Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

The Longan Tree

Published: Feb 13, 2015

Hannah Rambe's The Longan Tree tells a story of modernisation, progress and loss in Indonesia

As Santoso spoke to his mother he stared straight ahead, “It’s not that we don’t sympathize with you, Mother. We know how sad you must be at being forced to move. You were born in this area; we know that. But it’s not just you who’s affected – everyone in the village is.

"Whenever big money comes into an area, people have to leave, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re forced to give up a piece of heritage going back hundreds of years. The bottom line is, if you want to be modern, the traditional has to make way for hotels, factories, airports, multi-level highways, shops, dams and all the rest."

The upland breeze was brisk and had a chilly edge. Leaves were starting to fall. Several yellow leaves landed on the table. One dropped into Toso’s cup.

"You see, Mother, even this here longan tree shares our concern. It’s dropped a leaf in my cup as a sign."

The two looked up at the beautiful tree. It had stopped flowering and was now covered in tiny fruit. 

It had been a long time since Ndoro Den Ayu, the matriarch, Toso's mother, had enjoyed the atmosphere of warmth and tranquility that she was feeling this evening. How often could she? Her rambling house, inherited by her husband, was virtually empty. Her six children had all left the nest.

Toso, who had come on his own to see her, had been living in Australia for six years and unless he was given a very lucrative job offer, it seemed unlikely that he would return. Further, his wife liked it in Australia, and their two children were now in school there.

Yayuk, her oldest daughter, lived in Jakarta. Her husband was a high-ranking government official and the two of them owned a house, land, a car, and all other material goods they might need. It was no wonder they had no interest in living in Yayuk’s ancestral house, located so far away. For them, it was a nice vacation home. Apart from a cool climate, the area also offered numerous historical ruins.

Sri, the next girl, lived with her husband in Irian Jaya. They were both doctors attached to a religious organization. Their children went to a boarding school in Bandung run by the same organization.

Siti, her other daughter, was unmarried. She was a nun and lived in Larantuka. Since moving there she'd only been home twice, and then her main reason for coming back had not been to see her mother, but for official business.

Padmo, her second son, was a hotel operator in Bali. Only two things motivated him: success and money, and he changed wives as often as some people changed their clothes. His offspring were an unhappy lot, and Ndoro Den Ayu worried about the kind of upbringing her grandchildren in Bali were getting.

Adi, who was older than Toso, was the only one of her children who didn’t have a degree of some sort. He was a slim, good-looking man who was very bright and popular. Nonetheless, he was not one for studying and had always preferred partying, singing and gambling to reading academic books. Over the years he had tried his hand at several businesses but with very mixed success. The company he now managed had a contract to develop a transmigration site on Seram, and he was now living there.

Ndoro Den Ayu’s husband had enjoyed a successful career in government and had inherited a considerable tract of land. Theirs was a prosperous and respected family and their way of life very European.

Ndoro Den Ayu had never imagines that in her twilight years she would be alone, not surrounded by children and friends. Most had achieved great success in their lives, and had outgrown village life. They were educated and sophisticated.

The family house had extensive grounds – if it were in Jakarta, a half dozen small houses could be built in the yard. And that was only the front yard visible to passersby. At the back of the house were pens for horses, cows and chickens and a rice barn, too. The house was located on a corner property adjacent to a vast area of paddy fields. The neighboring house to the left was another colonial style home now being used as the sub-district office.

One menial job that Ndoro Den Ayu liked to do herself was tending the dahlias. She planted dahlias around the entire edge of the open lawn. Her Dutch friends laughingly referred to her home as “Dahlia House.” There were flowers in bloom the whole year round. She had dahlias of all sorts – from plate-sized to coin-sized, from single to crowned blooms, with colors ranging from white to vibrant red.

She derived true pleasure from planting and fertilizing the flowers, removing their withered leaves, and ridding them of pesky caterpillars. For years she, her husband, and their children had made it a habit to take their afternoon tea in the garden. Her late husband, who was also her cousin, never tired of praising her for her green thumb.

Ndoro Den Ayu knew no other life than the calm and tranquil one she lived. Thus, she found it difficult to comprehend why anyone would want to turn the area into a huge international tourist resort.

The high plain on which she lived had been a tourist destination since the early days and the longan fruit was the area’s “trademark.” But the area was relatively far from the large cities of Java’s north coast and, at one time, just getting there entailed a trip of a few day’s time. It wasn’t cheap either. It was understandable, therefore, that it had once been only the well-heeled Dutch people who had cars of their own who visited there.

But now the area was to be awash with tourists. Plans called for the construction of a large airport and a grand hotel complete with swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses, souvenir shops, restaurants, an entertainment park, and all the rest. As luck would have it, the sub-district in which she lived happened to be the perfect place for such a resort. Once the decision was announced, the area’s residents were asked to move with the provision, of course, that they would be compensated for the loss of their houses and land.

The powers-that-be announced that the resort would reap numerous dividends; there would be employment opportunities for both skilled and unskilled workers. The area’s vegetable, fruit, and flower producers would have a ready market. Drivers of busses, horse carts, and taxis, as well as tour companies would have a sustained income from the steady stream of tourists. Wasn’t all of this of greater benefit than preserving the languid, traditional life style of the place?

Ndoro Den Ayu, along with other older people in the area, had no real objection to the development plans. The only thing they objected to was having to move. She had planned to die here and to be buried alongside her husband on the picturesque mountain slope nearby.

Was there no other alternative for her but to move? She didn’t need the millions of rupiah offered to her in compensation, because she knew she wouldn’t live for too many more years. And her children and grandchildren didn’t need the money either.

“Keep it for yourself,” they told her,” and go abroad for a holiday.” But she was tired of going abroad.

Unfortunately, as fate would have it, the airport was slated to be built right in the middle of her family’s land, on top of her home and her longan trees. So she had no choice but to move.

“We haven’t had time together like this for a long time?” she said to Toso, breaking the silence that had fallen between them.

“I know. The trouble is, we all live so far away. If you were to live with Yayuk, it would be much easier for us to get together.”

“Last night, Tos, I made up my mind.”

“And what did you decide?” His voice betrayed his anxiety.

“To do what you kids have asked – to move. I’ve decided to leave when you do. You’ll be going by plane, won’t you?”

“But where do you want to go? To Yayuk’s or to Sri’s?”

“First I’ll go to Yayuk’s. Then. If I get tired of that, I’ll go to Sri’s. After that, I’ll visit you. I’ll move from place to place.”

“You wouldn’t have to move around like that, you now. You could buy yourself a little land and a new house in Jakarta.”

“What are you thinking? I’m seventy-three. The only plot of land I’m going to buy measures one by two meters. What would I do with a house?”

“Let’s not talk about that size of plot right now, Mother. We’ve thought about this and made plans for a new home for you. We’re worried about you and want you to be happy, even though we know it’s not your choice to leave.”

“And I thank you for everything you’ve done. But I’m not an orchid, you know that can be pulled up and transplanted from one place to another.”

“I know that, Mother. I found out that once you’re in your thirties and have started to put down roots, it’s very difficult to move. It was very hard for me when we first moved to Australia. For Naning even more so. But that’s the way of the world now. People are transplanted.”

“I appreciate your concern, Tos. I often think about people who have been forced to flee from country to country, refugees like you see on television. From East Germany to West Germany. From Cambodia to Thailand. From Palestine to Lebanon… Compared with those people, we don’t have it so bad.”

“It’s amazing how mobile people now are. But then getting around is much more easy than it used to be. Refugees can move to a new country and make a fresh start. Everyone, it seems, is on the move, as a refugee, a transmigrant, an emigrant, a guest worker or a tourist.”

“Well, I’m not an emigrant, a guest worker, or a tourist. I guess that “refugee” would be the best term for me. It just seems such a shame that a family of our standing, with our acres of land and with so many gifted children should be turned into refugees. I’m too old to be a refugee. Even in the old days, when this area served as a guerrilla base, we never ran away. It’s ironic, isn’t it?”

“You have to do what seems right at the time, Mother. That’s the only way to survive. Swimming against the tide never works.”

“Toso! Since when did you start to compromise? Thank goodness your father isn’t here to witness that. There was nothing your father disliked more than compromise.”

“But these days, Mother, confrontation isn’t always wise. It is possible to adhere to one’s principles without being confrontational. I don’t think there’s any harm in appearing to compromise.”

“Well that’s up to you; you’re a grown man now. But that’s not the way you were brought up… It’s getting a bit chilly, don’t you think?”

“Yes, it is,” Toso replied. “The sun’s gone behind the clouds and the temperature has dropped.”

“But these are to be our last hours here. I want to stay outside with you until the sun goes down.”

Toso clapped his hands and a middle-aged woman appeared.

“Mbok, could you bring a warm jacket for Mother?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And one for me, too, the one on the chair in my room.”

“Yes, sir.”

The servant soon returned with the jackets, and they put them on. Toso rose from his chair.

“Where are you going?” his mother asked.

“Out to the garden. I want to take a close look at the longan trees before they’re ripped up to make way for the airport.”

“I’ll come with you. I’d like to say good-bye to those trees. They’ve had a long life history of their own.”

“Can you walk that far? Won’t you be too cold?”

“Not for thus one last time. I think my legs can carry me.”

Ndoro Den Ayu held on to her son’s hand as they walked around the house, cutting across the spacious lawn, towards the back. A few minutes later they arrived at the longan tree that stood closest to the paddy fields off to the right of the house.

Toso stared up at the tree. “If Grandfather planted this tree when he first moved into the house, it must be more than a hundred years old.”

“It’s trunk is certainly the biggest. Three men with their arms outstretched still couldn’t fit around it.”

“This one always had the most fruit. Didn’t you tell me you once got one hundred and twenty kilos from it?”

“Yes, it was during a long drought, around the time the Dutch recognized our independence. Now what year would that have been…?”

“I don’t know but it had to have been before 1950.”

The two clicked their tongues in amazement and then moved on to the next tree, located about twenty meters away. This one was very full-leafed and though it’s trunk wasn’t as large as that of the first tree it was still a beautiful specimen.

“Your father planted this one before he went off to school in Holland. It used to have a lot of fruit too, but every once in a while it would fail. I remember a few times when it didn’t bear any fruit at all.”

“But I remember that Yayuk liked this tree the best because of all the birds’ nests it had at the top. It was such a lovely sound they made.”

“You still remember that, do you? And do you remember Yayuk trying to imitate the sound of the birds on the piano?”

They moved on slowly. It was getting colder; the sun had all but disappeared.

“And here is the queen of the longan trees on the Kusumo estate!” Toso said proudly of the next tree.

“That’s the one I planted as a newlywed, just after I came to live in this house. That would make it the same age as my marriage.”

For a few moments they stopped and lingered in awe. In fact there was nothing particularly special about the shape of the tree or the amount of fruit it bore. They were merely spellbound by the memories of the distant past the tree so easily brought to life. As they stood beneath the tree they both seemed to be reaching out for something that had been proven to be intangible.

They walked on to the last longan tree. This was not aligned with the other trees but stood apart on the left side of the house. Dusk had fallen and only its silhouette was visible.

“Setiadi planted this one when he was commander of the guerrilla forces up here. I forget the exact date, but it must have been before the recognition of sovereignty.” 

“No, Mother. It was at the time of the Madiun Incident which would have made it September 1948. As Father told it, Setiadi wanted to leave behind a memento in case he was killed in trying to put down the uprising. He had no family after all.”

“Oh, yes, that’s right. But obviously he survived. It was after that he left the army to continue his education. And then he married Yayuk.” NdoroPutriAyu turned to her son. “They might be only trees, but they certainly can evoke the memories.”

“They certainly can,” he replied. “Remember the garden parties you organized after the harvest. That would be a good draw for tourists, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose it would, but the trees are going to be flattened, aren’t they? There aren’t going to be any more harvest parties around here, with the trees decorated and with dancing, eating, and drinking.”

“It’s such a shame. But what I remember most isn’t the parties, but carrying gift baskets of longan fruit to the head of the market, the head of the clinic, the chief of police, government officials and all the rest. I remember how glad they were to receive them and how they treated me with such respect, like Santa Claus. I couldn’t believe it. They were just longan after all.””

The two went back into the house to ready themselves for dinner. Dinner in the Kusumo household had always been a special occasion where formal wear was compulsory. The menu was usually European.

Toso came to the table wearing a jacket, all the better to ward off the cold. His mother appeared in a long black skirt, a cream-colored blouse, and a black waistcoat. Her hair was done up in a bun.

“What’s with the black, Mother? Are you in mourning?”

“Black is supposed to be very fashionable, but I’ve never been one for fashion. Fact is, I am in mourning – for the land I have to leave behind.”

Toso smiled but said nothing. He in fact ached inside but he didn’t want his mother to see that he, too, was mourning for their land, soon to be ripped up to build an airport. Given his mother’s age, her grief might be short-lived. But what about him and Naning, and their children? They would no longer have any roots. In the future, when they came to visit the family graveyards, they would probably have to come by plane, stay in a hotel and hire a tour guide just to find the cemetery. He prayed that the family plot wouldn’t disappear along with everything else.

Following their meal they sat down to watch television but nothing of interest was showing. They began to talk about plans for moving.

“I’m not going to go to any trouble,” Toso’s mother insisted, “I’ll just take a small suitcase with a few good dresses, my lingerie, and the family photographs. That’s it.”

“Nothing else? Not even the antique table and chairs, or grandfather’s paintings, or the lamps from the palace?”

“What’s the point? None of you kids or the grandchildren have any interest in them. Some people call them antiques, but they’re really just imitations of European antiques. There’s nothing special about them. I’ll sell them. Setiadi can take care of that.”

“Isn’t there anything from Father’s library that you want to keep? What about that international architecture certificate or the medal he got for his help in the revolution?”

“You’re right. I will keep that certificate. The grandchildren in Bali or Australia can have it. It did spare our family from the Allies’ wrath. But then, thank goodness we had longans too.”

“I’m not sure if I remember that story, Mother.”

“How could you forget it? It was after the longan harvest that year… Your father picked three sacks of longans and put them in the library, intending to give them to the guerrillas who were coming that evening to collect some guns and ammunition. I don’t know how but it seems like the Allied Forces, who had come here on the tail of Japan’s defeat, somehow got wind of the fact that your father was part of the underground.

“Anyway, they came and started going through the house, including the library. I was so nervous, I kept having to go to the toilet. If they found the guns your father could have been killed. During the search the architectural certificate feel out of a book. The Allied Forces commander studied it closely and then began to ask your father questions. As it turned out, the commander was a member of the same organization in his home country of Australia. The man’s attitude changed completely and soon he and your father were chatting away like old friends. When he was going to leave your father told him to take the sacks of longans to the base. The foreign soldiers were very pleased; they said they had never tasted such sweet fruit. But I tell you, when they were gone we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. Just think, if the commander hadn’t seen that certificate, he would have ordered a much more thorough search and probably would have found the weapons which were hidden under a pile of charcoal in the kitchen.”

“And did the guerillas come?”

“Yes, they did. That night. Luckily it rained heavily all that night. Along with the weapons your father had hidden he also sent a note to the guerrillas, apologizing for not being able to give them some longan fruit. He told them that he had been forced to turn over the fruit to the Allies during a raid, that he had done it for their own safety. All of that for a dozen rifles, a few boxes of bullets and some medicine.”

“That’s quite a story.”

“Had you never heard it or did you just forget?”

“I don’t remember hearing it, Mother. I do remember you telling us that the guerrillas eagerly awaited the harvest season because of the high sugar content of longan fruit. And that when other food was scarce, longan fruit provided a good source of energy.”

Suddenly it struck Toso’s mother that their longan trees and all the joys and sorrows associated with them would soon be nothing but memories.

Toso, too, paused in thought. He was distressed by the fact that they would soon have to leave the area. What he found most depressing was his powerlessness to do anything about it. What made the situation more difficult was he couldn’t talk about his feelings to the other people in the village. It was his duty to convince the local residents, his mother included, that such upheavals were run-of-the-mill occurrences, as were evictions and emigration. He had been given the mission to persuade his mother to move, to convince her that it was futile to resist.

Toso had succeeded in his mission; his mother had agreed to move, but inside himself Toso felt guilty and remorseful. If only he could change the decision, he thought. If only there was some way he could prevent the demolition of the family house, the family land, and its colorful past.

His mother raised her voice to say that the next morning she would have her breakfast under the longan tree, just as she always had. But this time for the last time.

“Will you join me?” she asked Toso.

“Yes, Mother. Wake me when you get up.”

“All right.”


After rising the next morning Ndoro Den Ayu knocked on Toso’s door but received no answer. Worried that the sky might turn overcast, she gave up trying to wake Toso and hurried out to the garden. There, beneath the longan tree, she drank a cup of coffee and ate two fried bananas.

Twice the servants knocked on Toso’s door, but found no response. Finally his mother began to grow anxious and decided to force the door open. Toso was lying peacefully in his bed, covered with a woolen blanket and an old knitted jacket of his mother’s that he had found in the armoire.

He appeared to be fast asleep. It wasn’t until they felt for the pulse in his wrist that they realized he was not going to wake up.

The house was in turmoil. How could Toso be dead? Ndoro Den Ayu, usually so formal in demeanor, was inconsolable.

“Here he came to persuade me to move when the fact is he himself didn’t want to leave the ancestral home,” she remarked.

The doctor who came to the house soon after determined that Toso had died of a heart attack. He was only just forty.

Ndoro Den Ayu maintained that behind Toso’s death was the suppression of his sadness about the loss of the family house and all it symbolized, and his frustration at not being able to do anything to prevent it from happening.

When Toso was buried, the old woman said her final good-bye: “All humans are powerless, Tos, even in determining their own lives. All we can do is follow orders. There will always be something more powerful than ourselves.”

Translated By Pamela Allen


Hanna Rambe was born in Jakarta, 23 November 1940. Also a journalist and English language translator Hannah has written many childrens' books, novels and memoirs based Indonesian history. Her other works include Terhempas Prahara di Pasifik (memoir, 1981), Seorang Lelaki di Waimital (memoir, 1981), Mencari Makna Hidupku (biography of Suyanti Kartowijono), Mirah dari Banda (novel, 1983), Rumah Idaman (novel), Pertarungan (novel, 2002), Lidah (kumpulan cerpen, 1994). She is currently working on a trilogy of a history of Eastern Indonesia.{jcomments on}

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