Catrien Ross

Artist & Mystic in Japan



An Indo Survives Dutch East Indies Life, Death and Indonesia’s Birth in Still I Dream of Java

Written by: on May 15th, 20182 COMMENTS

By Catrien Ross, Still I Dream of Java new book

As Tante Oty tells it, some forty-eight hours had passed and still Oma Leimena’s coffin stood open in the sitting room. A hint of decay cloyed the moist air.

Aware of the risk, Oty’s mother, Johanna Margaretha, refused to close the lid on her mother-in-law’s death. That finality would let go Oma Leimena’s body forever from the living. Until Jan could look on his grandmother’s face once again, such action was unthinkable.

“The coffin stays open, and that’s that,” Johanna declared. “We’ll all have to manage somehow. We just need to be very careful. Jan will be back soon.”

As the wife of Johannes, the dead woman’s eldest son, Johanna ruled her household with unshakeable resolve. It was pointless to argue with her once her mind was set.

Ensuring that doors were swung open to stir the air, she saw to it that family members cleaned the room with added care. The children were tasked with polishing the floor with the dregs of fresh coconut milk until the surface shone. In the tropical heat of the day they all changed clothes as often as their exhaustion allowed and at night they adjusted the shutters time and again to catch a mountain breeze. After taking turns to sit at the coffin the adults rinsed their mouths out with water and scrubbed dreaded contagion from their hands.

With the condition of Oma Leimena’s body now changing by the moment, the hope for Jan’s speedy return became an urgent prayer.

It was halfway through the dry season, the period of the southeast monsoon.

Cooler mists from the hills granted a respite from daytime temperatures and in the afternoons a thunderclap might crack in the darkened sky, bringing a short outburst of warm rain. To the east the volcanic core of Mount Merapi rumbled, but for several days there had been neither ash showers nor the slightest earth tremor.

The lull added to their unease.

Fatigued by the distress of their peculiar predicament the adults grew irritable. Johanna was testy and more autocratic than ever. She snapped in Javanese at the maids in the kitchen and bickered in Dutch with her mother, Nora Daniël, over the tiniest issue.

“Stop making so much noise and wash your hands again, all of you,” Johanna scolded the children.

Fretting over their health, she dragged the teak wood chairs further back from the coffin and stood motionless on the verandah, awaiting some sign from the road. Her complaint never varied.

“Why doesn’t Jan come home?”

Twelve years old and the firstborn of her two sons and three daughters, Jan had just set out with some of his Indo and Chinese friends on one of his frequent cycling trips. The teeming iridescence of Java’s countryside had captivated Jan from the moment he took his earliest steps in the garden and exploring by bicycle was what he now loved the most.

Awaking in the dawn’s fine haze, Oma Leimena had insisted on waving her grandson off. She had cupped his chin in her frail fingers and stroked his cheek.

“My dear little Jan, so grown up,” she said.

Afterwards she had lingered at the front door, her eyes searching the emerging skyline long after his bicycle had vanished.

No-one ever knew when Jan would return from these excursions. It had never mattered before. But later that afternoon, from her bed, his grandmother had called out to her daughter, coughed up a fountain spreading red over the pillow, and died.

Together with the other women of the household, Johanna prepared her mother-in-law for burial. They stopped up the orifices of the diseased body with soft cotton plugs and washed the crevices of the papery skin with dampened towels. After clothing Oma Leimena in a new, white dress, they laid her at the center of the sitting room.

The same night Tante Kuyp saw the ancestral spirits dance around her coffin.

You have just read a book excerpt from Still I Dream of Java, a new work of literary non-fiction by Catrien Ross scheduled for print publication in late June, 2018 (now delayed to 2020). The book reinterprets the memories of a beloved Dutch-Indo aunt who grew up in the final, turbulent years of the Dutch East Indies, as the new nation of Indonesia emerged.


2 Responses to “An Indo Survives Dutch East Indies Life, Death and Indonesia’s Birth in Still I Dream of Java”

  1. Scott Bills says:

    Beautifully written. The descriptions of life and nature intertwine, life becomes nature and nature becomes life.

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