The house in Tugu and its literary circle. Part I: How it began and Hella Haasse

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The Tugu house with my mother’s Villroy and Bosch china. Everytime she visited Germany, she brought back a few pieces. Photo credit: Fenty Thamrin

IO – The house in Tugu is located before the Puncak (meaning the Top of the Mountain) and is often shrouded in mist or rain and bamboos grow there as well as roses. My father, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana bought the house in 1948 just as the Second World War came to an end and the Revolution or Indonesia’s struggle for independence, was in full swing. It was very isolated with no other houses in the vicinity and the road from the main road only went as far as the house which had been damaged either during the War or the Revolution. I remember him telling me that he had bought it from a French man and I suspect that the 1930s bungalow style house may have had something to do with the tea plantation close by. Downstairs, it was made of brick whereas the second floor was of wood with a balcony wrapped around three sides of it.

An illustration by N. Meerburgh of the tea Camellia sinensis Kuntze, in 1789. In The Tea Lords, Rudolf Verkerken first plants this but later changes to Assam tea upon the advice of his family. Photo credit: Naturalis Biodiversity Center, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The house in Tugu has a very large garden which falls in terraces to a big lawn standing at the edge of a ravine densely planted with bamboos. A whole forest of them: green bamboo, yellow bamboo, black bamboo and the giant bamboo. Bamboo is a grass which can now be processed into hard wood planks for construction at a far cheaper cost to the environment than felling hard wood trees in the jungle. My father was one of Indonesia’s poets, novelists and essayists. He loved bamboo and planted them along the ravine to try to prevent soil erosion. There is a Sumatran saying, ‘like the bamboo and the ravine’ meaning a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship; the ravine providing sustenance and the bamboo preventing soil erosion.

My father set to work restoring the house with the help of Pak Udin and Pak Udin’s wife, Bibi who together lived in a brick house for the cook and house man next to the main house. These were connected by a passage with a roof but no walls, as houses were in those days. On the roof grew the spectacular, flaming orange fire vine which was in fashion in the mountain houses of the Puncak until the 1980s. This was the time when my mother replaced it with the African clock vine whose yellow flowers with dark red markings hang on the roof as well as through it, dangling down like the pendulum of a clock. There are also purple bougainvillea and pink thunbergia clambering beside it on the roof of the connecting passage. 

Pak Udin used to work for the Hotel des Indes which for Batavia or Jakarta as it had by then become was on a level with the Raffles Hotel of Singapore, so he knew how to make a bed or set a table perfectly. He was also able to roast a whole goat beautifully on a spit in the garden. Meanwhile, Bibi cooked the best carp pepes in the whole of Sunda land. The secret was that she was very generous with the spices and herbs with which she smothered the carp before wrapping them in banana leaves and roasting them on the glowing embers of the open fire in the small lean-to kitchen behind their house. There was always a kettle on the fire with hot water for tea and a copper pot with a cone-shaped, woven bamboo container in which rice was steamed. Above hung a bamboo rack with bits of firewood from the garden or the tea plantation. When the mists rose from the mountains and it became a little chilly 1500 meters above sea-level, it was nice to squat before her fire warming one’s hands and toes, with a cat seated comfortably close by staring dreamily at the flames.

The Tea Lords by Hella S. Haasse Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

In 1948 the Tugu house was not a safe place. There were still tigers, leopards and panthers in the mountains and as dusk began to settle, everyone would hurry inside and the doors and windows were locked. The Dutch writer Hella S. Haasse wrote a book about opening tea plantations in the Prianger titled De Heren van de Thee or ‘The Tea Lords’ where she describes how a tea worker had been severely mauled by a spotted leopard and how the main character in her book, Rudolf Verkerken shoots and kills the macan tutul. Haasse also mentions wild rhinoceros, wild buffalo and wild dogs – not to mention snakes and scorpions. Verkerken kills a tiger and his gun is called Si Macan or ‘The Tiger’. His wife insists on having a wide, clear swath of lawn cut around their house so that leopards cannot easily approach it without being seen and the children are made to promise not to venture closer than 30 meters to the jungle surrounding the house. For there is also the possibility of simply getting lost in the jungle and through the years, several people have lost their lives that way.

‘The Tea Lords’ takes place at the end of the 19th century and is based on the diaries and letters of the pioneers who opened the jungle to begin the first tea plantations. It was first published in 1992 by Querido and as she was writing it, Haasse stayed at the Tugu house with us for a few days. During that time, as a young teenager I showed her one of the stories I had written and later she wrote to me and told me that she did not know if I would become a writer but that she sensed that I would always have a need to write.

Hella Haasse being interviewed in the bookstore De Vries in 1990. Photo credit: Fotopersbureau de Boer, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Although the plantations described in her book, appear to be closer to Bandung, the book describes very well the history of opening the jungle on the mountains for tea plantations and how far distances were then – when the first railway connection between Bandung and Batavia was opened the train journey only took 8 hours to everyone’s great delight. Opening the land was an enormous undertaking. Bullocks were used to drag equipment and food up the mountains and through the jungle; the labourers cutting a way through the forest with their machetes. Later, they had to fell the monstrous hard wood trees, again using bullocks to drag the stumps out of the soil. Now, it is difficult to find bullocks or buffaloes, anymore. Through the years they were gradually replaced by motorized ploughs, and then slowly the rice fields were converted into vegetable gardens and weekend villas and now enormous tourist buses and trucks drive past the Tugu house in noisy puffs of exhaust smoke arousing a hopeless nostalgia for quieter times.

At the time my father bought the house there were also other dangers in the mountains around Tugu namely, the Darul Islam guerrillas struggling to create an Islamic state who hid in the cloudy, jungle clad mountains and regularly came down to take whatever they could find in the house, which was mostly food and blankets. The story goes that once Pak Udin was forced to hide in a panic in the chimney as they raided the house. They also ambushed cars driving up the mountains. One day, my parents took a long walk with friends, through the tea plantation right up to the edge of the jungle which they entered. There, they stumbled across a large wooden box filled with guns, ammunition and money which they reported to the police.

The army however did a good job (so good in fact, that years later American General Petreaus is said to have studied their methods in handling guerilla fighters, for his PhD thesis at Princeton) in putting down their rebellion. Slowly, the Darul Islam bands were rounded up or surrendered and as the years went by, the tiger, leopard and panther populations were mostly killed. In those days, people’s attitudes towards tigers differed very much from now. People were really afraid of being killed or maimed by tigers. My father used to tell us how as a young boy it would take him 3 days to reach his home in Sumatra, from his school in Java. He would have to ride trains, a boat, a bus and then get on to a cart pulled by bullocks through the jungle. They were very much afraid of being attacked by a tiger and at night the driver would always place the cart in the middle of a bridge and light fires at each end of the bridge to keep away the tigers. Once a tiger did approach them and the bullocks bolted in fear with the cart driver chasing after them. My poor father hid under all the barang or goods in the cart and was terrified as he could small the odor of the tiger. Fortunately, the tiger did not find him and the cart driver returned with the bullocks. Now attitudes have changed completely and it is very much the opposite with people wanting to save tigers and leopards. My old Sumatran aunt could never understand this and used to say, “Animals are fine in the zoo or the jungle. I just do not want them anywhere close to my house!”

Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana. Photo credit: Sjamsuddin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There are still a few leopards and panthers left in the Gunung Gede and Pangrango mountain nature reserves but they are afraid of human beings and never come to the Tugu house anymore. The only creatures that come to raid us now are otters who live in the river at the bottom of the ravine. Sadly, that river has become polluted mainly with plastic, so that it is difficult for them to find enough fish to feed themselves. Consequently, they climb up the ravine through the bamboo forest to the third and largest level of the garden where there is a lower pond in which grow pink and white water-lilies, white kala lilies, blue irises and deep purple elephant ears. They raid the pond of silver and gold carp and the pond is now completely empty of fish – which I do not mind. My only wish is that I might see the elusive otters – just once but alas, they come at 2 and 3 in the morning and as the pond is pitch dark then, it would take quite some planning and organizing for me to see them.

There is one other invader namely, the golden apple snails known in Indonesian as keong emas or golden snails (Pomacea canaliculata) which were introduced to Indonesia during the Suharto regime with their flashy, bright pink clusters of eggs. It is a freshwater snail with gills which originates in South America and is considered to be one of the worst invasive alien species in the world. The snails are delicious though when prepared in the Sundanese kitchen but the price is too high for this delicacy as they eat and destroy every water plant in sight. So, we regularly rid the pond of them.

My father loved nature, plants and gardening. In Jakarta he had a citrus orchard in Pasar Minggu and in Tugu he planted apple trees and the old-fashioned, scented cabbage roses that the Dutch brought with them centuries ago. These roses are acclimatized to the mountainous areas of Indonesia and those are still the only roses we grow in Tugu today- although the apple trees are long gone. The old fashioned roses do not need to be sprayed with pesticides or fungicides as they withstand quite well diseases such as blackspot and whitefly. There are two gigantic African tulip trees at least 75 years old filled with the blossoms of the wild vanda tricolor and various mountain ferns that seeded themselves, pine, damar and tree ferns, azaleas, angels’ trumpets, heliconias, various gingers, begonias, wild strawberries and violets – and of course the bamboo forest growing down the side of the ravine to the river below.

Tebaran Mega or Scattered Clouds, a book of poetry by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

For my father, nature was a source of healing. It helped him in understanding the great mysteries of life and death and provided him with the resilience to continue to live in the face of tragedy. After his first wife, Raden Ajeng Rohani Daha passed away not long after giving birth to my older brother Sofjan, my father was overcome with grief. His way of dealing with it was through writing poetry and he produced a book of poems entitled Tebaran Mega or ‘Scattered Clouds’ where he turned to nature to try to understand and come to terms with her death.  

In Tebaran Mega he writes about standing in front of a rose bush whose red blossoms and leaves were once in the flush of youth and whose scent once stole his heart – but now the blossoms are all gone and he cries out, “Oh time, how cruel you are. God, how quickly, how quickly it all passes away! Where is the sweet scent that once infused my soul? ”

He then speaks to his departed wife, “Ani, Ani there is such pain in my heart. Can you not hear my soul screaming to the skies?” He cuts the branches of the rose bush whose flowers have dried up and whose leaves are shriveled and places them in the incense burning in his house and says, “My darling, in the dead of night I shall open my heart to that scent once again and as long as I live it shall remain with me.”

Then as the Azan calls out the dawn prayers he brings the ashes of the incense and scatters them around the rose bush. And then he appears to speak more of himself than of his departed wife when he says “Rose bush you must live again… and flower again. Until the time the Great Keeper of gardens comes and cuts you down and pulls you out to make way for another rose bush.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The old-fashioned Rosa centifolia photographed in Jogjakarta. Photo Credit: Mallory Cessair, CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creative commons .org/licenses/by-sa/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about the house in Tugu by the same writer in:
Part II: https://observerid.com/the-house-in-tugu-and-its-literary-circle-part-ii-maria-dermout-and-the-ten-thousand-things/