Nikolas Feith Tan
With little more than an address, passable Indonesian and an interest in family history, I present myself to the people who became a second family to Pak (my grandfather Herb Feith) and shaped his first Javanese experience. Upon hearing I am a grandson of ‘Bung Herb’ the elderly Bapak and Ibu Dirgo promptly welcome me in and, over a cup of tea, invite me to stay as long as I wish. Even on this very first meeting Ibu Dirgo, who was a girl of sixteen when Pak lived with her in 1951, says she considers me her own flesh and blood.
Kamal lies 40 kilometres west of Yogyakata, and these days is accessible by city bus. The village itself however, is largely unchanged from when my grandfather first came to live here more than half a century ago. Harvest cycles remain constant; birth and death ceremonies continue to be firmly entrenched in past beliefs and Javanese tradition. On most weekends groups of men work on cooperative community projects such as improving the road or building a grave, while the nearest house becomes a communal kitchen for the women to cook up a storm.
So many people recall an anecdote of ‘Bung Herb’, as they all respectfully call him – the tall, long-nosed white man who lived among Java’s ‘little people’. He swam with the children when the river swelled with monsoon rain, went to church each Sunday, and was most comfortable in a sarong. He became adept at the local language, despite the status-based complexities of Javanese. His relationship with Kamal and the Kromo family lasted fifty years; he last dropped in here for a day with Ibu and Bapak Dirgo a few months before his death in 2001.
I try to follow Pak’s example by throwing myself into village life. I hoe the fields under the beating sun and join whole families planting rice. Playing soccer in the afternoons with the young kids becomes a tradition. I rise at five each morning to go for a run or chop onion, garlic and chilli for the morning meal – thereby ironically contributing to the excessive spice in my own food. I live in the very house Pak did, although it has changed greatly. Of course my experience is in many ways different to my grandfather’s. Kamal has become relatively prosperous since the 1950s, thanks to a waterway installed in 1970 that allows two rice harvests each year. Each house now has electricity and even mobile phones are common.
My months here fly by. Walks around the village following the paths Pak took all those years ago afford me a glimpse of his life here as an intrepid 21-year old Melbourne University graduate with what he called a ‘curiosity’, the volunteer stimulus. Even many of the younger generation know of Pak, either through stories or childhood memories of the bearded professor. Mbah Kromo di Harjo (who died in 1986) was the head of the family at the time of my grandfather’s initial visit and, in subsequent years, they had a game of deciding how many times Pak would visit Kamal. Herb promised to make fifteen trips, but his final visit was only the thirteenth.
While there is undoubtedly more known of Australia and the outside world here now than fifty years ago, friends and family are keen to hear about life in Australia and grapple with the concept of rice less than three times a day, one-off funerals, and an essentially secular society. Kamal itself is composed of equal numbers of Muslims and Catholics, and I am allowed and even encouraged to dabble in both faiths. I attend church like Pak, a self-proclaimed ‘syncretistic Jew’, and on being asked to approach the lectern to introduce myself in stilted Javanese – ‘Nami Kulo Nikolas’ – I draw enthusiastic applause from the mass. I also fast with my Muslim friends for at least the opening days of Ramadan.
I have traced Pak’s legacy here, and heard so many stories of his exploits while becoming a part of Kamal and the Kromo family in a small way. I have also been able to give a little back to this community, through a modest scholarship for twelve underprivileged children at the Kamal primary school. While Pak went on to influence many people’s lives through his work and philosophy and made great contributions in so many fields, I sense his Kamal experience from 1951—53 remained an important aspect of his love affair with Indonesia and I feel privileged to have taken a similar path. I hope he would be proud.
Nikolas Feith Tan (email@example.com) is an undergraduate student of Arts/Law at the University of Melbourne. He lived in Kamal for five months in 2004.
Inside Indonesia 84: Oct-Dec 2005