Translator’s Note: The character Baart Rommeltje alludes to Pieter Brooshooft (1845–1921), a journalist and editor in chief of Dutch East Indies newspaper De Locomotief. The story portrays the 20 September 1906 Puputan. Puputan—“ending” or “finish”—was a Balinese ritualistic fight to the death, carried out by Bali’s kings and their families and staffs, choosing to die rather than to be taken prisoner and be forced to leave their island home. A series of puputan took place between 1894 and 1908, when hundreds of Balinese, led by their kings in Bali and Lombok, died in the face of advancing Dutch colonial forces. In the ensuing slaughter, some women threw gold coins and jewels in the faces of the foreign soldiers to mock and scorn them, insisting the soldiers kill them (usually by impalement).
Dear Mr. de Wit, I have received your three letters. A thousand apologies for not answering immediately. It is difficult to leave the palace. Even more so for a teenage girl like myself. The boy who usually delivers letters to the post office no longer comes. He has registered to join the army reserves. I will find a way to get this letter safely to your hands, although it may take a long time.
Mr. de Wit, ever since the Dutch ships came to our shores, the days have gone by slowly. My feet feel like they are walking on coals. And the men no longer speak kindly. Their discussions always end in “war,” as if everything can be settled by war.
Yesterday the King asked that the women and children be evacuated at the end of this week. For us, this is confirmation that the point of contact between the King and the Dutch is fading. But must guns do the talking??
Dear Mr. de Wit, I am not afraid of losing my life. Keeping or losing one’s life is up to God alone. I just find it hard to imagine the conditions after the war, not to mention if we are on the losing side. Would there be life if our freedom is snatched from us?
If you intend to come again to the palace, as you had said in your last letter, please pray that this war does not happen and we can talk again of Nyama Bajang and Kandapat. Or listen to my mother tell the story of Hanuman the Magical Monkey’s adventures.
Om Santi, Santi, Santi, Om
Your little sister,
Anak Agung Istri Suandani
I put the letter back in its original place. A bit of finely shaved bamboo. I imagined the intricate journey this item had taken before finally landing on my breakfast tray at the Toendjoengan hostel in Surabaya last month.
The bearer of the tray, a young Balinese boy, claimed that he did not know where the bamboo piece came from, and immediately clamped his mouth shut. He even refused the five cents that I pushed into his hand.
Anak Agung Istri Suandani, my little sister. There was not actually any secret in that letter, was there? Only you, appearing in the form of writing, and layer upon layer of memories that came back to me after every word I read. But perhaps it would be disastrous were this letter to fall into the hands of the Balinese or the Dutch, who are wary of the possibility of betrayal from either side, as this letter was sent from the Kesiman Palace, but written in near-perfect Dutch by a princess of the palace. By you.
My little sister. You were fifteen years old when I met you with your mother and your older sibling, long before the incident of the stranded Sri Koemala ship on Sanur Beach that set off these serious tensions. I made your family a source for my writing about Mesatiya traditions, which allowed widows of kings to throw themselves into the fire at the cremation ceremony of their late husbands’ remains as a sign of loyalty unto death.
This ancient tradition, in addition to an accusation that the King of Badung refused a fine and protected those who robbed the ship, was exaggerated to become an issue of defiance against the Dutch East Indies government that had to be tamed by military action. Who knows what the world’s attitude was. One could only hope that intelligent people could see what was so wrong here.
“Where did you learn such good Dutch?” I asked you one late afternoon.
“From Mr. Lange, and from your newspaper,” you said, smiling sweetly. “De Locomotief. Mijn beste nieuwsblad. My favorite newspaper.”
I laughed. Mr. Lange was a Dutch businessman who often came to the palace. He was fluent in Balinese. I had never met him, but having heard how reverently the Balinese spoke his name, I concluded that he was in the same boat as I: a boat of those who go against the stream trying to give the native people back their riches and dignity, which we had exploited shamelessly for three hundred years.
Little sister. After being in the palace for two months, I fell in love with everything you cooked. And watching you practice your dances, being at one with nature, was a blessing that I have never stopped being thankful for. I was once again forced to face a persistent question: was it true that our presence here, ostensibly to bring modern civilization to this place, was necessary?
My reverie was interrupted by the sound of a high-pitched whistle indicating the change of the night watch. I took a look around the Kesiman Palace, where we made our bivouac this evening. There were no longer any fires or gunshot explosions. This afternoon, after three hours of clashes with the Badung militia around Tukad Ayung, we were able to occupy this palace.
Little Sister, I remember Pedanda Wayan, your father, who patiently explained that the Badung Kingdom was probably the only kingdom in the world ruled by three kings, who lived in three separate palaces: Puri Pamecutan, Puri Denpasar, and Puri Kesiman, your friendly home. So friendly that I could hardly believe the news that Gusti Ngurah Kesiman was murdered last night by a nobleman who did not agree with his stance against the Netherlands. I think you are right. Nothing good comes out of war. War ruins everything. Including loyalty and affection.
You ask me to pray so that war can be called off? Oh, little sister, for centuries we have been afflicted with the disease of addiction to greatness. I think God Himself is reluctant to hear our prayers. For so long, we have disrespected the sovereignty of others. When we broke through the palace’s defenses this afternoon, parts of my body felt as if they were falling off each time the soldiers found their targets of destruction: the garden umbrellas, the place where we used to sit and chat, the room dividers, the sacred urns. It is useless to shout, “Don’t do that!” Looting was done not only by the indigenous army, but also by the European officers.
Yes, this afternoon I also took part in the destruction of the palace. Not with the joy of a conqueror, but with the concern of a friend. I had to make sure that none of the soldiers dared lay a finger on your body. I didn’t really know what to think when I found out that the palace was empty. Disappointed because I did not see you, or happy because it gave me hope that somewhere out there you were gathered with your family safe and sound?
Oh, why do I always assume the military is immoral? It’s the best thing that the Dutch East Indies have. Some of their members had just completed their tour of duty in Tapanuli or Bone. They hadn’t seen their wives and children. Do not question their loyalty. We should question those who gave these insane orders.
I studied again the notes of an interview with Major General Rost van Tonningen, the Commander of the Expedition, one day before heading off to Bali: the entire battle fleet consisted of 92 officers and non-commissioned officers, 2,312 European and indigenous soldiers combined, 741 non-military personnel, six large warships of the Dutch East Indies Navy, six transport ships, a logistics ship, a detachment of marines, four 37-millimeter cannons, four 120-millimeter howitzers. Not to mention Arabian horses for the officers, dozens of health workers, radios, and some military prosecutors.
“Of course you’re wondering in amazement, ‘Why has such power been brought over here’—right?” asked a hoarse voice as the bushes parted. I turned. A heavily bearded man with an old Kodak camera slung around his neck stood smiling. His face was relaxed, free of tension, as if he had been born and raised on the land on which he was standing. The badge pinned to his chest was that of a journalist’s press card, while a giant backpack, filled with a great number of emulsion plates, hung down his back, causing him to lean forward. Both his hands were, with some difficulty, carrying a leather bag containing a tripod and a piece of tarpaulin, but he extended his right hand to me.
“Baart Rommeltje. State documentation.” He made no attempt to change his expression so that he would appear more distinguished. This was one renegade civil servant.
“You have your own tent,” he went on. “Can I sleep here tonight? The soldiers are playing cards near the logistics tent. It’s noisy! It’s a shame as I in fact have a large room over there.”
“Just sleep here. I am Bastiaan de Wit. De Locomotief,” I said, touching the camera around his neck. “Cartridge No. 4? You don’t want to get rid of this relic?”
“And change to a Brownie along with the amateurs?” he retorted. “You no doubt missed reading my name on the list of national award recipients last year,” he said grinning. “I need another one like this one. As a reserve. For picture sharpness, emulsion plates are still better than rolls of film. It’s too bad that the government’s coffers are cleaned out all the time for the war effort. Aceh, Tapanuli, Bone. Now Bali.”
“All East Indies Governors-General are war-crazy,” I said, helping Baart put down his backpack. “Especially Van Heutz. The victory in Aceh has encouraged him to become a true fascist.”
“You talk like Pieter Brooshooft,” Baart said, laughing, observing the night watch soldiers. “I don’t think the Denpasar King will attack tonight. He’s not a fighter.”
“You’re right,” I nodded. “He’s a statesman who has too much self-respect, so much so that he’s easily provoked by matters of traditional honor, such as the prohibition of Mesatiya or compensation for this ship.”
“Hello, so now we’re caught up in discussing the hot topic of the month,” Baart commented, coughing. “So you also don’t believe that the ship was looted?”
“That was a small trick of the government to rationalize a gigantic plan,” I said, offering a cup of coffee. Baart shook his head.
“What else is new? All liberal folk will think like that, while those who are pro-government will think the opposite,” he grumbled.
“Look,” I said, sighing. “Kwee Tek Tjiang, the owner of the ship, reported to the Resident that a crate filled with seventy-five hundred guilders in cash inside the ship was stolen by the local people, while other items—such as fish paste and kerosene—were able to be secured on the beach.” I lit a second cigarette. “If you had that large a treasure in a ship that was about to sink, wouldn’t you save the money first, before thinking about the fish paste or the kerosene, whose prices wouldn’t amount to much? I’m sure the ship owner’s intentions in the beginning were simple: to obtain redress from the King.”
“How does this tie in with the East Indies government?” Baart interrupted.
“Pax Neerlandica,” I snorted. “All for Great Hindia. Van Heutz’s erotic dream. That bastard realizes that the East Indies’ agreement with the Bali kings in 1849 has resulted in the fact that this island is the only area in the East Indies that still has some sovereign kingdoms, which do not swear fealty to the East Indies administrative government. I think that long before becoming governor general, Van Heutz had planned to stir up Bali in some way. Thus he welcomed the incident of the stranded ship as it gave him a better chance to provoke the anger of the Bali authorities than his politically engineered schemes had, one of which was the prohibition of the Mesatiya ceremony.”
“One-sided news coverage has resulted in this expedition receiving the world’s blessing. Conversely, the King’s refusal to pay a fine to the ship owner, who happened to be a citizen of the East Indies, was considered insubordination against the governor who is determined to resolve this through legal channels.” Baart nodded.
“A great civilization will be destroyed,” I said. I told Baart how worried I was about Bali. How worried I was about my little friend. We talked until we were drowsy. After going into the tent, Baart immediately fell into a deep sleep while in my mind the figure of Anak Agung Istri Suandani appeared with her sweet smile. Her neatly filed white teeth. Her eyes, which moved rapidly in time with the clever sentences emitted from her lips.
She once danced especially for me. I don’t remember the name of the dance. Almost her entire body demonstrated some strong emotion in her dance. Crouching, standing, turning her head, spinning around. Her long hair, untied, swayed with the turning of her body. Round and round. Spinning into a dark hole! No, don’t go there! That spin swallowed everything in the universe. I reached out with my hand. It was too late. I only heard her screams.
Mr. de Wit, help me!
I jumped out of bed. My body was shivering all over. I looked at my watch. Five o’clock. I ducked out of the open door of the tent and saw Baart waving at me from in front of a bonfire. I smelled the aroma of roasting meat and coffee. My stomach growled.
“Your shouts a few moments ago sure weren’t from any lovely dreams, were they?” He handed me a glass cup of hot coffee. “Pack up. The army detail is leaving at seven o’clock.”
“You’re a government stooge, close to the spies,” I said, pulling out a cigarette. “Which battalion will meet the King’s army today?”
“A government stooge?” Baart doubled over in laughter. “Don’t be stupid, that kind of information is easy to get from the battalion commander. But OK. Like yesterday, Battalion 11 is the right wing. Battalion 18 is the left wing. Battalion 20 is in the center along with the artillery and the engineers. The King will not attack. They will wait. It is estimated the troops will face the King’s army around Tangguntiti or one of the next villages. If you want to meet your girl, you should go with Battalion 18 through Kayumas village. A source said a group of refugees are gathering near there.”
I nodded. By seven o’clock I had blended in with the troops, going along the footpaths and alleys of the village. At the same time, the cannons on the warships, as well as in our headquarters at the Sanur Customs Area, again were firing in the direction of the Denpasar and Pamecutan Palaces. I estimated I heard loud whistling over our heads more than fifty times. I calculated that one-third of those bullets must have hit their marks. I hoped that the royal family really had obeyed the King’s orders to evacuate as far away from this hell as possible.
We continued to advance. A group of Badung militia armed only with courage tried to block us off at the western edge of the Sumerta Village. Thankfully, they were able to be driven off without many casualties. At eight o’clock, just like Baart’s description, we were split into three separate groups. I went with Battalion 18, turning left towards Kayumas Village, while Baart and some other journalists followed Battalion 11 to the right, towards the eastern boundary of Denpasar.
Two hours later, we arrived at a plateau that freed up our view as far as thirteen-hundred feet to the right. We could vaguely see the right end of Battalion 11 with their blue uniforms marching in a line.
Suddenly from the opposite direction there appeared a long procession. It seemed not to be soldiers, but a group parade or something of that kind. Dressed entirely in white with a variety of glittering ornaments. There was no attempt to slow their pace, and even as they got closer, they broke into a run as if they wanted to hug each member of Battalion 11 warmly. I heard the sounds of rifle shots, mingled with the sounds of shouted commands and screams of pain.
“Watch out, wait for a sign!” my Battalion Commander shouted, watching through his binoculars. My heart was racing. Suddenly we received shocking news from our spies: that group was everyone from the Denpasar Palace. From the King, the Priests, the Retainers, and other noblepersons, to their wives and children.
The whole palace? What about the refugees? I searched for the spy. According to him, there were no refugee villages along the way that we were about to go through. My stomach muscles tightened. Anak Agung Istri Suandani, my little girl. She must be in that procession!
I jumped up on the back of a horse being led by its handler. The beast reared up, but I was able to ride it to the battlefield. I heard the cries of the Battalion Commander, followed by one or two shots in my direction. But the attack did not go forward. I could now see the entire Battalion 18 moving slowly to the right in my direction.
Arriving beside Battalion 11, I pulled back on the reins. I almost collapsed watching the terrible scene before me. Dozens of men, women, children, even babies in their mothers’ arms, wearing the most elaborate costumes I’d ever seen, continued to crawl toward Battalion 11, whose soldiers nervously shot their Mausers in response to the Battalion Commander’s signals.
That beautiful entourage truly appeared to be seeking death. Whenever a volley of bullets cut down bodies, others quickly took their place behind them, continuing to advance toward death. An old man, perhaps a priest, chanted prayers as he jumped to the left and right stabbing his dagger into the bodies of his dying compatriots, ensuring that their lives were completely extinguished. I think this was the worst catastrophe that had ever befallen everyone who was involved.
Half an hour later, all had gone quiet. The gunsmoke cleared. I recalled that one name, then, as if possessed by the devil, ran to the pile of corpses. I sorted through them, trying to match dozens of bits of flesh with the face that stuck in my memory. I recognized none of them. All had been crushed.
In my despair, I was startled. Over there, from the right side of the pile, a figure slowly emerged. A young woman. Her torso covered in thick red blood. Her injured breasts jutted out from what remained of her clothing. She stared a moment with eyes that were no longer whole, then threw something in my direction. Just as my hand moved to catch what it was, there was a loud crack. Like a fountain, blood spouted from the side of the woman’s head. I turned. An indigenous soldier was lowering his rifle. I looked at the item lodged in my fingers, and I suddenly lost control. I knocked the soldier to the ground, then I rammed my knees into his chest, and smashed my fists into his face, again and again and again.
“Coins! She threw coins at me, and you shot her in the head! Murderer!”
Something smashed into my neck. I fell over.
“This is what happens when journalists get involved in war.”
Blearily I saw General Rost van Tonningen re-holstering his pistol while gazing around, before looking back at me.
“Stop writing bad things about us. I and my army know exactly what we are doing. All for the East Indies. Only for the East Indies. What about you? What is your calling?”
I did not answer. I could not answer.
“Semua untuk Hindia” published in Koran Tempo, 27 July 2008, and subsequently in the collection Semua untuk Hindia (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia [KPG], 2014). © M. Iksaka Banu. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Tjandra Kerton. All rights reserved.