Saturday, July 5, 2008

Sitor's Restless Two Worlds

Following his release from prison, Sitor underwent a spiritual purification. The 'Lost Child' has returned.

THE winds from the lake blew across the village of Harianboho. That afternoon, with a trembling feeling, Sitor Situmorang was facing his native village, a small valley at the foot of Mount Pusuk Buhit, on the west side of Lake Toba. It had been 13 years since the prominent poet left the village of his birth in the Samosir region of North Sumatra.

It was 1976. Sitor, who had just left Salemba Prison in Jakarta, was asked to return home. He was obliged to take part in a traditional ceremony in his village. His oldest brother who was 80 at the time was to perform saurmatua, a rite to welcome the stages of growing old in the Batak community. "The whole Situmorang clan must attend, including you," a family member in his village requested.

Sitor did not have the heart to reject the call to return home. He was, as he admitted, homesick for his village. He was last home in 1963, a few months before his father died. When he arrived in Harianboho he was greeted by the whole Situmorang clan. "For them, regardless of what happened in Jakarta, I was still a member of the clan," he said.

As a result of a deliberation among the Situmorang elders, Sitor was "forced" to undergo the rumatondi ceremony. This is a form of initiation, a ritual which cleanses the tondi (spirit) within the realm of the clan. According to the customary law elders, before he could participate in his older brother's ceremony, he had to be purified first. This is because Sitor had been defiled by the New Order prison. "Once again, it was not possible for me to refuse,"
recalled Sitor.

Rumatondi began with a presentation of offerings at the home of a customary law elder. Sitor reported to the guardian angel that occupies the house, and then asked for blessing in the former room of his father which became a place of worship for the family. Following this ritual, he and his escorts walked toward a tomb located in the grounds, in which the bones of his ancestors are kept.

This procession is the climax of the ceremony. The door of the tomb is opened. Sitor "met with his grandfather," Raja Lintong, whose skeleton was taken out of the tomb. A woman wearing traditional clothes handed a porcelain plate with the skull of his ancestor and oranges for cleansing purposes.

During this ritual, a small incident occurred. A male relative of Sitor-who happened to be a doctor-saw that the lower and upper jaws of the skull did not fit. Without saying anything, the doctor attempted to rectify the positions of the jaws. "At that point, the sorcerer who led the ceremony became angry," explained Sitor. The sorcerer accused the doctor of being "disrespectful" because according to tradition the skull cannot be touched by male hands.

Fortunately, the small incident could be resolved without reducing the solemnity of the ritual. Sitor, who had nothing to do with the incident, then held the plate with the skull and the oranges up to shoulder level. "For me, the ceremony was so beautiful and moving," he said.

Sitor recounted that at that time he had just been freed after spending eight years in prison. This "explosive" man was imprisoned in Jakarta from 1967 to 1975 with prison number 5051. After that, he was under house arrest for a year and restricted to the city for another year.

Born October 2, 1924, Sitor was the fifth son of Ompu babiat. Raja Usu alias Sitor Situmorang spent his childhood in Harianboho. His native village is very isolated, and is surrounded by old traditions and ancestral culture. His father was a customary law elder of the Situmorang clan.

For 18 generations, Sitor's ancestors controlled a small mountainous region in North Sumatra. The territory of the clan which his father headed consisted of three valleys slanting from hills as high as 2,000 meters toward a beautiful lake. The area stretched from the west side of Lake Toba to South Aceh in the north and to Barus in the west.

The duties of a customary law elder include acting as a judge as well as registrar of history. He also has to maintain and update genealogical chronicles as well as resolve land issues. His father acted as judge to solve all kinds of problems from village to village. Often his father would have to stay overnight in one village before continuing his journey on foot to the next village. As a young child, Sitor often accompanied his father.

Sitor recalls that the period during 1924-1930 was one filled with ancestral traditions. He experienced many traditional rituals performed by his ancestors. For Sitor, the most memorable one occurred in 1929. His clan organized a large ceremony: placing ancestral skeletons-scattered in a number of abandoned graveyards, the result of fighting against the Dutch-in a final resting place.

The ceremony was held in an old deserted village, located in the middle of a forest in the mountains. Representatives of various clans came and gathered. Sitor came with his father's entourage. He climbed the mountain and crossed a large field and wide forest before reaching the location.

Sitor's childhood was highlighted by a series of Batak ritual experiences as part of his life in Harianboho. "I am full of experience," he said. "I followed tradition not because I was forced to."

However, when he was 6 years old, he became less involved in ancestral rituals. Little Sitor was sent away to a Dutch boarding school. Although it was a Christian school, he was not forced to become a Christian. He was only required to speak Dutch in class as well as outside.

Since he went away to school, he was cut off from his past. He was "cleansed" from his ancestral beliefs. As a young journalist, Sitor had the opportunity to travel to many places, within the country as well as abroad. He eventually chose to live abroad, especially in Paris, which he considers his second
village after Harianboho.

Sitor seemed like a lost child. His spirit was too restless to stay in his native village. He also longed for another world in Europe, which at one time provided him a home. Only his physical body returned to his family and his village, but his spirit remained in Europe.

In his book Si Anak Hilang (The Lost Child), Sitor wrote about a child who returns home from Europe. The child is greeted warmly by his mother, and calmly by his father. The child does not have much to say. But when at night he goes to the lakeside where he was brought up, it is as if the sound of the waves know: his spirit does not want to stay in his native village.

At the end of 2001, Sitor returned to his village again. At the time, he and his second wife, Barbara Brouwer, attended Mangohal Holi, a ceremony which excavated ancestral skeletons and which were then reburied in a beautiful tomb. What was interesting, Sitor "improvised" the ceremony by reading a poem in front of his ancestors' skeletons. After the ceremony, he read poems in the
vicinity of Harianboho, on the hills, on the lakeside, and in the fields.

So, is it true that Sitor has been uprooted from his ancestral traditions? According to Sitor, he is no longer able to fully perform the traditional rituals that he used to perform as a child in his village. His spiritual area also has "shifted." "In general, in the last 10 years, I have returned to natural mysticism," he said. T

his is reflected in his poems during the period 1980-2005. For instance, in his poem Mendaki Merapi Menatap Borobudur-Dialog Senja (Climbing Merapi and Viewing Borobudur-A Sunset Dialog), Sitor wrote:

On the slope of a valley
I face the sunset
The crater of Merapi

Part of a pilgrimage
Sufi without path

Free from nostalgia
In longing for nostalgia

Free from time and place
Touched by the rustling of the mountain wind
(By.Nurdin Kalim)