Friends and Exiles By Des Alwi


The boy paused in front of the Japanese military camp where a former Dutch controleur (administrator) from the Aru Islands was tied up to a palm tree facing the street. Accused of killing 14 Indonesians, a board nailed to a bamboo pole bore the message in Indonesian commanding all passerby’s to slap the tall man in the face. When the boy walked on, the Japanese marine guarding the prisoner ordered him to stop and then violently slapped him, yelling at him in Japanese, “Stupid boy! Why didn’t you slap him?”

This is just one of the vivid scenes depicted in Friends and Exiles, an intriguing memoir of that boy who became known as the “King of Banda,” a sobriquet Des Alwi Abubakar (1927-2010) earned because of his high-born pedigree, his deep involvement in the modern development, preservation efforts and tourist promotion work he did for the benefit of the small and remote island group. Des Alwi’s family was impoverished by the Great Depression, which hit the Banda Islands, among the richest of the Dutch possessions, hard. His grandfather, Said Tjong Baadilla, the “Pearl King” of the Indies, was declared bankrupt in 1933 and died soon thereafter.

Des Alwi tells of his carefree childhood during colonial times. Roaming barefoot around the small port, he recounts many delightful reminisces of falling warok flowers at noontime, climbing fruiting jambu and mango trees, schoolboy pranks and adventures with boy peddlers, early tourists disembarking from Dutch steamers, diving for coins in the harbor, orambai and kolee-kolee sailing races, seashells as large as bathtubs and his menagerie of birds, deer and other pets in his backyard.

Emerging from a swim in the harbor one day, two Indonesians asked the boy for directions to their accommodations. The men turned out to be Sutan Sjahrir, later to become Indonesia’s first prime minister (1945-47) and Mohammed Hatta, the vice-president of Indonesia under Sukarno. Remote locations like the Banda Islands were used by the colonial regime as a place of exile for Indonesians who were known for their anti-Dutch political activities.

The two soon became important and beloved members of the Bandanese community. The exiles brought with them a large collection of books and a passion for teaching, setting up a free afternoon school for the local children on the back verandah.

Des Alwi soon befriended Sjahrir and Hatta, took up residence in their home and then was adopted by the two lonely bachelors. Calling Hatta “Uncle Eyeglasses” (Om Kacamata) and Sjahrir “Om Rir”, Des’ portrayals of the two intellectual’s daily routines and schedules add a dimension to what we already know about these two historic figures. The contrast between them was stark. Whereas Sjahrir was playful, principled, complex, outgoing and loved to joke around, Hatta was more serious, stern, reserved, responsible and too clever. Where else would we ever learn that Sjahrir could make a spinning top walk up his arm to the delight of children?

With the Japanese invasion of the Indies in 1942, the Bandas were suddenly brought closer to the outside world, the lives of the Bandanese take a dramatic turn and Des’s story picks up pace as he enters the world of men. He describes what it was like living under Japanese occupation when Banda becomes a militarized Japanese naval headquarters. Hitching rides on passenger freighters from Banda to Ambon and onward to Java, Des eventually takes up residence with Uncle Rir in Jakarta who pays for his enrollment in the capital’s best technical school to study electricity and radio engineering. With his radio background, he helped Uncle Rir set up an illegal radio so that they could listen to the BBC, Radio Australia and other foreign broadcasts to follow progress of the war.

Des Alwi was eyewitness to pivotal historic events. He seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He met Sukarno, the future president of the republic, and heard him speak several times. He started a business with the great nationalist poet Chairil Anwar, as well as many other prominent activists and future statesmen in Indonesia’s independence movement – Kiai Haji Mansur, Mohammed Yamin, Dewantoro, Dr. Tjipto Mangunkusumo – names you can read on street signs all over Indonesia today. The editor has added short biographies in the footnotes. A serviceable index/glossary makes it easy to find more specific information.

The author’s insights into Hatta and Sjahrir’ personalities shed new light on their later careers and political activities. Friends and Exiles also contributes to the understanding of the rigid caste system and interethnic relations during the colonial period as observed from the seldom-told perspective of an astute young man who grew up on an isolated outer island group. This rare memoir makes for instructive reading about an important time in Indonesian history in which the writer often found himself in the middle of the action.

Friends and Exiles: A Memoir of the Nutmeg Isles and the Indonesian Nationalist Movement by Des Alwi, Cornell University Press 2008, ISBN 978-0-87727-774.3, 171 pages, paperback, black & white illus., index/glossary, dimensions 17.8 cm x 25.5 cm.

Review by Bill Dalton
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