Tuesday, December 11, 2007


If you do not understand the title of this post, be patient. It will become clear.


A number of the more linguistically diverse people in the town where I lived when I was in the Netherlands had their roots in Indonesia, when it was still the Dutch East-Indies. Growing up I was often more comfortable with former Indonesians than the actual native speakers of English - there was so much about England or America with which I was entirely unfamiliar that I often felt handicapped among people who had experienced the places first hand, like my parents and their friends and relatives, or my father's colleagues and their families. And while the Dutch who could speak English still had all their reference points in Dutch, the Indos were more open and more flexible about otherness and elsewhereness, and their company was more vibrant (their food was much more exiting, too).
That they were there, at that time, was a blessing. It is one of the things that I miss most, intensely.

[Indos: Indies Dutch, now primarily living in the Netherlands and California, but there are also many in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and elsewhere. Most of them had been 'repatriated' to the Netherlands after the Indies became independent. Which was a new experience for them - many of them had never been to the ancestral sod, and for a number it was 'ancestral' only in a very vague sense, due to their having members of the family tree who were not Dutch, or the clan having been several generations in the East. When all your life you have lived in the tropics, the climate of Holland can be beastly. Especially if in cramped quarters, with little heat in winter. It was quite a shock. After giving life in Northern Europe the old college try, thousands eventually emigrated to the United States.]


During my high-school years I would occasionally drop by a family that had come from the Indies. Ostensibly to talk to my friend Henri, but a large part of the pleasure of his company was actually his younger sister Suzanne, a sparkling girl with dark eyes, thick chestnut hair down past her shoulders, and skin of a pale pale hue, paler than langsep.
She was wonderful to look at.

Suzanne's constant companion was Muni, who was much picked-on at the high-school, and of whom Suzanne and her family were very fond and warmly protective. People often thought Suzanne and Muni were sisters, though Muni clearly had no Indies blood - pale brown hair, white skin, lips the colour of strawberry ice-cream. She was a small bright girl who seldom spoke, and blushed a lot. The only way to get her to talk was to ask her to explain something - if you asked her a yes or no answer, that was precisely what you got - a yes or no answer.

"Nice weather, isn't it?" And after a slight delay she would respond in a tiny voice, "y-yes, sir". "Did you bicycle over here from the high-school?" Pause..... "nuh, nuh, n-no, sir".
"You mean you WALKED all the way over?" Pause..... "yuh, yuh, y-yes, sir".
"For heavensakes, why?" Long pause..... "my tuh, tuh, t-tires were slashed again, sir".
Then she would blush and look down.

Muni and Suzanne would do their homework together at the dining room table every afternoon, where Henri and I would sometimes join them. Trying to involve Muni in the conversation would inevitably make her stumble over words and look down, unless we asked her to explain a passage in a textbook. She knew the material by heart, being actually quite brilliant, and very much a constant reader. Even Henri, who was three years ahead of her in school, would ask her for help.

She blushed horribly when Henri asked her questions - and she was extremely pretty during those moments.
Henri would often keep her talking as much as possible... probably precisely because of that blushing.

When she went home around dinner time Henri would see her off down the street, to keep the local boys from harassing her. Henri was about five foot ten or eleven (taller than me), Muni was probably not even five feet tall at that time, and just the right height that one would notice that her hair smelled faintly like chocolate. Given the height difference between them, seeing Henri and Muni walking side by side was funny - they looked incredibly sweet together. Cute, even.

One day when Henri had not returned home in time, Suzanne asked me to walk Muni to her house - "Ayo Ambang, kun jij Amei niet even tot thuis meelopen, de straten zijn haar niet veilig, djadangdang, ei" ('hey brother, can't you escort sis home, the streets are not safe for her, the local yobbos dontcha know').

Of course, no problem, it's on my way.

I tried to talk to Muni as we walked, but she simply looked down silently. When I pointed out how beautiful the autumn leaves were, she coloured but said nothing. Only when we were at her door did she look up at me and say "toch mooi, mas bugao ite" ('yes beautiful, gold-gold indeed').
Her face went crimson, she turned, and was gone.



I recalled that incident while rereading an old letter from one of the other Indos. In 1982, Kitti H. reminded me of autumn in Valkenswaard.

"Muntong taon, daon-daon sa luyang-laying tumpo ka paya, warna djadi idjo ka ura tan ambera, ate sayang pa are lalo tan bustan mati. Merotama itui, djale djale ri len tan gang na kuta-mi, lite puok sehi garit-djiri nente langit, denger kwikwi na bugong djae ka suwatan. Kasantian muni ite".
['At the end of the year the leaves gracefully flutter down, the colours go from green to crimson and fire-hue; there is a sense of sadness for bygone days and moribund gardens. But it is utterly enjoyable to stroll through the streets and alley-ways of our town, seeing trees like finger-scratches against the sky, hearing cries of birds heading south. Pure peacefulness, indeed.']

When I sleep I sometimes return to Valkenswaard in autumn, when the leaves are ura, ambera, tan mas-bugao.



In addition to Dutch, most Indos and many ex-colonials spoke either a version of Indonesian, or a petjoh - a region-specific creole with much slang and many Dutch or Chinese borrowings, based on Indonesian regional languages or dialects. Others, especially those who were not residents of Java or Sumatra, spoke diverse Indonesian languages, often variants of Malay. This was largely a matter of environment, and in some cases went back generations. For some it was also a matter of ancestry. Even today, in the home and socially, non-Dutch words and phrases crop up, despite there being so few people still alive who experienced the pre-war East-Indies firsthand. Some things just sound better that way, and among those of the same background it expresses things more appropriately than is possible in unadulterated Dutch.

[The non-Dutch terms above are not standard Indonesian or Malay, but are sometimes very close. Standard Indonesian terms are the most common imports into daily speech among Indos. Before the war, Henri and Suzanne's parents, like a number of other Indos in the general area, had grown-up on the east-coast of Borneo, where the Dutch were pumping oil. Many different languages are spoken in Borneo.]

For the benefit of diqduqgeeks and the truly curious, the non-Dutch terms are explained below in the order in which they cropped up.

Langsep = Langsat (lansium domesticum); fruit resembling the longan (dimocarpus longan), having a pale yellow or ivory skin. Kuwit langsep (kulit langsat - langsat skin) is the most desirable skin-hue for young ladies, being neither as unhealthily white as a totok (purebred Dutchman), nor as dark as the lang tana (orang tani - man of the land). Girls with kuwit langsep can be absolutely stunning, especially if they have nice hair.
Muni = pure, unsullied; jewel, bijou. Derived from Sanskrit 'murni'.
Ayo = Hey, oh, errrm (interjection).
Ambang = Older brother (Indonesian: Abang), also term for a male friend who is of the same generation as oneself but older. In most Indonesian languages, as in many other Asian languages, terms of reference for relatives are hierarchical and indicate relative age ranking. In Suzanne and Henri's family, the relevant terms were ambang (older brother), aka' (kakak: older sister), adi' (adik: younger brother), amei (younger sister), and aling (little one; the youngest of the litter). Because of our age difference, Suzanne addressed me as ambang, which was also how I addressed Henri. Muni, because she was younger, was amei to both of us, but addressed Suzanne as aka', the younger brother as adik, and the youngest child as aling.
Djadangdang = Both a singular and plural for the type of boy that hangs out on the street and causes trouble. In the Netherlands they are nowadays called hangjongeren (hang youth), but the problem was not so acute back in the seventies. I cannot remember a special term for them in Dutch being used in those days. Djadangdang appropriately describes hoods, gangsters, thugs.
Mas-bugao = Gold-gold. Mas or umas is the material, bugao is the appearance and the quality. Mas-bugao means very golden, extremely golden.
Ite = Stress-participle. It unifies a preceding clause and adds emphasis. It is probably best translated as 'indeed'.
Muntong = the end in progressions of time. Muntong taon is the latter part of the year.
Taon = Year, years.
Daon = leaf, leaves. Daon-daon = the leaves, the multitude of leaves. Reduplication changes something from a specific or singular to a general concept or plural.
Sa = At. Sometimes in or on. Marked by a condition. Often used as a prefix of verbs or conditions.
Luyang-laying = Drifting, moving gently, rocking. Swaying, as a woman will sometimes walk.
Tumpo = Falling, falling upon.
Ka = To, toward.
Paya = Ground, wet earth.
Warna = Colour, hue.
Djadi = Become, transform.
Idjo = Green.
Ura = Red, carmine.
Tan = And.
Ambera = The colour of licking flames or polished copper.
Ate = Liver. In the Indonesian languages, the liver is often the seat of emotions and thought.
Sayang = A state of heightened emotion. Usually slight sadness, sometimes intense empathy.
Pa = For, towards.
Are = Sun. Day, days.
Lalo = Passed, transpired, gone by.
Bustan = Garden. In some regionalects a market garden is more likely meant, but here the meaning is urban gardens. Gardens and orchards out in the countryside are kabon.
Mati = Dead. Ceased. Expired. Over.
Merotama = Mero means fragrant like ripe fruit, hence good and enjoyable. The postfix 'tama' is used for emphasis. Merotama: exceedingly pleasant or enjoyable, delightfull.
Itui = That. Ini is this, iyan is that over there.
Djale = To meander, to go out.
Ri = In. At. But 'inside' is dalem.
Len = Street, road. Standard Indonesian: djalan. Singular and plural. But unlike Indonesian 'jalan', it is not a verb in addition to being a noun.
Gang = Passage way, alley between buildings. Narrow urban street.
Na = Of.
Kuta-mi = Our town. Kuta: town, city. Mi: possesive first person plural postfix, derived from 'kami', first person plural excluding person spoken to. The postfix is often used in familiar instances to indicate 'our', including the person spoken to. Kita is first person plural inclusive, and while 'ta' is the correct plural inclusive postfix, its usage is mostly limited to formal speech and important constructs - tuwanta (our lord), uripta (our lives), dagatta (our life's blood - commerce), etcetera. In the construction kampong-mi, on the other hand, the mi postfix really is exclusive - the person spoken to is probably not of 'our hamlet'.
Lite = To see.
Puok = Tree, tree trunks.
Sehi = Like, as if. Resembling.
Garit-djiri = Finger-scratches. Garit: scratch. Djiri: digit.
Nente = Against. Opposed to.
Langit = Sky.
Denger = To listen.
Kwi-kwi = Onomatopoetic for the twittering of birds. Bats when waking and bugs at nightfall do not kwi-kwi, they kri-kri. I thought you should know.
Bugong = Bird, both singular and plural.
Djae = Going.
Suwatan = The South.
Kasantian = Peacefulness, the sense of calm enjoyment.


Anonymous said...

I love this story and the vocab words help too. If you ever write a novel, I'm buying it!

Anonymous said...

Ach, dat is een zeer mooie herinnering.

Anonymous said...

indra lesmana cafe
http://tinyurl.com/yb3au3x6 lirik lagu ahmad albar rumah kita
abimana aryasatya agama apa

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