The truth about Kitchen Boy

I’m feeling guilty. The sequel to Tiger Stone has taken longer than expected. I’m working on it though, I promise. In the meantime, I thought I’d try to answer a question I get asked a lot: who is Kitchen Boy really? The short answer is that I don’t really know. He just appeared one day and wormed his way into my story. Of course, there is a longer answer…

When I was researching Tiger Stone, I found a folk tale from Kerinci, a part of Sumatra where people have always lived close to tigers. The story goes like this:

Tandang and Delima live in the forest. When Delima goes into labour with their first child, Tandang runs to the nearest village to get help but while he is gone an old woman appears and helps Delima give birth to a son, Linjo. The old woman is a rather unconventional midwife; when she has finished helping she licks up the blood and amniotic fluid then does a somersault and vanishes. Delima catches a glimpse of a striped body and a tail disappearing into the forest.

When Linjo is seven years old he goes. Tandang and Delima are distraught, convinced that he has been eaten by a tiger or lured away by a forest spirit, but the next day he returns with a fantastic tale to tell. He says he was walking at the forest edge when he saw an old woman who invited him to go into the forest with her to play. The woman said ‘climb on my back’ then did a somersault and vanished. In her place stood a huge tiger. Linjo climbed on the tiger’s back and she carried him away over mountains and through valleys as if in a dream.

Tandang and Delima take their son to a dukun (a traditional healer) who says that Linjo is an orang bakung, a human who can befriend the tiger. Later in life, the tiger teachers Linjo martial arts (silat harimau or tiger silat, the highest form of pencak silat). The tiger always protects Linjo from harm and helps him acquire magical power.

Kerinci is in Sumatra, not Java where Tiger Stone is set. Yet I wonder if similar tiger tales exist in Java but are less well known because the Javan tiger has long been extinct. In any case, I hope the people of Kerinci don’t mind me borrowing Linjo.

The anthropologist who recounted the story of Linjo, Jet Bakels, conducted field work in Keluru, a village in Kerinci where it is not uncommon for a person to have a sahabat harimau or ‘tiger friend’ inherited from an ancestor or actively sought out through magic. This doesn’t mean the person has an actual tiger friend. the sahabat is a spirit that helps and protects her human kin.

The tiger is also an ancestral spirit for the whole village. Bakels writes: “During my fieldwork, Keluru’s football team ascribed their victory over a neighbouring team to the help of their ancestral tiger. They had seen his eyes glowing in the dark and had been given mystical powers in the game.” Bakels has some interesting things to say about how animal spirit beliefs have influenced the way Kerinci villagers live with the natural world but that’s a story for another post. I’d better get back to writing a book.

If you would like to read Bakel’s account for yourself, you will find it in Framing Indonesian realities: essays in symbolic anthropology in honour of Reimer Schefold edited by Peter Nas, Gerard Persoon and Rivke Jaffe. Jet Bakel’s chapter is titled ‘Friend or foe: the perception of the tiger as a wild animal’.

Pondok procrastination

Today, I spent a bit of time in a pondok. Not literally. Literally, I spent my time at the kitchen table staring at a computer screen. But in my imagination, I was walking through a forest and rice fields towards a pondok where I was looking forward to having a bit of a lie down. Oh, and it’s the end of the sixteenth century.

You’re probably wondering what a pondok is. You might be wondering what I’m doing in the sixteenth century too, but that’s a conversation for another day.

pondok is a small shelter in a rice field that farmers use to rest in and, sometimes, to keep their buffalo in. You see them in Java and Bali and probably in other places as well. Here’s one I found on the internet:

pondokpadidesignAnd the internet is where the trouble begins. To make sure my memory was serving me correctly, I did an image search for ‘pondok in rice field’.

Most of the images were of tastefully decorated bedrooms with French doors opening out to lush gardens and infinity pools. The term ‘pondok‘ is evocative of the open-air simplicity that appeals to tourists who don’t want to have a resort-style holiday in Bali. Obviously, Google assumed I was in need of a holiday.

Once I had got past the distraction of the infinity pools, I found the image above and it was pretty much exactly what I had been imagining . I could, of course, have just had a good look at the image and gone back to what I was writing but…. I was intrigued by the little logo that said ‘pondok padi design’ so I clicked on ‘view page’.

Twenty minutes later, I was still in the rice field but I could see the pondok up ahead. And I did get there in the end.

The moral of this story is that internet access is a mixed blessing for the writer, but we all knew that already.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the image at the top of this post is of wedang uwuh (a drink made with cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon) and tempeh kemul at Omah Kecebong on the outskirts of Yogyakarta: http://www.omahkecebong.com/ It is my dream writer’s retreat.

Farming, puppeteers and treating children like plants

After reading Tiger Stone, my friend Helen gave me a biography of Nyi Njatatjarita, a female dalang (puppeteer) who was born in Java in 1909. Helen saw something of Kancil’s spirit in the dalang, who had a difficult childhood but through determination and charm became a highly sought after performer.

As a child, the future dalang Nyi Njatatjarita was known as Sudiyem. She suffered from a debilitating skin condition and couldn’t walk. A sickly child did not fit into the busy performance schedule of her parents (her father was a dalang and her mother was a musician) so they left her in the care of neighbours who worked as farmers. Although this sounds, on the surface, like abandonment, the biographers point out that there is a tradition that some Javanese hold that says parents who lose three babies in a row should adopt the next born out, even if the adoption is in name only. Presumably, this is a way to protect the child from bad spirits who have it in for the parents. Sudiyem’s parents had lost seven babies in a row before Sudiyem was born.

My main creative projects right now are writing a sequel to Tiger Stone and coaxing a fruit and vegetable garden into good health in an environment better suited for growing gold. So when I opened Nyi Njatatjarita’s biography last night to do some research, my attention was diverted by this little snippet about Sudiyem’s adoptive parents:

“As farmers, they did not have the minds for educating, but they did have the minds for caring. They treated the sickly Sudiyem like a plant that was under pest attack, and thanks to their patience, Sudiyem’s health improved and she was able to walk by herself.”

Ok, it’s a little demeaning to farmers’ intellects but leaving the Javanese class system aside for a moment, it’s a sweet image. And it’s lucky for Sudiyem that she was born before the green revolution so her adoptive parents used patience rather than insecticides to fight pests.

Biography of Nyi Njatatjarita: a group report by Suratno (chair), Harijadi Tri Putranto, Sukardi Samihardjo and Sudarko (members), Sekolah Tinggi Seni Indonesia, Surakarta, 1993