Friday, September 22, 2023 | 12:54 WIB

The house in Tugu and its literary circle. Part V: The new German mother

IO – My German mother, Margret Alisjahbana first heard of Indonesia when as a child her uncle who was an opera singer divorced his wife and she then married a man who was made the representative of 4711 in Batavia – which in the Germany of my mother’s childhood sounded terribly exotic to everyone. Some years later, my mother read a very romantic novel which impressed her young heart. It opened with the lines, “In Java, the beautiful women bath in the rivers…”. And the third time she heard of Indonesia, was when she met my father.

Agapanthus praecox. Photo credit: Alejandro Bayer Tamayo from Armenia, Colombia, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

They met at a PEN Congress in Dublin. I believe it was in 1953. Originally, PEN stood for ‘Poets, Essayists and Novelists’ (now it is has evolved to ‘Poets, Playwrights, Editors, Essayists and Novelists’) – and my father attended as all three. My mother meanwhile, came to Dublin to cover the Congress as the cultural editor of the Rhine Zeitung, a German newspaper for northern Rhineland-Palatinate which was created in Koblenz after the Second World War.

The PEN Club was founded in 1921 to promote friendship and cooperation between writers all over the world. With branches in over 100 countries, it emphasizes the role of literature in the development of world culture and understanding, fights for freedom of expression and speaks out on behalf of writers who are imprisoned, harassed or killed. My father was a member of PEN as were several other Indonesian Socialist party or PSI members and sympathizers such as Mochtar Lubis, Beb Vuyck and Achdiat Karta Mihardja who was at onetime head of the Indonesian branch of PEN. The first PEN Club counted as its members, writers such as Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells – and now, J.K. Rowlings.

Sketch of German author Erich Kastner by Erich Ohser in 1929. Photo credit: Erich Ohser (1903-1944), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The German writer, poet, screenwriter and satirist, Erich Kastner also attended the Congress and it was he who introduced my parents to each other. Kastner was best known for his children’s books including Emil und die Detektiven or ‘Emil and the Detectives’ and received the Hans Christian Andersen award for lasting contributions in children’s literature in 1960 with his book, Als ich ein kleiner Junge war or ‘When I was a Little Boy’ in which he describes the bombing of Dresden with his unforgettable lines, “I was born in the most beautiful city in the world. Even if your father, child, was the richest man in the world, he could not take you to see it, because it does not exist anymore. … In a thousand years was her beauty built, in one night was it utterly destroyed.”

 Kastner was nominated six times for the Nobel prize in literature and one of his children’s books Das Doppelte Lottchen was translated into English and became a popular film in the 1960s at a time when we were in exile in the United States. The film which we children thoroughly enjoyed, was called’ The Parents Trap’ starring Haley Mills.

Punktchen by Erich Kastner. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

No one knows why Kastner felt that these two people coming from such disparate cultures and places so far flung from each other, would suit one another – causing him to decide to play the role of match maker. Nevertheless, he was quite right. Afterwards, Takdir corresponded with my mother and visited Germany in the subsequent months. Years later, at the Tugu house, he told me that at the time, he had decided that if he married again then this time it would be nice to have a wife with a PhD. Considering that he himself did not have a PhD at the time, even for a PSI Kartini man, this was rather ambitious. My mother who was 29 years old had a PhD.

As very small children we began our adventures into literature with Indonesian fables and German fairytales. My father brought us into the Malay-Sumatran world of kancil or mousedeer. A mousedeer is the smallest of deer, about the size of a cat. In these old fables, kancil outwits crocodile and tiger. It has the wisdom of Solomon, awarding a baby to the woman who would give it up rather than have it cut in half and shows compassion when a rich man accuses a poor man of stealing the scent of his food. Kancil simply makes him listen to the poor man count out a sum of money as compensation. It is incomprehensible to me now how noble mousedeer could ever have been replaced in the hearts of Indonesians by the komodo dragon which is a reptile – and a rather vicious and oblivious one at that.  

Michaelmas daisies that my mother planted in the blue flowerbed. Photo credit: Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 My mother brought us two big books. They were the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm and of Hans Christian Andersen. Both were in German, and every night one child could choose a fairytale for my mother to read aloud. My favourite was Andersen’s Snow Queen whose hero was a little girl that travels north to rescue her friend from the cold clutches of the Snow Queen. One of my first more grown up books was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I adored it and told my mother, “That is the most amazing book, I have ever read. It’s so wonderful,”

“Why do you like it so much?” she asked me.

“Because it makes me laugh and laugh and then it makes me cry and cry.”

“Ah, the tragicomedy. It is not the best of literature.”


“Because it is in a way, cheating. It plays on your emotions… bringing you from the heights of laughter to the depths of sorrow rather than depending on the literary skill of the writer…”

A small thistle growing in my mother’s blue flowerbed in Tugu. Photo credit: Photo courtesy of Trita Amahorjea

More than forty years later, after my mother had died and in the midst of grieving for her, I went to the University of Cologne and searched for her PhD thesis. Scrolling through the catalogues I finally found it: the tragicomedy in European literature. I always regretted not asking her why taking a reader to the heights of laughter and the depths of sadness does not count as a literary skill and why she had chosen that topic for her thesis.

My sister Mirta once described to me something of my father’s grief after the passing away of his second wife, Soegiarti. She told me, “I was only 8 years old at the time and I missed my mother so much. I remember how quiet the house was and to this day I cannot stand the sound of a clock ticking in a silent room. For Ama (our father) it was also terrible. Every week, he would take Ria and me out of school to go to Tugu. We sat beside him in the car as the driver drove us there and the moment we passed out of the suburbs of Jakarta, he would lay his head on the seat and sob. It was dreadful. We were still such little girls – and we did not know what to do.”

Margret Alisjahbana when she was a journalist. Copyright with the Heirs of Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana.

As I was growing up, Takdir explained to me one day in Tugu, that besides needing a mother for his little girls, what he wanted above all things in a wife was someone with whom he could share and discuss his thoughts and ideas. My mother later told me that she felt he was the cleverest man she had ever met – and I believe she kept that thought till her death. He asked her to marry him on one of the little Rhine steamers near the Lorelei Cliff – and she said no but he was not put off and asked her twice again. After the second time, my mother’s friend and landlady, Anne Quast who had met him and was quite taken with him told her, “You’re making a mistake turning him down, Margret – and if you don’t take him, I shall!”

By then my mother was probably worried he would not ask her again, and so she said yes which was quite brave of her as she had never been to the Orient and had neither friends nor relatives in Indonesia – but then again, she was a journalist after all – and as the Eurasian Dutch writer Beb Vuyck who was to become a very good friend put it, “A writer must travel!”.

Else Ury the writer of Nesthackshcen. Photo credit: Miezian, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

My mother obtained this taste for travel probably already as a child during the Weimar Republic when she was brought up on the Nesthäkchen series by Else Ury (1877-1943). Nesthackschen means the last bird to leave the nest. Ury was a Jewish German writer who wrote the Nesthäkchen series specifically for girls and it tells the story of the life of Annemarie Braun, a little golden-blonde doctor’s daughter from Berlin, with no connections to Judaism at all. Her books sold at the time nearly a million copies but sadly, this did not save Ury from a tragic death in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, when the Nazis came to power. There stands a cenotaph in memory of her in Berlin’s Weissensee Jewish Cemetery.

One of the books in the series on Nesthackschen. Photo credit: Public Domain,

Annemarie Braun was a figure of identification for girls of the Weimar period through a series of 10 children’s books starting with Annemarie at the age of five until she is over 70 years old – and what is perhaps memorable in my mother’s case is that Annemarie ends up marrying a Brazilian and moving to Brazil. The book describes her life there and it created an enormous longing for travel in my mother’s heart. She wanted of course, to go to Brazil. This, she never did but marrying and going to live in Indonesia was perhaps, not too dissimilar.

After their marriage my father would always discuss his ideas with her and she became his editor. They went to the Tugu house nearly every weekend. My mother loved the Tugu house –although not as much as my German grandmother who loved gardening and who when she saw Tugu with its bamboos and roses said sincerely, “This is paradise. Everything grows here.”

My grandmother who declared the garden in Tugu as paradise. Copyright with the Heirs of Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana.

Gardening was not my mother’s greatest love but she planted several things in the Tugu garden. She created a circular flower bed where she had the gardener plant only blue flowers which she loved. There were large blue agapanthus, big blue thistles, smaller more purplish ones and michaelmas daisies. Later, I brought the seeds of china blue forget-me-nots from France and we added these to her blue flower bed. She also planted a row of five cypresses a little distant from each other which made one feel as though looking through a picture window at the lower garden. My mother who was not very religious (although like my father she also came from a religious background) used to say that the cypresses were holy trees, “They are like fingers pointing up at God, reminding us to say, ‘Thank you!’. Years later at her funeral, when I mentioned this to Pater Heuken the Jesuit priest who buried her and who was the author of Historical Sites of Jakarta – he was of course, very chuffed.

The dammar pines with passion fruit vines growing at their tops. Photo credit: Rubin Kartohadiprojo (private collection)

Some years after my mother died, my oldest brother Iskander replaced the cypresses with dammar pines (Agathis dammara). The resin from the dammar or amboina pine, burns like solid paraffin, and in the old days was used for light. I then, planted passion fruit vines up the dammar pines. My brother Emerald in Bali gave me the seeds for pink and for yellow passion fruit, and I brought seeds from a purple variety from around Lake Batur and they all grew to the very tops of the 15-meter-high trees and had their fruit right at the tops – quite outside anyone’s reach. But some very sociable squirrels live up there and every day they drop at least three to five passion fruit which we eat. So, that has all worked out perfectly well.

Yellow passion fruit harvest thrown down by the friendly squirrels in the dammar pines. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

After marrying my father, my mother arrived at Kemayoran Airport by plane and the family of course, came to greet her arrival. My second brother, Sofjan later brought a ripe durian as a test for this new German mother. She passed with flying colours: for my mother absolutely adored durian (although strangely enough, she despised nangka or jackfruit) and later, even learnt to make tempoyak which is a pink sauce made from fermented durians and used to cook shrimp. As she stepped off the plane in Kemayoran with a basket in her hand in which she had placed her feathered hat and my older sister Ria who was about five years old at the time shouted excitedly, “Look, our new mother has brought a chicken with her from Germany!”

The children and my father called her Mutti which means ‘Mummy’ in German but of course, no one else knew that and they all thought it was her name. I still remember old Pak Udin and his wife Bibi calling her Nyonya Mutti or Madam Mummy – which she remained until her death.

My mother’s blue flowerbed in Tugu. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

My mother loved Tugu and would at times even stay there on her own. The cool climate and beautiful garden, far from the cares of Jakarta calmed and renewed her spirit. It was a tranquil haven for both my parents especially, after they returned from exile. As a journalist and an intellectual, my mother was thrilled when she first arrived, with the literary and cultural discussions held in Tugu and was excited at being a part of Indonesia’s pioneering intellectual circles. It was a new nation and its intellectuals were enthusiastic about creating a new Indonesian culture to unite a nation of over 300 ethnic and tribal groups and to help bring Indonesian society into the 20th century. Through the years my parents invited many different types of people to Tugu.

Agapanthus umbullatus painted by P.J. Redoute. Photo credit: Allais, Louis Jean; Bessin, R.; Candolle, Augustin Pyramus de; Chailli, Jacques; Didot; Laroche, François de; Raffeneau-Delile, Alire; Redouté, Pierre Joseph; Redouté, Pierre Joseph, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was also in Tugu that my father wrote a great deal of what I consider to be his most important book, Kalah dan Menang or ‘Defeat and Victory’. In the book his second wife Soegirati is clearly Kartini but Margret is in the book in the personality of Elizabeth, the Swiss woman who has a German father and a French mother and in whose house the Japanese soldier, Okura is billeted during the Japanese Occupation of Indonesia. Elizabeth’s father was a philosopher (as Takdir himself was) and the book shows this. Every now and then Takdir will have the characters step back from the story and appear to look at themselves from outside the events unfurling, but rather from the perspective of culture and the evolution of values. For example, as the Japanese army approaches, the characters say how terrible and how frightening it all is and then they suddenly add, “but it will be so interesting to know how this all pans out. There will certainly be a new balance of power”. And Elizabeth has this same curiosity. When Okura is billeted with her, it is her intellectual curiosity which comes to the fore as she goes about trying to find out about Japanese culture and understand what has made Japan what it is. So, she begins to speak to Okura and ask him about his country and his culture. She listens with her heart and mind and with her the reader comes to understand Japanese culture and society during the Second World War. The book also describes how Okura slowly changes his thinking and his values and in a way it symbolizes how his nation, Japan was also forced to change it’s thinking and it’s values. Because of this book my father received the Japan Foundation Award and a star from the Emperor of Japan.

Forget-me-nots (Myosotis alpestris). I brought seeds from France to plant in my mother’s blue flowerbed. Photo credit: Bff / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

After reading the book, Aristides Katoppo one of Indonesia’s most respected journalists said, “To truly try to understand another person or another culture is in fact an act of great kindness.” Time magazine’s review of the book also touches upon this when Simon Montlake described Defeat and Victory as a work of wartime compassion. Elizabeth Hauser had this sort of compassion, and it also defined my mother. I think it was easier for my father to articulate that what he was looking for was a wife with a PhD than to say that what he truly wanted was a PhD with a kind and compassionate heart – nevertheless, this is what he found in my mother. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about the house in Tugu by the same writer in:
Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Part IV:

Part VI:

Part VII:


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