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Mother’s Footsteps

In 2005, Umar Thamrin received a Fulbright grant and a Catherine and William L. Magistretti Graduate Fellowship for his graduate studies in the United States. He completed his Ph.D. in Southeast Asian Studies with the designated emphasis in Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2016. Before returning to Indonesia in 2017, he received a one-year appointment as a research and teaching fellow at the University of Oregon.

Back in his home country, Umar became disturbed by several social conditions he encountered there, and is saddened that the common people have remained marginalized while society ignores the lessons of its history. These conditions have prompted him to think, to remember, and to write. He is currently teaching linguistics at Alauddin State Islamic University.

Umar can be reached at:



Mother’s Footsteps


I never tired of reminiscing about the stories my mother told me about her life. Although she was born to a respectable family in Semarang, a port city on Java Island, I was an illegitimate child. Mother said that when the Japanese occupied our country during World War II, they forced her and other teenage girls to be their “comfort women” on Buru Island, a remote island within the Maluku Islands of Indonesia.

Mother cursed the soldiers who used the girls as sex slaves, then abandoned them — pregnant girls and young mothers alike — as soon as Japan lost the war. Mother’s stories about the cruelty of the Japanese soldiers always made me sad.

Mother also told me stories about how hard life was for her and the other girls on this almost uninhabited desert island. With no one to protect them, children were born without any medical help and young mothers suffered from malnutrition and malaria. In the end, only Mother and one other girl survived. They eventually married men of Buru’s Alfuru tribe. Mother said that the only reason she married my stepfather was to save our lives.

Thus, I was born into the Alfuru tribe of Buru Island. I was the only one among the black islanders who had light skin; the only one among the round-eyed faces who had slanted eyes. I felt destined to be ostracized. No one wanted to be friends with a boy who looked like me, let alone ask me to go hunting with them. My only friend was Mother, who was very smart. She easily taught me to speak her mother tongue, and whenever I wasn’t hunting for food, I chatted with Mother in Indonesian, which became our secret language on Buru Island.

My mother did not marry my stepfather out of love, and their strained relationship impacted that of mine with my stepfather. He had no choice but to accept me, as doing so was his only assurance that mother would stay in their marriage. A sibling might have eased my relationship with my stepfather, but after giving birth to me, Mother was too weak to bear another child.

Therefore, my interactions with my stepfather remained cold and indifferent, bordering on hate. Whenever my stepfather started yelling at me because his fishing net came up empty or his arrows missed their prey, Mother always whispered to me in Indonesian, “Run! Run before he hits you!”


In 1969, a few months after Mother died, a boatload of people landed at Buru Island. They were from Java — mostly men — and I was very surprised to discover that all of them spoke Indonesian. Most of them had the same physical features Mother had; even their way of speaking sounded like Mother’s.

However, I, in turn, surprised them as well. Clearly they were startled to see a light-skinned young man with slanted eyes, dressed in the drawstring pants that Alfuru men wore. When I spoke to them in halted Indonesian, they stared at me in disbelief.

Later, I learned that the boat people were prisoners. I watched them being forced into submission with the same cruelty my stepfather exhibited toward me. Despite my poor Indonesian, I could understand their emotional words of anger and oppression. I felt sorry for them. We were all victims of anger and oppression.

I will always remember Karman, a handsome, strong man about my stepfather’s age. But unlike my stepfather, Karman never said a harsh word to me, let alone hit me. We became best friends after he caught me peeking over the prison fence. He greeted me, and we engaged in a friendly conversation. We were curious about each other. He said the presence of an Asian-looking man on Buru struck him as odd, and I said it was the first time I’d met a Javanese other than my mother. I told him about Mother — that she had been born on Java and had passed away a few months ago. I also told him about her wish to be buried on her home island.

Then I grilled him with questions about Java.

Karman chuckled and looked sadly into the distance, as if he could see the homeland he longed for. “Java is a big island.” He paused. “Nothing like Buru.”

“How big is the island?” I thought Buru Island was big, but apparently Java was a bigger one. I thought about Mother’s last wish to be buried on Java: It would be nice to be buried on such a big island.

“How about Semarang? Is that a big city?” I asked. “It’s where Mother was born, and she still has relatives there. That’s where she wants to be buried.”

Karman nodded. “To fulfill your mother’s wish, you’ll have to go to Java by boat.”
A prison guard hollered out the names of the prisoners who had not reported in for their period of forced labor.

“Semarang is a bustling port city,” Karman said while trotting backward toward the guard. I was so buried in my thoughts about Semarang, I didn’t realize Karman had disappeared into the prison building before I could wave goodbye.

Slowly, Karman and I began getting to know each other better. As the number of our secret meetings grew, so did my Indonesian vocabulary. Our meetings were not secret in the sense of young lovers meeting clandestinely; anyone with eyes could easily see us, sitting back to back, separated by the prison fence. If anyone objected to my sitting there,

I could just run away.

I found out that Karman and the other boat people were not ordinary prisoners; they were political prisoners. At that time, I had no idea about the absolute power of the Indonesian government. Therefore, it did not make sense to me to hear that someone could be arrested just because of his political affiliation.

Karman said he was imprisoned for being a member of the PKI, the Communist Party of Indonesia, that was accused of carrying out a coup against the current Indonesian government and killing seven of Indonesia’s top military officers. Karman was arrested even though he knew nothing about the coup.

“What would a clerk like me know about assassinating military officers?” he asked. “All I had done was my job ⸺ writing letters. I was not arrested for being a skillful killer, but simply for writing.”

That explained why Karman was not a good hunter. His body was sturdy but useless in that regard. His fingers were too clumsy to aim an arrow at wild chickens or birds. Instead, he used his long fingers to learn how to write stories from Pak Pram, a fellow prisoner who was also more proficient at writing than aiming arrows.

But being a competent hunter was not as big of a necessity for Karman as it was for me. Without hunting, he could still eat — he had his prison food rations — but I would starve. Consequently, on the days we promised to meet, I always took one or two birds from my bag home to eat with my elderly stepfather, and sold the rest to the prison guards, with Karman as an intermediary.

Karman had told me that people no longer bartered goods and services. Instead, they used money. Therefore, I was determined to earn enough money to pay for my trip to Java to bury Mother, even though Karman laughed when I told him my plan.

“If all you sold were your hunted birds, it would take thousands of days to earn enough money to travel to Java!” Karman chuckled as I wriggled a dead wild chicken through the gap in the fence. “Now, a wild boar might bring you more money!”

“You think it’s easy to catch a wild boar by yourself?” I grumbled.

“Of course not!” Karman gave me a once-over. “Why don’t you ask a friend to help you?”

Karman’s question startled me. Having been ostracized all my life, I thought I was accustomed to being on my own. But his question made me realize how lonely I was. Fortunately, Karman did not wait for my answer; he was too busy inspecting my catch of the day.

“Karman, do you know why my mother wanted to be buried in Java?”

“I have no idea.” Karman shrugged. “Maybe Buru never became home for her.”

“Even though her only son was born here and lives here?” I looked down, afraid to hear Karman’s answer, whatever it was.

Karman quickly looked up. “I’m sure that’s not the way she looked at it.”

I nodded wearily. “I hope you’re right.” The thought had been brewing in my mind for a long time.

Karman looked at me closely. “Are you comfortable living in Buru all by yourself? Be honest. Don’t confuse comfort with habit; you know they are different. Perhaps you don’t really belong here. Who knows? Your mother may have wanted you to find the comfort you’ve never experienced so far. There’s nothing wrong with traveling to Java, if that’s what you want.”

I scowled at Karman’s answer, but I knew he was right, and I remained silent.

“By the way,” Karman continued, “when I die, will you bury me here in Buru?”

Though I had expected Karman to continue our conversation, I had not expected him to continue it with a question like that. I thought back to Karman’s empty gaze when I bombarded him with questions about Java. Perhaps I had been wrong in thinking that he was homesick then. Perhaps his sadness came from the fact he had no place to be homesick for. Could Mother Nature be so cruel that she would allow so many of her children to be torn from their homes?


I had heard that the population in Indonesia had grown, but it was not until 1972, three years after Mother’s death, that I saw as many people as I saw upon arrival in Semarang. I quickly found myself trapped in their midst.

During her life, Mother had often told me how busy Semarang was. And she was right! But, as a man who was born and raised on Buru Island for all of my twenty-eight years of life, I never imagined any place could be as busy as this. Even though dawn was just breaking, people crowded the street. Even standing to the side of the road, I could not avoid being bumped by other people as they hurried by.

I continued walking away from the port. I had to find my mother’s sister, Aunt Marni. Mother had told me that her sister lived in Tanjung Mas, a neighborhood adjacent to the port. According to the note Mother had left me, I needed to find either my Aunt Marni, or a relation of Raden Projowinoto — my grandfather and a former policeman in this port.

A group of gentlemen were sitting around at the Tanjung Mas Harbor Coffee Shop. “Excuse me,” I said, interrupting their lively conversation. “Do any of you know a Raden Projowinoto? He used to be a policeman at this harbor.”

The men frowned. “Who are you?” one of them asked. “Mr. Projowinoto died a long time ago.”

I nodded. I had not expected my grandfather to still be alive. After all, even his eldest daughter — my mother — was dead. But realizing I would have to tell a long, complicated story if I identified myself as his grandson, I simply said, “I’m just a relative.”

Now everyone looked at me, clearly confused. It must have indeed been mystifying to hear a young, Asian-looking man, speaking Indonesian, state that he was related to Raden Projowinoto, who I imagined looked like a typical Javanese man.

“A relative?” asked one of the men, scrutinizing me.

“I am his grandson.”

The men could not contain their surprise. “Really?” one of them asked with raised eyebrows. “Who is your mother?”

“My mother was Sumaryati, sir.” I was starting to feel annoyed with their suspicious questions.

Now the men looked stunned. “Oh, my Lord!” one exclaimed. “That Sumaryati? The one the Japanese took away?”

The man turned to the others, and everyone started talking at once in an animated, regional dialect that I could not understand.

One of the men looked up at me. “Maryati was my friend in elementary school.”

“Can you prove you’re Maryati’s son?” asked another.

I reached into my bag and pulled out the picture of Mother as a young girl. She had always cherished the picture, now after her death, it was mine to cherish.

While watching everyone crowd over Mother’s picture, I quietly smiled, remembering Mother telling me that when I was little and saw the picture for the first time, I was startled to see her face on a piece of paper.

“I’m sure, this is Maryati,” said the man I had given Mother’s picture to. The others nodded.

I quickly spoke up to prevent them from further interrogating me. “Perhaps one of you could show me the way to my Aunt Marni’s house?”

Aunt Marni was Mother’s favorite sibling ⸺ the one she said she missed the most. Marni’s name had been the one Mother called most often during the delirium of her final days, before succumbing to malaria.

The men nodded, and we all walked along the sidewalk to Aunt Marni’s house.
As we entered her neighborhood, we passed people drying and dyeing textiles in their yards. Long, large-patterned cloths hung on the clotheslines. The assorted colors and motifs reminded me of Mother’s stories about the beautiful Javanese batik cloth. Many of the women here still wore it, although just as many of them did not.

I waited at the gate while the men entered the front yard of a sturdy wood house. A woman met them at the door. I could faintly hear them mentioning Mother’s and Aunt Marni’s names. One of the men called out for me to come closer and introduced me to a woman dressed in a kebaya, Indonesian blouse, and batik sarong. “Marni,” he said, as he waved me closer, “this is the young man who claims to be Maryati’s son.”

I looked at Aunt Marni. She resembled Mother, except that Mother had been skinny and disheveled while Aunt Marni looked healthy and cared for.

At first, Aunt Marni looked at me suspiciously. Frowning, she took stock of me for several seconds. Then I saw her eyes change. The longer she looked at me the sadder her eyes grew. She whispered, “What is your name, son?”

“Man Beta, Aunt Marni.”

Aunt Marni’s hand flew to her mouth, and she quickly thanked the men who had brought me.

They bowed and said goodbye.

Aunt Marni invited me in, and we sat together in the living room. She took a closer look at my face and murmured, “Even though you have slanted eyes, you still look like my sister, Maryati.” Her lips curved into a gentle smile, and her eyes filled with tears. “How is she now? Is she fine? Can I see her?”

I shook my head. “Mother died from malaria, three years ago.”

Aunt Marni’s face turned to shock. “Oh, my God! My sister went to heaven before I had the chance to see her. She passed away at such a young age.” Aunt Marni’s eyes dimmed, and her shoulders drooped. She grew silent, trying to process the bad news I’d delivered.

I grimaced; I felt her sorrow. I could only imagine what it must have been like to be separated from one’s sister for decades only to be told that the beloved sister had passed away.

“So where have you been living all this time?” asked Aunt Marni. “Where did my sister live?”

“We lived on Buru Island, Aunt. A small, deserted island in Maluku, far from Java.”

“So the Japanese took my sister all the way there, to a small, deserted island,” Aunt Marni murmured. “I didn’t even know there was such an island in the east.” Aunt Marni’s gaze languished, as if regretting her powerlessness to reverse fate.

“You’re a Japanese soldier’s son?”

“That’s right, Aunt.”

Aunt Marni ran a hand brusquely across her face. “This is so hard to believe. My poor sister was a war victim of the Japanese army. Father had told me that the Japanese would send her to a school.” Her eyes now glittered with the hatred of betrayal. “Why did you come here?” Her question was straightforward yet warm.

I took a woven drawstring sack out of my bag. “Mother wanted to be buried here,” I said. The sack made a tapping sound when I put it on the table. It sounded like Mother’s footsteps.


Aunt Marni immediately contacted her younger brother, my uncle, and the neighborhood priest. They decided to bury Mother that same afternoon in the family plot. Aunt Marni and my uncle took my drawstring sack containing Mother’s bones from me. Everything was happening so fast! I sat bewildered until Aunt Marni called my name and hurried me along.
In the midst of the busy funeral arrangements, my uncle, glaring at me, asked Aunt Marni,

“Does our inheritance now have to be divided into thirds?”

Aunt Marni hushed Uncle.

The journey from Aunt Marni’s house to the cemetery felt much longer than the actual distance. My feet moved reluctantly, even though I repeatedly reminded myself that this was Mother’s wish. Over and over I told myself that Mother’s return to her birthplace was not the same as her leaving me and my birthplace. She was still with me, would always be with me.

Mother, my dear, sweet mother. Now only her bones were left.

Mother, my dear, sweet mother. I did not know where she was, but people said she was at peace up there. Where was “up there”?

Mother, my dear, sweet mother. The priest said her bones had to be bathed, even though in Buru, after I had carefully dug up her grave, I had wiped her bones every day before my departure for Java. Even in death, was Mother still not clean enough?

Mother, my dear, sweet mother. The priest said we had to say their funeral prayer for her. I didn’t know if Mother had practiced any faith. I didn’t.

Mother, my dear, sweet mother.

She was buried in a way that even I did not understand. Here, she was wrapped in a cloth, her bones were prayed over with a prayer different from that of the elders on Buru Island. Here, they dug her grave with shovels and hoes; while in Buru, only wooden tools were allowed to dig her grave. In Buru, she was allowed to be buried with her favorite kebaya; here, this was not allowed.

It did not matter.

I watched the gravediggers shovel out Mother’s final resting place while her siblings squabbled over Grandfather’s inheritance ⸺ about whether I, the son of a foreigner, deserved a share. Uncle argued with Aunt Marni, who wanted to share their inheritance with me, even though I had told them I did not want anything. “Why share our inheritance with someone who doesn’t expect it?” Uncle yelled at Aunt Marni “It doesn’t make sense!”

It did not matter.

When Mother’s grave, a gaping hole in the red earth, was ready, strangers surrounded the pit. The gravedigger picked up the bundle of white cloth that now contained Mother’s bones and prepared to lower it into the grave. And even though they were no longer the bones I had wrapped in a woven drawstring sack and carried with me all the way from Buru to Java, I screamed at the gravedigger, “No! Give Mother to me! I am the one who must bury Mother!”

And this mattered.

No one understood why I was screaming. Some looked confused; others were irritated to see a grown man wailing in the cemetery.
It was only when Aunt Marni took the white bag from the gravedigger and handed Mother to me that I fell silent.

Everyone suddenly seemed to understand.

The wind blew quietly, birds chirped in the distance.

Goodbye, Mother. After your long voyage, you have finally arrived in a place of endless peace. Your son has buried you according to your wish.














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