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’.