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Talismans from the Past, Not At Liberty

By: Diana Darling

This article was originally published in Latitudes magazine, a renowned bi-monthly magazine focusing on Indonesian culture. The magazine hailing from the island of Bali previously existed in paper form and was especially known for its in-depth critical articles and beautiful photography. As a tribute to all contributors of this magazine presents a selection of articles published in the years 2001-2004.

The other day I saw something that I cannot put out of my mind. A Dutch friend—a serious collector of Indonesian historical documents such as photographs, postcards, and paintings from a particular period—showed me pictures of his latest project. He explained it this way. “You know that between the years 1945 and 1950, there was fighting between the Dutch military and Indonesian freedom-fighters. Many of these freedom-fighters were captured. And when they were captured, certain things were taken from them, especially—what would you call these things, insignias? They are fascinating objects: many of them seem to be handmade, and some are quite beautiful. Look at these.” He showed me crisp close-ups of a number of colorful little badges. Some said ‘Banser’. Some said ‘PKI’. Many mentioned groups I’d never heard of. Another photograph showed a dozen or so handmade rubber stamps with rough wooden handles; and another showed the inked stamps that they made.

“Look at this.” He showed me another photograph. This one showed a tiny silk purse, delicately embroidered, and a piece of paper that looked like it had been folded many, many times. “That piece of paper was in the purse,” he said. “Look at the writing.” I did. It looked like Arabic and perhaps another script as well.

“It’s a talisman,” he said.

I shivered. “All these objects were taken from people who were captured?”

“All of them.”

Who wrote on that paper? Who wore that talisman? Who captured him? (We cannot know that it was a man, rather than a woman, who wore the talisman; but in this haunting I imagine a man, young and wiry.)

What happened to the spell when the paper was unfolded? When it was photographed? Did the spell work for a while before the wearer was captured? If so, how long did it seem to the wearer that it was protecting him? And if not, did the wearer wonder, when he was captured, whether he had paid too much for the talisman? A man does not wear a talisman into war without holding expectations about it. Or perhaps it was given to him by his teacher, or his father. Maybe his wife obtained it for him. When the wearer was captured, what thoughts did he form of his teacher (or his father or his wife)?

Was the wearer of the talisman captured alive? Was he alive when the talisman was taken from him? And if so, how much time did the wearer spend, afterwards, thinking about the talisman?

Is he still alive now?

How old was the wearer of this talisman? What did he look like? What was his earliest memory? Was it raining when he was born? Was he born in the highlands, in the smoky dark of a timber hut? Or was he born in the smoky dark of a bamboo hut near the coast? As a child, what were the trees that he saw every morning? Were they the towering hardwoods—teak, mahogany, meranti—of the highland rainforest? Or were they the broad paddles of banana trees and the whirling pinwheels of coconut palms of the flatland hamlets? What kind of firewood did the people of his village burn in their kitchens? (We can be almost certain that his landscape included bamboo and a great variety of flowers, and many birds whose song is already gone from the earth.)

How long had he been a fighter? And did he really want to be a fighter at all? Had he joined whatever band of fighters that he joined because he wanted to kill Dutch soldiers or because he was afraid not to join; and if he was afraid, who was he frightened of? His friends? His teacher, his father, his wife?

What kind of weapon did he carry? A homemade rifle? A sword that had belonged to a Japanese officer some four or five years earlier? A sharpened bamboo pole? A scythe? Had he already killed with that weapon, and if so, whom had he killed? A Dutchman? A rival in love? I have heard that it would not have been the Japanese officer: Indonesian nationalists welcomed the Japanese as liberators from the Dutch. Was it his own knife, which perhaps he had used to cut goat meat for the feast of Id al-Adha?

Indisputably, the man who wore the talisman had a mother, and almost certainly her hair was long. Was it straight or did it tend to curl at the ends? Was she alive when her son was captured? Did she ever learn that he was captured? Did she know that he wore a talisman? Did she know that the talisman was taken from him and opened and put somewhere (probably in the enemy’s offices, no doubt in a box—but with what other trophies?) If she saw this photograph of the talisman of her captured son, would the skin on the back of her neck crawl upwards or downwards?

Who captured the wearer of this talisman?

What was the light like at the moment when the wearer of the talisman knew he was going to be caught? Was it at night? Was it in the afternoon after a thunderstorm? Was the ground muddy? Was there heavy bleeding involved in the capture? Did the captor and the wearer of the talisman speak to each other? And if they did, did they have any language in common—perhaps the captor knew a few dirty words in Malay—or did each of them shout (or mutter) his curses in his own language? (We cannot know that it was a man, rather than a woman, who captured the wearer of the talisman; but in this haunting I imagine that the captor was a man, young and burly.)

Did they see each other’s faces?

This captor—what trees did he see in the mornings as a child? Elms? Linden trees? Was he born in summertime or in snow? Did his mother, too, have long hair? Did he, too, carry something for good luck—perhaps a letter from someone, or a photograph, or a piece of a bullet removed from his own thigh? What would he rather have been doing on the day (or the night) before he captured the wearer of the talisman? Perhaps hunting ducks in Holland with his dog? Had he suffered from homesickness? Or had he fallen in love with the heat and light of the East Indies and perhaps longed to be fishing from a bright little East Indies boat, out on the bright turquoise sea? Or was he suffering from chronic diarrhea and longed to be lying down a tall room with shuttered windows, in a bed with clean tight linen, tended by a woman with cool hands? Was he very thirsty in the moments before he knew that he had to capture the man who turned out to be wearing a talisman?

And this talisman: what is it now?

What kind of spell does it carry now? Is the old spell broken or just sleeping?

Or, as some would insinuate, has it metastasized?

I imagine the old spell to be alive, to be still warding off danger. In this particular haunting, however, the talisman’s magic is recast in a superior magic: it is no longer a weapon. Instead it is a tiny mirror (held out by a sinewy arm) which invites our reflection.

“Let me see,” said Tropical Tanta, when I tried to explain all this to her.

“See what?” I said.

“The pictures, dear.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t have them. The collection is in Holland.”

“Ah, Holland! So beautiful in June!” said Tropical Tanta, as if she’d just been there. Actually, she could have just been there. My squashy old friend disappeared from Bali last month, and she made a great show of not telling any of her friends where she was going. Indeed she went out of her way to insinuate that her trip was some kind of secret mission, which I thought was in very bad taste. Since her return a few days ago, I have tried to avoid giving her any opportunity to talk about her ‘secret’ trip, if only to spare myself the exasperation of hearing her tell me that she is not at liberty to speak of it. But I couldn’t help saying, “So you’ve been to Holland in June, Tanta?”

“Yes, dear. Although of course I’m not at liberty to say which June.” She paused a moment, her head cocked at an unflattering angle. “All those little things have been put together in a Collection?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You wouldn’t have some mosquito repellant, would you, dear?”

We were sitting on my front porch, and the evening damp, with all its creatures, was rising. I was irritated to have lost her attention.

“I could open a bottle of arak,” I said.

Tropical Tanta remained motionless. A great gray moth fluttered around the kerosene lamp on the verandah, causing the lamplight to flicker over Tropical Tanta’s face like a film clip of bombing raids over a foreign mountain range. Finally she said, “Don’t go to the trouble, dear. We are quite repulsive enough as we are.”

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