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.
He can be reached at: email@example.com
“At dawn, on March 6, 1942, Isoroku Yamamoto’s Japanese troops attacked the Dutch territory in the southeastern region of Purworejo City from the direction of Yogyakarta, Java. The Dutch Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) troops staged a fierce resistance, but the Japanese unit quelled the opposition, and by eleven o’clock that morning, they controlled the entire city.”
In Clapar, a remote village on a hillside near Purworejo, Tuso crouched in front of a clay wood stove, listening to the radio. The glint of a sharp sickle, tucked into the woven bamboo wall, reflected the glow of the stove’s fire onto his face.
Glancing at his wife, Rubini, Tuso’s heartbeat raced. Cripes! The Japs have entered Purworejo! He remembered the village chief ordering him to lead the villagers to fight the Japanese if they attacked.
Rubini was busily preparing a soup of cassava leaves and coconut milk. Nasi liwet, a rice dish cooked the traditional way, simmered in a heavy claypot filled with just enough water to turn the hard grains into soft fluffy rice atop a brown crust.
Humming softly, she placed the plates and bowls on the wooden table. The rice in their field had turned yellow. In a few days, they could harvest.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Gunshots pierced the air.
Tuso grabbed the sickle and pulled Rubini by the hand. “Hurry! Hide in the rice field! Duck down between the rice stalks and stay there!”
Rubini screamed, “Where are you going?”
“Don’t worry about me! Hurry! Go hide before they get here!”
Rubini ran to the rice field and parted the stalks, heavy with plump grains. The paddies were ready for harvest. But, alas, Clapar had become a battlefield of the Japanese and Dutch troops. The sharp grains pricked her skin, making her itchy and sore. But Rubini did not dare leave her hiding place, amid the intermittent gunshots.
The late afternoon sun shimmered crimson on the western horizon as if to mirror the bloodied bodies lying along the road that divided the village.
Still bent, Rubini peeked through the thick wall of rice stalks. From her hiding place, she saw Japanese soldiers herding several village youths, their hands tied behind their backs. The wounded were left to die on the street. Following their commander’s order, the invading unit now quickly left the village. The Japanese-led massacre of the unarmed village men was over.
Late afternoon faded into night with a blanket of silence and darkness. No one dared to light a lamp. Covered with scratches and dried mud on her calves, Rubini struggled to pull her feet out of the wet soil of the rice field.
As the women ventured out from their hiding places, the village filled with their wailing. Rubini staggered toward the bloody bodies strewn about the village, listening as moan after moan ended with snorts of released souls and an eerie, stifling silence.
In the span of a few hours, Clapar had become a village of the dead. The men who had founded the village and cultivated the rice fields, armed only with the sickles they used for harvesting rice, had been slaughtered.
The women of Clapar had no time to grieve over their husbands and sons. They had to quickly bury the bodies before morning’s light. The chirps of crickets mingling with the thumping and clanging of crowbars and hoes biting into soil and stones, terrified Rubini.
On the side of a path overgrown with grass, Rubini found Tuso’s body, covered in blood. She knelt, the rancid smell piercing her nose, and held her heaving chest. The man she loved had died a miserable death. As did the other women, Rubini buried Tuso with the clothes he wore. There was no time to look for a shroud. The women were not strong enough to dig deep. The shallow graves were more fitting for a cat than a human being.
After burying her husband, Rubini rushed home to pack some clothes. The women had decided to leave Clapar immediately to escape a possible military attack the next day. They only carried basic supplies, bundled in their sarongs, and they spread out, without any particular destination in mind.
Rubini decided to head for Bapangsari, a village located on the Menoreh hills between Yogyakarta and Purworejo. She hoped to find her cousin who lived there. The light of the crescent moon was too weak to illuminate her path, and she shivered in the frigid air, as dogs howled in the distance.
The road to Bapangsari was deserted when Rubini left Clapar. She walked all night until, suddenly, morning dawned. Soon, the blazing sun and flying dust stung her skin. Her feet ached, and she was hungry. Rubini dragged herself to a nearby tamarind tree to rest. Near the tree, she spied a small ditch with clear running water, and she rushed to it, gulping down a handful. The cool water refreshed her. Rubini returned to the tamarind tree and sat down, leaning against its trunk. The soft breeze lulled Rubini to sleep.
“Hey, you! Where is your man hiding?”
Rubini jerked awake and opened her eyes. Three ferocious-looking Japanese soldiers, armed with rifles, stood looking down at her. She looked around, but saw no one in sight. Rubini staggered as she stood up. “I don’t have a husband, sir. I am a widow.”
“A widow, huh? Your husband dared to fight us?” The soldier’s eyes bulged from his cruel face. The veins in his neck pulsed like tangled live wires.
“No, sir. My husband died because he was sick.”
“Damn liar! What do you have in there?” The soldier pointed his bayonet at the bundle on the ground.
“That is a bundle of clothes, sir. I’m on my way to visit my cousin.”
“Liar!” The soldier raised his rifle and pointed the gun at Rubini’s chest.
Rubini gasped. Trembling, she groped for a hold on the tree she had rested under.
The oldest among the soldiers said something in Japanese. The other soldiers seemed to agree, and they all left quickly.
Rubini, still shaking, grabbed her bundle of clothes and resumed her journey toward Bapangsari.
Immediately after occupying Purworejo, the Japanese started the construction of a big, tall fort in Bapangsari. The around-the-clock operation completed the fort in a very short time. The fort was used to monitor the movement of KNIL soldiers. From Bapangsari, the coastline from Jatimalang Beach to Congot Beach was clearly visible because the Japanese had ordered the village head to destroy the houses that hindered the construction and sightline of the Japanese fort.
It was late afternoon when Rubini arrived at Bapangsari. Her heels were cracked and her toes were blistered. Wincing, she shuffled to a nearby boulder. Around her, men were digging up the hard, rocky ground with shovels and crowbars. They were hollowing out a moat that ran south to north. Rubini saw the ruins of the demolished houses. At the end of the road, she took to visit her cousin, she saw a mound of excavated soil. Her cousin’s house had also been demolished and turned into a moat.
Rubini paled, horrified by what she saw. Gone was her hope of meeting up with her cousin. Rubini looked at the bustle around her. Where is my cousin Karmin now?
A worker carrying a hoe passed by Rubini. Suddenly, he stopped and turned around. Peering at her closely, he walked up to her.
Rubini gasped. “Karmin!” she shouted. Her heart swelled with joy and her eyes sparkled.
Karmin quickly put his index finger to his lips. His sunken eyes brimmed with worry. “Shh! You must leave immediately!” He grabbed Rubini by the shoulder and pushed her ahead of him.
Rubini resisted. She held on to Karmin’s arm and insisted on staying.
Karmin whispered, “The Japanese are in control of Bapangsari. All the men in this village have to dig ditches. You must get out of here! If the Japanese catch you, they’ll hurt you! Go! Hurry!”
“Help me, Karmin,” Rubini pleaded with teary eyes. She looked at the ruins of her cousin’s house and whispered hoarsely, “I’m alone now. The Japanese killed my husband. You’re the only one I can ask for help.”
From behind the pile of excavated earth, a short man appeared wearing a flap cap that protected his head and neck from the sun. He shouted orders to the workers with a strange accent.
Karmin crouched and pushed Rubini. “Go! Hurry! If you’re caught, they’ll turn you into a jugun ianfu.”
“Jugun ianfu? What’s that?” Rubini asked, alarmed.
“A ‘comfort woman.’ You’ll be forced to ‘serve’ the Japanese soldiers in the same way you ‘served’ your husband.” Karmin winced, remembering the village women who had been turned into jugun ianfu.”
Horrified, Rubini shuddered.
Karmin stared at Rubini’s flushed face. I can’t let you endure the same fate. He pulled her with him, telling her they had to leave.
Exhausted, Rubini numbly obeyed.
In order to appear like farmers, they walked along the rice fields, heading west. After two hours, they came upon an empty hut in the middle of a rice field. After making sure the hut was safe, Karmin told Rubini she could rest there. He felt sorry for his cousin, but if he let her stay in Bapangsari, it would be too dangerous for her.
“I’ll take you to Karangbolong,” Karmin said. “Remember our aunt, Yu Srini?” Karmin solemnly pushed his hands down into the muddy water of the rice field. When he jerked them up, he held a big flapping eel. Karmin gutted the eel and washed it in the paddy’s irrigation ditch.
Twilight had already begun to set in when Rubini took her first bite of the grilled eel. Thinking about having to work as a jugun ianfu and performing the duties of an occupation she could not imagine existed, Rubini shuddered and said, “I’ll just follow your advice.”
In the darkness that enveloped the hut, Karmin kept watch all night so Rubini could sleep soundly and rest. With pity, he listened to her soft snoring.
Rubini woke in the morning feeling refreshed, although her face still showed traces of tiredness. The soreness in her legs felt more bearable.
She and Karmin walked along agricultural plantations so they could find vegetables like long beans and sweet potatoes to eat. After being on the road for two days and one night, they arrived at Yu Srini’s door.
Karmin knocked on the door of a house with woven bamboo walls and called, “Kulonuwun, excuse me.”
Someone answered, “Monggo — Please, come in.” A woman with white hair put up in a simple bun opened the door. She stiffened for a moment, then exclaimed, “Karmin?” A smile stretched across her wrinkled old lips.
Relieved and happy to find his aunt healthy, Karmin bowed. Bringing his hands together, he took his aunt’s fingertips and brought her hands to his forehead in traditional greeting. Meanwhile he worried that she might not be willing to take in Rubini.
Yu Srini turned to Rubini. “Oh! This is Rubini, right? I still remember ….” She paused but then could not help asking, “What happened to you?”
Rubini did not answer. Instead, she held Yu Srini’s hand tightly. Collapsing against the old woman, Rubini burst out crying on her aunt’s shoulder.
Yu Srini stroked Rubini’s back. “Let’s talk inside,” she said, taking Rubini’s hand to seat her on a wooden bench. Karmin followed behind them.
While enjoying some boiled cassava and a mug of water, Karmin told their story. “My house in Bapangsari has been destroyed. The land was used to build a Japanese fort. I want to leave Rubini here. I can’t protect her from the Japanese because I have to work for them as a romusha — unpaid forced labor – for food and shelter.”
Yu Srini gasped. “Then where do you live now?”
“I can live anywhere,” Karmin replied. “But Rubini can’t. She needs someone to protect her. Her husband was killed by the Japanese, and it’s impossible for her to return to Clapar.”
Yu Srini’s eyes turned red. She wiped her tears with the hem of her kebaya, the long-sleeved blouse worn by native women.
Sobbing, Rubini lowered her head.
Yu Srini lived alone in the house she had inherited from her deceased husband. The sixty-year-old woman sold food in front of her house. “Sometimes people who go to the beach don’t have time to eat breakfast,” said Yu Srini, arranging her wares on a short, horseshoe-shaped bamboo table that allowed her to easily serve her customers. Several men took a seat on the short bamboo stools in front of the table. They ordered rice and side dishes.
Rubini quickly adjusted to Yu Srini’s lifestyle. In the kitchen, she helped with cooking the rice and side dishes. Later, she carried the food out.
From in front of the house where Yu Srini operated her food stall, Rubini could see a rocky beach in the distance. When there were no customers, she watched the activity on the beach ⸺ Karangbolong men climbing bamboo ladders set high on the rocks to
harvest swiftlet nests, which were believed to have medicinal properties that cured various diseases.
Built with the birds’ saliva, swiftlet nests were the mainstay of the Karangbolong people’s livelihood. The roar of the waves crashing on the rocks, high winds, and bird attacks from swiftlets defending their nests posed formidable challenges. Distracted, a climber could lose his balance and fall.
The nests that were harvested by risking a man’s life were very expensive. The buyers were mostly Chinese traders from cities such as Purworejo and Yogyakarta. The traders used the nests to concoct medicine to heal and revitalize the sick. The broth made from the birds’ nests was also often used to increase breast milk from new mothers. By selling the swiftlet nests, Karangbolong men could support their families.
The wall calendar showed August 1945. It was also Wulan Kesanga, the ninth month on the Javanese calendar. It was the time to harvest the swiftlet nests.
The men stood ready, equipped with their tools. Each carried a coil of large rope draped over their shoulders. The ropes were used to hang bamboo baskets in which the harvest was placed. The men were assisted by their wives, who carried the harvesting baskets on their heads.
Watching the Karangbolong men climb the bamboo ladders, Rubini’s heartbeat quickened. As the men crawled up the steep cliff to reach the swiftlet nests, they looked like ants crawling on a giant wall. Oh, how futile their life is, thought Rubini, watching the waves roll in, one after another.
The waves reminded Rubini of Ibu Ratu, the appellation for Nyi Roro Kidul, the spirit that reigned over the sea and protected the people of Karangbolong. At the beginning of every swiftlet nest harvest season, a sea alms ritual was carried out as an expression of gratitude to Nyi Roro Kidul.
The cliffs glowed orange in the late afternoon sun. The shadows of the climbers stretched across the sandy beach. One by one, they climbed down the bamboo steps, then walked together back towards the village. The swiftlet nest harvest of that day was over. Together with the other women, Rubini, carrying a jug of water and cups, hurried to meet the men who had managed to come home safely.
Yu Srini turned on her husband’s old radio. “Japan surrendered unconditionally to America after atomic bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Our youth has seized this opportunity to realize the purpose of their struggle. Today, on August 17, 1945, Indonesian President Soekarno and Vice President Hatta have proclaimed Indonesia’s independence, and the red and white flag is flying in Jakarta.” The radio broadcasts echoed in all directions. The people gathered on the beach cheered.
Rubini joined the joyful crowd on the beach. It had been three years since she came to live in Yu Srini’s house. After the celebration of Indonesia’s Independence Day, Rubini would perform the sea alms ritual for the third time.
Helping her aunt prepare for the event, Rubini arranged the jasmine, roses, and white champaca flowers on a tray lined with a white cloth. She remembered the Karangbolong fable, where Adipati Surti, envoy to Prince Kartasura, fetched a swiftlet nest to heal the dying empress of the Kartasura sultanate. Suddenly, Tuso’s face flashed before Rubini’s eyes. I still love you.
That night, a full moon lit the sky. Rubini was dressed in her best clothes. She wanted to look proper for Nyi Roro Kidul, the sea goddess. She carried the tray of floral offerings to the beach. Rubini leaned against a boulder on the shore and looked out to sea.
Her life had been full of twists and turns. Japanese cruelty had taken her husband. She had unsuccessfully sought refuge in Bapangsari and now lived with her old aunt in Karangbolong. But this was what was best for her. She had made up her mind.
The coastal wind blowing out to sea enticed Rubini to wade farther out. There was nothing that could stop her.
Rubini, a simple woman from Clapar, gave herself to serve Nyi Roro Kidul. When the seawater reached her thighs, Rubini released her offerings. The flowers floated for a while until the waves carried them away. Taking a deep breath, Rubini filled her lungs with the salty air.