Saturday, October 26, 2013

Lawang Sewu

You meet me at the airport and take me to my hotel, tell me later we will go in search of wingko babat, lumpia and my favorite soto ayam in a roadside warung. I like your town. It’s big and breezy, close to the sea, pleasant and open, it has curbs painted with zebra stripes, roundabouts and a big hill with views to the port. It could win a tidy town prize, reminds me of Newcastle with its sweep of beach, factory and ships waiting patiently to dock.

You have a wife I haven’t met, somewhere in this salty town. I’m sure she’s lovely and knows about me, the writer friend who writes to you, who flies in on a whim to teach your students creative writing in a small, carpeted, airless room with tiered box seating. I can’t tell if I’m in a theatre or a padded cell. Everyone has their shoes off, left outside the door. I leap about barefoot on the carpet, feeling liberated, free, acting slightly mad, a bit gila in the nicest way (I hope). Later students tell me I am lucu (funny) and one asks me to join their group - Hysteria. I feel right at home.

KOLEKTIF HYSTERIA, adalah sayap organisasi hysteria yang bersifat komunitas. KOLEKTIF HYSTERIA concern pada penciptaan dan kreativitas tiap orang yang terlibat di dalamnya. keanggotaan bersifat cair dan ikatan hanya pada saat menjalankan art project bersama. KOLEKTIF HYSTERIA diciptakan untuk menampung kreativitas dan keliaran teman-teman dalam hal berkarya.

Your daughter turns up, she is lovely, in her 20’s, she wears the jilbab, it only makes women look more beautiful I think. I am happy to meet her. You introduce me as your best friend. I am flattered and yes, it’s true, you feel like my best friend from kindergarten. That could be because we don’t speak each other’s languages so well, and like to make funny noises as we drive along in your little black car. ‘Waaaakk, waak, woaaaakkkaaa,’ you call out.’ Wieeeeik, wieeikka, wwaaaaoooooohhhh,’ I reply.

In your car you play a tape of songs I wrote a long time ago. They have titles like Spilt Guilt, Limping For Sympathy, The Song Of A Single Cynic. You tell me you play them all the time. I’m not so comfortable listening to myself. I ask if you have any traditional music of Semarang. I scrabble around in your cassette bag. All I can find is Neil Young.

You have to go to your kantor. It’s the newspaper office where you work, you are the cultural editor for Suara Merdeka newspaper the voice of Central Java. You are always going to the kantor. Whenever I sms from Oz and ask, ‘What are you doing?’ you reply “saya akan ke kantor’. And when you are not going to the kantor you are driving off to Jogja or flying to Jakarta to report on cultural events. You even reported on visiting me in Melbourne. The headline you wrote had my name in it, splashed all across Java.

On that visit we had arranged to meet under the clocks at Flinders St. When you didn’t turn up I called your phone, worried you were lost. “But I am under a clock” you said, “and I am in Flinders St”. I didn’t know there was another clock further down. Ya benar, you were correct, you taught me something new about my city that night.

You were so proud to have travelled all the way from Brunswick by yourself on a tram. I equate it to taking the local bus from Jakarta airport to Gambir Station. I wouldn’t do it without you. I remember the time we did. We were on the way back from a festival where we both read our work. I was falling in love with Indonesians at every turn, men, women, children. I wrote a poem called Indonesian Handbag, the title a take on, fag hag, gay handbag – a straight woman who loves gay men, men she falls in love with but can never have. It even got published in the Jakarta Post. I was a wee bit embarrassed and now I realize why. It was a song not a poem. Written for the voice not the page.

Your other best friend Sitok, yes that famous poet, Sitok Srengenge, calls what I write ‘something like poetry’. I like this expression, it offers a way out, leaves the door open - an apt way to describe a lot of what I do: something-like-poetry,  something-like-prose, but not something-like-song. Song is where I began, I know I can claim it as mine. When Sitok and I collaborated together, the only way I could respond to his poems was to sing them. Now I marvel at the stages of translation his poems traversed - from image/feeling, to thought, to written word, to a poem in Indonesian, to a poem in English, to a song - sung back into the air it first came from.

There’s something very comforting about sitting in a warung on a worn wooden bench under a blue flapping tarp, listening to the gas flame sizzling away. Reminds me of camping when I was little, but here we sit on the sidewalk, jutting out into the street, motorbikes and cars whizzing by, and yet I feel safe and cosy as I order my usual - air panas. The first meal we shared this way was in Jogja on famous Malioboro St, lesehan style in another of those makeshift restaurants that pop up after dark - we feasted on pece lele, sitting on grass mats at a low table. After dinner you took me for my first becak ride. We rode through the back streets of Jogjakarta soundlessly, gliding on air, you couldn’t even hear the rasp of the old becak drivers breath. I wanted to keep gliding all night.

This night you are taking me somewhere special but first you have to ask if I am scared of ghosts. ‘Don’t worry about me,’ I reply as we drive in the gate of a grand old colonial building that has seen better days. You get out of your little black car and go looking for the caretaker. The man you bring back is holding a very long torch. We go up to the front door, he knocks - no answer, then opens the door and we venture into the dark. ‘Where are we? I whisper. You take my hand, squeeze it tight and blow the words into my ear. “Lawang Sewu - The House of A Thousand Doors”.

Roll up, roll up, to the house of a thousand doors. Step right up, step right up, to the house of a thousand doors. Walk this way, slide along, glide along, but don't knock on any old door, and don't go down the left corridor, I repeat, don't go down the left corridor, keep to the kanan, then tirus, tirus tirus tirus, don't go to the left, I repeat, don't go down the left…

Some doors you can open some doors you cannot, lie down on cool flagstones when the weather is hot, walk right up, walk right through, come after dark, come on the full moon, come when the shadows are bright and gloom is washing the colours out…

Follow your guide beneath torch-light, ascend the landing, gaze in awe, at the big stained glass window, say a prayer for those who happened to die right there, hear their screams as they plunged the blade, listen to the air rushing past, the last gasp of a ventricle sliced in half, hear their moans, skulls split and slide, blood spurts across the marble white...

The caretaker tells you and you attempt to tell me that the Dutch began building Lawang Sewu in1904 for the national railway of the Dutch East Indies and finished it in1919. When the Japanese invaded in 1942, they interred the Dutch in camps and used it as a prison carrying out interrogations, torture and executions.  In the battle of Semarang in 1945 the Dutch retook the building and many Indonesian fighters were killed. After the war and Indonesia's independence, The Indonesian Army occupied the building but later returned it to the Dutch East India Railway Company.

We follow the caretaker up another flight to the junction of two long wide corridors. I want to go left but the caretaker stops us. So right we go, opening doors and stepping into empty high ceilinged rooms with chequerboard tile floors and French doors that open out onto the wide common balcony. 

Outside the full moon climbs into the night sky and I lag behind a little. I want to do the thing I do when I find myself in empty spaces like this; I want to test the air,  I want to sing. I lift my voice and send it to the ceiling. The acoustics are perfect. I lift it again and again trilling out snatches of classical improv, sliding out bits of jazz, a few coo-ees, a scale or two. I run my voice around the cornices, across each little crack on the flaking ceiling, I glaze the walls, bump it across the tiled floors like a finger or a fine paint brush dipped in moonlight, setting it in memory, making part of me, painting it onto my body so I won’t forget.

My best singing is always done alone, just me and the air, no audience, no witness, no words to describe it. For twenty years I didn't sing at all. Is it really something I want to go back to - standing on a stage with a microphone and audience in front of me? or keep it for moments like this one.

You rush back into the room, a look of concern on your face, the caretaker not far behind.  ” Please no singing,” you tell me, “the caretaker is nervous, he thinks you will wake up the ghosts.”  

Roll up, roll up, warm up, sidle up, sing a tune as you go, a sad song, patriotic song, a love song, a warrior song, a song of shame, a song of defeat, a song that has everyone tapping their feet, fill the halls with arias, rooms with concertos, the ceilings so high, the acoustics are perfect, raise your voice, lift it up to the roof, and call up the ghosts if you need any proof and watch as they float tall through the French doors, and click, click, clop, clop across stone chequerboard floors, and if you are scared open adjoining doors to the next room the next, and open them all to the balcony so wide and grand, lean yourself out to the court yard below and imagine it all in times long ago..

The house of a thousand doors.

The caretaker explains to you and you explain to me, about the ghost he sometimes meets down the left corridor.

Walk up, roll up to the house of a thousand doors, but don't, I say don't, proceed down the left corridor, instead watch the caretaker shine his torch on the floor, walls catch a glimmer of a figure tall with blond hair so long it becomes her dress and covers, not covers, her nakedness, the Belanda who visits late every night when his shift is done and shoulders are tight, she appears to him when he goes for a shower and his wife wonders why he always takes hours..

In the house of a thousand doors.

 He doesn’t mention other ghosts but I get the feeling he knows where they are. When we ask about the cellars he says they are flooded, we cannot go down. He taps his torch on the wall, looks tired, ready for bed. As we retrace our steps, descending the stairs to the lower level, the ghostly shape of an old man passes us in the hall. You tell me he has lived here since he was a boy.

And the shuffle below of one who survived, the hunched old frame who saw it all, who knew what went on behind each closed door, saw the Dutch, saw the Japs, all the snivelling traitors, collaborators, torturers, interrogators, but the Javanese spirit would not be cowed though many died in cellars dark, and local warriors played their part, he a lowly houseboy saw it all, now a bent old man, he shuffles around, dosses down, in a room out the back on a mattress of grass, now he is the master of the house…

 The house of a thousand doors.

I’m back in Sydney when I start writing this something like-story-like-song-like-poem called The House of a Thousand Doors, only it’s coming out more like a song or a spruiker’s chant. I don’t finish it, only just get going really, before I am distracted by other things. But the germ is there, the seed is planted in that first verse - Roll up, roll up to the house of a thousand doors. It’s the cry of the spruiker from an agricultural show in 1950’s country Victoria, calling us down sideshow alley to the haunted house, drumming up an audience for Jim Sharman’s boxers, luring us in to watch the beautiful lady with the ostrich feather fans in the burlesque tent. The rhythm is set, the template established as the first words roll onto the page. Three years later I revisit it and wonder, can it be included in the anthology of short stories we are planning - yours set in Australia, mine in Indonesia? Can it slip in via the category prose poem, or is there a term better suited like: prose song, prose chant, song poem, song story, song narrative?

On the way back to the hotel you start singing our song, the one we made up in the Botanical Gardens in Sydney when I took you to see Lady Macquarie’s Chair and you asked, "where is the chair?" I am always forgetting the Javanese words. I have written them down in one of the small note books I carry with me and always seem to misplace.

We will sing again after we visit Lapindo, the mud disaster site near Sidoarjo where six villages have been buried under a volcano of liquid mud that keeps oozing from a blowout in a natural gas mining well. In the evening you will recite your poem Moon over Mud for the local arts community and I will provide a vocal accompaniment. We will perform again in Canberra for the Indonesian Ambassador and at Borobodur at the Ubud Writers Festival where dukuns will be employed to keep away the rain.

I wonder if a term such as sono-poetic-musical-miscegenation could be applied to us. We are always mixing your culture and mine, giving birth to music, words and sound. Like the time we were driving around Sydney and you began intoning a deep gutteral chant which at first made me think you were in terrible pain. EEEEErrrrrrrrnnnnnnnssss n Yooooooonnnnnnnnnnnggggggg EEEEEErrrrrrrrrnnnnnnnssssssss n Yooooooooohoooonggggg. When I asked you what it meant, you pointed to the neon sign atop a city skyscraper that displayed the name of an accounting firm, Ernst & Young. I can’t look at it now without smiling and hearing your song.

(c) Jan Cornall 2012

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