Me and Toba: A Childhood World in a Batak Memoir

Susan Rodgers
1988 Indonesia  
In many ethnic cultures in Indonesia th e tim e spent growing up is o ften thought o f as a period when individuals move beyond a supposedly incom plete, not fully human s ta te o f infancy to w ard a m ore orderly tim e o f "truly human" adulthood. Babies are typically view ed as considerably less than fu ll persons, and childhood is the tim e they becom e com pletely human: through learning th e adat ("local custom"), by com ing to discern and in teract appropriately w ith th e various types
more » ... th e various types o f kinspeople and social classes around th em , and-perhaps m ost centrally-by learning to speak th e local language. A w riter's mem oirs o f his childhood o ften subtly detail this fundam ental process o f becom ing human while recording th e m ore mundane experiences o f grow ing up. Given this fram ew o rk, autobiographical accounts in Indonesia often bear on much larg er cultural issues. For youngsters in la te colonial tim es growing up also o ften m eant "becom ing a Javanese" or "becom ing a T o b a B atak" or w hatever th e local society happened to be. In accord w ith this, young children w ere not really fu ll Javanese o r T o b a , although they lived in those societies. T h ey w ere joined in this unfinished s ta te by foreigners, th e insane, and those outside adat and local speech conventions. A proper childhood w orked as a door into fu ll Javanese-ness or T o b a -n e s s . Childhood m em oirs o ften narrate an author's passage through such a transition. D r. H . Ruslan Abdulgani, form erly m inister o f inform ation and m inister o f fo reig n affairs as w ell as Indonesia's am bassador to th e U N , includes a passage in his auto biography th a t expertly w eaves to g e th e r all these them es o f m aturation, personhood, speech, etiq u ette, and ethnic "completeness." T h e firs t chapter o f Ms autobiography is entitled "My Childhood W orld"* 1 and portrays th e bustling, socially varieg ated kam pung (neighborhood, in this case) called Plam pitan in Surabaya w here Ms fam ily lived. T h ey owned a provisions shop, and th e tim e w as about 1 9 1 8 . H e w rites about growing up, and relates th e ty p e o f advice his m other would give her children: * I would like to thank W illiam Frederick o f O hio University's History D epartm ent and D r. P. Voorhoeve fo r reading an early d raft o f this paper. Professor N alom Siahaan, recently retired fro m th e literature faculty o f Universitas Indonesia, also provided valuable help. M y chief thanks, however, g o to P. S. Naipospos, th e author o f A ku dan Toba, w ho generously shared inform ation on his life and w riting career with m e through letters as I w as drafting this article. 1 . Edited and translated by W illiam H. Frederick, Indonesia 1 7 (April 1 9 7 4 ): 1 1 2 -3 5 . Anthony Reid's "On th e Im portance o f Autobiography" (Indonesia 1 3 (April 19 7 2 ): 1 -4 ) and th e essays th a t fo llo w it discuss th e translation and historical analysis o f such personal history m aterial. G. W . J. Drew es sum m arizes several m em oirs, including A ku dan Toba, in his "A utobiografieen van Indonesiers," B ijd rag en to t de Taal-, L a n d -en Volkenkunde 1 0 7 (1 9 5 1 ): 2 2 0 -6 4 . 63 64 A ll through my childhood, and even la te r, when as an adult I held various positions in th e governm ent, M o th er reminded m e o f three duties: when you m eet som eone or com e to a crossroads, don't fo rg e t to say "P eace be w ith you" {Assalam alaikum) , even if you just murmur it to yourself; d o n 't look up to th e powerful and rich w ithout a t th e sam e tim e looking down a t th e ordinary fo lk {/akyat) and considering th eir needs; and always rem em ber God. O nce I asked my m other w here God was. She sm iled a t m e and whispered, "In your heart! T h a t is why you must never fo rg e t Him ." M o th er also asked th a t, a fte r w e w ere grown up and independent, w e children rem em ber to be s in g Jow o, which translates roughly as "Javanese in thought" o r simply "truly Javanese." By giving us a number o f exam ples, M o th er m ade clear th a t "sing Jowo" m eant being polite, friendly and open tow ards others, cooperative, helpful, and so forth. AH this w as especially im portant when it cam e to th e relationship between children and th e ir parents, and in this regard "sing Jowo" also m eant to be helpful to parents, to support them when they w ere no longer able to do so them selves, and to give th em tender loving care. I often heard my m other discussing w ith som e o f her friends th e sad stories o f certain children they knew who, although they had risen in society and w ere doing w ell, paid no attention to th e ir parents. T h ey w ere called ndak Jow o, which literally m eant "not Javanese." (T h e sam e te rm w as often used by kampung people in a som ew hat differen t sense, meaning ■crazy" ig ila ) or "cracked* (suiting).) 2. Abdulgani, "M y Childhood W o rld ," p. 1 1 9 .
doi:10.2307/3351176 fatcat:xlz4zyuuvrapbpvim5nqtoob6u