The house in Tugu and its literary circle. Part II: Maria Dermout and The Ten Thousand Things

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The Tugu house, 2021. Photo credit: Mutiara Maharini

IO – Let us be clear from the start so as not to disappoint too much any fans of Maria Dermout, one of the great names of Dutch literature: she never visited the house in Tugu where my father, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana created a literary milieu through the many writers who did visit it. However, her grandson Bas Kist did. He visited the house in Tugu with Dutch writer Max de Bruijn, and stayed a few days. He spoke to me about his grandmother and her unforgettable book, De Tienduizend Dingen or ‘The Ten Thousand Things’.

Angels’ trumpets. Photo credit: Aris riyanto, CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creative commons.org/licenses /by-sa/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

I remember that at the time of their visit, angels’ trumpets (Brugmansia suaveolens) were growing all around the half circular terrace in front of the living room of the Tugu house which is located on the slopes of a mountain 1500 meters above sea level, in West Java. We had breakfast on the terrace and in the evening dinner with candles and lanterns. The towering angels’ trumpets were in full bloom, both white and yellow ones and in the evenings one could smell their sweet scent in the cool air trying to attract bats and moths and other creatures of the night. I was told not to sleep under them as I might well awaken to the true sound of angels’ trumpets.

That no doubt was an exaggeration and the people who told me this may have been thinking of the purple datura or devil’s trumpets (Datura stramonium). Both are of the Solanaceae or nightshade family but devil’s trumpets are highly toxic. In Indonesia they are known as kecubung or ‘amethyst’ and these too grow in the Tugu garden although not in any great profusion. There is only one plant. I remember my sister, Ria telling me once, how in the old days thieves would strew branches of their leaves around people’s house and burn a few dry leaves to create a light smoke to ensure the people in the houses slept well, as the thieves went about their work.

Devil’s trumpets (Datura). Photo credit: Flobbadob, CC BY-SA 4.0 (https:// creative commons.org/licenses /by-sa/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

I became familiar with Maria Dermout’s writing long before I met Bas Kist. It was in fact through my love for the Moluccas in particular the Banda Islands, that I came across her book, ‘The Ten Thousand Things’. The book is a masterpiece of storytelling, weaving myth and reality together in a great web of compassion and understanding. I realized at once that this was the work of a highly skilled craftswoman and it remains my favourite book of the Netherlands Indies literature, till today.

The book is the story of an old lady, Mevrouw Kleintjes who lives on a deserted plantation in Ambon. There are several stories woven into one central story. Each tributary story is about a murder – but were they murders? She remembers these and tries to understand them, and thereby also life itself. The stories are delicately interspersed with the myths and traditions of the islands. The ‘ten thousand things’ are the things that are called out to the spirit of a person just departed so that they may remember and say good bye to the life they have left. “Remember your little hut by the sea and the waves throwing themselves over and over on to the shore, oh spirit of ….” And so it goes on until the ten thousand things of a person’s life have all been recalled.

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

Dermout based her story on an old lady that she knew who lived on a plantation on the island of Ambon, called Taman Kate-Kate which like Kleintjes, means small. In the 1990s one had to drive around the Bay of Ambon from the airport at Laha in order to reach Ambon town and we always passed Taman Kate-Kate which had become a Protestant school of theology. I stopped several times and spoke to the caretaker and an aged servant of the old lady, who remembered many of the stories in the Ten Thousand Things and confirmed that they were in fact all true events that had once happened. He told me, “That story about the professor who was killed and had his body thrown in the sea? The botanist? There really was an American botanist who was killed on Ambon and the Nyonya who owned Kate-Kate, she occasionally held séances with the Ouija board – so, she knew what had happened to him.”

The large property that had once been a plantation was still intact and a house was still standing, where the head of the school now lived. One day in passing I saw a lot of activity and building work going on. I was told that an American missionary had come with a lot of funds to extend the school and I immediately thought, “Oh no… they’re going to tear down the house… but that is all that is left of the story!”

So, I stopped the car and went to speak to the missionary. It was exactly as I had thought and I spent an hour pleading with him not to tear down the house, explaining that The Ten Thousand Things was perhaps the greatest novel of the Netherlands Indies literature. I put my whole heart into it and he finally said to me, “You are on your way to the Banda Islands and will be back in two weeks. I’ll speak to the committee. Stop by here, and I’ll let you know their decision.”

Two weeks later I returned and he said, “All right just to please you, little lady, we shall not tear down the house.” Then he handed me one of the wrought iron railings on the terrace of the house and said, “Now get 40 of these made and send them to me to repair the railings!”

With the help of the architect Jaya Ibrahim who helped create the beautiful Dharmawangsa Hotel in Jakarta, more than 40 replicas were made and some months later I brought them by boat to Ambon and had them delivered to Taman Kate-Kate. Later, the house was one of the few old buildings that survived the terrible troubles in Ambon that began in 1998 but I have not been there for several years now, and I can only hope it is still standing.

Bas Kist and Max de Bruijn were both historians. Bas was a conservator at the Rijksmuseum and in the early 2000s they (together with Pieter Poldervaart) were involved in a conservation project with the Perpustakaan Nasional RI or ‘Indonesian National Library’. They assisted the National Library in conserving its collection of Rach drawings. Johannes Rach was an 18th century draughtsman and artist who drew many of the buildings and streets in Batavia and it is in great part because of him that we know what it looked like in the 18th century. So, completely different from Jakarta now. It was like a tropical Baroque town with magnificent buildings and gardens. Together, Max and Bas wrote a wonderful book titled, ‘Johannes Rach 1720-1783. Artist in Indonesia and Asia’.

Max de Bruijn, author of ‘Expats: A Tale of Living Abroad’. Photo courtesy of Max de Bruijn

Apart from this, Max de Bruijn was also a writer in his own right who in 2000 published a novel about the Dutch community in Jakarta called, “Expats: A Tale of Living Abroad” which was critical of the Dutch community in Jakarta and some people were a little afraid of his sharp pen. The Dutch ambassador in Jakarta at the time, Schelto Baron van Heemstra, said in a farewell speech in 2002 that he had a “truly wonderful time” in Indonesia, “with one exception: that book, Expats.”

Angels’ trumpets. Photo credit: P. Bessa, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I always got on well with Max and really enjoyed discussing history, culture and politics with him. Later, I came to know him better and he became a good friend. Max adored Bas Kist and liked very much working together with him. The Dutch cultural attaché first introduced me to Bas and it was as though we knew each other from another time. There was an instant understanding and sympathy and eventually he together with Max de Bruijn, came to stay at the house in Tugu. It was to be one of my favourite stays there, with visitors. I felt amongst people of a similar tribe.

We had a dawn outing to the Cibodas botanical gardens which are more alpine than the Bogor ones. It is half an hour from the Tugu house and we began with a picnic breakfast before walking through the gardens. On our walk, I mentioned the Javan hawk eagle which is the prototype for our national Garuda emblem and as I spoke we heard a chirping cry in the sky and there it was above our heads. Such luck, the first day.

My first meeting with Bas Kist. Photo courtesy of Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

Bas and I spoke intensely about his grandmother, Maria Dermout and I felt at times as though he were unburdening himself a little. I had told him about my efforts to save the hose in Taman Kate Kate and I think perhaps that touched him. He told me almost immediately how his grandmother had had one son whom she adored but that later she had a falling out with him because she did not approve of the woman he married. By then, Maria Dermout was living in the Netherlands and her son had returned to the Indies. For ten years they were at odds. Then, the Second World War broke out and during that time of great suffering and violence, Dermout came to regret her quarrel with her only son and wanted to write to him but the War prevented communications with the Indies. So, she wrote to her son – I do not remember if it was every day or every week – but she could not send the letters and simply kept them all, hoping to reconcile with him and give them to him after the War.

Maria Dermout in her youth. Photo credit: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, when the War was over she learnt that her son had died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and that she would never have the chance to make amends with him. Bas said that it was a great blow for her which drove her to depression. What helped her in the end was writing ‘The Ten Thousand Things’. In the book, Mrs Kleintjes also quarrels with her son who has joined the KNIL or Royal Netherland Indies Army and is killed by the Alfuru tribes in Seram, before they can reconcile. The book had always struck me as a book about forgiveness and acceptance. Bas explained, “Writing that book was both cathartic and healing for my grandmother.”

The Ten Thousand Things was a great success not only in the Netherlands but internationally and was translated into thirteen languages. Dermout’s style of writing is very specific to her. It is a combination of a novel interspersed occasionally with a sing song style of story-telling as in a children’s story – which is very attractive. Writer and journalist, Hans Koning, wrote of her, “Dermoût was sui generis, a case all her own. She did not write about her Indies as a Dutch woman, or as a Javanese or an Ambonese. Hers was a near-compassionate disdain for the dividing lines, the hatreds and the fears … She painted landscapes, still lifes and people in a world of myth and mystery.”

And then Bas told me the incomprehensible part of the story.

Devil’s trumpets (Datura). Photo credit: Francisco Manuel Blanco (O.S.A.), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“I was her favourite grandchild. In that sense my grandmother was a real 19th century woman. For her the men were everything. I was very close to her and we had a special bond. I think in a way she placed her unresolved longing and regret for her son on me. I adored my grandmother… and then she did the same again. She did not approve of the woman I married and she broke off her relationship with me.”

I remember gazing at Bas in disbelief. I could sense how so many years after his grandmother’s death it still distressed him. “How could that be Bas? She was a very intelligent, observant and highly sensitive woman who had experienced the horrors and sadness of war, she went through loss and regret and healing… but… she repeated the same mistake with her son, all over again?”

“Yes. Exactly. All over again. As if for some reason she needed to relieve it all again. I was very hurt. There was never any healing and we never reconciled.”

It is one of the mysteries of life that through all the years, I have never understood. In that garden with the angel’s trumpets and the devil’s trumpets, I wondered why she had needed to repeat that story and hurt so terribly one of the people she loved the most. All that came to mind were the words of a Middle Eastern saying, of how the bottom of the sea and the heart of man are unfathomable.

De Kist or the Suitcase by Maria Dermout. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

The next time I saw Bas was a year or two later in Holland where I was on a visit. Max and I had dinner at his house and it was a lovely dinner where we spoke about things or the heart and of the mind and we three planned that when they came again to Indonesia we would go on a road trip and explore Daendels old Post Road that was the first to connect one end of Java to the next and we would go to Ambon to Taman Kate-Kate and of course, to Banda. Bas and I also planned a visit to his grandmother’s grave. After dinner, Bas walked me to the train station and gently placed an old copy of one of his grandmother’s novels in my hands as a parting gift. It was De Kist or ‘The Chest’, a book in which all the cultural references are Javanese, though written in Dutch.   I boarded the train and my last glimpse of Bas was on the platform waving good bye to me.

A day or two later Max called me in a state of shock and grief, to tell me that Bas had quietly passed away. So, we never explored Daendels’ old Postweg and I did not have the chance to show him Taman Kate-Kate or Banda.  It remains one of the regrets of my life because I know it would have been a trip with someone who would have made it come alive and who would have understood how I looked at it. We also did not have the chance to visit his grandmother’s grave.

The walk through the Tugu tea plantation that Bas, Max and I took. Photo credit: Mutiara Maharini.

But I do not wish to end like this, so let me return to a happier moment. Maria Dermout was born on a sugar plantation in Pati, Central Java and one evening during Max and Bases stay at the Tugu house we walked up through the tea plantations behind the house. It was late afternoon and nearly every day had been sunny with clear blue skies, but that afternoon there was a mist enveloping the Gede and Pangrango mountains which together form the silhouette of an elephant’s head and back but these were not visible. The elephant was not just sleeping but had thrown a blanket of mist and clouds over itself. It was very disappointing and I do not know what possessed me for suddenly I found myself throwing out my arms and addressing the tetek-tetek (grandfathers) and Nenek-nenek (grandmothers) as they do in Banda when there is a problem. “This man’s grandmother wrote the most wonderful book about the Moluccas and a hundred years ago his grandfather climbed the Gunung Gede – and he has come all the way from Holland – could you please, please let him see the mountains his grandfather climbed?”

Drawing of the Gede creator as seen from the Pangrango by Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn (1809-1864). Bas Kist’s grandfather climbed the Gede. Photo credit: Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn (1809-1864), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For a moment nothing happened and then to our  delight slowly the mist evaporated and gradually the shape of the sleeping elephant became visible – but not only that – westwards to our left a furious, golden orange sunset suddenly lit up the skies. Was it synchronicity? Was it God? Was it the spirits of the ancestors or the spirits of the trees and mountains and sky or nature itself? All I know is only that it was wonderful. Grace. A small miracle that covered the earth with a blanket of peace. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Maria Dermout’s signature. Photo credit: Arjuno3, CC 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 I: https://observerid.com/the-house-in-tugu-and-its-literary-circle-part-i-how-it-began-and-hella-haasse/