture of his own origins? Sitor mumbled something about remnants in the villages and then stood up and busied himself in the kitchen closing me out. When Barbara came back into the room she assessed the situation immediately. “Did you ask him a difficult question?” she asked. “If it is beyond his capacity, he withdraws.” Sitor had ebbed away.

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