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Searching for Sita in the Indies

Searching for Sita in the Indies

Artwork by Johan Henri Ten Kate, 1885

I arrive at Beos Station in the early hours of the morning. Heading to the exit gate, a big, round clock hangs on the left side of the station wall, right under the words ‘Bataviasche Ooster Spoorweg Maatschappij.’ Its hour hand points to six. How long was the train ride?  I recall the train departing from Soerabaja during nightfall. Did it depart yesterday? Or the night before yesterday? Or three nights ago? Ah, I don’t care enough to remember. What I remember is that, four months ago, I stepped foot on Mooi Indie — a name given by my professors at the art school I study in Brussels. Even Professor Meyer, one of many painters firm in impressionism, scoffed at its name.

“Giant palm trees? Rice fields? Mooi Indie is a mere jargon of imperialism! Why on earth should we exaggerate its beauty?”

Maybe what Professor Meyer said was right – that Mooi Indie is only some kind of cultish hoax created by Cornelis de Houtman who found the spice islands of Hindia. But perhaps Professor Meyer did not know (or pretended not to) that the Indies is exactly like its moniker. Mooi Indie. Beautiful Indies. To me, its beauty had set free a memory that had been forgotten and locked away for twenty years.

Everything began on a certain afternoon in winter, when a sudden rain forced me to take shelter at the Rijksakademie of Amsterdam. Rijksakademie is known for impressionism and, at the time, I needed ideas for my first exhibition. Observing the works of other artists is akin to deconstructing their minds, forcibly entering their world of ideas, and unfolding past experiences grazed in their paint strokes. But on that winter afternoon, my own past had unfolded instead. Among the paintings of the Dutch East Indies landscape, I was fixated on a painting no wider than the length of my forearm. A painting that uncovered a gaping hole in my heart.

At a bamboo hut, an Indies woman wrapped in a patterned cloth (I discovered recently that it is called batik) plays an instrument for her baby who is sleeping peacefully in a cradle. Rice fields and other small huts fill the background, contributing to the scene’s tranquility. De Gambang-speler is the title of the painting. The more I gazed at the tan-skinned woman and her sleeping baby, the more hollow I felt my soul had become. Vaguely, I heard the gusts of a tropical wind on a quiet afternoon, rustling in between a thatched roof, accompanying the melody from the wooden instrument.

Slaap jongen, oh, slaap jongen. 

Als je niet gaat slapen, zul je door een mug gestoken worden.

Sleep tight, dear child, sleep tight.

Sleep tight, and the mosquitos will not bite.

Slowly, my eyes began to well up with tears. Startled, I tried hard to regain my composure. But ever since then, the Indies woman was always in my mind. Whenever I was in my dreams or lost in thought, she hummed melodies from her tropical country. Hollowness consumed my heart even more, to the point where I often caught myself ruminating in front of an empty canvas. I returned to Rijksakademie to meet Ten Kate. Marinus, the painter of De Gambang-speler, had died a few years ago so I was meeting his son, Henri Ten Kate. I was thankful that he was nice enough to meet me and tell me what he knew about his father’s paintings. De Gambang-speler was the only painting his father had brought from the Dutch East Indies. During his sojourn in the Indies, Mari painted multiple paintings for the local governor. He was a commercial painter who painted based on commission. I mean, who wasn’t? I thought. The painting of the gambang player was commissioned by a friend who now lives in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the friend did not want the painting anymore, so Mari donated it to the academy. What is the friend’s name? I asked. Despite being a painter like his father, Henri was not familiar with his father’s acquaintances. But he was certain his father had said that the friend was a doctor stationed in the Indies. As if I was struck by lightning, I quickly realized what had haunted me all this time. Not many doctors were sent to the Indies, especially at the start of the cholera epidemic, because the government must prioritize the homeland. The doctor famous for dealing with the epidemic in the Dutch East Indies was Doctor Agerbeek. He is my father.

I was never familiar with my father. He was always absorbed in his work and he seemed to avoid me. After becoming a member of the Raad van Indie, he became busier. He spent his days at either the government office, the hospital, or the university. My mother was the same. Although she never laid a hand on me, it was obvious that she paid more attention to my younger sisters. Thus, I chose to leave for Brussels during my adolescence to study art. In solitude, I discovered liveliness through splashes of color and the streaks of my paintbrush. With every stroke of my brush, I had created life.

The passing of time had changed my father without me realizing it. His once dark hair turned silver-colored and was balding at the crown. The wrinkles on his face carved decades of exhaustion he could not tell others. I suddenly felt pity for him. This was the first time (and might be the last) I sat face-to-face with him. He slowly exhaled cigarette smoke as I told him my plan.

“I will go to the Indies.” I was not seeking his approval, but a long suspense hung in the air as I waited for his answer. I caught a glimpse of surprise in his eyes for a second, but he continued to smoke his cigarette. Once, twice. Silence.

“You know, Son. I am an elderly doctor, yet I smoke cigarettes.”

I did not know the correlation between his words and my intentions to leave, so I stayed silent. Besides, he was a doctor and he knew best about his health.

“I don’t want you to regret what you didn’t do,” my father continued. “Go.”

“Do you not want to know why I decided to leave for the Indies?”

My father gave a sorrowful smile. And so, as if he had known that the time had come, he began to tell a tale. A tale about who I was and who he was. About the tropical islands that resided in my dreams. About the rice fields, the giant palm trees. About the woman, and a tumultuous love.

The woman’s name was Sita. She came to life, straight from the epic. In the Ramayana epic I’ve heard from the Indies, Sita was a goddess. She was a faithful wife. When Rama, her husband who was also the prince of Ayodhya, was exiled to the forests, Sita came with. But a rakshasa wanted her. With cunning deceit, the rakshasa disguised himself as a mendicant and kidnapped Sita. Rama succeeded in getting Sita back with the help of his siblings, but he doubted Sita’s chastity. Thus, Sita walked into the fire to prove her chastity. Was she burned to death? I wondered. Sita freed herself. She did not need to prove her purity to anyone because she was purity itself. I envisioned Sita becoming one with the fire. But the fire was not one that would burn you to death. Instead, it would give you warmth on a cold, moonless night. My father was close to tears. Living in the Indies had brittled my soul. Mooi Indie. Beautiful Indies. It lives up to its moniker. How could you ever enjoy the beauty of its rice paddies and palm trees yet ignore the beauty of its women? One night, I was invited by a Chinese babah as thanks for being his family doctor. The man had arranged a komedie stamboel in his backyard. Sita was there. Her slender fingers went over the eighteen keys of the gambang elegantly. It shook my heart. Sadness crept into my soul – it might have been the longing for my motherland, for nature, for God, or for my mother. Sweet melancholy. Did you cry just like I did? I wondered again in silence. I didn’t know why, son, but I shed a tear. It was a comedy show! Imagine! Oh, forgive me. My father wiped his tears. I had already vowed myself to Helen at that time. She was faithfully waiting for me here. There was no way that I would betray my oath to her. Helen sent her wedding gloves to me as a sign of our matrimony. And I could not betray that. But Sita, she was a beautiful butterfly, dancing beneath the sunlight. I could not refuse her. I chased her, caressed her, and I was lured into her forbidden garden. You know, I would never be able to marry her, even though she herself did not mind. I was a coward. With you in her womb, she could sing no more, she could not play the gambang. She could no longer perform in front of an audience. I was the rakshasa in her life, snatching away her freedom. My father shed his tears once more. And then I let her go back to Krembangan, her hometown. I gave her some of my wages. In the face of my sins, she kept on smiling. She said she never regretted having you, Ernie. Only the both of us knew about your birth. You were born at dawn, when a new day rises, surrounded by rice fields and ripe coconuts. That’s why we named you Ernest. You are a soldier, ready to seize the future. After your birth, I visited Marinus. I wanted him to paint Sita and you, both my beloveds. You know, when you paint a picture of a person, half of their soul exists within the painting. Marinus painted Sita along with her soul and you with yours. Beautiful, isn’t it? Even though Sita could not go on stage anymore, her lovely voice always lulled you to sleep. She played her gambang and sang Nina Bobok for you in my language. She was a smart woman. My father stopped and stared at me. I see Sita in you. Her dark eyes, her straight hair, the way she laughed. I love you, but I was too ashamed to see Sita in you. And I, useless and cowardly, mustered up the courage to tell Helen the truth. She was furious, of course. But maybe her love and my medical achievements saved our engagement. My family was renowned and her family was afraid of shame. In the end, before you were old enough to understand, I brought you here. And maybe you had noticed it. Although awkward, Helen took care of you with a good heart. She is a good woman and I have hurt two good women in my life. How about Sita? How about me? I wanted to ask so many questions, but my father cried louder. I don’t know how Sita is now. I’ve sent countless letters to the Indies, but have yet to receive any answers.

Go look for Sita. That one mission led me to sail across the globe to the Dutch East Indies. That is my destination now. Even though I was born on these islands, my memories were as thin as the mist that greeted me at Tanjoeng Perak when the Ultramarijn tied its anchor. I inhaled the air around me, overwhelming emotions visible on my face. The winds blew, bringing the woman’s voice back to me.

Laten we gaan slapen, oh, lief jongen. 

Als je niet gaat slapen, zul je door een mug gestoken worden.

Sleep tight, dear child, sleep tight.

Sleep tight, and the mosquitos will not bite.

Mother, I am home.

My search for the woman who sang Nina Bobok has not borne fruit these four months. Sita has vanished from the Dutch East Indies. Krembangan became a ghost town ever since cholera plagued the islands. The komedie stamboel has long since disbanded. With hearsay as my guide, I visited the stamboel actors one by one in their villages to hear bits and pieces on Sita’s whereabouts. They only knew that Sita stopped performing because she gave birth. Oh, how long has it been since then! As the days go by, despair loomed over me. Has the woman I am searching for gone forever? No, I do not believe it. I kept hanging on, believing that one day this search will all be worth it. And it did. A Chinese family whose child I taught art to told me about Babah Oey at the Kya-kya Chinatown that often held stamboels.

“Sita? The one with an angelic voice?” The old Chinese man closed his eyes. He repeatedly stroked his long white beard, attempting to remember. But the tone of his speaking made it seem like he was playing pretend. Perhaps he was an actor back in the day. Suddenly a tear ran down his eye and he proceeded to howl like a child abandoned by his mother. 

“Oh, Sita, Sita… why did you run away with that Dutch doctor? I knew she’d gone on the wrong path. The bowl’s broken. Broken!”

I did not understand. “What bowl? Babah, I want to know if you know where Sita went?” I asked impatiently.

The Chinese man suddenly went quiet, as if he had not just howled like a possessed man.

“She got hitched! With that Dutch doctor. She never came here anymore. Never, never! She never came here! Sita, Sita… oh, poor child, her bowl was broken.” I was sure that the woman I’m searching for was not a child anymore, but it seemed that this old man’s memory had stopped many years ago. He started crying again. I intended to turn my back and walk away when an old Chinese woman suddenly stepped out of the house bringing a rattan beater and started beating the old man.

“Lies! Lies! You cheated on me with that Krembangan woman. You philanderer! I want a divorce! Di-vorce!” the old woman shouted while she beat her husband.

“No, no! She never came back. I didn’t lie!” The old man denied the accusation and ran, avoiding the beatings. They chased one other, round and round, circling the beds that were being dried under the sun. Perhaps this situation in front of me was identical to the komedie stamboel they used to watch, only without Sita’s lovely voice. Several neighbors had gone out of their houses to witness the ongoing commotion.

“She was here! I saw her the other day!” yelled the old woman.

“No, that’s not possible. It’s been a long time! You must’ve forgotten!” denied the old man.

“Excuse me!” I exclaimed. The couple would not stop until either of them dies. “Excuse me,” I repeated, “I am her son.”

The two of them stopped running.

“What? You’re Sita’s kid?” the old Chinese woman started comparing me and her husband, her confusion inciting restlessness. She must be searching for similarities between me and her husband. Before she lifted the beater to hit us both, I spoke.

“I am Doctor Agerbeek’s son. My name is Ernest Agerbeek. I am looking for my mother, Sita.”

The Chinese man gawked. The next thing I knew, they invited me inside their house. “Sita came here once,” Babah Oey said while stealing glances toward his wife, “it was a long time ago. She left me with this.” He gave me an old and crinkly letter that he kept inside a cigarette case—a letter from twenty years ago. The scent of tobacco wafted as I opened the letter. It was a short message.


Meneer Agerbeek,

If this letter reaches you, I will be happy as I am a woman longing to be found. But I can not stand idly and wait to be saved. I need to save myself. I can not live in the village anymore. There are too many memories that might become the end of me. I will search for luck in Batavia. Send my love to our Ernie.



The writing was imperfect, with many spelling mistakes here and there, but seeing my name written there broke me down to tears. That night, I went to Batavia by train. The old man told me to go to an address of a friend of his in Tanah Abang.

“There’s a coffee shop there owned by a former Chinese Captain, his name is Oey Dji San. He rents out rooms above his shop. The name of the shop is Rumah Merah. Tell him Sing Bi sent you.”

And thus, I continued my journey. Batavia, the trading center famous around the world, is the pride of the Netherlands. After stepping onto the platforms of Beos at the crack of dawn, I quickly rent a horse carriage to Tanah Abang. Passing through the streets of Batavia, Noordwijk, and Rijswijk, I see beautiful buildings with decorated canals like in Amsterdam. I see the famous Hotel des Indes, and also the classy Societeit de Harmonie building where people dance the night away. The Dutch Government must have wanted to replicate the motherland here.

Arriving at Rumah Merah, I am greeted by Mr. Oey Dji San himself. He is quite strapping for a man his age, probably around 60. He has slanted eyes, a slim body, and is wearing a crisp white suit jacket. He gives me a room facing a sugarcane field, a room worth 1,5 gulden for such a vast space. The room is vast enough to set up my easel and cheap enough compared to staying over at des Indes which costs twice the price. After giving me a breakfast of boiled eggs and coffee, all the while inquiring about my intentions of coming to Batavia, Mr. Oey takes me to Chinatown. Apparently, he frequents the place. Chinatown’s structure reminds me of the Jordaan district in Amsterdam with its narrow and winding roads. White houses with roofs shaped in shield-like curves lined up in front of the river. According to Mr. Oey, the feng shui that Chinese people believe in requires houses on the edge of the river to face it so that good fortune will always flow like river water. Because of that, the houses always have a small gate also made from white walls as a front entrance gate, similar to the back gate that faces the river. I can smell incense from left to right. They are lit and hung on the walls.

Entering a house gate indistinguishable from the gates of other houses, I hear laughing from inside. I almost stumble upon a ceramic pot at the entrance. It reminds me of Delft ceramic, with the same blue and white colors. In the parlor of the house, the smell of incense dominates. I cough for a few seconds. I saw an altar with three gods, their eyes stare at me with suspicion. And on the round wooden table in front of them, another three sets of eyes hold the same suspicion.

“Who’s this?” says the tallest Chinese man, “A Netherlander?” From his looks, he is the master of the house. He wears a white suit jacket similar to Mr. Oey’s and sits with one foot on the chair. A ceramic bowl containing a little amount of broth and chopsticks in front of him indicates that he had just finished breakfast. On his right, a man wearing a blue tikim with sunken black eyes and a thin body is smoking opium without a care for either me or Mr. Oey. The third man is grinning while he takes the empty bowl from the man with the white suit jacket and replaces it with a cup and a tea kettle. He is a bootlicking bodyguard with a face similar to a wolf.

Mr. Oey begins to speak with authority. No wonder he was a respected captain. His voice is small but sharp.

“This is Erni. He is a painter from Soerabaja. He’s looking for a harlot.” says Mr. Oey, mispronouncing my name and misunderstanding the intention of my arrival. I miss the chance to refute him.

The bodyguard takes a wooden chair for me. With a grin still on his face, he asks, “What kind of woman? The master has plenty: Dutch, Indos, Chinese, local? Local women are the best!” His laughter booms again. I wince.

“This is Kantjil,” Mr. Oey points at the bodyguard. “He’s a master of silat, like Bang Puase, hiyah!” Mr. Oey teases Kantjil.

“Oy, I live in Kwitang. Bang Puase was my father’s neighbor. You know Bang Puase? The bodyguard who killed Nyai Dasima, Samiun’s mistress? Ever heard of that story?” he asks me. I shake my head. From what I know, the title “nyai” is only used for local women who married Dutch men. Did Sita receive that title too?

“Nyai Dasima, the Dutch high official Meneer Edward’s wife, got married to Samiun the horse carriage driver. But in the end, she was slashed by Bang Puase, under the orders of Hayati. You know who Hayati is?” he asks again. I shake my head.

“Ah, shut up, you’re always yapping, Tjil. Go fetch the cards,” says the master of the house. He is playing around with the toothpick in his mouth while scanning me from head to toe.

“Oh, sure. It’s fine if you don’t know Hayati, but you’re sure to know my master,” exclaims Kantjil while tapping the master’s shoulder. “Tjui Ming Se. Whoever dares to not know him, I’ll chop their heads off!” he says, laughing while slashing an imaginary machete on his neck. He then leaves the parlor, probably to fetch the cards like his master told him to.

“This is The Kay Siang,” says Mr. Oey, pointing at the silent thin man in the blue tikim. It looks like he has smoked too much opium. “Asiang, opium is better when laced on kawung cigarettes.” Mr. Oey opens his box of cigarettes, laces it with opium, and proceeds to smoke. “Be careful, the police might catch you again. Your inheritance might run out to pay the police.” Asiang is still immersed in smoking, not bothering to respond to his friend’s admonitions. His small and sunken eyes look forward, his consciousness fluttering among the clouds.

“Never mind opium–he was caught by the police because he participated in the Youth Congress in Kwitang,” Kantjil interrupts when he comes back bringing three packs of cards. Hearing Kantjil’s words, Asiang snaps out of his trance. His eyes blink furiously in an effort to wake up, and he exclaims, half screaming,

“We need to unite. All of us need to unite. We have to be free from the Dutch! The youth have pledged. The Youth Pledge!” His voice quivers, either due to his sentiments or too much opium.

“Ah, there’s no use of you pledging only to die before seeing this country free,” Mr. Oey scoffs.

“You Dutch?” The Youth Pledge man pays his attention to me.

“You’re drunk!” interrupts Mr. Oey. “Don’t you see his black eyes and hair, his skin…”

“Uh, yes. My father is Dutch. My mother…”

“Yes, one look and I know,” cuts Kantjil, “hair, eyes, and skin like us, but his nose is Dutch. You are an In-do.” I did not know that these men differentiate people by their physical appearances. Maybe the Dutch government allowed this to happen due to their wijkenstelsel rule?

“That’s enough, let’s play first,” says the master. “Wanna play?” he offers me the cards. I have never played the game and I do not know its risks to my finances, so I decline.

“This is a game of ceki,” Kantjil explains. He takes out three sets of cards from the boxes while the other three men take out their gambling chips. While shuffling the cards, Kantjil explains further. “There are eight types of cards here. Look at the shapes.” The cards had Chinese calligraphy that I do not understand. “There’s hiu, jarum, sudung, bengkok, tali, pecah, batung, sisir, and babi. Remember that?” he laughs again. “Each player is dealt 11 cards and they have to draw cards from the middle stack or from the ones thrown away by the others.”

I start getting interested and pull my chair closer.

“Just watch,” says Kantjil as he deals the cards among the three men before him. Looks like he’s not participating in the game. “Because there are 11 cards, every person has to match cards with the same image in groups of three, three, three, and two. Once they’ve done so, they have to wait for one last card to match with the last two and yell out ceki! to intimidate their opponents. Understand?” I shake my head and Kantjil laughs again.

The three Chinese men play fast. The chips move here and there. Sometimes they pile up in front of Mr. Oey, sometimes in front of Master Tjui. Right now, most of those chips are with Master Tjui. Master Tjui smiles in satisfaction. Looks like he will soon yell out ceki.

“Hey, Erni. Can you paint a picture of us? What do you work as?” asks the master. The suspicion on his face has disappeared.

I get nervous at the sudden question. “Yes, I can. But I don’t have my tools right now. Only a sketchbook.”

“We need our pictures to be painted so we don’t disappear, you know?”

I stop for a second and think. Is this just like the story about souls that my father told me?

“Lie Kim Hok wrote so that he would not disappear after time passes. He printed his own books. I want my picture painted so that when I die, people remember me,” Master Tjui explains. I nod.

“Who doesn’t recognize my master, Tjui Ming Se. If they ever forget, I’ll cut up their heads,” says Kantjil while repeating the head-slicing motion. “Cholera couldn’t even get to you, right, Master?”

“Don’t spout out nonsense. That’s because I paid a Barongsai to repel bad luck in the Chinatowns. My wife also prays to Tian Gong every morning and every afternoon,” Master Tjui replies as he points at the altar. I gaze at the three gods that stare back at me. Which one was Tian Gong?

“It’s because we didn’t drink from the Ciliwung River!” I jump at Mr. Oey’s furious screaming. He draws a card that Asiang threw away. “Drank the water from my house well, that’s why! Clean from any illnesses. Do people not realize that they shit in the same river they drink from?”

“So… is it because we drink from Mr. Oey’s well? Or the Barongsai? Or the prayers of the master’s wife to Tian Gong?” Kantjil sneers. “Anyway, where’s your wife, Master? She usually feeds us her chui kao so in the morning. Hey, Erni! If you paint here often, you can get full every day by eating chui kao so. Those sesame cookies master’s wife makes are scrumptious!” he continues, cackling.

“Can you teach painting?” asks Master Tjui. “You can teach at Empek Kuntil, the local Chinese school. I’ll recommend you to them.” 

Mr. Oey winks at me. It seems that, from the start, he wanted to introduce me to Tjui Ming Se, who he deems to have many connections. I am thankful to Master Tjui who was kind enough to give me a job recommendation. From our short introductions, I knew he was a huge dealer in Batavia. Maybe he can help me search for the woman named Sita, even though I don’t know how big of a price I have to pay him. They say that dealing with the mafia is like selling your soul to the devil. But to find Sita, I think I would gladly give my all.

“I also want you to paint a picture of my wife,” Master Tjui continues. He then leaves the table. “Wait for a bit. Don’t cheat, any of you.”

Kantjil approaches me and whispers as if I have to know everything. “Master’s wife is,” he raises a thumbs up. “Unfortunately, she can’t sing.”

“Women aren’t birds,” Asiang says as he kept on smoking. “It’s no problem if she can’t talk or sing. She’s her own person. She has no obligations to be what you want her to be.” Kantjil starts to swing his fists, either in a serious or a playful manner. His movements stop as his master returns with a woman.

The woman is wearing a modest kebaya with a cloth skirt as a lower garment. On her face lay thin face powder, her black hair tied into a bun.  She brings a jar of cookies and a pot of tea on a tray with golden edges. Master Tjui exclaims gleefully as he pats the woman’s back. “This is Asti, my most beloved wife. Asti, this is Erni, a painter from Soerabaja. He can paint a picture of you and we can hang it in the parlor.” Asti extends her hand to me bashfully. When our eyes meet, in a heartbeat, we both realize. She is Sita, the person waiting for me in Batavia.


Story by Angelina Enny

Translated from the Indonesian by Chairunnisa Zahra A.


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